Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ms Pac-Man (and Super Missile Attack)

Today's post covers the first two games created by Boston's GCC. The story is probably well known to most readers of this blog. The story of the "Bozeman Think Tank" came from an article in the June, 1984 issue of Computer Games. For some reason, the article never rang entirely true to me. If anyone can verify the information, let me know. 

Super Missile Attack


            Missile Command was also indirectly responsible for the creation of a pair of Atari’s later coin-op games, Quantum and Food Fight. After Missile Command’s release, a company named General Computer Corp in Wayland, MA had introduced an enhancement kit that turned a Missile Command unit into a faster version called Super Missile Attack. The “company” was actually a group of nine young men, some still in their teens who had decided that video game design would make an interesting and profitable career. The group was led by MIT students Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran. Macrae got his start in the coin-op business in 1978 when his brother gave him a Gottlieb Pioneer pinball machine he'd had at college. Macrae placed the machine in his dorm at M.I.T. where it began sucking in quarters. Before long, Macrae was operating about 20 pinball and video games on campus. Macrae also changed dollar bills for students, giving them five quarters instead of four in return, confident that they'd end up in his games anyway. Macrae's biggest money makers were his three Missile Command machines, which initially made $650 a week. Over time the game's popularity began to wane and before long it was pulling in less than $150 a week. Macrae was in a quandary. Like most small route operators, he purchased the machines in his meager collection outright and could not afford to buy new ones every time the gaming public’s fickle attentions waned. Assessing the situation, he and friend Kevin Curran decided to user their engineering skills to update the game and created a modification board called Super Missile Attack that could be added to existing Missile Command units. Super Missile Attack featured faster game play, a new alien in the form of a laser-shooting UFO, and new color schemes. The units cost $30 to produce and sold for $295. When the game proved to be a hit, Curran and Macrae decided to sell their enhancement kit nationwide. With 5 employees and money borrowed from Macrae’s mother, Macrae and Curran formed a company called General Computer Corporation, which was incorporated on March 30, 1981with Curran as president and John Tylko as treasurer. By this time Macrae and Curran were living in a rented house in Brookline, MA along with a number of other programmers including Mike Horowitz, Steve Golson, Chris Rode, and Larry Dennison, most of who would drop out of MIT and go to work for GCC. Their development system was a GenRad 6502 emulator that cost $25,000. The unit had no printer port. To get a code printout, developers had to hand-enter the code on a TRS-80 and print it from there. The five GCC employees worked around the clock to get the board ready and in late May they started shipping. In just 60 days GCC sold 1,000 Super Missile Attack boards netting a quarter million dollar profit.

In August, Macrae's dad called him and told him he'd read on a news ticker that Atari was suing GCC for $5 million and were suing Macrae and Curran for another $5 million each. While the thought of a multi-million dollar corporation launching a suit against a company formed in a basement by five wet-behind-the-ears college students would strike fear into the hearts of most, Macrae wasn't worried. GCC had been careful not to copy any of Atari's code when creating their product. Their enhancement board connected to the original Missile Command board. Operators would remove ROMs from the original board and plug them into the Super Missile Attack board. Because they hadn't copied code, Macrae was confident that they hadn't violated copyright. Others at GCC were reportedly delighted with the suit since they'd never been to court and even if they lost, all they could lose was the small company they'd set up. Then they found out that Atari wasn't just suing them for copyright infringement. They were also suing them for trademark dilution and misrepresentation of origin (since, Atari claimed, Super Missile Attack players didn't know they weren't playing an Atari game). After their first court appearance on a Friday they were issued a restraining order preventing them from producing the game. By Monday they had created a new version and were telling people who wanted to buy the original to call Atari and complain. GCC even returned the favor with a counter-suit of their own  against Atari. Reportedly embarrassed by the bad press they were getting, Atari had their general counsel Skip Paul sit down with Macrae and Curran and ask what they wanted. They told him they only wanted to sell video games. Paul offered a proposal. Atari would drop their suit against GCC AND pay them $50,000 a month for two years to develop games for Atari. In return, GCC would cease production on Super Missile Attack and agree not to produce any more enhancement boards without permission from the manufacturer.  For Curran and Macrae, it was as if they were being rewarded instead of punished and they readily accepted (unbeknownst to Atari, GCC was already working on an enhancement kit for Pac-Man).


With its phenomenal success, it was inevitable that Pac-Man would spawn a sequel (or twelve). Much to Bally/Midway’s delight the sequel, Ms. Pac-Man, proved even more popular than its predecessor. Not long after Pac-Man hit the market, Bally turned to Namco hoping to license a follow-up to the game as soon as possible. When Namco’s sequel proved too long in coming Bally/Midway decided to develop the game domestically. In the months after Pac-Man’s release, the company had been bombarded with suggestions for a follow-up. Among them was one from a group in Boston who had an idea that seemed like a winner. The “group” was General Computer Corporation or GCC, the same group that had designed the Missile Command enhancement kit Super Missile Attack in early 1981.

After working on Super Missile Attack GCC started working on an enhancement kit for Atari's megahit Asteroids. Before long, however, Pac-Man was on its way to surpassing the success of Asteroids. Seeing Pac-Man's enormous popularity and recognizing that there was plenty of room for improvement, GCC dropped Asteroids and got to work on a conversion kit for Pac-Man that they called Crazy Otto. To avoid copyright infringement they decided they would only add to, rather than alter, the game's code (which they had to reverse engineer from the ROMs). GCC added a number of new graphical elements to the game. The game's main character sprouted a pair of legs. New bonus fruits were added. The Galaxian flagship bonus item was removed for fear of trademark infringement. The team also axed the bell, key, and grapes (the last of which looked more like a lime, melon, pomegranate, or hand grenade depending on who you asked). In their place they added a banana, pear, and one of Kevin Curran's favorite snacks - a pretzel. In addition, the fruits now moved about the maze instead of sitting still and after level seven, the fruit that appeared would be random. The team originally planned to have the fruit bounce around for a few seconds and blow up but when they couldn't find a way to make the effect look good they changed it so that it retraced its steps and exited the maze the way it came. In addition, each graphic element for the game had to fit in a 16x16 grid. To create them, the team turned to a very low-tech solution - a Hasbro Lite Brite, a popular toy that consisted of a plastic screen with several rows of holes in it. Behind the screen was a light bulb. By covering the screen with a piece of black construction paper and poking multi colored tanslucent plastic pegs into the holes, children could create glowing pictures. Because the rows of holes were offset, the GCC team used every other row to create their graphics. To avoid having to replace the construction paper every time they wanted a new picture, they used a black marker to color some of the purple pegs black and used them to block the empty holes. After laying out an image in pegs, the designers would place a sheet of white paper over it, stand back several feet, and squint to get an idea what the final graphics would look like. Mike Horowitz used an even more primitive (but also much faster) method to create his graphics - he drew them on graph paper. Horowitz also created three new intermissions for the game featuring Pac-Man (or rather Otto) in love.

            The most significant changes, however, were to the gameplay. The main problem with Pac-Man in GCC's eyes was that it was boring and repetitive with the exact same maze appearing over and over. In addition, players could memorize a few patterns and play the game forever (or at least until screen 256). Crazy Otto featured four different mazes that got more difficult as the game progressed with later mazes featuring fewer escape tunnels and more corners in which to get trapped. A number of changes were specifically designed to defeat pattern-players. Two of the ghosts were programmed to take random paths for the first few seconds of each screen, making memorized patterns all but impossible. In the original game, each ghost had a "home" corner to which it would occasionally return. In Crazy Otto the ghosts would return to a random corner instead. To prevent players from hiding in safe spots, the red ghost was programmed to remain in "chase mode" once it started following the player (though hiding spots were eventually found anyway). The ghosts' behavior changed, as did their appearance and names (Mad Dog/Plato, Killer/Darwin, Brute/Freud, and Sam/Newton).

            While Crazy Otto was in development, GCC was still duking out with Atari in court over Super Missile Attack. In the end, Atari dropped their claims against GCC and instead hired them to develop games. As part of the settlement GCC agreed that they would not develop enhancement kits for other companies unless they got the company's permission first. Atari reportedly felt that no company would ever do so. GCC, however, took them at their word and Kevin Curran quickly called Midway president Dave Marofske, hoping to bluff him into a deal for a Pac-Man enhancement kit by telling him that GCC had just “beat Atari in court”. At a time when Midway had its hands full dealing with knockoff versions of Pac-Man, it must have come as a surprise to have one of the knockoff companies call seeking their permission. Marofske quickly invited Curran to come to Chicago to talk. The flight to Chicago was not without incident, thanks to Mike Horowitz. While working on the third intermission, Horowitz had put in an obscenely-titled placeholder animation in which the title characters have sex. On the plane, a horrified Horowitz told Curran that the version of the game they were taking with them to demo to Bally had the obscene intermission instead of the clean one. After letting Curran stew for a bit, Horowitz revealed that it was just a joke. After arriving at Bally headquarters, Macrae and Curran found out that there had been no need for bluffing after all. Sales of Pac-Man had slowed down. Bally/Midway’s production lines had just produced the final unit and they were about to start laying people off. They were eager for another hit. Instead of an enhancement kit, however, they wanted the sequel that Namco had been unable to deliver.          

On October 29, 1981, Midway and GCC signed an agreement in which GCC would turn Crazy Otto into a Pac-Man sequel in return for royalties. At Bally’s insistence, Otto's legs were removed (ouch!) and the enemies were changed back to the traditional ghosts with their original names (except for Clyde, who was renamed Sue after Macrae's sister). The most significant change, however, came when the main character got a sex change (double ouch!). The sequel was initially called Super Pac-Man but then Midway got a look at the new intermissions and asked that the game be changed to feature the standard Pac-Man, followed by a female Pac-Man, followed by a "Junior" Pac-Man. The game was rechristened Pac-Woman. They soon switched to Mrs. Pac-Man because either (depending on which version you read) Pac-Woman was deemed "too feminist" or because female employees objected. Mrs. Pac-Man was likewise rejected because Midway felt it was too formal and wouldn’t appeal to their young female target audience. Next they tried Miss Pac-Man only to have to change the name again when someone pointed out the possible outcry against a video game character bearing a child (as it did during the 3rd intermission) out of wedlock. With only three days to go until production started, they came up with a new name Mrs. Pac-Man only to change once again to Ms. Pac-Man in an effort to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Three days later, the Midway production lines started cranking out Pac-Man boards to which GCC’s new enhancement boards were added (they planned to switch to a full scale Ms. Pac-Man board. at some point, but never did so).

Eventually, the Junior character was spun off into a proposed sequel of his own, but not before a brief legal dispute over future royalties for the various characters. GCC ended up retaining rights to the new female character. Contrary to some reports, the rights were never turned over to Namco, nor was Namco upset about the game (as some reports also have it). Namco was actually fully aware of Ms. Pac-Man and Midway paid them a royalty for each unit sold. Drawings of the character were even sent to Namco president Masaya Nakamura, who suggested they remove the red hair (they did).

Meanwhile, word (or at least a picture) of Crazy Otto was leaked to the public, though most of them probably didn't know it. During development, Midway and GCC placed three Crazy Otto units in test locations in Pac-Man cabinets - one in Boston and two in Chicago. A Time magazine photographer somehow made his or her way into one of the Chicago test locations and just happened to take a picture of Crazy Otto, thinking that it was Pac-Man. When the January 18, 1982 issue of Time hit the newsstands, it carried a cover story on video games titled "Gronk! Flash! Zap!, Video Games Are Blitzing the World." The article included a screenshot of the smash hit Pac-Man. Or at least it was supposed to be Pac-Man. Instead, the picture was of Crazy Otto.
When it was released in February 1982, Ms. Pac-Man was a smash. Over 115,000 units of the game were produced in the United States making it the most popular American coin-op video game of all time (a record that still stands).

Sidebar - the Ms. Pac-Man Grouping Strategy

Initially even Pac-Man veterans agreed that the game seemed invulnerable to any kind of “secret” strategy. That is, until three young men from Montana eventually found a way to defeat the game. In the summer of 1982 Tom Asaki and Don Williams were spending hours on end playing the game at the Games Are Fun arcade in Bozeman, Montana. They were soon joined by Spencer Ouren and the three quickly became the best Ms. Pac-Man players in town. By the start of 1983, the trio was working together to devise strategies and techniques to beat the machine. The key to achieving high scores on the game was a technique known as “grouping”, in which the player waited until the 4 ghosts were grouped as closely together as possible before eating an energizer, thus allowing him to get the maximum 3,000 points for eating all 4. In order to consistently group the ghosts, the player had to know and make proper use of “holds”, safe spots in each maze where the ghosts would not venture. Each maze had its own hold but knowing its location was not enough. The player had to know when and how to enter and leave the hold, using feints and dodges to get the ghosts to move in the proper direction and to group them as tightly as possible. The problem was that the strategy seemed to break down on the 4th (AKA “Junior”) maze, which didn’t seem to have a hold. Since half the mazes in later stages of the game were Junior mazes, beating that maze was crucial to beating Ms. Pac-Man. As the trio of experts was about to concede defeat, a player named Matt Brass returned from a trip to the North American Video Olympics in Ottumwa, IA with a shocking announcement – at the competition, he’d seen players grouping on the Junior boards. Suddenly it seemed that Asaki, Williams, and Ouren weren’t the best Ms. Pac-Man players after all. Rather than give up, however, the three decided that if someone else had figured out how to conquer the Junior boards, they could too. With new hope, they got back to work. In order to save time, they opened the machine’s cabinet and tweaked some settings to advance the game directly to the Junior level and began crafting their strategy. The key, they soon decided, lay in the use of the game’s four tunnels. Somehow, they would have to use the tunnels to group the ghosts together. They soon noticed that one ghost, Sue, seemed to be especially drawn to players in the tunnels. Ouren found that the pink ghost was programmed to go in the direction the player was heading, in order to cut off his or her path. Perhaps the ghost was too clever for its own good. It seemed that it anticipated Mrs. Pac-Man’s moves by watching her eyes, which moved in the direction the joystick was pressed. By pointing the eyes upward while in a long corridor (the tunnels for instance), the pink ghost could be fooled into going in the wrong direction. Armed with this new information, the trio was soon able to group three of the game’s four ghosts. There was only one ghost left. Then Asaki discovered the breakthrough that finally beat the game. The Junior boards DID have a hold after all, but it didn’t work unless three of the ghosts were already grouped. The trio had finally done it and were soon logging scores in the neighborhood of 400,000 points, a level previously thought impossible.
The most shocking part, however, was yet to come. When the trio next talked to Matt Brass and told them they’d figured out how people were grouping on the Junior boards, Brass dropped a bombshell on them. What he told them was wrong. He’d meant to say that players had been grouping before the Junior boards. Matt Brass had never seen anyone grouping on the Junior boards in the first place. The Montana trio had been looking for a strategy that simply didn’t exist, but they’d found it anyway.

Sidebar - The Ms. Pac-Man Kill Screen

An upside-down Ms. Pac Man screen, from DonHodges.com

            Like its predecessor, Ms. Pac-Man has a kill screen. Technically, in fact, it has the exact same bug as Pac-Man. On board 256 the screen splits in half rendering the level unwinnable. Reaching board 256, however, is impossible (at least on the arcade version) because another kill screen occurs much earlier. The kill screen can actually occur anywhere between boards 134 and 141 and it's random exactly when it will happen. It could happen on board 134. It could happen on board 141. Bizarre things can occur on these boards. Very bizarre. Sometimes boards will appear with the graphics upside down. While the maze appears upside down on the screen, it is actually right side up but invisible. Skilled players can ignore the graphics and complete the level by navigating the invisible maze. Sometimes the screen is completely invisible. Sometimes the ghosts are stationary. Sometimes the maze appears with only five dots, rending the level uncompletable. Sometimes the board has multiple tunnels. Sometimes the ghosts are replaced by Pac-Man characters, or even part of the stork character that appears during the intermission.  Sometimes the game resets completely. If this doesn't occur before then, the kill screen will definitely occur on board 141. For this reason, record scores on Ms. Pac-Man are much lower than those on Pac-Man and as of this writing; no one has rolled the game over by scoring a million points. In addition, the fruits appear randomly, meaning that a "perfect" score isn't really possible even if a player did reach board 141. The current record holder (on factory speed settings) is Abdner Ashman, a Jamaican immigrant from Queens, New York.


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  2. Miss those Ms Pacman late night competitions with Spencer in the winter/spring of 83 in the little mart across from Langford Hall. Two quarters and try to play until dawn. He'd double my score consistently. He was a roommate a couple years later off campus although hardly ever at the apartment and the best poker player I ever saw. His poker tactics and ghost grouping tactics had similarities. Meant to catch up with him in LA years later, but he died young. I never believed it was natural causes.