The making of the World's Biggest Pac-Man game (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: If you've never created a Pac-Man level, Ashley Ringrose of the Australian ad agency Soap Creative, and Carlson Choi of Namco Bando Games want you to give it a try. You'll be joining a worldwide community of people who have helped build a global maze.

In about a week, Pac-Man fans have built more than 13,500 levels for the World's Biggest Pac-Man game. This Space Invaders-themed maze is just one of them. Namco-Bandai

When we think of Pac-Man, we think of a single screen, and a series of new mazes that become available only after players finish the one they're on.

But that's not how Ashley Ringrose and his colleagues at Sydney, Australia-based Soap Creative agency thought of the mega-hit 30-year-old video game . So when they were given a chance to design a promotion for the game that was both innovative and social, the lightbulb that went off over their heads was all about big.

Big, as in the World's Biggest Pac-Man game, in which fans are able to design their own levels, all of which are connected with the others, and all of which can be shared with the world.

The new version of the game, unveiled to the world during a keynote address at Microsoft's Mix 11 event in Las Vegas, is a fan's view of what Pac-Man is. With 13,500 user-designed mazes created as of this writing, and nearly 300 million dots eaten, this is truly a worldwide phenomenon.

Ringrose and his colleagues came up with the idea in a flash--but they still had to get buy-in from Pac-Man publisher Namco-Bandai. And that came quickly, Ringrose said. Still, Namco had to weigh in with its perspectives on how its hit game would come across in this format.

Yesterday, I invited both Ringrose and Carlson Choi, vice president of marketing for Namco Bandai Games America, to have a discussion about the creation of the game as part of my 45 Minutes on IM interview series. The two spoke passionately about Pac-Man, and about what it takes to give a classic character a whole new way of interacting with the world.

Q: Thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate it. Tell me where the idea came from for the World's Biggest Pac-Man?
Ashley Ringrose: We had an open brief, which is both scary and fun. But what to do with Pac-Man that hasn't already been done, and which is innovative and social? We knew that if it wasn't social or fun it wouldn't work. And as we sat around we just stumbled into it. We had "create your own Pac-Man level" and then we asked "how to make that more social/shareable" and then the giant quilt idea came about. And I'm a big believer in the "headline concept" where the name of the idea is key. And after we said "World's Biggest Pac-Man" no one else could think of any other idea. Also, I've personally been itching to do a "world's biggest anything" for a while.

Ashley Ringrose

What was the moment like when you said World's Biggest Pac-Man? I would have liked to be in that meeting.
Ringrose: As soon as we said that, we knew we had a winner. It's not often I'm 100 percent confident that an idea will take off. I spent the next six weeks itching to set it live.

I know you said you had an open brief, but surely, you must have had to get Namco's buy-in. What did it take to get Namco onboard for the project?
Ringrose: Namco liked the idea from the start. The only hard part was making sure we stayed true to the trademarks and key art.

So Namco provided you with templates for the art, or something like that?
Ringrose: We had already designed and built pacman.com a few months earlier, so not only did we have a good relationship with Namco, but we knew more about Pac-Man than most. The only extra knowledge we had to take onboard were things like the inner workings on how the game play functions, the different personalities of ghosts, when fruit appears, and so on. We're going to kick butt at trivia nights for sure. Also, luckily, Pac-Man is one of the most highly documented games in history, so there were literally pages and pages of detailed analysis on how the game worked from a code standpoint.

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You say you knew more about Pac-Man than most. Can you give me some examples of things you learned about Pac-Man while building pacman.com?
Ringrose: That it's Pac-Man, not Pacman. That he eats Pac-Dots. That the original name was Puck-Man in Japan. That each ghost has a different personality and artificial intelligence. And Pac-Man is the most successful coin-operated game in history. I could go on. We've almost finished a history of Pac-Man image that collects all of these interesting stats into one place. It's going to go on the site.

You say the idea was for the World's Biggest Pac-Man, but it didn't have to get very big to be the world's biggest. How big did you imagine it would get?
Ringrose: We knew it would be big, so we've allowed for a grid of 4,000x4,000, which is 16,000,000 levels. But we didn't imagine the server load it would take. There's not a problem with 150,000 visitors in a day. There is when they all jump on in the space of an hour. Also, we didn't imagine the players would expand the map in a single tendril, so we're coding now to have a hard top at the top so they don't break it.

Sixteen million levels--why stop there?
Ringrose: I think 4,000x4,000 sounded nice. You can see the expansion of the maps after 7 days. You can see the crowd logic split from expanding out to expanding up for fun.

This is a snapshot of the global map of all the levels for the game, which in just a week has seen more than 13,500 player-created mazes added to it. Soap Creative

At this point, Ringrose's part of the interview ended, and I picked up the discussion with Choi a little later in the day.

Q: Thank you for taking a few minutes to do this. Can you tell me what Namco's reaction was to the original World's Biggest Pac-Man idea?
Carlson Choi: We were part of the planning process as our teams were bouncing around ideas to activate our massive Pac-Man community, which has approximately 2.5 million fans on Facebook alone. Our goal is to be able to continue the celebration of Pac-Man's 30th anniversary and to promote our coming slate of Pac-Man games, which includes Pac-Man and Galaga Dimensions on the Nintendo 3DS.

It must be a little scary to give up control over the creation of Pac-Man levels to fans. Obviously, there have been some creations that didn't meet your standards. What's that like for Namco?
Choi: If you recall, we did a similar thing with Google on the Pac-Man Google Doodle . As long as the creator (Google, or in this case, the fans) follows our guidelines, we are totally cool with it. Since the maze creator follows our guidelines, it is controlled through the creation process. Most importantly, the new Namco Bandai Games is also focusing on "community" driven ideas. In this case, the community/fans are driving the creation of the mazes and sharing them virally across the world.

Carlson Choi

So you're not worried that some of the fans' creations will potentially damage the Pac-Man brand? I'm not saying they will, I just know that user-created content sometimes worries companies.
Choi: With the community driving this promotional effort, it's important that we put trust in our fans that they "respect" the core DNA of our brand. Meanwhile, we've got our community managers moderating any offensive content. With us being in the digital era, our intention for this project is for it to be community-driven. Created by the fans for the fans. Which is a great lead-in to some of the new Pac-Man properties soon to be available on new gaming platforms like the 3DS.

I think a lot of Pac-Man fans must have been very surprised about this project. How surprised were you by the fast and huge response to World's Biggest Pac-Man?
Choi: Based on the number of Pac-Man fans on Facebook and the success of the Google Doodle, we were optimistic about the outcome. In addition, Pac-Man is the most recognizable video game character in the world (according to Guinness Book of World Records).

What do you like most about the World's Biggest Pac-Man?
Choi: The coolest part of all is that you can pick up any browser and have endless hours of Pac-Man fun. The other thing is, you can also see each country competing for No. 1 in our global leaderboard.

Do you have a favorite level created by a fan? And if so, what's it like?
Choi: It's hard to pinpoint one, since each one of them carries the DNA of one of our fans. It's like asking me which one of my three daughters is my favorite. I do like how many people have already created their own mazes, and I'm looking forward to seeing more. I'm looking forward to the day when the "Pac-Dots meter" hits 1 billion.

 

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