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Tetris Creators Talk About Staying Relevant in a Candy-Crushed World (Q&A)

The classic puzzle game is 30 years old, but it's still changing (or not) with the times.

The falling-block puzzle game Tetris turns 30 years old on Friday. But the people who made it a phenomenon don’t want it to be an “old” game.

Re/code recently caught up with the original game’s designer, Alexey Pajitnov, and the entrepreneur who brought Tetris to the Game Boy in 1989, Henk Rogers. On their minds: How the game has changed over the years, how modern puzzle games stack up, and whether the free-to-play business model is “unfair” to gamers.

(Here’s an a capella version of the Tetris theme to listen to while you read):

Re/code: There have been many variations of Tetris over the years on different platforms. Is there demand for change in the game, or is the classic version still the most popular?

Henk Rogers: The most popular version of Tetris is Tetris on mobile phones. We have had over 425 million paid downloads, which dwarfs 35 million on Game Boy and probably 60 million on all of console. I think the question is, is there a demand for change in automobiles? You can get along with a ’57 Chevy, all right. But meanwhile, other car manufacturers come out with better models, and if your car doesn’t keep up with the other cars, then it becomes a “classic car.” That’s not what our intention is with Tetris. Our intention is to do whatever it takes to make Tetris a modern game, just like basketball or baseball or football.

So what’s changing about it?

Rogers: The biggest thing that’s changed recently is the touchscreen. If you go back to the Game Boy, you’re talking about six buttons. Now you want one button press to cause a lot of different actions.

How does the Tetris Company work with licensees like EA (which handles mobile) and Ubisoft (which just announced a new console game, Tetris Ultimate)? How involved are you in shaping their games?

Rogers: It goes both ways. Sometimes they come to us with an idea and we say sure, just so long as it doesn’t hurt the brand. And sometimes with something like the touchscreen, we put on our thinking caps and try to help them. It’s a two-way street. That’s a relationship I like to have with our licensees. I don’t want to restrict them, and I want to give them all the help I can possibly give.

Do you look to other games for inspiration? I’m thinking in particular of the little renaissance puzzle games have had on mobile as games like Candy Crush Saga become a new phenomenon.

Rogers: Sometimes people come up with new models for how to make money or new ways to keep people engaged. We have to look at them and see if they’re relevant to Tetris or not, just in case someone comes up with automatic over standard transmission. It doesn’t mean that I’m looking to other games for inspiration. There’s enough stuff in the real world to be inspired by, and Tetris is mostly inspired by mathematics, puzzles, that kind of thing.

Do you play those other games?

Rogers: I may have played Bejeweled when it first came out, but I’m not a big player at this point in time. People around me play all the time, and I ask how does this [Tetris] compare to the other games out there. Maybe I’m getting old. [laughs] How about you, Alexey?

Alexey Pajitnov: I am a little bit old for playing the new and crazy stuff as well. But I played Bejeweled and Cubis and other games. I am checking out some new ones like 2048, and they are not bad when you take into account that there are now lots of casual players. So, puzzles have become a little bit easier, a little simpler to solve, not so deep that you need to spend an hour on one puzzle. It’s a little bit light for my tastes, but I found that very good because lots of people can play them.

One of the big trends right now, especially in mobile, is the free-to-play business model. In addition to those 425 million paid downloads for Tetris over the years, there’s also a free version developed by EA called Tetris Blitz. What do you think about the different models? Is one or the other a better fit for Tetris?
Rogers: With free-to-play games, we have to start thinking about things that are only in the game because the business model has changed. I’d rather make a game that’s more interesting for the player than the publisher. The word “free-to-play,” I think, is misleading, because we are making more money off of the free-to-play model than we were when it was pay-to-play. What free-to-play means is that five percent of the people generate all of the revenue. There are what we call whales, and they spend 20 times the amount of money while there are 19 other players that pay nothing.

At the end of the day, that’s unfair. If everybody gets pleasure out of playing a game, everybody should contribute to the creation of the next game. Payment should incentivize the publisher to make another, or a better, game. It’s not rich people either that are paying the extra money. It’s people who are more dedicated to the game than other people are, and they’re willing to pay $10 or even $100 when other people aren’t willing to pay $1.

I’d feel much more comfortable with the Starbucks model, where you pay $2.99 and you get a cup of coffee and it gives you 10 minutes of pleasure. In the game world, you’d pay $2.99 and get 10 hours or 20 hours of pleasure. Why do people have to be so cheap to say “I don’t want to spend any money on that game”?

Pajitnov: Especially from the design point of view, we are now in a position where instead of offering people the best we could, we’re asking them to pay us for something [power-ups] in our games.

So the old model of paying something before you have fun is a more straightforward relationship between the game designer and the player? Is that a fair way of putting it?
Rogers: Yeah, there’s no such thing as free-to-eat or free-to-drink. It doesn’t work as a business model, so why should it work in the game world? It’s working for the publishers but it’s ultimately not working for the public. Some kid is going to get his butt kicked by his mom after spending $50 buying items for some game. And the publishers love it because they’re making more money, but it cannot be sustainable. Too many kids are going to be grounded, and the whales are going to go extinct.

Shifting gears a bit, I recently talked to a group at Stanford that’s working on a game controller that can read the player’s pulse and feed that information back into the game. I mentioned there was a Japanese version of Tetris in the ’90s called Tetris 64 that did that. Is that sort of biofeedback interesting for use in games?
Rogers: It’s interesting from a medical viewpoint, to find out how people’s brains are functioning over time. But as far as the game is concerned, if you take my pulse as I’m playing a game, the better I get at it, the less my pulse is going to react to what’s in the game. Now, when I play Tetris, I’m really relaxed. It used to be panic this, panic that. I don’t panic anymore. It’s very difficult to correlate having fun with the pulse.

I do think reading the emotional state can take you into places that you couldn’t reach otherwise, and that might be interesting. For example, if you’re playing a role-playing game and a door’s always closed, but one time when your blood pressure’s below 120, all of a sudden the door’s open. You get to go through and see another world and you’re rewarded for lowering your blood pressure or something like that — I think that’s useful. I don’t recall that there was any specific target [in Tetris 64]. It felt like a gimmick at the time because it was any early attempt. I don’t want somebody today to go back and look at that game as an example of success or failure. It was just too early, and it wasn’t too good. I’d rather people discover something new.

When you play Tetris these days, how long are you able to hold out? After 30 years, what’s a typical game look like for you?
Pajitnov: I prefer the old-fashioned play. I do about a couple days a week and I play for half an hour, maybe. But if I really want to relax and have good thoughts, I get in the zone and can play for about 10 minutes. Henk, what about you?

Rogers: I don’t have the regular go-to Tetris because my developers keep asking me to play new and improved versions — well, not necessarily improved. But when I do start to play, people have to stop me and say, “Okay, that’s enough.” I shouldn’t play when other people are watching. I think people looking over your shoulder, and looking for approval, is not a relaxing way to play a game.

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