Everything I Learned About Experience Design, I Learned From Ms. Pac Man

It was Tuesday night and my anticipation ran high; dinner out at my favorite spot had finally arrived. My family took their seats in the dimly lit booth surrounded by dated decor and questionable cleanliness. I skidded by them on the grease-ridden floor; I was a man on a mission.

It certainly was not the food at Pizza Hut that I eagerly anticipated; it was the time I spent playing the jukebox and mastering Ms. Pac Man, working my way up the leaderboards in my quest to leave my initials in infamy.

Upon reflection, Centerfold by J Geils Band, was not the most appropriate choice for the soundtrack to this stage of my life, but I knew every word and it was my theme music. My pockets jingled with the few quarters I could scrounge up during the week as I marched up to the tabletop arcade, bursting with confidence. I breathed in the dense, greasy air and took my throne: the worn bench behind the slick, faded joystick. This scene was familiar to me, the subject of so much of my focus and hard work, but I had no concept of the impact it would have many years in the future. Back then, it was just a game; a few minutes of enjoyment in exchange for the change I earned and found during the days in-between.

In order to prolong the excitement this moment gave me, I had to stretch my quarters by evading death at the hands of googly-eyed ghosts. I watched other players, studied their movements, looking for a common approach. They had the same objective, but no two players used the same method, so I continued to invent my own. I established patterns for each level. I cleared sections quickly to avoid the pesky ghosts; I grew better at predicting their movements to enhance the effect of Power Pellets. Nothing was better than eating every ghost on a single Power Pellet and watching the 1600-point grab appear on the final chomp of a scared blue ghost. I zipped around corners to munch fruits for bonus points (though I am still curious how a pretzel weaseled its way in to the healthy-fruit gang). All of this made possible by a single faded, slick joystick.

There is nothing complex about Ms. Pac Man. An 8-bit yellow pizza (with a bow) missing a slice and the dastardly upside-down cupcake wrappers destined to keep me from victory cannot compare to the graphics and intricacies of video games today. But it was in this simplicity that I found the basic principles for user experience.

As I watched others play and saw how they approached the challenges of the game, I was conducting basic user research. By studying behaviors and problem-solving techniques of other players, I developed an understanding: Even when given the exact same environment, every person will approach a task differently, based on patterns of predictive thinking, in order to achieve the desired result.

Looking back at this seemingly innocent game, it is clear that user experience has three core principles; simple, delightful and well-crafted. True, people are complex beings with complex thought, but ultimately, we all seek simplicity. The easiest and fastest way to achieve a result is what drives our choices and our satisfaction. Ms. Pac Man is simple. The idea of moving through puzzles with unpredictable obstacles that challenged our ability to think two steps ahead of where we planned to go is easy to grasp; there is no need for instruction. Each small triumph is rewarded with more points and another level, and working toward the game’s very basic goal brings amusement to players, no matter their performance.

In 1981, Ms. Pac Man was top-notch. The graphics are basic, but the maze, filled with chomp-able pellets, is not obscured by extraneous backgrounds or gradients. We continue to see great user experience enhanced by design that contributes to the experience without getting in the user’s way. Well-crafted design guides a user through an experience, keeping them focused, and disappearing into the experience as a whole.

Designing experiences that require little effort to achieve results helps build engagement. Complexity and intensity is great in the evolution of video games, but user experience requires clarity, brevity, and austerity. Ms. Pac Man keeps it simple: the game is effortless at the start and gains depth the further the player progresses. Patterns emerge, allowing players to advance and boost their scores, engaging players, building satisfaction, and securing loyalty. One joystick, a couple of characters, and one instruction: Move.

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