What Arcade Games Can Teach Us About UX

Arcade games have always fascinated me. Growing up in the early 1980s, I witnessed an explosive growth in game designers’ creativity and technical abilities. It only took twenty or so years for Pong’s primitive graphics to evolve into the photorealistic 3-D worlds we see today.

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A recent article on “What 8-Bit Video Games Can Teach Us About Design And UX” got me reminiscing about those early days. There are lessons those digital pioneers can teach us, and they are as applicable to today’s web sites and gadgets as they were to those noisy arcades.


Pong was one of the earliest coin-operated video games. There was a Zen-like simplicity to the instructions painted on Al Alcorn’s seminal classic: “Avoid missing ball for high score”. However, Alcorn wasn’t convinced that simple game mechanics were enough to keep players coming back, so he added an additional challenge. He divided the famous Pong paddles into eight sections, each reflecting the ball at a different angle. This gave advanced players a new challenge to master, and a feeling of control.

Even the popular fighting games of the 1990s followed this formula. Basic “button mashing” let many new players win their battles through sheer luck. But, if they truly wanted to master the game, strategy guides held the secrets to characters’ “special moves”.

Nobody is going to write a strategy guide for Mobile Safari. But, you might want to try a little “button mashing” in your favorite apps anyway. Did you know that if you hold your finger down on a link in the iOS browser for a few seconds, it offers actions like copying the address or opening it in a new tab? Encourage experimentation and discovery in your own products to engage your advanced users. Make them feel clever and smart every time they stumble across something new.

I Call Next Game!

In those early days, gamers would start a row of quarters along the bottom of games’ screens, a tradition that continued well into the age of tokens. And, if you asked any member of the crowd, they could point out exactly which one was theirs. It stood for their place in line to play the game, and this practice was widely respected.

Nobody designed this into the games. It came from the players themselves, and spread through word-of-mouth; from gamer to gamer, arcade to arcade. If your product has an active community of users, there’s no doubt they’ll start developing their own rules and rituals, and the worst thing you can do is fight it.

In 2008, Facebook angered users of an application that introduced them to complete strangers with similar interests. In an email, the company proclaimed that their site was “a social utility”, not a “social networking site”, and users who friended people they didn’t know in real life weren’t using the site correctly. This was one of many early stumbles in Facebook’s rise to popularity, and contributed to the scrutiny they face even today.

Twitter, on the other hand, embraced community innovations like “retweeting” and “hashtags”, incorporating them as features of the site itself. By encouraging users to shape how the site was used, they built loyalty and a sense of ownership that survived through major outages and other growing pains.


Many primitive video games made a simple offer: three or four lives for one quarter. Novice players could face a “Game Over” screen in under a minute, while advanced players could park their Pac-Man in the “safe spot” for hours (or until the arcade staff showed them the door). But as attendance dwindled, arcade owners raised prices to get more value from their square footage.

At first, the price for a game went up to fifty cents, then a dollar or even two. To get that kind of money out of customers, though, they needed to offer much more in return. They weren’t going to get much repeat business by killing off new players right away. Game developers traded the concept of “lives” for more timer-based play, guaranteeing beginners could play for a minimum amount of time. “Checkpoints” rewarded skilled players with extra time.

When prices crossed the one dollar mark, game companies also enticed customers with bigger screens and more interactive hardware. “Ride-on” games simulated the experience of downhill skiing or motorcycle racing, and “Bemani” games traded traditional game controls for simulated musical instruments and dance floors.

I don’t need to tell you the importance of providing value to your paying customers. But with today’s fickle buyers turning up their nose at “expensive” $1.99 purchases, it’s vital to convey your product’s true value. One popular way to do this is with a “freemium” business model, where users sample most of a product’s functionality for free, with an option to buy more advanced features when they’re ready.

But it’s much simpler to humanize your product and the people behind it. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, does an amazing job as the public face of his application through an active Twitter account, blog, and podcast appearances. He’s so good at this that he got people to pay a monthly fee to use Instapaper without offering a single benefit above the free version’s features. They did it to support him.

A Waste of Time

Controversy surrounded arcade games going back to when pinball machines had actual metal pins. Pinball’s iconic flippers were added to turn them from games of chance to ones of skill, but that wasn’t enough to stop major US cities from banning them. New York City didn’t officially lift their pinball ban until 1976. In the video game frenzy that followed, concerned people spoke out against the evils of unsupervised teens and the debilitating effects of Pac-Man elbow.

Arcades may not have deserved their poor reputation, but they do provide some lessons in what we can avoid.

It Ate My Quarter!

I worked in an arcade for two summers while I was in college, and I soon came to loathe the coin accepter. Whether a game takes quarters or tokens, chances are it uses a standard, replaceable device that filters out incorrect coins and slugs by thickness and diameter. They’re completely mechanical, but these cheap mechanisms still malfunction all the time.

I’d barely have my coat off before some kid would tell me “the machine ate my token”. Chances are, it really did, and we could trigger a free game to make up for it. But players also knew they just needed to say those magic words to get as many free games as they could before we kicked them out.

In an arcade game, the coin slot is the first place a player interacts with the machine, and a bad first impression can ruin their whole visit. The same applies to your interaction designs. A flawed registration form, app install process, or shopping cart will reflect poorly on the quality of your product. It also might make you look desperate for business, and a target for fraud.

New and Improved!

In 1999, Williams recognized that pinball wasn’t as popular as it once was. To revitalize their flagship product and make it more appealing to young video gamers, they created the Pinball 2000 platform, which used the famous “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion to project a video screen above a traditional playfield. The technology was impressive, but the product was a flop. Purists were disgusted, and youngsters just didn’t get it. Williams closed their pinball division in October, 1999.

Stern Pinball, located in Chicago, is the last pinball manufacturer in the world. Their Melrose Park factory hand-assembled a scant 10,000 machines in 2008. But by sticking to a formula of traditional pinball mechanics and popular licenses like Transformers and Avatar, Stern is still open thirteen years after Williams threw in the towel.


Don’t follow trends. Your competitors may have flashy slideshows, social features, and even walk-on videos. But, you should resist using the latest features in your designs unless they create a solid improvement in user experience. Even then, don’t trust your gut. Use A/B split testing to make sure these new features perform before forcing them on all of your customers.

Dave Ross

Dave Ross contracted an acute case of Pac-Man Fever at an early age, leading to a career as a web developer, occasional designer, and UX enthusiast. He blogs about the intersection of vintage technology and current events at csixty4 and tweets as @csixty4.

4 comments on this article

  1. Jon Abrams on

    Great article!

    One tiny quibble about Pinball 2000. The Pinball 2000 platform was not a flop. The two games released for it sold at much higher volume than the previous ones. The problem was that Williams, the publicly traded company, was seeing much greater profits from their rapidly growing video slot machine division and decided to can the pinball division. There’s a whole lot of politics and drama surrounding Pinball 2000. I highly recommend the documentary “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball” which chronicles this incredible chapter in interactive entertainment. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIolBJwH9p0

    The real reason why Stern is still around, and Williams is not (as a pinball company at least), is because Stern in privately owned, and only produces pinball. Williams’ board members couldn’t justify operating a relatively tiny, thin margin, pinball division while trying to expand an extremely lucrative slots business.

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