Exclusive: Pac-Man Creator Speaks!

Unlike many game designers, Toru Iwatani carefully chooses his words during an interview, often offering thought-provoking answers to questions by Helen Pfeffer.

Mr. Iwatani did something most game designers yearn to do but never accomplish: he created a compelling game that was simple to learn but difficult to master, a game that survives to this day. That’s why he’s a living legend.

Interview with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani

Helen Pfeffer: Pac-Man is often considered to be the most popular and successful videogame of all time. How do you account for its original popularity and its continued success?

Toru Iwatani: As I understand, the Pac-Man, as they say in musical lingo, is a standard number, so it’s a basic tenet of popular culture. The reason why the game was successful was due in original concept of trying to make a game to bring women into arcade places, and to design a game that’s easy to play and very accessible for a wide population. It’s very simple to manipulate. So this basic simplicity was a key ingredient in the success of the game.

Helen Pfeffer: You’ve said that one of your goals for Pac-Man was to appeal to women – the bright colors, the non-violence. Were there other aspects you thought would pull women in?

Toru Iwatani: Some of the elements are related to ghosts. The way the ghosts were designed, it’s not something nasty. It’s an enemy, but still somewhat amicable, lovable. Even when you eat them, their eyeballs come back. And also the action of eating itself, it’s not so much eating as destroying, but it’s more like the action of biting to make them go away. And in fact they do come back. So this kind of a non-violent character was very important.

Helen Pfeffer: There were, I think, five people on your Pac-Man team. What kind of direction did you get from your superiors at Namco?

Toru Iwatani: At the beginning of the videogame era, my superiors were mostly involved in making electro-mechanical non-violent games. So they had no idea about this new game area. So overall, they had very little instruction as to what we needed to do. So we had a pretty much free hand. And that was before the IPO. So there were no particular budget constraints, not even a time frame.

Helen Pfeffer: After the success of Pac-Man, was there one thing you bought for yourself or did for yourself to celebrate?

Toru Iwatani: I’m not sure if I should mention this or not. Well, um, 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. So I didn’t buy anything for myself. And it’s really not my personal style to buy myself a present anyway.

Helen Pfeffer: Aside from Pac-Man what is your favorite game of the games you worked on?

Toru Iwatani: Pole Position. A driving game.

Helen Pfeffer: Are you still designing games today?

Toru Iwatani: Just like this championship game, I’m still involved in game creation in a supervisory function. I will also be involved in brand new games, as well.

Helen Pfeffer: What is your favorite current game?

Toru Iwatani: Well, I don’t play those mechanical games, per se. I’m more involved in board games or card games.

Helen Pfeffer: If you were making a new Pac-Man today, what platform would you like to develop for, and why?

Toru Iwatani: I don’t want to think of games that work only on machine, or one platform. If I were to make something new, I would definitely plan to make a game that could be played on everything, including cell phones and all sorts of media. So I don’t like to think in terms of one platform, but something that could be played on anything and everything.

Helen Pfeffer: What do you think are the greatest strengths of the games that are being played today?

Toru Iwatani: Today’s games, thanks to the hardware specs, they can generate just beautiful detailed graphic images. But my impression is, the attraction of a graphic image can last only for so long, and I believe the player really plays by the rules. And I hope they utilize how play interacts with those rules. That will be a very important thing, I believe.

Helen Pfeffer: You are now a full-time professor at Tokyo Polytechnic Institute. What do you teach?

Toru Iwatani: Starting this April, which is the Japanese New Year, the University officially started the Department of Game Creation [he shows me a one-page brochure in Japanese which charts the three divisions in the department], so it’s a full fledged department with regards to game creation. So these are the main areas of the student body, the planning, programming and design, so there are multiple faculties teaching, but this is my area of game planning, that’s what I actually teach.

Helen Pfeffer: You said some years ago that you wanted Pac-Man to inspire emotion in the people who play it – perhaps even to cry, the way they do when they watch ET (the movie). Today’s games mostly inspire fear or triumph. What sort of emotion do you hope people will have when they play a game? How would you achieve that?

Toru Iwatani: I remember that interview, in 1988. Thanks to the creators, with the very complicated long elaborate stories and visual graphics, that goal has been achieved. And so right now, in terms of emotion, the next phase of my interest is not just in the game per se, but to use the game in a more social context, such as using it for rehabilitation or clinical settings, or for social welfare related purposes, and to make games useful for society at large.

Mike Matei

Hey there, I'm Mike Matei, the brains behind pacmanmuseum.com, a blog entirely dedicated to the iconic Pac-Man game. As a lifelong fan and geek of classic arcade gaming, I've poured my passion into creating a virtual museum celebrating everything Pac-Man. E-mail / Linkedin