PAC-MAN VR

Sunday, 07. 10. 2011  –  Category: Virtual Reality (VR) and 3D

In about 1996 Virtuality obtained the rights to port PAC-MAN into an immersive VR environment on the ‘Stand Up’ machine. Looking back, as 3D artist on the project I probably didn’t appreciate being in the┬áprivileged┬áposition of working on one of the most famous game titles of all time. As far as I can remember the project lasted about eight months but never saw the light of day. Though the software was complete, Virtuality went into Administration just prior to release. I’m obviously biased, but I think PAC-MAN was one of the best games Virtuality produced. The positive feedback from user tests conducted with students at De Montford University seemed to substantiate this.

Virtuality SU machine

Virtuality SU (Stand Up) machine

Bear in mind this was the mid 90′s and the hardware these games were running on was essentially a tricked out DX2 machine fitted with a custom built graphics card. As a result Andy Reece, the developer, had to find loads of workarounds and hacks to keep the frame rate above 22fps (because it was an immersive environment, users began to feel sick if the frame rate dropped below 20fps). The main body of the PAC-MAC character for example was actually a flat polygon texture mapped with the image of a pre-rendered 3D sphere. The characters facial features, the mouth, nose and eyes, were 3D shapes positioned around a central point. Because the global lighting was consistent, by rotating the geometry, which contained far fewer polygons than a 3D sphere, Andy was able to give the impression that the whole character was turning.

Perhaps most interesting was the way in which users navigated the 3D space. The traditional PAC-MAN was played in plan view, so the user had a view of the entire field of play. Gameplay was essentially fast paced strategy; when to gobble the blue pills in relation to the positioning of the ghosts. In the immersive version, users couldn’t see behind them, so the gameplay was entirely different. It almost become a FPS, though it did retain a degree of strategy in the players could work together, communicating between two SU machines.

The video below features both the intro sequence (flic as it was called) and in-game footage (which begins at around 47 seconds)
 

What users found particularly tricky was the navigation. Andy tried a load of different combinations involving the hand unit and the headset. The problem is that when users have their eyes covered (by the headset) then they have no real perception of how straight their controlling hand is, resulting in the character doing repeated 180 degree turns. In addition, these were arcade games with typical gameplay lasting no more than a few minutes. Users didn’t have the time to ‘learn’ the system. The learning curve had to be shallow and the user interface intuitive.

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