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The Pac-Man Dossier

August 20, 2009

I came across The-Pac-Man Dossier the other day. It is fascinating reading. It’s easy to look at a game like pac-man and think… well that would be easy to program – a one screen maze with some ghosts with some fairly basic path finding – what could be hard about that. Well actually programming wise probably not much at all but when you read the descriptions of how the various ghosts track your movements around the maze you realise that a lot of thought was put into getting the ghost behaviour just right.

It’s not that the ghosts are particularly smart. They’re not. It’s just that the simple rules that have been applied to those ghosts have been very carefully crafted and refined. That’s where a lot of the real work was done. Given those rules carefully laid out in a specification I’m sure it would be very easy to come up with a working copy of pac-man very quickly. Inventing pac-man from scratch though is another thing altogether. It’s unlikely that you could sit down write down a specification and expect that your new invention of pac-man is going to play as well as you’d expected. Inventing a behaviour like that takes a lot of iteration and tuning.

It’s easy to write some path finding code that accurately steers the ghosts towards pac-man but that leaves you with a dead pac-man very quickly and not a very satisfying game. You could then add randomization to the ghosts choices but then you have a game where you can’t predict behaviour very well. If you can’t predict behaviour it’s difficult to actually form reasonable strategies to play the game – again this leads to a unsatisfying game.

So the real genius of pac-man was not the code that made up the game but the iteration and tuning that went into the relatively simple rules that drive the game.

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From → Entertainment

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