Pac-Man Creator Toru Iwatani Biography
Toru Iwatani (born January 25, 1955) is a Japanese video game designer and created one of the most popular arcade games of all time, Pac-Man. Iwatani was born in the Meguro ward of Tokyo, Japan. In 1977, at the age of 22, Iwatani joined Namco Ltd, a computer software company in Tokyo that produces video games. Game designer Toru Iwatani is totally self-taught, without any formal training in computers, visual arts, or graphic design.
Namco Limited, whose main product lines at the time were projection-based amusement rides and light gun shooting galleries. Iwatani had expected that his job would involve working on pinball machines, and was initially disappointed that he would instead have to work on these strange, clinical ‘video-games’ instead. By way of compromise, Gee Bee (1978) was a heavily pinball-inspired paddle game, as were his next two designs (presumably developed by modifying Gee Bee), Bomb Bee and Cutie Q (both 1979).
Iwatani wished to create a game that would target women and couples; his goal was for game centers to shed their somewhat sinister image for a lighter atmosphere, and he believed that the key to doing that was to get girls to come in.
The legend tells that Iwatani’s eureka moment came when he removed a slice of pizza from a pie, creating the visual inspiration for his next big thing. It was in this moment that, according to Iwatani, Pac-Man was officially born. Now that he had the look, he needed that special something to attract his target audience. After listening to girls talk to one another, Iwatani determined that food and eating would be the way to get the girls in the arcade halls.
He came up with the idea for “Puck-Man” and around 1978, he, along with Shigeo Funaki (programmer), Toshio Kai (sound and music), a hardware engineer and a cabinet designer produced the game, taking it from concept to finished product. Within 18 months, Iwatani and his team created a game that would change the games world. After many experiments, he came up with Pac-Man chomping his way through food placed around a maze, and being chased by ghosts. The four ghosts – Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, as they were known outside Japan – were based on Obake no Q-Taro, a famous cartoon ghost.
But bat-and-ball games were already on the way out, and Taito’s introduction of Space Invaders in 1979 began an industry-wide shift towards shoot-’em-up games (indeed, Namco were quick to stake their claim in this territory with the Galaxian/Galaga series). Observing that there was too little variety to prevent this schmup-craze from eventually going the same way as the paddle games, Iwatani wanted to try to take his next game in another direction. He wanted to make a game that did not focus on conflict, and would be appealing to male and female audiences. The underlying theme he chose for his new game was ‘eating’ and the result was Puckman, later to be renamed Pac-Man.
“Puck-Man” was released to the Japanese public on May 22, 1980
where it became a huge success. It caught the attention of arcade-game manufacturer Midway, who bought the United States rights for the game and released the game in the U.S. as “Pac-Man”, for fear that kids may deface a Puck-Man cabinet by changing the ‘P’ to an ‘F’. Due to its innovative concept and continuing international popularity, it is regarded as one of the all-time classic video games.
Iwatani went on to create a few other video games, including Ridge Racer, Time Crisis and Libble Rabble, but none of them reached the amount of success that Pac-Man did. He was promoted within the ranks of Namco, eventually being responsible for overseeing the administration of the company. In a VH-1 Game Break interview, Iwatani said he did not personally profit from the creation of Pac-Man, saying, “The truth of the matter is, there were no rewards per se for the success of Pac-Man. I was just an employee. There was no change in my salary, no bonus, no official citation of any kind.” Of all his designs, Iwatani’s favourite is the 1983 game called Libble Rabble, which he worked on immediately after Pac-Man.
Since April 2005 he has been teaching the subject of Character Design Studies at Osaka University of Arts as visiting professor. Iwatani returned to his Pac-Man roots in 2007 when he developed Pac-Man Championship Edition for the Xbox 360, which he states is the final game he will develop. Iwatani left Namco in March 2007 to become a full-time lecturer at Tokyo Polytechnic University.
“I thought it more important to pass on the know-how that I’ve accumulated over the last 30 years to the next generation.”
Toru Iwatani about “Pac-Man”
Interviewer: What was the thinking behind the design of Pac Man?
Iwatani: First of all, the kanji word “taberu,” to eat, came to mind. Game design, you see, often begins with words. I started playing with the word, making sketches in my notebook. All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type – war games and Space Invader types.
There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a “comical” game women could enjoy. The story I like to tell about the origin of Pac Man is that one lunchtime I was quite hungry and I ordered a whole pizza. I helped myself to a wedge and what was left was the idea for the Pac Man shape.
Is that story about the pizza really true?
Iwatani: Well, it’s half true. In Japanese the character for mouth (kuchi) is a square shape. It’s not circular like the pizza, but I decided to round it out. There was the temptation to make the Pac Man shape less simple. While I was designing this game, someone suggested we add eyes. But we eventually discarded that idea because once we added eyes, we would want to add glasses and maybe a moustache. There would just be no end to it.
I designed Pac-Man to be the simplest character possible, without any features such as eyes or limbs. Rather than defining the image of Pac-Man for the player, I wanted to leave that to each player’s imagination.
Food is the other part of the basic concept. In my initial design I had put the player in the midst of food all over the screen. As I thought about it I realised the player wouldn’t know exactly what to do: the purpose of the game would be obscure. So I created a maze and put the food in it. Then whoever played the game would have some structure by moving through the maze. The Japanese have a slang word – paku paku – they use to describe the motion of the mouth opening and closing while one eats. The name Pac Man came from that word.