The game couldn't be simpler. One of seven shapes falls from the sky. As the "Tetrimino" inches down the screen, the player rotates it and moves it into place among other similar objects. Build a horizontal line across the board and the entire thing vanishes. Create four lines at once, and they all disappear as the gamer earns massive points. Rotate, drop, explode. Rinse, wash, repeat. Again. And again. And again. A simple and repetitive task, but one that's beautiful when performed correctly.
Tetris, created in the mid-1980s by a Russian computer engineer and marketed to the world with the help of an affable Netherlands-born, New York-bred, Hawaii-based video game designer, is arguably the most recognizable computer game on the planet. Hundreds of millions of copies exist on every platform from ancient PCs and NES consoles to smartphones and Facebook. Tetris can be played in 50 languages and 185 countries, spanning roughly 95% of the world.
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More than 100 million people paid to download the game on their mobile phones. The game can help eliminate traumatic memories. A cadre of elite "professional" players conjure on-screen magic the casual gamer can barely comprehend. Tetris is expanding into a lifestyle brand, with pillows and stress blocks, lotto tickets and sleepwear. Techno Source publishes a board game called Tetris Link that the American Mensa organization gave the 2012 Mensa Select Award. Electronic Gaming Monthly called Tetris the "Greatest Video Game of All Time" in its 100th issue, while it ranked 2nd behind Super Mario Brothers in a 2007 IGN poll.
How does Tetris, designed at the tail end of the Cold War for systems with multiple button inputs, translate to a world of touchscreens and tablets?
Despite its popularity and classic status, the game finds itself at a crossroads. In a gaming landscape where downloadable content and add-ons provide vital revenue streams, how does virtually perfect Tetris generate continuous cashflow? More importantly, how does Tetris, designed at the tail end of the Cold War for systems with multiple button inputs, translate to a world of touchscreens and tablets?
A Brief History Lesson
Alexey Pajitnov did not set out to create one of the world's most recognizable games. In fact, it's impressive his creation made it out of the Soviet Union at all. The Moscow-born engineer developed Tetris on an Electronica 60 in 1984 while working for the Computing Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, an R&D center funded and controlled by the Communist government. In an interview with Joystiq in 2009, Pajitnov said with his thick Russian accent, "As soon as the first desktop [computer] appears, I needed to start playing with all my puzzles, riddles, and stuff." Pajitnov drew inspiration from the Russian game "Pentominoes," a puzzle game consisting of shapes made from five congruent squares. But there are 12 possible pentominoes, and Pajitnov realized that was too many for the fast-paced version he envisioned. The solution lay in the seven possible permutations of Tetriminoes.
Tetris was an immediate success, capturing the imagination of the Soviet Union in 1985 and jumping to North America and Europe two years later. The attraction was obvious. Tetris was different from most games at the time. "It had a broader appeal because it's not about a cartoon character or a spaceship killing things. It was seen as slightly more mature. It felt more like chess, checkers, or backgammon," Adam Cornelius, director of the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters that focuses on the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship, says. "It's very pure. And most importantly, in its classic incarnation, Tetris has an endless difficulty curve. There's really no end to how good you can get at it, which I think is the sign of every great game."
Pajitnov created a winner, but the Soviet government owned the rights to the game. Therefore, the creator did not see a single ruble from his initial efforts. Enter Henk Rogers. The University of Hawaii-educated, Stuyvesant High School graduate had already created The Black Onyx, Nintendo's first turn-based RPG, by the time he saw Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show. After falling in love with the game, he secured the rights and his company, Bullet-Proof Software, released it for PC and NES in Japan. Tetris rapidly sold more than two million copies. A year later, Rogers and Pajitnov met for the first time, bonded instantly, and began a working relationship that lasts to this day. In the early 90s, Rogers helped his colleague move to the United States where they established Blue Planet Software as the exclusive agent for the game. The rest is gaming legend. "I was just trying to help Alexey in 1993. The ex-Soviets were trying to screw him out of the rights. I said, 'I'll help you.' and I've been helping him ever since. It did become a career, not by choice, but by circumstance," Rogers says, happy he followed fate's path.
As the years progressed, Tetris jumped from platform to platform. The Gameboy edition was hugely popular, followed by editions for increasingly sophisticated systems as well as graphing calculators and other simpler devices. SNES begat Gamecube, which led to PS3. The game also expanded to new categories. As of April 2011, EA — which purchased the worldwide mobile rights in 2005 — had seen Tetris bought 132 million times, making it one of the best-selling mobile games ever. For comparison, the free, ad-supported version of Angry Birds boasted 140 million downloads by August 2011.
The sustained success of such a simple game surprised almost everyone. "I've been at this since 1989, and everybody back then thought it was going to be a dead issue by 1995. It was anything but a dead issue by 1995. It was a huge issue by 1995. It's gone on to become the biggest issue on mobile phones," Rogers says. "There are a couple of ways of looking at that. One is that in its simplicity, it hits a nerve that other games don't because they are more complicated. The other way of looking at it is that we've done a pretty good job keeping it alive by adding bells and whistles over the years to keep it relevant."
One essential development occurred very early. Rogers says Pajitnov's original game revolved around the number of Tetriminoes a user could play rather than clearing lines. The first version Rogers helped design included bonus points for clearing two, three, and four lines — known as a Tetris — at once, a change that fundamentally altered the game forever. Later editions added moves such as twists like T-Spins and L-Spins that allowed gamers to maneuver in tight spaces and earn more points for doing so. (See sidebar for other variations.)
The latest in the long line of innovations is the one-touch system. The Tetris Pajitnov invented required seven buttons: left, right, rotate left, rotate right, hard drop, soft drop, and hold. That system doesn't translate to touchscreens, nor would it work for the mouse-based game that Blue Planet's engineers envisioned for Facebook. So the company developed Tetris Stars for Facebook and worked with EA to create Tetris One-Touch for mobile devices ($.99 for iPhone) and tablets ($6.99 for iPad). When they were building the games, the discussion centered around how much to change the core game. The answer: as little as possible.
"There was some back and forth during the design of whether we were going to focus on multitouch to let players use two fingers to pinch or rotate. We decided not to support multitouch because that would eliminate compatibility with mouse-based games. We iterated on a number of different prototypes before we ended up with the one-touch," Jared Eden, a Tetris Stars producer, says. "You go out and try all sorts of different things. Some are really complex, and as you're iterating, you distill down to the most basic, pure essence of the design to something so simple. That's where we ended up, and we're really happy with it."
The key to the one-touch solution is the AI. It offers the player a few choices for piece placement, and he picks one by touching or clicking the on-screen silhouette. (If the player waits too long, the Tetrimino falls straight down.) As with regular Tetris, the speed of the game increases as the player clears more lines and levels up. The AI is not perfect—a player can get a new set of choices by clicking or touching elsewhere—but it provides a new playing experience that works well on a touchscreen or Facebook.
"You have to move a block over three rows, rotate it, then drop it, and do that in a matter of seconds. You can't do that on a touch device. It's impossible."
Indie gamemaker Zach Gage, who admits he's never loved Tetris but respects the game, thinks Eden and the Blue Planet crew made a smart decision when updating the game for touchscreens. "The difficulty of Tetris is when it gets fast and you have to make these mechanical motions. You have to move a block over three rows, rotate it, then drop it, and do that in a matter of seconds. You can't do that on a touch device. It's impossible," he says. "I think that's why they were smart. They looked at it and said, 'This is impossible. We're going to have to change it, so let's make the minimum number of changes that we need to make to completely change it from that mechanical aspect. We need to make people interact with it.'"
Gage's thoughts are accurate: Tetris Stars and EA's One-Touch are elegant solutions for the masses. (The mobile version also features Marathon mode, which plays much more like traditional Tetris and fails for the mechanical reasons Gage describes, as well as Galaxy mode, which requires player to perform challenges for coins. The rewards are similar the gamification elements on TetrisFriends.com, an online repository where players earn ranks, rewards, tokens, and stars.) The huge number of paid downloads indicate that it found a large audience. which was exactly the intention of the gamemakers. "We need to reach out to the casual gamer market that has gone the way of the casual gamer," Rogers says. "That's where the market is and we have to shape that market." One-touch Tetris achieves this goal. But in attempting to attract the casual market, did Rogers and Blue Planet go too far?
On thinking for yourself
The two opinions pictured above sum up the wide variety of responses to touchscreen or click Tetris. Some love it, some hate it. Take this from a person who spent far too much time playing One-Touch Tetris on an iPhone when he should have been writing this article: It is fun and addicting, but it's vastly different from the traditional game. The touch system is a necessary innovation, but it makes game play almost entirely speed-based. Relying on the AI to provide options is another massive difference. It does most of the thinking required. Then, you touch a spot on the screen, and the computer performs the mechanical manipulations as well. You are constantly aware of the "controls"—in this case, the touchscreen—in a way you are not on the arcade or console version. As a result, getting into the glazed eye zone where you are almost one with the game is difficult, if not impossible.
Getting into the glazed eye zone where you are almost one with the game is difficult, if not impossible
Growing up, I was a casual Tetris player, logging more than a few hours in offshoots like Dr. Mario, but wasn’t what you’d call a hardcore player. I went through three distinct phases after buying the app. The first one, which lasted the first 10 plays or so, was mostly the confusion of getting used to the controls. The touchscreen is simple to understand, but it takes a while to master. Then, I really started to enjoy playing. It was challenging without being too hard or too easy. I played pretty much constantly for a week or two. Now, I find myself somewhere in between. I still enjoy the game, but little details bother me. At higher levels, it’s almost impossible to get a new set of options if the AI doesn’t have the one you want. The speed overwhelms the touchscreen. If you’re too slow and the piece falls to the middle of the screen, it’s pretty much game over. It’s very, very hard to recover if the pieces get too high on the screen. Since the AI does so much work for you, One-Touch Tetris is repetitive in a way the console-based game isn’t. Overall, it’s fun, but I haven’t been playing nearly as much.
In engineer Eden's mind, the game is changed, but not diminished. "It's not that it dumbs it down. It's a different thought process. With traditional control input where you're discreetly managing the location, movement, and the drop, you're using that spatial orientation. With the one-touch method, you're choosing options that have already been decided for you. It leads to different ways of thinking and different styles of play," he says.
All valid points. And yet, another opinion is also understandable. Alex Kerr, one of the only Grandmasters (more on that below) from the United States and a star of Ecstasy of Order, says, "Tetris Stars [and One-Touch] comes down to clicking the mouse really quickly [or touching the screen] and the game does a lot of the thinking for you in terms of how to make the piece fit. As long as you're clicking around where you want to go, you can get the pieces down quickly. You still need to set things up—you can't randomly do it—but it does change the possibilities a lot,"
Essentially, both Eden and Kerr argue that the game had to change, but draw different conclusions about the benefits and costs of those alterations. The opposing viewpoints result from their positions in the Tetris universe. The producer is looking toward the future with an eye on pleasing the growing casual gaming market. Kerr, who has spent thousands of hours mastering the old arcade games such as Grandmaster 2 and 3 and the NES version, takes the position of an expert. The good news is that the opinions are not mutually exclusive. The truth: There's enough Tetris out there for everyone.
Kerr played Tetris throughout his life, but seriously started around the time the game came out on Nintendo DS in 2006. The San Jose State computer programming major hones his skills in the college's arcade. His Twitter feed is full of tweets like: "First game of TGM2+ Master today was 8:11.11 GM Green. Lost an idiotic amount of time in 900." He loves and respects the game. (His "real quick" emailed explanation of how one reaches the rank of Grandmaster extends on for six detailed paragraphs. Basically, it requires being really, really good at Tetris.)
Tetris Grand Master 3 is brutal. Some players started to doubt the Grand Master rank even existed in the game. There are less than ten worldwide, but as of the past year we do have a couple of representatives from the United States in this camp. Again, there are various subsystems that are generally evaluating "play quickly, make tetrises," but the game gets much faster — it's comparable to Death mode from the previous game. If you can still perform to the same standards in spite of the speed hikes, you unlock an invisible credit roll. Now, it's not just pass or fail — you also need to continue scoring tetrises and playing quickly throughout the ~55 second credit roll. Even still, the highest grade that can be attained through normal play is MasterM (the highest of several new oddly lettered Master level ranks in TGM3). You see, the game is keeping track of average performance using your account on the machine and, without giving you any indication of your improved performance, viciously demoting all of your "GM-worthy" performances to MasterM. Over half of your past handful of attempts must be "GM-worthy" before you assigning a Promotional Exam for the title: "Make another Grand Master performance. Now. This game." If you fail to earn the grade this run, you're back to wondering when you'll be assigned another attempt. If you manage to pull everything together, then you're truly world-class.
But more importantly, Kerr is a member of a small, passionate, and highly skilled group of Tetris aficionados who feel like they are being overlooked as Blue Planet and other licensees reach for an increasingly casual gaming audience. "If they release a new game for the handheld or mobile, a lot of people are going to buy it regardless because Tetris is an inherently interesting game. I think that's a little bit unfortunate. Since it's so successful, they can do whatever they want. They don't necessarily need to listen to feedback about some things, which will hold them back in certain areas," he says.
Kerr wants to see consistency for game aspects such as speed settings, controls behavior, and spin detection. (He does credit the companies with making some important changes to the multiplayer games on TetrisFriends.com.) There are some basic guidelines across titles, but few hard and fast rules. For the casual gamer, these inconsistencies won't matter. For example, they likely won't notice the "low fall speed and lack of increasing difficulty in the semi-invisible section of Tetris Friend's Survival," or even know what Kerr means when he expresses this frustration. A player with the grandmaster's skill, however, will find himself playing some versions of the game for hours on end without losing. The hardcore community doesn't ask for much. They simply desire new ways to compete that are challenging yet not endless. They don't find these options in the newer games.
The experts also hope to create some type of formal professional circuit, which requires a universalization of standards. It is a work in progress, but movement is slowly gathering steam. There are certainly reasons to think it could succeed. "Tens of thousands of players have dedicated the time to truly mastering the game on a level that the casual players doesn't even realize exists. There's this whole unheralded world of elite Tetris playing that I think has the same value as Scrabble tournaments, spelling bee tournaments, or crossword puzzle tournaments. In that world, games as sports, Tetris has a place," Cornelius says.
Videos of Tetris tournaments depict a scene that is simultaneously hugely dorky and massively compelling. It is not for everyone, of course, but really, what is?
While Blue Planet is actively courting the casual gamer market with some of its newer games, they also say they are encouraging the experts to show off their skills. "We have supported the efforts of that community in sponsoring tournaments, where master players such as John Tran and Jonas Neubauer have walked away with world championship titles," Rogers says. (Neubauer's victory over Harry Hong is here. He’s the one wearing a football jersey.)
Tetris tournaments will not be as big as spelling bees, but they don't have to reach that level. There's no reason to think a small group of pros and their supporting cast couldn't find a sustainable model. And maybe, just maybe, Tetris tournaments will gain traction with the masses. No one thought Texas Hold 'em would sweep the nation. And millions more people have played Tetris than the previously obscure version of the card game.
Future of Tetris
Due to its remarkable success, Tetris won't disappear. It's too well ingrained and, to be blunt, brilliant. "At its core, it's not just an activity. It's something which is a pleasure center. Whereas other games you play with your friends or you play to get a high score, Tetris you just play even if there is no friends or high score involved. People play it as a Zen meditation exercise. Then, you can play it with your friends and that's a bonus," Rogers says.
"At its core, it's not just an activity. It's something which is a pleasure center."
For Gage, the success is even simpler: "The draw of Tetris is that it has that easy curve. Even if you're not good at Tetris, you can make a line. There's nobody out there who fails to make a line. That makes them feel good about what they are doing," he says. While making games, he learned that people will play and enjoy difficult games but only if the strategy is built upon an easily achievable task, for example clearing a line. (He attributes the success of his game Spelltower to his understanding of this phenomenon.)
But there is undeniably a push and pull between capturing the casual gaming audience and not alienating the experts who serve as the best ambassadors for the brand. "[The game developers] are spicing it up, but at the core, it's really the simplicity that is the appeal. There's a balance between adding new features and keeping something that's not broke the same," Cornelius says.
While One-Touch and Tetris Stars filter through the ecosystem, Blue Planet continues to move forward. According to Eden, future developments could include arcade games where each button is mapped a choice or a Kinect version where players can reach out and grab the pieces. They will continue to advance the quality of the AI, eventually offering multiple ones with each focusing on a different type of play. Rogers likens these to tennis coaches or caddies, who advocate for alternate strategies in similar situations. The one-touch future offers a slate of new input options limited only by the designers' imagination.
But the one-touch future also means the gaming world will continue to evolve past Tetris. It is a game rooted in the technology and limitations of the 1980s and 1990s. The move to touchscreens and gesture-based systems like Kinect will take future versions of Tetris further away from the core of the game. BPS, EA, and the rest of the licensees are attempting to shoehorn something that relies on buttons into a touchscreen world. (It’s not just Tetris; think how many beloved games from the past don’t translate.) They managed to make a fun and reasonably faithful version, but the fact remains that while One-Touch Tetris shares some DNA with the original, it’s an entirely different species. New developments in technology are making the old game just that: a thing of the past that doesn’t quite fit in the future.
"I think the one-touch is really successful, but I think at some point, it's going to be hard for them to continue. It will survive because it's Tetris and everybody knows it. But in 30 years, people are not going to grow up playing Tetris on touch devices. They are going to grow up playing games that were designed for touch devices," Gage says.
"And hopefully that won't be Angry Birds, but we'll see," he adds, laughing.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) got much better at Tetris than he intended while reporting and writing this story. He is still pretty bad.
Photo credit: Giuseppe Licari