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Reawakening The Sleeping Giant: The Pac-Man CE Interview

Namco's Pac-Man Championship Edition for XBLA is an inspired update of the seminal franchise -- and Gamasutra has a rare interview with the Namco Japan creators behind it and Galaga Legions.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

December 1, 2008

23 Min Read

In the '80s, there was no bigger name than Pac-Man. The character and game defined the pre-crash era, creating a major cultural phenomenon both in the West and in Japan.

But somehow, Namco has rarely been able to capitalize on the title effectively since its early-'80s release period -- and aside from vanilla re-releases of the title on compilations or mobile platforms, it's hardly capitalized on Pac-Man at all.

That changed when Pac-Man Championship Edition was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2007. With intelligent gameplay changes and a reinvigorated style, the game became an instant hit. How did a small team within Namco Bandai finally manage to reinvent the classic in a compelling way?

To find out, Gamasutra spoke with producer Nobutaka Nakajima and director Tadashi Iguchi. Inspiration, it turns out, came from outside the company as well as within it, aided by an unlikely spark -- Iguchi is not a major Pac-Man fan.

After Pac-Man CE shipped, the team turned its attentions to updating classic Galaga in the form of Galaga Legions, also for Xbox Live Arcade. How did the Pac-Man CE processes map to another title? What drives the team? The answers may surprise you.

Where did the idea to make a new version of Pac-Man for Xbox Live come from? Obviously, they were able to release the original version and then Ms. Pac-Man, but this is a whole new version. Where did that first come from?

Nobutaka Nakajima: Pac-Man, the original arcade game, is on a screen that's not the standard TV screen. It's a tall [vertical] screen, and it has very low-resolution, old-school gameplay.

The idea for the new Pac-Man really came out of taking Pac-Man to the HD generation and all the new technology that's being created today, and making Pac-Man for the HD world.

We did think of using the entire wide HD screen display settings to the extreme when we were creating the game -- we didn't want to have any parts not being displayed. We really wanted to use HD to the maximum in our new game.

In addition, the classic Pac-Man had a limited color palette, and it could only display so much. With the new technological advances in the hardware that people use to play games on, we now had a full range of colors and all these effects we could bring to the player.

We really wanted to step back and ask ourselves, when we were creating the game: "We have all of this new technology and hardware and power. What would Pac-Man be like, taking this technology and putting it to the max?"

That's what we kept in mind for the concept of Pac-Man Championship Edition.

Pac-Man originally came out in 1980. There have been many, many attempts at sequels and remakes and new versions over the years, and this is one of the most creatively successful -- and not just in terms of sales. Some of the games that came before were not that special compared to the original game, so how did you arrive at innovation with Championship Edition?

NN: A lot of the older sequels and remakes using Pac-Man... while they were changing the core fundamentals of the game -- there was an action-adventure Pac-Man, and a 3D version of Pac-Man -- they were straying away from the fundamentals of what made Pac-Man so great.

What we wanted to do in Championship Edition was to get rid of all of that, and take it back to the roots of what makes Pac-Man fun and compelling and an entertaining experience. From that starting point, we created a new Pac-Man, as opposed to just taking it to a different world or gaming experience.

It's an important distinction: Instead of taking the superficial things about Pac-Man, it takes the original design the game and extends it. How did you look at the design of the original game and decide how to begin your process?

NN: To begin with, when we were trying to get at the core of Pac-Man, Mr. Iwatani -- I'm sure you've heard his name -- was my boss and mentor a long time ago.

A lot of what Iwatani-san would talk to me about was the whole fundamentals of what a game is, and why a game is fun and compelling, everlasting, and almost eternal in its gamey-ness -- its fun and entertaining qualities.

The key, Iwatani would say, is that simplicity makes it endearing and compelling, and not bogging it down with extra this-and-that. We're just getting to the core, and making sure the core is well-structured and well-thought out, and will create an everlasting game or fun experience to continually replay.

It's difficult, I think, for developers these days to make simple games. They have a lot of external pressure; for example, for marketing purposes it's better for a shooter to have 25 guns instead of two. How do you retain that simple core? Is it because you are making a new version of a classic that you had that freedom, or were you able to communicate your vision strongly enough to be allowed to execute on it purely?

Tadashi Iguchi: Why we were able to make it a simple game... it does stem from it being based on something that has already succeeded. Part of what we were able to do is sit down with Iwatani-san. He was making an analogy of a house. If you had a house, the house is already built -- you can go around and rearrange the furniture and the change the wallpaper in the house, but you're not really going to change the fundamentals of the game.

But when we were trying to rebuild a different house based on the same fundamentals, we got to sit down with Iwatani-san and really think about the structure of the house, as opposed to the insides of it. We got to sit down and say, "We need to recreate this entire core system, because it's not what it should be." We started at the real, base core fundamentals and built up from there.

I play the original Pac-Man still, and I really like it and enjoy it and appreciate it as a game. I think one of the major reasons why Pac-Man is still a very good game and a very compelling experience is the whole "tag" aspect, between Pac-Man and the ghosts.

Running away, but then also chasing them, and the whole give-and-take of the experience, and the interaction between Pac-Man and the ghosts... I thought that for Pac-Man Championship Edition, what I really needed to focus on was that experience between Pac-Man and the ghosts, and trying to bring that same fun experience to Pac-Man Championship Edition.

Some of the sequels and remakes of the past were focused more on gimmicks and features that they could add to the basic layout of Pac-Man. What we wanted to focus on was the core fundamentals of why Pac-Man is fun, and once that was created, start building up from there.

Can you talk a little bit about the process you followed? First of all, you had to decide that you were going to make a new Pac-Man game -- did that come from simply having an inspiration for a new idea for Pac-Man, or did you start from the desire to build a good remake for XBLA and then begin to work out how to achieve it? 

NN: It was kind of like a perfect storm environment. I was talking with Iwatani-san about making an HD, next-gen Pac-Man game, and at the same time, Microsoft came up to us and said, "We want to do a worldwide Pac-Man event."

These two forces happened to come together and form this, "all right, let's do it," kind of situation. We wanted to have players playing together, because it was a worldwide event, and we wanted to have the game be short and full of action and excitement.

The whole concept of the game became, "We're going to make HD Pac-Man, but it also has to be in this really short, compressed, fun experience, so when we do a worldwide event, people are going to be up on stage for a while, but still have a really great time in just a short amount of time."

That was laying the groundwork down. I was talking to Iwatani-san about what kind of Pac-Man game we should make, and got a bunch of ideas going. We wanted Iwatani-san to approve what was going to be made.

Namco Bandai's Pac-Man Championship Edition

TI: It was a very interesting, trying time. We had about 20 ideas for games, and out of those 20 ideas, one was approved by Iwatani-san.

So one of the things that Iwatani-san wanted to do was focus on the core fundamentals of the gameplay, and what makes Pac-Man successful and a fun experience. When you put that filter on all of the ideas and brainstorming we did, only one of the ideas really fit that bill.

What we wanted to do was to make an HD game based on the core fundamentals of what Pac-Man is and why it succeeds. After looking at that, we realized that really, the only things we should be changing are the game tempo and the map design. We needed to really brainstorm on making fresh new ways of polishing those two aspects of the game, in order to fit all of the requirements of the core Pac-Man experience.

We did have a small team, and we wanted to make it a simple game using a small team to get the core fundamentals down. We just did a trial-and-error kind of thing every day. We could change all of the parameters, and what we would do is we would sit down every day for a month, play the game, put all the tweaks on the parameters, and then test it out to see, "Is this fun? Is this not fun? If it's not fun, reset everything back to zero and start over again." That was every day for a month, and we finally started getting things where we wanted to.

NN: Small teams, even within our company -- and I'm sure probably at other publishers and developers -- having small teams creating games doesn't happen very often. The scope of the game that everyone seems to be wanting to create gets bigger and bigger, and the next thing you know, you have these huge teams.

It's very rare that I was able to get a small team of good guys just working on the core aspects of the game. Because I had a small team, I was able to go through this trial and error, tweak the core aspects of the game, and not have to worry about all the other things going on within game development.

We could really focus on the core fun and polish that as much as we could. Because we had such a small, tight team, we were able to do that. It's kind of sad that it doesn't really happen in many other projects, even internally here. Teams are just too large, and you can't go through trial and error. It's just too costly.

That seems to be becoming a popular method for Western developers beginning a project -- starting with a small group and heavy prototyping, even if the prototype isn't being built on the final engine, as a way to figure out early on what works and how to move forward. Is it still common in Japan to incorporate the large planning phase with a lot of on-paper work?

TI: I myself came from an arcade background, so all of my training and work was in the arcades, along with Nakajima-san as well. Since we were making games in the '80s and '90s for arcades, we did have to do a lot of the paperwork in getting games designed and done.

But we were also very close to people who were actually sitting down and making the games on hardware and going through the whole trial and error process themselves. So we feel like we're probably more like western developers now, in that we do have to have some design documents.

But we also do have to have people sitting down and looking at the design documents and creating something and testing it out, and then going back and going through lots of reiteration and polishing it.

I do think that some of the problem I see in Japan is people making things on paper, and then far, far away, there's programmers who are actually programming what people are writing down on paper. When you have that kind of gap, the back-and-forth between the people writing the program and writing the paper gets so big that you don't get a really polished game.

For this game, I myself was the guy writing the paper and the guy doing the game. I was the one person playing catch with myself, in my head. I didn't have to wait for anyone to get anything done. I had all of the tools, I had the vision to make the game, and I would just sit down with the tools and make what I had imagined in my head. So it was very easy for me to do it on this project. I think because of that, I was able to polish the gameplay to what I envisioned it to be and what people wanted out of Pac-Man.

I had a game programmer as well, who was making the tools for me to use, who was also historically from the arcade gaming section. It was this back and forth I could have with my tools programmer, so I could get the tools I needed. The tools programmer knew exactly what kind of tools to make to please whoever was going to be using the tools.

It was that real close connection that I had with my team, and because it was a real small team, that we were able to get this done and really focus on polishing the gameplay and the core mechanics.

NN: Part of the whole concept that Microsoft approached us with is that that, "The game is going to be on Live Arcade. We want an arcade game that's going to be online and live for everyone to play." That was also the fundamentals behind the gameplay. I wanted to do a classic title, and I also wanted to create something new, and that was really the culmination of everything that got Pac-Man Championship Edition going.

In the West, it's also used for very large projects; once that small core team decides on an approach, the team size increases to, say, 100 people. Now that you've worked in this way, and I assume adopted a similar style for Galaga, would you like to see that approach broaden within Namco Bandai, even for larger-scale projects?

NN: Like Tekken and Soulcalibur, some of our really successful games do follow the same mentality of having the core gameplay really polished, adding on more to make it a richer core experience, and then having people make content for this core experience.

It is a challenge, and it's a challenge I believe we will be taking on in future production titles and even new titles, just trying to get a prototype done and solid, and then building up on that.

I feel that games are an interactive experience. They're not a movie where you're sitting down and watching. You're actually touching the controller and feeling the movement on-screen. It's this real interactive experience that needs to be polished in order for it to be compelling.

Especially for a lot of the new hardware with all the analog controls -- the Wii is probably the best example. In order for it to really be a compelling game, it has to feel compelling, and the analog controls need to be created at the core level to be fun and feel fun.

These kind of prototypes that need to be reviewed, are definitely polished and will be brought before people, before they start development on these games. We Cheer is one of the titles that my group did, and we spent six months just working on the core gameplay elements before we went into creating the rest of it.

We wanted to make sure that the actual game was fun to play and felt good, and after that, we would put in the characters and the background and all the art and assets to build it up to a game. But we did focus directly on the core gameplay.

TI: Probably one of the reasons Japan was so strong in the past with our game creations and the content that we would create was because we were primarily arcade game creators.

We would make a prototype, and before the prototype was actually finalized as a product, they would take the prototype to an arcade, put it out there, and playtest it. We'd have people walk in and play it and see if they liked it, and if they wanted to keep playing it or if not. If not, then that product would never see market.

Because we went through such prototyping and playtesting on our arcade games, this meant the gameplay was more polished than some of the games that came out of the west, possibly, or even some of the other console-specific games that came out during that time.

NN: I feel that one of the weaknesses of Japanese developers now is the fact that they get all this artwork and spec set out and laid in stone, and then they make the game, and they want to bring it worldwide, and they can't do it.

Part of what they need to do to succeed worldwide is to focus more at the earlier stages of creating a game, in getting the characters solid for worldwide appeal, and getting the features arranged. This is like we did on Pac-Man Championship Edition, really playtested and polished at an early stage, and then going on in to development, as opposed to the other way around.

Many of those who play Championship Edition may not have encountered Pac-Man during the arcade era. Those days are gone, especially in the U.S. Do you have any idea how an audience that has never originally played Pac-Man approaches it? You have to worry about that as part of your target audience, I'm assuming, with the wide number of people who play console games these days.

TI: When I was a kid, I did play Pac-Man, but I didn't have the Pac-Man fever that everyone else seemed to have. So when I joined Namco, one of my first jobs was to make an arranged Pac-Man title, and while I played Pac-Man, I wasn't addicted to it. I didn't have the love that a fan would have about it.

I felt that I could really make a non-Pac-Man lover's game -- someone new to the Pac-Man experience. I was looking at the title like those people. So when I was going into development, even when I started working, part of what my job was was to understand why it was fun and why people would want to keep playing it.

So when I started making the games, I started realizing, "Hey, this whole tag and chase and interaction between Pac-Man and the ghosts... this is really fun. If we make this increasingly fun for Championship Edition, this is going to get people who have never played Pac-Man or don't really know anything about Pac-Man, like myself, interested in the game."

I felt that if I could be interested in the game, as someone who wasn't a hardcore fan, then other people who had maybe never played the game before would also be compelled by the game.

NN: I just want to add that even though there are a lot of people who may not know Pac-Man, we're still pushing hard on the mobile phones. We have Pac-Man on the mobile phone, and Pac-Man on PC.

It really appeals, we've found out, to a lot of younger gamers, as well as female gamers, just with the simplicity of the game, and the easy-to-understand, pick-up-and-play game style that it is.

You were saying that when you first joined Namco, you worked on a prior remake of Pac-Man. Can you talk about what game that was?

TI: It was an arcade game called Namco Classic Collection. I did Pac-Man Arrangement. It came out around '95 or '96. This was literally when I first joined the company.

They needed people on titles, and they threw me right in, and the first game I worked on was Pac-Man Arrangement for the arcades. That game still exists in the PS2 and Xbox versions of Namco Museum. So you'll probably find me in the credits somewhere.

Namco's Pac-Man Arrangement

With your remakes, you moved from Pac-Man to Galaga; the obvious question is, how did you decide that the next game you would make would be the Galaga game?

NN: One of the reasons why we went to Galaga first was because of the strength of the IP. It was a very popular series and franchise, and we wanted to work with people who were familiar with it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this game is based on Gaplus. Though Galaga is extremely well-known, Gaplus is less well-known in America, but I guess it has somewhat more interesting gameplay. Can you talk about that a little bit?

TI: Different from Pac-Man Championship Edition, on Galaga Legions, there are a lot of Gaplus fans on the core team. So when they went out to make the game, they really, really liked Gaplus and they wanted to put those kind of features and the feel of that game into Legions.

This applies to both games, actually. They're HD titles, but they retain not only the essence of the game design, but the simplicity of the graphics. It's easily understandable and lacks clutter. How did you approach that visual simplicity, especially now that the era of 2D sprites seems well behind us?

TI: One of the things we were doing when we were going through Galaga and trying to figure out what was the fun part -- the core mechanic that we wanted to really recreate and have everyone experience.

The Challenging Stage in Galaga was one of the things that people really picked up on. It was fun, challenging, and very game-like and easy to understand. We wanted to bring that to the next level with HD, kind of like, "Memorize the routes of the enemies, but also challenge yourself to destroy them all." We kind of took that to the next step and kept building on that whole idea, and that's how it became Galaga Legions.

NN: The pattern shooting was also one of the core fundamentals that I felt was very fun in the original Galaga and the Galaga series itself, with Gaplus and whatnot. All the enemies had patterns and reactions, and understanding those patterns was part of the fun of the game.

There were so many ideas and so many people who were very passionate about the past series and how they wanted to make Galaga Legions and what direction they wanted to go in.

We had some spats internally that I kind of had to break up, because people were so passionate about what they felt was the best, and how they should take the core fundamentals of the gameplay, and what direction they wanted to pull it in. I had to come in and break things up.

Pac-Man was very easy and everyone was on-board and into, "This is what we want to make." But with Galaga, a lot of people had, "I want to add this! I want to add that!" They just couldn't bring it together. That's where I came in, to sort of soothe everything and bring everything back to normal.

Namco Bandai's Galaga Legions

Wow. Do you think that that affected the design process of the game? It sounds like Pac-Man was straightforward, in a certain sense, but with Galaga, you had all these people who had different ideas. Did that affect the final product?

NN: Yes. I do believe that because of the very interesting development process that we went through and all the passionate people on the team, that is how the product was finalized and why it became what it is.

TI: A lot of people were very passionate about it, and you can really feel the passion while you play the game. You can understand that people wanted very specific elements implemented in the game. I feel that's why it does very well in Japan, because a lot of people feel the passion that a lot of the creators had when they were making it.

NN: Because there are so many different ways of taking the Galaga franchise and many different aspects that could be created into the core fundamentals of the game, we do want to look at Galaga again.

We could create a different sort of Galaga with a different spin or twist on the game mechanics and the core fundamental aspect of the game, and possibly in the future bring a different sort of Galaga to the players.

What was the number one thing you learned from making Pac-Man CE that you were able to bring forward into the development process of Galaga Legions?

TI: Probably the number one thing we really learned and took to heart when creating Galaga Legions was going back to the arcade game style of making a core experience for people to play and enjoy and really be entertained with, and the importance of doing that when developing the game.

NN: It's that essence that we're always trying to look for. One of the things that we want to do is make everything simple -- keep it as simple as possible. Because that's where the fun lies, in the simplicity.

"Simplify!" Just cut it down to the core fun. Don't overload it with all this extra stuff. That was the number one thing that we learned and brought to Galaga Legions.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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