When the estimated size of the global games market in 2015 comes up in conversation, Toru Iwatani has to write the figure $78bn down on a piece of paper.
The man who invented Pac-Man, the most successful arcade game in history and among the most widely-recognised digital icons on the planet, stares again at the number, before mentally converting it into yen. It still seems wrong, he says. “Are there too many zeroes?”
The question, asked in the depths of a tiny, claustrophobic office in Tokyo Polytechnic University, is only half-joking. In the 35 years since the release of Pac-Man, the industry spawned by Mr Iwatani’s yellow glutton has generated fabulous wealth but left many of its greatest Japanese pioneers no better off than any other salarymen.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, he says. The creative environment in which Mr Iwatani was allowed to wallow at game developer Namco back in the 1980s should, he believes, become the model for games design in the era of the smartphone.
“The beauty of Pac-Man is that anyone who plays it immediately knows what is going on in the game. That is why it still works today if you download it on a smartphone. Thirty-five years ago, we were limited by the power of the CPU [processor], now we don’t have those constraints, but game makers need to be thinking about what made the older games so good.”
He pulls out a Pac-Man branded iPhone to show his two favourites of the moment — Jewel Mania and Puzzle & Dragons. The latter, produced by Japanese company GungHo, has been downloaded more than 35m times in Japan, the equivalent of a quarter of the population. The smartphone, he says, is doing today what Pac-Man did all those years ago: the games that are successful thrive on their simplicity, gameplay and their ability to broaden, very suddenly, the universe of games players.
Companies such as Nintendo, which has resisted until recently any idea of making its famous Super Mario and Mario Kart available on mobile phones, must embrace the new frontier, he says. “Watching grannies playing video games on their phones on the train is great. It is what I was trying to do all along with Pac-Man.”
Over the next three decades at Namco, and a career in which he produced more than 50 games, he pushed the theme of easy accessibility. Alpine Racer and Time Crisis were particularly critical in bringing players into the heart of the game by using physical movement instead of a complex set of controls.
Having retired in 2007 from what was by then Bandai Namco, the father of Japanese video games is now a professor of game development. He teaches the secrets of design and character to students only a little younger than he was when the idea of Pac-Man — according to corporate mythology — hit him in a Yokohama pizza restaurant in 1979.
Size of global games market
The character of the circle with the missing slice, he says, was the product of a typical Japanese company structure that insulated people such as him from job insecurity and thus incubated creativity. Behind the façade of rigid, rules-based Japan Inc, says Mr Iwatani, were companies that had mastered digital-talent management long before Facebook and Google were around. Knowing that one would never get rich from even the most lucrative idea was part of the trade-off.
Price on eBay recently of original Pac-Man cabinet
He clears a space on a desk cluttered with stuffed toys, a clock featuring the game’s four animated ghosts (Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde) and other Pac-Man memorabilia to find a model of the original Pac-Man cabinet that once dominated arcades. Collectors can nowadays buy the real thing on eBay for about $2,000. Mr Iwatani’s home is too small to accommodate one, he sighs.
Number of games produced by Toru Iwatani
“Japanese game companies used to be places of total freedom. We had almost no orders, except to make fun games,” he says, before qualifying the remark. Although the global success of Pac-Man took Mr Iwatani and his employer by surprise, the game had been designed with a laser-sharp commercial purpose: to entice more women into arcades.
To do this he needed to infuse games with personality and emotion. Until Pac-Man barrelled on to the scene with a distinctive ego defined by a chomping mouth, onscreen avatars had generally been impersonal — a spacecraft, a gun turret, a ball. Pac-Man’s instant sense of life began the DNA spiral that has since given gamers characters such as Mario, Lara Croft and Angry Birds. Having decided on the hero’s basic shape, he debated with his team whether to give it eyes or a nose. “The discussion didn’t take very long. A few minutes. The character was all in the mouth.”
Perhaps more important was the decision to give each ghost its own colour — an issue on which Mr Iwatani fought a tense battle with the president and founder of Namco, Masaya Nakamura.
“Mr Nakamura was very scary. All the developers on the team, and all the people our age, knew that each ghost had to have a different colour . . . the ghosts needed to be cute like cartoons. But Mr Nakamura wanted them all red. I was 26 years old, and it was terrifying to confront the boss,” says Mr Iwatani. “But I decided to hit him with data. I conducted an internal survey among my colleagues and, with my hands shaking, presented Mr Nakamura with the results. It was 40-0 in favour of coloured ghosts, and he agreed.”
The risk that Mr Iwatani sees now, amid intensified competition and focus on shareholder return, is that Japanese games companies are far less good at repeating their eureka moments. The dominance of the smartphone, which analysts believe have narrowly overtaken consoles as a medium for selling games, presents a precarious balance of opportunity and risk.
“There is good and bad. The good is that smartphone games have hugely increased the number of gamers. Less good is that it has drawn in companies that are only really interested in making money. These are companies that do not make games because they love games,” he says.
The effect of this, along with the wider financial pressures, has produced a flood of bankable sequels to the most popular titles.
“When you come up with an idea these days, you have to think about profits. I don’t think that it works for games companies to be listed. It was always easier to make “Pac-Man 2” and “Pac-Man 3” than to come up with a completely new idea because new ideas fail more than they succeed, and shareholders don’t like that,” says Mr Iwatani.
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