Pac-Man on Hololens: Bandai Namco shows us how they made it not suck
SAN FRANCISCO—"It surprised us how Pac-Man on Hololens created interaction between people who are complete strangers!"
Bandai Namco Creative Director Hirofumi Motoyama declared this while standing next to a photo of arguably the world's largest Microsoft Hololens game experience to date. In it, two players sporting Microsoft's "mixed reality" headgear are seen high-fiving—which is both a fun photo moment and a bit of a cheat.
Pac in Town, which premiered in January exclusively at one of Namco's Japanese theme parks, actually requires players to high-five each other in order to beat its challenges. But as Motoyama's presentation at the Game Developers Conference made clear, that action is but one way that Bandai Namco answered an important question: how do you make a full-room, multiplayer Hololens game that doesn't suck?
You down with FOV?
For the uninitiated, Pac in Town is a three-player cooperative variant of the arcade classic (not to be confused with the four-player Pac-Man Vs. found at modern American arcades). Each player dons a Hololens headset, at which point they are transported to a full-room Pac-Man maze that they must walk through to collect dots as a team. Eat enough dots within a time limit, without succumbing to the series' classic ghosts, and the team wins.
The game began life at Bandai Namco's "Pacathon" event in September of last year, in which various company employees came up with prototype explorations of the 1980 arcade original. Hololens was part of the design language during that event, owing to its work on an admittedly simple mixed-reality game for the headgear called Mosquito.
Motoyama told the crowd that the game was completely playable within one month of the Pacathon. He said the Hololens design team embraced "startup culture," in that everyone involved had reservations about making a game for a technology that could be considered outdated all too soon. If Hololens was available now, he explained, the team should get a game completed quickly. Bandai Namco's Namja Town amusement park had apparently been happy with its last mixed-reality game, Mosquito, so this Hololens followup received a pretty quick green light and budget.
From there, Motoyama's team clued in on the most limiting factor of the Hololens hardware: that its visible field of view is far too small. The designers resolved this primarily, he said, by flipping the standard top-down Pac-Man game field 90 degrees, which meant a thin-yet-wide slice of relevant visual information could fit onto Hololens' screen. Additionally, the original game's "chase" mechanic was scrapped in favor of a more Metal Gear Solid-like "patrol" system. If the classic ghosts' movement was easier to predict, then players could map and anticipate it even if those ghosts were standing in their invisible periphery.
Lastly, as shown in the above gallery, the design team made sure that a guide at the real-life attraction gave players a visual reference point of how small Hololens' FOV really is while waiting in line.
With those issues resolved, Motoyama and two other Bandai Namco designers built up a relatively simple game design: make a team of three Pac People eat 100 yellow dots before the clock ran out, all while avoiding ghosts. Occasionally, players will need to activate score-boosting cherries and ghost-eating power pellets, but these only trigger if fellow players physically high-five each other. (This physical interaction is measured by the game's required Myo-branded armbands, which don't come with Hololens by default.)
Motoyama played sample videos of how paying customers (which, as of press time, count around 8,000) have reacted to Pac in Town—all of whom, he said, were strangers to each other before starting a session. The game's physical interactions, along with players shouting at each other to run to certain dots or avoid certain ghosts, resulted in plenty of on-camera laughs—though the videos sure showed a lot of runs and quick dashes, as opposed to careful, sneaking steps. (Motoyama didn't speak to issues with heat or physical discomfort.)
All of which is to say: Pac in Town clearly isn't for everyone. Between its required hardware and room size, its Hololens-based limitations, and its emphasis on high-fiving, it's really the kind of game you could only expect at a theme park. But, hey—compared to some of the silly, "interactive" attractions I've seen at sites as high-priced as Disneyland, I would argue that Pac in Town combines gameplay and goofiness in far more successful fashion than its peers. Plus, Bandai Namco figured out how to make a lot out of a little—and strike while Hololens is still a burgeoning platform, to boot.
And with more people carrying mixed reality-worthy hardware in their pockets as of late, it's easy to look at this forward-thinking GDC panel and imagine similar games arriving in your town before long.