How Bandai Namco Turned Fans Into Pac-Man With HoloLens

“A great way to experience playfulness with strangers.”

Over the years, Pac-Man has popped up in unusual places (who can forget the 2015 cinematic masterpiece Pixels?). But augmented reality might be the most audacious outing yet for Bandai Namco’s pellet-chomping mascot.

Pac in Town uses Microsoft’s AR HoloLens headset to project a life-sized version of the familiar blue maze into the real world. It requires three people wearing the HoloLens headset each playing as a Pac-Man. Players high-five each other to earn extra points by eating a cherry or to activate the power pellet which allows them to eat the ghosts that hunt them. The goal is to consume 100 pellets within the time limit while also avoiding those dastardly ghosts.

In a brief but jam-packed presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, creative director Hirofumi Motoyama talked about how they came up with the idea for the game. It started as an experimental project for Pacathon, which Motoyama described as a company initiative for exploring “new implementations of Pac-Man using innovative technology.”

But despite the program’s lofty goals, the team consisted of just three people: Motoyama, a programmer, and an artist.

Using the Unity game engine and tools created for another AR title — a bug-shooting game simply called Mosquito — it only took the developers about a month to finish the prototype. Pac in Town made its debut in the Pacathon exhibition at the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival in Austria, where more than 400 people lived out their Pac-Man fantasies.

Encouraged by the public’s reception, Bandai Namco decided to continue working on it. After an additional month of optimization, Pac In Town launched earlier this year as a mixed reality attraction in Japanese theme parks.

“Thanks to Microsoft HoloLens, we finally made the life-sized Pac-Man experience that Pac-Man fans have dreamed of since the ‘80s,” said Motoyoma.

But one question that people kept asking them was, “Why isn’t it single-player like the original game?” While Motoyama and his team could have easily carried that over into their project, they believed that mixed reality works best as a multiplayer experience. With three people in the game at the same time, they’re naturally inclined to communicate, even if they don’t know the people they’re playing with. It almost becomes a sport as people constantly move around the open space and try to help each other.

While the team deliberately designed Pac In Town for cooperative play, they didn’t expect just how much fun people would have. They knew they were successful when someone left a note praising the game, saying it was a “great way to experience playfulness with strangers.” That’s the developer’s biggest takeaway. If done right, mixed reality can bring all kinds of people together.

“And that’s been the most amazing find that I want to share with everyone today: Mixed reality has the potential of encouraging sociability through entertainment,” Motoyama concluded.