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  • 04/21/2009 12:00 AM
Understanding Fun Game Design ~ Case Study: Tetris

Lets get down to the lowest common denominator, something each and every one of us probably knows off by heart. I love Tetris. It’s like a cultural institution in and of itself. The world could be ending and while some of us will be fighting off the minions of Satan and others will be ascending to paradise, the rest of us will probably be playing Tetris.

When I was young its not quite something I could come to understand. The pieces fall down and you try and move them so they don’t pile up and hit the top of the screen, and then the Gameboy yells at you with a screech that sounds like an elf getting caught in his zipper. Simple enough? Not exactly. Tetris is actually far more complicated than it looks, and while its venire may appear basic, underneath is a whole net of meanings and systems that combine to make it what it is. The experiences it creates rival the greatest joys and the lowest despairs in life. One game can make you the dominator, the underdog, the underachiever, and the desperate. In a way, you don’t play Tetris - Tetris plays you.

The game rules, as I said before, are simple enough. In basic ‘marathon’ mode (labeled Type-A in the original Gameboy version), you play until you lose. “Tetroids,” groups of four contiguous blocks arranged in a variety of ways, fall from the top of the screen. In the confines of the space provided, you navigate them as to form lines. If a whole line is formed from side to side, the line clears and you get points. Not only this, but you can clear multiple lines at once, if you try. For every 10 lines you clear you go up a level, for every level you go up the game gets faster and faster. Usually around level 12, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the speed of the game will get the better of you and you will lose and proceed to cry like a little girl. For the love of God, pull yourself together.

The straightforwardness of this ludology is deceiving. How can this simple set of structures create such awesome low-level narrative experiences? This is what we’re going to find out.

Lets start with the blocks. These pieces actually have no inherent meaning or value outside of the game. They are simply a set of all possible four-unit tetroids. What gives them their meaning is the way that they are used in the ludology (that usually means the ‘rules’ for those of you who don’t speak gamish yet.) There are the crooked ones, the L-shaped ones, and then the veritable pig in the Tetris pantry, the square one. There is actually a really complex brick-selection algorithm lying behind what seems like a random choice on behalf of the computer. Which brick you get next is out of your hands, but it is optimized to enhance your game play experience. But remember, the pieces are just abstract pieces. They have no value aside from that which we ascribe them in the context of the game. But, if I were to say “What is the most valuable piece in Tetris?” I bet you would say the straight piece. On this I would agree, but not because there is something about four well-aligned blocks which is inherently valuable. What makes it valuable how the game provides us with the opportunity for us to ascribe value to it.

What makes the straight piece valuable is the fact that it is the only block capable of creating a “Tetris”, a simultaneous four-line clearance. It’s worth the most points, and you’re rewarded by a cute little squeal from the game. If you are looking for points or for the quick level-up, the straight piece then becomes the lynchpin of your strategy. You will arrange the other blocks with a gap (a favorite tends to be a one-unit empty space on one side of the field). You anticipate it, you hope for it to come. If it does, you’ve completed a short term goal, and if it doesn’t you might have to compromise or deal with the increasing difficult circumstance of managing the rest of the field while trying to keep the space open. At what point do you abandon it? Are you going to be disappointed or relieved? Satisfied or angered? The game has created the possibility for emotion to emerge through the way you play it. Creating an emotional experience simply and solely out of ludology is, in my opinion, evidence of an excellent game design.

Lets look at another way the ludology creates emotion. Tetris makes use of a little game design trope I like to call the ‘multiplier factor.’ As you progress through the game play experience, some variable which influences the pace of gameplay increases at a set rate. In Tetris, this is the speed at which the blocks descend into the playfield. Each time you clear 10 lines, you go up a level, and this speed increases. This, like anything else in the game, has no inherent value aside from that which we give it. The game speeding up is not presented as an inherently good thing or a bad thing; it’s just simply part of the design. Yet, as the game speeds up, we find ourselves having to cope with the increasing pace. We start to think and act faster. Eventually the speed may get the better of us and we might not be able to keep up. You start to lose control, but you don’t want to lose. You might feel anxiety or, if you are playing up near the top of the field, desperation. I have seen people nearly break their teeth by stressing so hard over those last few seconds of a lost game of Tetris. And they love it.

So, there we go. A thousand words on Tetris.


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Pickup and playability is something to take note. So is a never ending game that gains challenge. Ease of controls. Gauntlet has these things too, but what makes them different. There is no sense of accomplishment with each passing of a Gauntlet level as when you make a Tetris. A Tetris can come at any time and you can see them coming so you get excited seeing one about to happen.

Then there is Klax, a puzzle game with falling blocks where your Klacker stacks blocks in certain colors in certain patterns. 3 across, 3 up, then the big Klax like 5 diaginal or even an X that is two crossings of 5 diaginal rows. But people don't care much for the game Klax. Maybe because it is too free form allowing you to stack multiple colors in multiple rows instead of just making complete block rows.

Maybe just having one goal in mind and not forcing people to think too much is part of the formula.
I found these articles on fun game design to be particularly interesting because the theory behind game design and the essence of fun not only hold my attention, but is a realistic and critical point in proper game development. In this community, and many others, we create games to elicit a fun experience, but do we understand any theory that underpins fun in games?

I realize how you reference good game design in Tetris, but I'm not sure if it was entirely clear throughout the article. In a nutshell, Tetris offers the player a low-stakes world that contains a set of rules that governs player action and the environment's respective reaction to those of the player. The simple set of principles are structured into a multitude of possibilities in the game world which requires us to develop patterns which is furthermore rewarded upon success. If the pattern was vague or essentially non-existent, then we would have less of an arousing experience because there's no way to weave our brains into figuring out the game mechanics to blaze through the challenges that're thrown our way. Fun isn't always entirely clear but I think this system of design is an integral part of what it means to be "fun".

Of course, there's much more that contributes to fun game design, and I believe that your case study of Mega Man 5 may have touched based on some of these, so I recommend it to anyone found this article to be useful. Also, if you find the time, keep 'em coming, these articles are indeed a good read to any budding game designer.

EDIT: Whoa, this article is older than I thought, hopefully someone will read this comment!
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