Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the release of Pac-Man, and to commemorate the occasion, Google is rolling out its first-ever truly interactive and playable home page logo, a fully-functional version of the iconic 1980s video game.
For years, Google has produced its so-called doodles for all kinds of holidays and special occasions, from Valentine's Day to the Fourth of July to Mother's Day and many others. In each case, the Google Doodle team works on a special logo that appears on the search engine's home page.
But a few months ago, when the team discovered that May 22 would be the 30th anniversary of the release of Pac-Man in Japan--it was actually called Puck Man, but that name was rejected in the United States because of the propensity of the "P" to chip and look like an "F"--they knew they had to do something extra special.
"When we became aware of the...anniversary," said Ryan Germick, a member of the Google Doodle team, "we thought it would be awesome to create not only something that references Pac-Man on the home page, but also something playable."
Until now, the most interactive of the logos had been one last Halloween that users could click to see more candy, and another for Isaac Newton's birthday that dropped apples. But for the Pac-Man celebration (see video below), Google has pulled out all the stops and has built, from scratch, a fully-playable version of the game, complete with 255 levels and re-created (but authentic) sounds and graphics. And unlike most of the special logos, which disappear off the home page--but are available in perpetuity in the archives--when the day is over, the Pac-Man doodle will stay up for 48 hours.
Google's Pac-Man doodle
"We are very excited about the Google doodle project," Namco Bandai President and CEO Kenji Hisatsune told CNET by e-mail. "With this being the first time Google has ever included sound or made a doodle playable demonstrates just how big of an impact Pac-Man has made. "
And in the end, Wichary made a "picture-perfect" version of the game, Germick said. Except for one thing, of course. Being a Google home page logo, it had to have the word "Google" in its design, so Wichary, Germick and their colleagues built their version of Pac-Man so that it had the search engine's name in the middle of the iconic board.
Growing up with games
For Wichary, who grew up in Poland, arcade video games were in his blood. His father was a game technician who used to take him around to arcades and let him see how the various machines worked. From those humble beginnings came a lifetime of interest in games and, now, the motivation and passion to make the Pac-Man project be as faithful as possible to the original game.
That commitment to authenticity extended, Wichary explained, to some of Pac-Man's little quirks. For example, though many people would never have experienced this, the original arcade game had a bug that resulted in anyone making it past the 255th level hitting what came to be called the "kill screen," where the machine essentially crashed. Google made sure to build that experience into their game.
Similarly, after completing some levels of Pac-Man, a player would sit through brief animations, which came to be known as "coffee breaks," since it provided enough time to stretch one's fingers and, perhaps, grab a cup of coffee. That, too, has been built into the Google version.
And the team was so focused on making their version true to the original that they even included some of the smallest touches possible, things that only the most serious Pac-Man players would know about. Wichary said those include things like the fact that in the original game, the ghosts would give the slightest hint of which direction they were going to turn by moving their eyes that way. That was included in the Google version, as was a peculiarity that allowed Pac-Man to cut corners by a couple of pixels while the ghosts had to turn them at full right angles.
In addition, Wichary pointed out that the original game was "deterministic," meaning that players could memorize and develop winning patterns. Google, too, built that into its version, meaning that those who put some serious time into the game now will be able to make a lot of headway by figuring out the patterns that work best.
"Google spent a lot of man-hours making sure the simple things that make Pac-Man were included," Hisatsune said, referencing the coffee break and 255th-level bug.
Germick explained that at Google, the Doodle team is always looking for ways to make the Google home page a "fun place to be," so once the team came up with the idea for the Pac-Man project, "it didn't take a lot of selling internally. Once people saw it, they were like, 'Awesome.'"
Putting together the Google version of Pac-Man took a couple of months, but Wichary said it would be hard to estimate how much time they actually put into the project because "I enjoyed it so much. It was a throwback to my childhood."
Indeed, Wichary said that one of his biggest reasons for getting involved in this effort was to help bring other people back to their own childhoods.
I'm feeling lucky
On a normal day, Google's home page features two simple buttons: one for a full keyword-specific search and the famous "I'm feeling lucky" choice, which picks one result based on a keyword.
For the Pac-Man project, the team has converted the "I'm feeling lucky" button into an "Insert coin" slot, reminiscent of the place where countless kids have pumped billions of quarters over the years.
Fittingly, the team decided that if they were going to make their Pac-Man game authentic, they would need to make it playable by two people at once. So where a single player will, so to speak, insert a single coin, clicking twice sets up a two-player game. In that case, one player will be Pac-Man and the other will be Ms. Pac-Man, and both will be playing on the same board at the same time, using a single keyboard.
In the end, the Google team put a lot of focus into re-building what is one of the best-known and recognized games of all time. For a game that's 30 years old, it holds up remarkably well over time, and still has a hold on popular culture.
And as something that is still a hit so many years later, it made perfect sense to the Google team to break new ground with its approach to the Pac-Man project. Yet, rather than just getting code from Namco, they decided to do things the Google way.
"I wanted to do the same thing we do with everything else at Google," Wichary said, "which is use modern Web technologies. So we built it from the ground up."