Upgrade kits, lawsuits and Lite-Brite: How Ms. Pac-Man was made

“I’m Steve Golson, and you’re all here to hear about Ms. Pac-Man,” he said, by way of opening a postmortem of his work on the arcade classic at GDC. Here are some choice highlights of the crazy tale.

At GDC in San Francisco today one man took the stage to talk about a little game he made, back in the ‘80s.

“I’m Steve Golson, and you’re all here to hear about Ms. Pac-Man,” he said, by way of opening a postmortem of his work on the arcade classic. It was an in-depth look at how the game grew out of a Pac-Man upgrade kit tentatively titled "Crazy Otto," and what follows are some notable highlights.

Golson started his story with the General Computer Corporation, which did “a tremendous amount of game design work in the early ‘80s.” But before that he talked about how MIT students (and eventual GCC cofounderes) Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran started a partnership at the university in 1978 to get pinball machines into the dorms at MIT.

“So they came up to speed on how you maintain these games, how you keep them operating, and how you make money at it,” remembers Golson. They also got acquainted with what were called “speed-up kits,”  sold by third-party firms to arcade operators.

“You’d get great revenues for a while, and then revenues would drop off,” said Golson. “What’s wrong? Players would get really good at the game, and play for longer and longer.”

“Speed-up kits” offered an answer: they could change up a machine, make things faster or more complex. The name was coined for an aftermarket upgrade for the Asteroids machine which implemented a hardware modification to make the game run faster.

After Asteroids mods came “Super Galaxian” kits, said Golson, which mucked around with Galaxian’s data tables (stored in read-only memory). However, ROM-based “speed-up kits” were problematic, in the veteran engineer’s estimation.

“Anybody who knows how to copy a ROM can now copy your kit,” said Golson. “That’s the worst problem of all.”

Eventually, Golson remembers he and his fellow MIT students got Missile Command machines in, and after the machines’ earnings started to drop off (as players started to master the game) they started looking for upgrade kits. But they couldn’t find any, so they decided to try and do it themselves.

"Hey, we go to MIT...I bet we could make a kit!"

“Hey, we go to MIT,” said Golson, recounting conversations between Macrae, Curran, other students and (presumably). “I bet we could make a kit!”

Thus, General Computer Corporation was born. They had a microprocessor emulator that coud reverse-engineer code running on the GenRad 6502 running Missile Command, and so that’s exactly what they did -- by hand.

To avoid trademark infringement General Computer called the mod “Super Missile Attack” and built it with some proprietary hardware so it couldn’t be ripped off by competing kit makers.

So they advertised the mod for sale in major arcade magazines and waited for the money to roll in.

“We got calls from arcade operators saying ‘players are coming in and saying “Do you have Super Missile Attack?” And when they hear we don’t, they’re leaving,’” recounted Golson. “It was awesome, we got a lot of word-of-mouth.”

As word spread, more and more people got worked up about the Missile Command mod kit -- including Missile Command maker Atari, who took General Computer to court in a $10 million infringement lawsuit.

“This went on….we’re not backing down….and after a while Atari got annoyed,” said Golson. “So they hired us.”

Or rather, GCC convinced Atari to settle, drop its lawsuit with prejudice, and instead offer the small company a two-year, $50k/month deal to make games for Atari -- though it sounds like there were no real expectations they'd actually make anything.

"We found out, years later, that they thought we were just going to take the money and run, just go sit on a beach," said Golson.  

Further, General Computer agreed to not sell any more Super Missile Command kits -- or any kits, for that matter, without the game manufacturers’ consent (that becomes very important later.)

Golson was quick to point out that Atari likely settled to avoid the chance (however small) that GCC might win and set a new legal precedent for game modding.

“This was the key thing Atari wanted to avoid: if they had lost the suit and it was proven legal that games could be modified by the end user, that would set a very bad precedent,” said Golson. “The legal protection for games, at this time, was very unsettled.”

After that GCC had a contract to make games for Atari. But here's the thing -- after wrapping up work on Super Missile Command, GCC had started working on a kit for another popular game: Pac-Man

This Pac-Man upgrade kit, eventually called “Crazy Otto,” was already in the works during the Atari lawsuit, as GCC had started working on it in June of '81.

But first, they had to buy some new hardware and actually reverse-engineer the Pac-Man code, since Atari wouldn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) provide it to them. Golson actually still has a giant binder of of the Pac-Man source, printed out, and held it up today at GDC (he seemed particularly proud of the pizza stains soaked into some of the old pages.)

Reverse-engineering Pac-Man 

As part of that reverse-engineering process the General Computer team played around with emulating Pac-Man, running it backwards and forwards at variable speeds -- in the process gleaning insights into the game’s design.

“You can see that Pac-Man actually ‘skids’ around the corners a little bit,” said Golson excitedly. “He can go faster than the monsters can as you go around corners; that was one thing we learned.”

He also pointed out that the Pac-Man ghosts actually move their eyes to look in the direction they’re going to turn BEFORE they turn, which at he time he remembers as a neat glimpse into how the Pac-Man AI works.

So General Computer thought of some new features to add. Four new mazes [designed on paper], for example, and randomized monster movement algorithms, as well as bonus fruit that moves through the maze, bouncing and making sounds as it goes.

“We tried a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work,” said Golson. “We thought about vertical tunnels….or what if the monsters could travel through the [maze] walls some times….these were things we tried, but they never got far enough to make it in.”

General Computer engineers also came up with the idea to code little “cutscenes” -- brief, humorous animations that played between mazes. They were creating original characters for “Crazy Otto” anyway -- so why not give them names and backstories?

Creating original character sprites for Crazy Otto was a pain, recounts Golson, involving a laborious process of graphing out a sprite, picking out colors and coding it, then burning it to an EPROM and testing it. But soon, General Computer hit on a time-saving sprite-based character design trick: use a Lite-Brite.

“Has anyone here ever used a Lite-Brite? It’s great!” Golson said, showing some examples of how the company plotted out a “Crazy Otto” monster on a Lite-Brite.

Of course, there's a weird problem looming over this whole venture: GCC, now with a contract to make games for Atari, is developing an upgrade kit for Namco's Pac-Man arcade game, licensed for distribution in the U.S. (at the time) by Midway.

But wait, said Golson -- remember the Atari settlement? Remember how General Computer agreed to not make any new "speed-up kits" for arcade games -- without the manufacturer's consent? What if GCC could get Midway or Namco to consent to them developing a Pac-Man kit?

“Nobody knows about our agreement with Atari -- that’s secret,” said Golson, recounting Curran's thought process back in '81. “All they know is that Atari dropped the lawsuit.”

Cutting a deal with Midway to sell Crazy Otto as (eventually) Ms. Pac-Man

So Curran called Dave Marofske at Midway to say, effectively “Hey, remember Atari? We trounced them in court and got them to drop their lawsuit. We’re about to do the same to you.”

Midway wound up inviting Golson and Curran out for a meeting in October of ‘81, and by the end of the month GCC had negotiated an agreement with Midway to sell them arcade game boards that Midway will market. It could be a new game, or it could be a kit -- so GCC went ahead and decided to rebrand “Crazy Otto” as “Super Pac-Man.” The protagonist went through some design overhauls, and eventually wound up as Ms. Pac-Man.

“So here in one month, we’ve struck deals with the top two game manufacturers in the country,” said Golson. “It’s looking better and better that dropping out of school was the right thing to do.”

Golson says that, contrary to some reports, Namco knew General Computer was working on the Ms. Pac-Man kit, right from the start, and actually offered some input on the design of Ms. Pac-Man herself.

In a show of gratitude (and to help guard against infringement) GCC added a little shoutout to Namco founder Masaya Nakamura in the Ms. Pac-Man source code.

The game itself eventually went on sale in January of ‘82. It proved a hit, and GCC went on to create a slew of games for both arcade and home systems, as well as helping design the Atari 7800. After the game industry crash of ‘84 GCC moved more deeply into general tech work, making the HyperDrive (“the first internal hard disk for Apple Macintosh!”) and other technologies.

But the story of Ms. Pac-Man doesn't end there. Roughly twenty years later, says Gordon, Curran stopped off at a rest area during a long drive and saw a (new, revamped) Ms. Pac-Man machine, built to celebrate the game’s twentieth anniversary.

“So Kevin’s thinking: ‘where’s my paycheck?’” Golson recalls. GCC had, by that point, participated in several lawsuits over Ms. Pac-Man, and was keen to defend its intellectual property. “It took a while to negotiate...they didn’t know we had a contract, it was twenty years later, and all those people were gone from Namco.”

Golson remembers they actually had to reverse-engineer their own code to show usage during the arbitration process, which is where the little “Hello, Nakamura!” shoutout came in handy -- in court arbitration, twenty years later.

What’s interesting is that some of these new machines were coin-operated -- but not all of them. And as Golson points out, GCC original contract clearly stated they only got royalties from “coin-operated” Ms. Pac-Man machines, so they couldn’t get payments from all of the new machines. They could, however, get royalties from Ms. Pac-Man on modern mobile phones. “So, buy more for your phone,” added Golson.

“I know this is supposed to be a postmortem, but...postmortem means somebody died. So maybe it’s a postpartum,” said Golson, in closing. “Ms. Pac-Man lives on.”

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