Abstract MgO thin film is widely used as a protecting layer for Alternating Current-Type Plasma Display Panels (AC-PDPs) and the study of discharge properties of micro plasma cells is the main approach on how to reduce the power consumption of AC–PDPs. In this work, MgO–NiO composite thin films were deposited by Ion Beam-Assisted Deposition (IBAD) technique. We also investigated the effects of ion irradiation on the surface nano-morphology, the crystal orientation, oxygen vacancy and breakdown voltage, which are directly related to the secondary electron emission coefficient γ of thin films. In the production of MgO thin films, it is known that the addition of small amounts of metallic element to the MgO will improve the discharge properties, even though the mechanism of emitting secondary electrons from the surface of thin films induced by low energy ions in micro plasma cells is not clarified yet. This research was focused on NiO as a minority element added to MgO due to its high solubility with MgO and its low band gap. The IBAD technique has the possibility to improve the discharge properties of micro plasma cells by increasing the density and surface morphology of the film. Therefore it is expected that by adding NiO and IBAD, the result will be a great improvement on the discharge properties of micro plasma cells. The thin film preparation was carried out by taking the ion beam energy and the NiO relative ratio as the variable. The experimental results show approximately 10% improvements in the discharge properties due to the change in the surface morphology, crystal orientations and density of the films. To find the optimum condition for making thin films, IBAD technique and MgO composite films will be a useful way to produce PDPs with low energy power consumption.