One of the most popular games in history was essentially the result of a bunch of college dropouts reverse-engineering someone else’s game.
Steve Golson, who worked at Ms. Pac-Man developer General Computer Corporation, talked at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco about the creation of the arcade classic, which was the most popular American-made arcade game and sold over 115,000 cabinets, and it was one of the first sequels to a major hit for a franchise that lives on to this day.
Golson was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1978 with Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran, who started setting up pinball and arcade games in their dorm. At this time, speed-up kits (also known as enhancement kits) were popular in the glory days of arcades. They would slightly change games (like by speeding them up), which kept players who had thought they mastered them interested.
The first speed-up kit came out for Asteroids, which literally sped the game up. However, more advanced kits could introduce new characters and levels. This allowed arcades to present old works as completely new games. Of course, copyright quickly became a problem, and these kits were easy for others to copy.
Missile Command was a 1980 arcade hit. Macrae and Curran were looking for a speed-up kit for it but couldn’t find one, so they decided to make their own. They started General Computer in 1981. Along with Golson, they created Super Missile Attack, an enhancement kit for Missile Command. Essentially, they reverse-engineered the game to reprogram it. They eventually figured out how it worked and used graph paper to design new characters.
Intellectual property was still a problem, though. That’s why they didn’t use the Missile Command name. They also used complicated hardware to make sure no one could copy their game. Still, what they sold was a single circuit board that owners of Missile Command could then insert inside the original’s cabinets.
They sold 1,000 copies of their enhancement kit in two months, making a profit of $250,000. At that point, they all dropped out of MIT. However, Atari soon sued them for $15 million. Golson noted that Atari was the high-tech company back then. He also said the court appearances gave them extra publicity. General Computer would not back down. So, Atari just hired these dropouts on October 1981. It dropped the suit, and General Computer made $50,000 a month. However, General Computer was no longer allowed to market enhancement kits without the permission from the distributor of the original game as part of the settlement.
However, during that summer, General Computer was developing another kit. It wanted to work on another game with a large install base. They thought about working on Asteroids, but settled on Pac-Man, which was a hot game at the time.
Pac-Man originally came out in 1980 and was a huge hit. As popular as it was, it was a predictable game. The ghosts would always go in the same paths. General Computer worked on a version that would kill the predictability. Once again, they reverse-engineered the original game. They were able to disassemble the code into 180 pages. They learned things about the game, like that Pac-Man would move a little faster around corners, and that the ghosts would look in a direction before moving that way.
General Computer decided to add four new mazes (which they designed on graph paper), randomize the monsters’ movements, and then make the fruit bonus move through the maze (these were static in the original). It also thought about adding vertical tunnels and letting the ghosts move through walls, but those ideas were scrapped. The team also added new colors, sounds, animations, and — of course — a new starring character … Crazy Otto. It also designed the monsters to look different, again to avoid copyright infringement. It added small cutscenes between levels that showed Otto courting a female version of himself, Anna.
The design of Otto was based on a design for Pac-Man from art on the original cabinent, which showed him having legs. General Computer actually used a Lite-Brite peg board as a way to design characters, like the new monsters that replaced the ghosts. It also changed some of the fruit bonuses, replacing the Galaxian character because of copyright concerns. General Computer added a pretzel, pear, and banana.
Meanwhile, General Computer is using all the lessons it’s learning about intellectual property law from its Atari lawsuit to try and make Crazy Otto safe from a similar lawsuit. However, as part of its settlement with Atari, they now needed permission to sell Crazy Otto. However, the rest of the industry didn’t know about the Atari settlement. Kevin Curran called Dave Marofske of Midway, which had the U.S. rights to Pac-Man, and told him outright about the plan to release a kit. Curran played it as if General Computer had come out on top of the Atari deal and that it was doing Midway a favor by giving them a chance to avoid a similar legal battle.
General Computer made a deal on October 29, 1981. Midway bought the kit and agreed to market it, but they still didn’t know about the Atari deal.
“In one month, we struck deals with the two top game companies,” Golson noted.
General Computer thought about changing the name to Super Pac-Man, since it didn’t have to worry about copyright anymore. This version put the original character designs back in. Stan Jarocki then called General Computer with the idea to make it Miss Pac-Man. General Computer originally thought that the idea would not appeal to the 14-year-old boys that made up many arcade visitors, but Midway assured them that Pac-Man was popular with women.
An early Ms. Pac-Man’d design included a version with long red hair and a yellow bow before settling on the iconic design with a red bow and beauty mark. Shortly before release, they realized they had a cutscene that shows her with a baby. Concerend by the idea of having the character appear to have a child out of wedlock, they changed the name to Ms. Pac-Man. General Computer said that Namco was involved with the new character designe from the begining, despite report online saying otherwise.
The final code released in 1982, the same year arcades made the cover of Time magazine in the January issue. Crazy Otto was accidentally used as a photograph for Pac-Man in the article, at a time when only three test versions of Crazy Otto existed in public.
General Computer would go on to make many home games for Atari and worked on the hardware for the Atari 7800. In 1984, the company had grown, but that was also the year the gaming industry company crashed. General Computer evolved into GCC Technologies, which created peripherals for Mac and PC.
The original developers of Ms. Pac-Man still receive royalty check checks from Namco for re-releases of Ms. Pac-Man, including digital versions for mobile. You can still find the cabinet in arcades today, forever standing as a testament that dropping out of school can get you far in life … or that playing with someone else’s intellectual property can make you a lot money.
OK, those sound like terrible lessons.
The important thing is that General Computer made a game that people loved, and they actually made one that was better than the original that inspired them.