Below is an article that I wrote a while back, that briefly examines Pac Man as a role-model for game design perfection. I've always liked examining older games, which weren't nearly as reliant on graphics for their success, with the idea of learning from their gameplay design. I may write a few similar articles in the future, looking at games like Asteroids and other classic games. In the early 80's I worked in several arcades and was quite the game player, even winning several tournaments here in Dallas. A benefit of working in an arcade was being able to stay after hours and play endlessly for free.
Anyway, here's that article...
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The genius of Pac Man
It's the best selling arcade game worldwide, with over 250,000 machines sold. When it came out, I played it occasionally, but for me it wasn't in the league of Space Invaders, Missile Command, Scramble, Asteroids, Defender and other high-action arcade games I preferred during that time. George, my partner at 3D Realms, though, loved it and eventually memorized patterns that allowed him to play endlessly on a quarter. (These patterns can be found in a book George and I co-wrote in 1982, "Shootout: Zap the Video Games.")
The years passed and other arcade games faded away, yet I still found Pac Man in arcades and restaurants, and never being a fighting games fan (the only other games that seem to be around nowadays), I found myself playing more and more of Pac Man and eventually appreciating the game's genius.
I believe there are only a few software games ever created having perfect and pure gameplay. Tetris and Pac Man are two examples, but Pac Man is the better example because it's a more complex game, and therefore the greater feat. Every aspect of Pac Man has gameplay repercussions and provides the player with decisions that involve trade-offs. Also, the game is extremely quick to learn, but nearly impossible to master, and has just one ultra-intuitive control, a single joystick.
Just the act of eating dots is perfectly designed, because eating them slows Pac Man down, slightly slower than the pursuing ghosts. This makes the act of eating dots a trade-off decision for the player because to eat dots – to accomplish the game's primary goal – is to put the player in greater danger. While staying in lanes where there are no dots allows the player to move slightly faster than the ghosts, but does not accomplish the game's goal. A lesser designed game would have not slowed down Pac Mac just the right amount when eating dots.
When Pac Man eats one of the four power dots, it turns the tables on the ghost, not only taking away their threat to Pac Man, but making them valuable to eat. Again, there's just total perfection in the way this is handled. First, the pursuit of these harmless ghosts takes away from the player’s primary goal of eating dots, but it's a perfect trade-off decision for the player (greed for points vs eating dots and moving to the next maze). Plus, with each of the four ghosts eaten, the points double for the next ghost the player eats – but the trade-off is that going for the next harmless ghost puts the closer to the danger of that ghost turning back to the normal kind, and killing Pac Man.
Finally, the appearance of bonus fruit, which rises as mazes are cleared, is just another simple trade-off for players because those fruit are not required eating. But they are so compelling that players often take dangerous risks to eat them, and end up dying. And dying in this way the player knows full and well it was their own greedy fault.
There are other perfect design issues with Pac Man, such as the design of the maze itself, which includes dangerous areas where it's easy for Pac Man to get trapped, the tunnel that leads through the screen, and the different personalities (different AI) for the four ghosts.
A perfect game that we can still teach us, over 18 years later.
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I think the key idea to take away from Pac Man is the principle of trade-off decisions. Every key decision you make has both a positive and negative side. With simple games it's easy to design with this principle in mind. With the more complex games of today this principle too often gets back-burner treatment. For example, we've all played a shooter in which the later weapons you collect are superior in every respect to the earlier weapons. The result is that the player ignores the earlier weapons. In Duke Nukem 3D, we tried to rectify this by having the later weapons all have both positive and negative attributes, and we succeeded to a worthwhile degree.
One final thought, as I will often talk about "principles" in this blog. A principle is a basic truth, a proposition that is reliable in most cases. I will rarely talk about game design "rules" because the word "rule" suggests a principle that's written in stone, and without exception. I prefer the word "principle" because it allows for some flexibility.