Webstock: John Gruber, In Praise of Pac-Man

This week I’m at Webstock, a lovely conference in New Zealand. I’m doing my best to write little blog posts about the amazing presentations. Please forgive any typos, etc. If you’re here too, come write a haiku at Automattic’s booth.

John Gruber, well everyone knows who John Gruber is. If you don’t, please hand in your internet license.

Pac-Man is a maze. The maze is filled with dots. You eat all of the dots, without being eaten in turn by the monsters changing you. There are power dots in corners which turn the monsters into ghosts you can eat. Everything leads to points.

It was invented by Toru Iwatani. At the time, coin-operated video games was a nacent industry. Game operators converged at a conference every year to choose new games to buy. Pac-Man never stood out as a hit game. Until it did $1 billion in the first few years, more than Star Wars did in ticket sales.

Buckner & Garcia introduced a song in 1982 called “Pac-Man Fever.” It made it to #9 on the Billboard charts. Gruber remembers being able to play Pac-Man at the grocery store and an entire arcade of Pac-Man machines. It was the first game to reach this level of success.

Gruber ascribes Pac-Man’s success to four characteristics:

  • Fun
  • Simple
  • Obvious
  • Challenging

Mr. Do!, on the other hand, was an incredibly complex game only a few people at Webstock remember. For instance, when you eat the snack in the center of the screen, the screen changes color, some more bad guys come out that are more aggressive, and then maybe you get another life. Gruber still doesn’t know what the best technique is for winning the game.

Mr. Do! was a popular arcade game, but no one thought it was important enough to track how much money it made. Pac-Man was much more than a popular arcade game. “Everything in Pac-Man was iconic.”

The monsters in Pac-Man had their own names and unique personalities. “Blinky”, the red monster, persistently chased Pac-Man. He was the one most likely to kill you. “Clyde”, on the other hand, was a dumb oaf.

Pac-Man was popular because it rewarded obsessiveness, but Gruber argues it was financially successful because it was a game everyone could get. You didn’t have to be a gamer to know how to play it.

The original Macintosh was similarly successful. It challenged the status quo of interacting with a computer through the command line by offering an interface that was more intuitive. Gruber thinks Macintosh designers inherited many ideas from video games of the time. There was even iconography (e.g. a bomb on the restart modal) you’d expect to see in a video game, not an operating system.

iOS takes the simplicity even further. All of your apps live on your homepage. You’re either on your homepage or in an app. “Android is Mr. Do!” because there’s additional levels of complexity and conventions you need to learn.

Gruber’s advice: if you can’t describe your project in one sentence, you’re not working on a simple project. “Ten pounds of effort on one simple design element will have way more impact than one pound of effort on ten design elements.”


John Saddington (@saddington) February 14, 2013 Reply

thanks. i will pretty much think of nothing else except pacman, mr. do!, and how we can use the thoughts from mr. gruber today. completely derailed.

… in a good way. love these notes.

Tom McFarlin February 14, 2013 Reply

Thanks for sharing this, Daniel. Think it’s solid food for thought for anyone trying to build anything well.

mikeschinkel February 17, 2013 Reply

Simple is great for so many things, but not for everything. I now think “simple” has become dogma where too many people believe “simple” is the answer to every question.

Some things just do not benefit from simplicity. I would not love PhpStorm so much if their mantra was “keep it simple.” I think their mantra is instead something like “give developers all the power they need.” And that’s why I love it so much (I’ve been using since pre-1.0 in 2009, and they are now working hard on 6.0), but wouldn’t love it if it were simple.

To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose, simplicity being just one.

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