Notes from GDC: The Summits, Part 2
TETRIS: BEST/WORST MOBILE GAME EVER
with Rick Marazzani
Hopping over to the Mobile Summit I sat in on this lecture, which really turned out to be more about causal games than mobile games. The presenter, Rick Marazzani, started by stating that “Tetris is the best game ever”. According to him it was played by more people across the world than any other video game. He then took a more business oriented tack (as people who present on casual games are wont to do) and said that it had sold more units than any other game in history. In the lecture that followed there was a bit of an undercurrent that the success of Tetris in the long run had mostly been because of the changes that made it more acceptable to a casual audience, and that there may still be some improvements to make!
Mr. Marazzani took a few moments to illustrate improvements that had been made to Tetris over the years, supposedly turning it into the casual juggernaut it is today. The two improvements that struck me were the ‘endless spin’ and a change from true random distribution of the pieces to randomized sets.
Interestingly, early versions of Tetris would dole out pieces in a truly random way, or at least as close to random as those early computers could get. This meant that one could conceivably get a string of S-pieces, even early on in the game, making success a very difficult feat. Somewhere along the way this was changed to randomized sets of pieces. In other words, given a number of pieces you will always see at least one of each kind of tetromino. I found this interesting because the true randomness of the original was the key reason that Tetris could not be played indefinitely. The feature of randomized sets, said Mr. Marazzani, had at this point been universally adopted in all modern versions of the game, and was widely recognized as more fair.
The ‘endless spin’ is the feature that some versions of Tetris sport where the block will stop falling when the player spins the tetromino, and will float as long as it continues to spin. While it struck me as something that would basically break the game, Mr. Marazzani assured us that this made the game far more accessible to the casual player.
Where was leading us seemed very predictable: If Tetris were created today, would it be as successful? Instead though, he attacked the same core point from a different angle, an angle befitting the Developer’s Conference: If one of us were to develop Tetris and present it to a publisher (in this case specifically a mobile/casual publisher), would they pick it up?
These are a few of reasons he gave of why Tetris would be attractive to a publisher today in it’s current form. First, the name “Tetris” is highly “brandable”. It’s simple, says something about the game, and is exotic enough to stick in the mind. Secondly, if the game is described to people they can easily imagine playing it. I took this to mean that the core ruleset of the game isn’t very difficult to understand, it’s through play that the game becomes complicated. Last, it had a limited screen and controls. This would be attractive primarily to mobile publishers, but even in the casual space there is an unspoken rule against complex control schemes.
What were more interesting were the reservations that he said publishers would have about the game. It doesn’t have a theme, for instance. While this might be something that is simply more fashionable right now (Bejeweled doesn’t really have a theme) adding a theme would definitely be something that a developer would need to take into consideration, according to Mr. Marazzani. Tetris also doesn’t have discrete play periods. When one sits down to play a game of Tetris it could last five minutes or it could last forty-five minutes. In fact, the better you are at the game the longer it lasts. That’s fine for a gamer but “not for a mother who’s got ten minutes while she wait for her kids to get out of soccer practice”.
This lead into the final example of why Tetris might be rejected by a modern day publisher: You can’t win! Mr. Marazzani presented this as the most important reason that Tetris might not get published in today’s casual market. This also drew the most ire from the crowd, who grilled him on it in the questions after the lecture. His answer was simply that no one likes to lose, and after investing ten or twenty minutes the casual gamer wants some kind of catharsis.
All this lead me to wonder what Alexei Pajitnov thought of the changes that had been made to his game. Of course, he’s probably happy for the success and welcomes anything that might make the game more appealing to a wider audience. Still, of all the interviews of him I’ve read, no one has actually asked what he thinks about the many versions of his seminal game that are out there. If Alexei Pajitnov were developing Tetris today, what are the changes he would make?
This is a summary of one of the panels that I attended during GDC ‘08. It’s pieced together from notes, so if you have any specific questions just ask them in the comments and I’ll answer as best as I can remember.