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GDC 2011: Pac-Man Creator Iwatani Discusses Female-Friendly Design Lessons

In a GDC 2011 presentation, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani explained how the classic game was created with a specific, underserved segment of the gaming population in mind: women.
In a GDC 2011 presentation, Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani said the classic game was created with a specific, underserved segment of the gaming population in mind: women. “The reasons why I created Pac-Man was because we wanted to attract female gamers,” he said. “Back then there were no home games and people had to go to arcades to play games. That was a playground for boys. It was dirty and smelly. So we wanted to include girls or female players so that it would become cleaner and brighter.” The thought process that came out of this idea, however, is not the most flattering to those female gamers. “I thought about something that may attract girls – maybe stories about boys or something to do with fashion?” he recalled. “However, girls love to eat desserts – my wife often eats desserts. … The verb eat, that gave me a hint to create this game.” A game simply about eating was too simple, Iwatani said, so some sort of enemy was needed in order to really turn it into a game. In designing these enemies, Iwatani again targeted women in a very specific way. “I made the design very cute because some furious faces or expressions, girls probably don't like that,” he said. “So even the ghosts, they looked cute, such as Tom and Jerry relationship in the cartoons.” The most important part of the ghost design wasn't the visual, though, but the personality of the four colored ghosts, each of which chases Pac-Man in a different way. “If the algorithm four all four ghosts was chasing after Pac-Man... it's not a fun game because all you have to do is worry about the area behind Pac-Man... To create more interesting positioning, I created the algorithms.” But not everyone felt this multi-colored ghost design was a good idea. Iwatani recalled an elederly female president at Namco at the time who suggested that all the ghosts should be red, to avoid confusion over which ones might be friendly. “Is the blue your friend or the pink an ally or what?” he recalls her asking. He eventually convinced her that differently colored ghosts were a good idea by distributing a survey to 50 early players, and showing her that they unanimously considered multi-colored ghosts a good idea. “She is a businesswoman, she judged from the numbers I gave her. She was a wonderful manager," he remembered. Iwatani also stressed the importance of easing up on the game's difficulty periodically, to keep the player from feeling overly oppressed of disgusted. Players should come close to the point where they feel like giving up, then get rewarded with an easier section once they clear that hardship, he said. Good game design makes the objective clear from just a glance, Iwatani said, with controls that are simple enough for anyone to figure out, things you don't always see in modern games. “Today's games, you don't see what the game is all about, what the goal is, and the controls are too complicated perhaps, and you're being sort of needled and persecuted sometimes,” Iwatani noted. “The core game players want to have challenges, I understand that, but I think fun should be the first, most important point for any game.” Iwatani seemed very gratified to talk about his work with students at Tokyo Polyechnic University, studying everything from motion caqture to neurological effects of gameplay to analog game design. Sand Crush a two-player co-operative game designed by one of his students, won the amateur award at the Tokyo Game Show. For Pac-Man, though, Iwatani said he's considering taking the character in an unexpected new direction. “So I'm thinking of a Pac-Man that's singing,” he said. “I don't want to make it a musical, really, [like] Chicago the movie. The Blues Brothers, maybe...”

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