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The Pac-Man Dossier
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The Pac-Man Dossier

February 23, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 10 Next

[What design and AI lessons can we learn from Namco's seminal Pac-Man? From history through behavior, Gamasutra presents a comprehensive Jamey Pittman-authored guide to the classic game.]

In 1999, Billy Mitchell of Hollywood, Florida became the first person to obtain a perfect score of 3,333,360 at Pac-Man, eating every possible dot, energizer, ghost, and bonus on every level without losing a single life in the process.

But perhaps what is most amazing is the fact he can play without using any memorized routines widely known as "patterns".

Instead, he relies on his familiarity with how each ghost behaves as it moves through the maze, using that knowledge to keep Pac-Man one step ahead of his enemies at all times.

Unlike Mitchell, most players are only able to rack up high scores with the aid of multiple patterns that take advantage of the game's deterministic nature.

These patterns require perfect memorization and recall to be of any real use - a single hesitation or wrong turn during execution can make the remainder of a pattern useless.

Not surprisingly, an over-reliance on these routines leaves many a player clueless as to how to effectively avoid the ghosts and finish off the remaining dots in the higher levels once a mistake occurs.

Most Pac-Man strategy guides available on the internets today are very similar in content to the books that used to be sold back in the early 80s

A summary of gameplay and scoring is provided first, followed by a list of patterns to be memorized by the reader, but very little insight is offered on how the game works or how the ghosts make decisions.

Therefore, the purpose of this guide is to give the player and game designers a better design understanding of Pac-Man by taking a closer look at gameplay, maze logic, ghost personalities, and the mysterious "split screen" level.

All information provided has been extracted from or verified with the disassembly output from the Midway Pac-Man arcade ROMs along with controlled observations of actual gameplay. As such, I have a high confidence in its accuracy.

That said, if you notice an error or omission, please contact me so it can be corrected as soon as possible. I hope you find the information just as interesting and useful as I did for gaining a better understanding of this classic game.

Special thanks to Don Hodges ( whose invaluable contributions to this guide can be found in every chapter.

Article Start Page 1 of 10 Next

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Jake Romigh
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This was a most informative and entertaining read. I'm not sure everyone will agree with me here, but I think these articles have promise. They show the development history, design principals, execution, cultural reaction, and legacy of a game. If the rest of your "Dossiers" are as indepth and quality as this one, I'll be sure to read them.

Mike Saunders
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This was an amazing article! I really enjoyed reading it due to the clear descriptions and the great diagrams visually depicting the algorithms/etc. Of course, I'm an arcade junkie from the 80's so the fact that the article focused on one of those games was just icing on the cake.

Please, please do more of these types of in-depth technical analysis articles! I'll read every one.

Roberto Alfonso
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Indeed, this is one of the most insightful articles I have ever read. I knew about the chase/scatter modes from an early interview, but didn't know the gameplay was so deep!

Joshua Dallman
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This is a simply fantastic article and I would love to see more well researched, in-depth game design and theory articles such as these here. There's a lot to sink your teeth into in this article, it isn't just armchair speculation about theory and market trends. Very well done, well researched, and an appreciated read and reference. I hope this type of article can also show newer game developers how much subtle coding behind the curtain occurs to create a well polished and deep gameplay, even if seemingly on the surface it is a "simple game" especially by graphical standards alone. I would also be remiss to not point out the recent "Pac Man Zero G" outlined on your sister site:

Tom Newman
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The best article on Pac-Man I have ever read. Answered many questions I've had since the 80's.

This proves that you can deliver a deep gameplay experience without lots of CPU, without high end graphics, and with minimal player control (up, down, left, right, no buttons). Peolple will still be playing Pac-Man 50 years from now.

Christopher Enderle
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The game's depth is astounding, I'll never look at Pac-Man the same way again. Such in depth analysis as this makes me wish we could see the game's actual GDD, if such official documents exist. I'd imagine they do with the continual remakes that come out, but perhaps that's the same reason they still hold on to those.

John Leffingwell
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Absolutely great article. The superlatives do not exist for how I feel about the author's coverage of this subject matter. I didn't know of the author until now, but I've been a follower of Don Hodges work for a while, and I do this sort of thing myself from time to time. I hope we can see similarly gritty technical articles about classic games in the future. The only thing that could possibly improve this article is if Gamasutra could use some of its clout to get in contact with the original designers for additional insight and background information. I'd love to see something about the work of Vid Kidz. Robotron: 2084 has some nifty bugs, and some of the later technology Jarvis et al. developed was radically ahead of its time. See Halcyon Days.

Tom Newman
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I would love to see a dossier on Joust. Left, right, and a flap button - the rest of the gameplay built in to the physics of the game itself.

Matthew Oztalay
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Very well written, very informative. An excellent window into the level of depth and detail required to design a game.

Shawn Yates
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Excellent article. I'm such a sucker for the algorithm diagrams I cannot express how grateful I am. This really helps peel back the layers of complexity of a game that at first glance might seem "simple".