Tech And Management Lessons From The World’s Biggest PAC-MAN

We featured the world’s biggest PAC-MAN back when it launched in April. The project was designed to show off the HTML5 capabilities of Internet Explorer 9, but it also provides some useful lessons in managing projects with tight timelines and using new technologies. Lifehacker chatted to Ash Ringrose, founder of Soap Creative — the interactive agency which built the site — to see what he had learned from the experience.

So how do you come up with an idea like that? “We’d worked with the PAC-MAN team from Namco Bandai before, so when Microsoft came to us looking for ideas, it was a natural,” Ringrose said. “It’s the ultimate worldwide icon. As soon as someone said World’s Biggest Pacman, it just sounds awesome. It wasn’t too complicated, it was just PAC-MAN on a grand scale where you can contribute to it. How can we make it a bit more shareable and social?”

The first obvious challenge was the deadline. The whole site had to be completed in eight weeks. While tight timelines weren’t unfamiliar, Soap’s biggest issue was that it was the first major HTML5 project it had worked in. “We’ve done a lot of Flash stuff , but this was something totally out of our comfort zone which this was We had about 30% confidence on the tech side when we pitched. There was no room for error; we just had to power through. And it was also a return to testing across five different browsers.”

The project was split into three core areas — building a level editor, building the game mechanics, and creating the back-end systems. Keeping the project on track required basic discipline, with daily work-in-progress meetings.

HTML5 had both pluses and minuses. “It actually saved a lot of time on certain things and made others easier,” Ringrose said. Some tasks, such as generating the overall map, proved much easier. However, handling sound caching was much harder that Soap had anticipated. “Modern browsers don’t cache sound that well We ended up encoding the sounds as JavaScript and caching that.” Because HTML5 is also relatively new, finding solutions to problems and useful programmer communities was also trickier, Ringrose noted.

Other technical issues came from unexpected sources, such as problems with integrating Facebook Connect, which was used as the registration system. Getting that to work was the single biggest threat to meeting the deadline. “You’re optimising code and database calls and then the screen crashes and you realise it’s the Facebook plug-in. If it wasn’t for Facebook, we’d have been fine. I was up in the middle of the night but we were good in the end.”

One positive for the project was that it didn’t suffer from scope creep. “The scope didn’t change too much, though we kept wanting to add stuff. We’re our worst enemy sometimes when we keep wanting to make something better.”

So what advice would Ringrose offer to other HTML5 developers? “If your whole project centres around sound, then be ready for a bit of hair-pulling. Have a proper testing regime in place because there are so many different browsers to test against. And be ready to not have as much support out there There’s community, but the answers aren’t just sitting there for everything. HTML5 stuff is all so early — just be wary of that.”

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.

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