Keith Burgun

Thoughts on Game Design

How We Lost Tetris

Everyone knows Tetris – at least, everyone from my generation does. Most of us can remember around the year 1990 or so, when the original Gameboy was released bundled with that little grey Tetris cartridge. “From Russia with Fun!”, the box exclaimed, in pink text over a nice, 1980s-style blue triangle.


Tetris was actually designed many years before more players got a hold of it. Back in 1984, Alexey Pajitnov designed and programmed Tetris on an Elektronika 60 computer. It was soon ported to IBM PC, where it first became a big hit. It then became a colossal worldwide hit when Nintendo got a hold of it.

Years later, the series began to take a number of tragic turns. I believe that in the last decade, we’ve unwittingly killed off what was great about Pajitnov’s original brilliant design.


~ The Software and the Game

In videogames, we have a tendency to confuse “the game” and “the software”. The actual program that executes on your Nintendo Entertainment System is called Tetris, but it’s not the game of Tetris. A game is not a program. A game is a set of rules. You can run Tetris on all kinds of different devices, with different programs, and even different names (many clones serve to prove this point), and yet they’re all still the game of Tetris.

Once we have decoupled these, we can talk about the “game” of Tetris – the rules themselves, which is the focus of this article.


~ What Made Tetris Great

In my studies, I’ve found that a lot of people only paid a small amount of attention to the rules or the goal, and simply played as a sort of casual meditation. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think that some people may have been missing out on the real, competitive game of Tetris.

Tetris is a score-based game. The object of the game is to get the highest score possible before the well fills up (a common mistake that people make is to believe that the well filling up is the “game loss” condition, when in fact it’s actually just the “game end” condition).

The decisions in Tetris are, of course, all based around the question of where and how to lay your pieces (Tetronimoes). The strategy is essentially based around choosing between these two large strategic choices: “should I save up for a big payoff later, at the risk of ending the game?”, versus “should I cash in now to play it safe, but get fewer points?”. Of course, the game is deep and interesting enough so that with enough ingenuity, you can sort of do both.

And that’s the point: Tetris, like all great games, forces you to use ingenuity. Both of those two large strategic choices, on their own, are basically bad. One results in you ending the game early, and one results in you getting a low score after a longer game. Neither of these are desirable, so the player must do some kind of balancing act and somehow, somehow, achieve both. I’ve been playing Tetris for a little over 20 years, on and off, and I still find it incredibly interesting to pursue the mastery of the game.


~ Modern Tetris Screws it Up

Sadly, the generation of kids growing up today will probably never know what it was like to play the game of Tetris, because all that they’ll be able to find are horrible abominations of the original design. Here are the four main problems with modern versions.

  • Problem #1: Next Box(es)

You probably recall that the game originally had a single “Next Piece” box which previewed which piece was coming next. This was a nice feature which allowed just enough strategy to exist with placing pieces. Without a next-box at all, the game would be significantly more random, as you could do no planning with your current piece to accommodate your next one.

Digital game developers seem to have this thing where they believe that “more” is equivalent to “better”, and so starting with The New Tetris (N64) we got introduced to a second and third next-box. Of course, that wasn’t the end of that. With each new iteration in the 2000s, we got more and more next boxes, until at this point there are now games that have as many as seven. Seven next boxes.

As I mentioned earlier, the big question in Tetris is whether or not to decide to cash in now, or save up for later. So let’s say I have a triple lined up, and my current piece is a line piece. I can use that to get a triple now (the safe move), or I can use it to help me set up a Tetris (four lines at once) for later (the high risk/reward move). In normal, 1-next-box Tetris, this decision is ambiguous and whether I go for it will depend on many factors. In 7-next-box Tetris, it is trivial. Save up if there’s a line somewhere in the next 7 pieces, and cash in if not. No decisions required.

  • Problem #2: The “Hold” Box

2000s-era Tetris programs also started regularly including something called the “Hold Box”, which allowed players to place their current active piece into a special box. They could then later swap out a future piece for that saved piece whenever they liked.

We all know that situation where you get a few line pieces early on when you don’t need them, and then later suffer a line-piece drought. This is a great example of one of those situations where what the player wants while playing, and what the player really wants from a game design overall, might not be the same thing.

It’s natural to assume, “well, those times when I need a line and can’t find one are bad, so if I can store one for those times, then that makes the game better”. The problem is that Tetris is at its most interesting when you can’t find the piece you need. In those times when you can’t find the piece you need, those are the times when you have to come up with a creative solution. Think of it this way: if you always got the piece you needed, there would be no game. And that’s sort of the situation with modern Tetris.

  • Problem #3: Infinite Spin

This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but it does defeat the purpose of having the game be real-time. You know how when you get a piece to the bottom of a well, there’s that second where you can still spin or slide the piece before it locks into place? Well, with Infinite Spin, a feature in almost every modern Tetris app, every time you spin the piece, that second-clock resets. This means you can spin the piece indefinitely, while you consider your options.

You may or may not consider this a problem. I’m in the former camp, but it’s not terribly significant either way.  However, when combined with the rest of these problems, it helps to create a tensionless environment.

  • Problem #4: The 7-Bag

This may be the biggest problem of all. As you know, the pieces that Tetris throws at you are randomly generated. This is what creates that sense of “pushing your luck” type ambiguity to the decisions a player has to make.

The 7 Bag changes it from an almost purely random generation to a much more predictable and controlled randomness. What it does is take all seven tetronimoes, and place them in a bag. Then, it pulls each out one at a time. This means that you can never go more than 14 pieces without getting another line piece after your last one (and usually it would be more like 7-10).

Consider the implications of the 7-Bag in combination with the 7 next boxes! You almost never don’t know what’s coming up; there is absolutely no ambiguity.

The 7-Bag is yet another situation where something a player might think he wants while playing – a more regular, less random stream of tetronimoes – yet actually makes for a less interesting and less ambiguous game.

So, when you add it all up, modern Tetris is really more like an execution contest than a “game”, in that the decisions it asks you to make are all pretty trivial, and instead it’s just a matter of doing them. Indeed, you can see that many competitive modern players play the game at incredible speeds

I’m not even going to get into the horrible idea of adding metagame RPG-features to Tetris


~ How Did This Happen?

While the loss of Tetris is significant, there is a much more significant lesson to be learned from this story. There’s a reason why Tetris was lost, and the reason is that we, collectively, didn’t have a respect and appreciation for what it was we had.

The answer is that we never really even knew what it was we had in the first place. Firstly, we simply do not have a reverence for the discipline of game design. Would a conductor who’s creating a new recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony feel comfortable changing some notes, or adding a flute solo here, or removing a section? People understand that Beethoven was a genius composer, and you don’t go screwing around with his brilliant work. People do not yet think of games in a similar way.

Eventually we will, but at the moment we don’t even have a good understanding of “game design” as being its own discipline in the first place. This is related to our inability to draw the line between “software” and “game”, often confusing programmers for designers and vice versa. Without understanding what game design is, we cannot give it the reverence it deserves.

The bigger question here is this: how do we know this won’t happen again? How does a game designer working now, slaving away on his or her masterpiece that they are hoping will be the next Tetris, know that their game won’t be horribly bastardized and ruined 10-20 years down the line? The answer, at the moment, is that they don’t.

If we can show game designers that we, as a culture, really appreciate their work, they will produce better games. Hopefully, if and when we get the next Tetris, we’ll know it when we see it. And this time, we’ll protect it the way that great works of art deserve to be protected.

Tetris (Electronika 60)


Posted in: Game Design

  • NonurBiznis

    I think this happens in movies as well and is driven by sales right? I think it’s not just an appreciation of game design but a motivation to not remake games/movies for easy sales.

  • NonurBiznis

    that is needed to protect future games from this.

  • Kevin

    I’m going to disagree with most of your criticisms of modern Tetris:

    To me the fundamental challenge of Tetris is not finding “creative” solutions when the game gives you a bad set of pieces. This certainly still happens sometimes, even with the 7 bag system and hold pieces, but is not the crux of the game. Tetris has always been about raw reaction speed and dexterity. The game’s difficulty curve is controlled by, of course, block fall speed. When the blocks fall slowly, it’s easy to ponder the many ways you can arrange your pieces and come up with a solution; here, most of your criticisms stand.

    But the game isn’t about that; it’s about when the speed gets so fast that pieces almost instantaneously hit the bottom and lock almost immediately after. It’s about developing an extension of the brain that can have a gut reaction to seeing a piece and knowing exactly where it should go. While that’s locking in, the brain focuses on where to place the next piece before it even drops; this way they can rotate and move it into place the second it appears. This is where dexterity comes in; losing Tetris occurs either when your brain can’t think as fast as the pieces, or your fingers can’t keep up with what the game’s speed demands of them.

    At this point, things like extra “next” slots, the hold piece and the 7-bag system barely matter. The core game is still there, and it still has a zen-like flow to it.

    As for infinite rotation, two of the most popular modern Tetris games (Tetris Batte and TGM) do not implement it. Lock delay only resets when a piece falls down one space. I do agree that variants that implement infinite rotation completely break Tetris (Tetris DS, I’m looking at you).

  • keithburgun

    >Tetris has always been about raw reaction speed and dexterity.

    Well, perhaps I just see a different game there than you do. To me, what has always been interesting about Tetris was dealing with the mess I created.

    Maybe others feel that it is primarily a “reaction contest” type thing, and so the new changes are positive. My point, though, is this: do people have a good understanding of what was lost in that process?

  • Zach

    I agree. I think this is why competitive Tetris is still played on the NES and Gameboy versions. I just wish the new versions had a “classic mode” with the same restrictions in place (there are like a dozen stupid modes in the last version I bought for DS).

    It’s just kind of the trend these days to make things easier on the player. You don’t have to fail multiple times and learn from your mistakes in order to get better, everything is spelled out for you.

    I think that game design done right can really build character, but it’s becoming more and more like television where you just zone out and relax, which has its place of course, but I do not think it is the place of a game like Tetris.

  • Alex

    The platforms for scoring/time attack competitions today are primarily NES Tetris or the arcade Tetris: The Grand Master series. GB Tetris relies pretty squarely on physical execution at high-level play, — rapid tapping is necessary to exceed the useless default move speed — and as such is not am especially popular format for competition.

    As for Versus play, the modern “Guideline” games (Tetris Splash, Tetris Online Japan, Tetris Friends Arena, PS3 Tetris) are generally well-constructed. The systems that were set in place by Tetris Online Japan allow for some interesting dynamics in play, and are currently accepted as the primary community standard for head-to-head competition.

  • keithburgun

    The larger point here is that Tetris was never really fully aware of what it was. The fact that it becomes something different at high levels of play sort of proves this. So my message is: understand what your game is about, and make sure it maintains that at any level of play.

  • Nahil

    That part about Beethoven was GENIUS!

  • Rich S

    It’s genius until you note the existence of A Fifth of Beethoven and other such remixes. Heck, I once saw it remixed live on turntables… or was that the 1812 overture.

    Regardless, you can’t lose the heart of Tetris, it’s just hard to find in a commercial game of tetris these days. Tetris (TM) forgot its roots ages ago.

    Tetrinet was an amazing multiplayer evolution of tetris though.

  • Nahil

    I don’t care how many remixes anyone’s made of Beethoven’s Fifth really; the point is that the original is still seen as a masterpiece and no one will actually try to *replace* it with a remix. Most people see the original Tetris concept as a primitive version when it’s actually the original masterpiece. Anyway, yeah, you can find some well made Tetris-likes, but the problem is that we let Tetris (Tm) lose it’s greatness. imagine if there was a Beethoven’s Fifth (TM)… Games really need to be treated as important works that aren’t just a basis that you can tweak for profit.

  • Alex

    Actually, there is no real reason to play the original electronica60 Tetris or its IBM port. There are essentially two 80′s Tetris games still worth returning to (NES and Sega’s 1988 arcade game) each independently brought about many necessary refinements to the movement rules and scoring systems that provide a compelling experience rather than just a novel concept. e60 Tetris should be recognized historically for bringing the concept forward, but I’d have to argue it is not a well-tuned masterpiece in its own right.

    Furthermore, a series like Tetris: The Grand Master has a great deal of respect for its progenitors, and the changes made are all in the interest of elevating the original rules and delving deeper into the potential of the game. TGM owes a lot to Sega Tetris, and it knows it.

  • keithburgun

    Nahil is referring to the original game (as in the original rules) of tetris, not necessarily the original software version.

  • Rich S

    My point was simply that the score of the original tetris is still around, essentially and has been replicated faithfully. Closed source code prevents direct copies, but nonetheless it can be replicated. The ASCII version of Tetris looks pretty bad to me.

    I started on hard drop PC tetris, and I have to admit I much prefer soft drop. Even the original can be improved, the latest tetrises have just gone overboard I guess. As long as the original rules are available as options, I’m happy.

  • Daniel Teixeira

    This is what happens when business and marketing takes over the game creation process. In some meeting the tie in the left says “We should make our game more accessible” the other one says “We cannot narrow our costumers to those kids that actually think, that’s a bad business decision!” – and the gamer became a costumer and the game became a whipped cream can.
    [A bit edgy. but anyone get my point?]

  • Pingback: Links for August 25, 2012 | Andrzej's Links

  • keithburgun

    Yeah. I think there’s a general consensus among the big publishers that people are way stupider than they actually are, and that they don’t want to be challenged/stimulated.

  • Daniel Teixeira

    Its seems that creating games that some times frustrates people is a bad thing.
    One of the great learning that I got from games came from dealing with frustration. Like Tetris for example, you are very close in beating your high score, and just ONE bad move makes you wanna throw the game-BRICK-boy on the wall.
    I’m young but I’m feeling like an old person. But will be the outcome of a FarmVille game generation?

  • keithburgun

    Agreed! Occasional frustration is an inherent part of a learning experience. Only way to get rid of it completely is to get rid of learning.

  • noobule

    Tetris Friends has an 1989 mode that does away with (I think) everything you dislike, and even after just a few games I think I agree. It’s an entirely different game, the one I’m use to with infinite spins and holds tetris turns into a game where there’s all-but no reason to not go for the four line tetris combo as doing so is so incredibly easy. The game is about keeping your pile neat and ordered (with a single gap at the end for the line pieces) and hoping you won’t mess up a placement those rare times lines are rare and your pile gets more than eight lines high.

    This, though, the old version, is a crazy mess. Entirely different. When you were writing about Tetris being a game of choice I was pretty skeptical, given my experience with it (just go for the tetrises, dummy) but far out I see what you mean here. Keeping that tetris gap going is no longer the sensible, obvious route: it’s a huge risk. Line pieces have instantly gone from rarely placed (outside of scoring tetrises) residents of the hold box into these incredibly scary uncaring weapons that can either bless you with a huge bounty (as Tetrises are now really something special) or, completely gum up the works with their awkward hugeness on either plane. And it’s great!

    Most of it sits on simply dumping that hold box, as I said it returns the threat of the line piece, and makes tetris gaps a growing, worrying threat instead of just a thing that you need to maintain. Personally, moving the extra next piece boxes doesn’t change much for me as modern Tetris is usually so fast those other boxes are unusable. That said, I can see that they’d be very helpful in the slower, more panicked pace of the old version.

    That leaves the infinite spins. I can’t decide whether I want them or not. Without them, old Tetris can be quite frustrating as pieces just about lock in immediately upon contact with a piece below them, making sliding pieces into gaps either impossible or just extremely difficult (I didn’t pay close attention to the difference while playing). The games I played where dominated by pieces constantly sticking in places I didn’t want, despite feeling quite in control at the time. Perhaps its a case of trying to play the old game like the new game and the challenge-benefits of that mechanic will become clear but in my limited experience it was rather frustrating.

    Additionally, moving the pieces around was a far stiffer process, which only added to the sticking problem. Again, I can’t decide whether the feel of that would improve over time or the looser, more responsive style of the modern games is preferable. The modern game does have quite a bit of frantic last second gymnastics to slot pieces though mazes to fit the right gap and I think its something the older game would benefit from, maybe

    Overall though, jeez, I have to say I really do prefer a Tetris that requires real risk management right from the first line of the game. I’m going to have to spread this around now, and everyone’s going to think I’m some pretentious hipster gobshite who’s into retro-tetris to look cool, so thanks for doing that to me :/

  • noobule

    Oh while I’m here, I meant to say back on DFG but whatever: I love the idea of the podcast (I love podcasts), and the first episode is wonderful – pretty much an hour long primer on my own feelings about videogames, nothing new but it was just so wonderful not just to hear it (at all given average VG discussion) but to hear it condensed in a great, reasonably sized and well communicated package. I listened to it twice in the space of a day.

    The other podcasts have been very good (idk why everyone complains about the sound quality, except for that phone call its totally fine) but you’ll have to tighten up the scope/time management of each episode. Looking forward to regular releases of this thing

    Also, just to bother you a bit more – you mentioned the Ludology podcast: are there any other design podcasts you listen to (/exist at all)? And is there any where else I can go to listen/read to grumbling-but-informed gi design discussion along your lines that isn’t you, academic or infested with narrative worshipping fools? Who do you follow around on the internet, I guess

  • Nahil

    You, sir/madam, are awesome.

  • Nahil

    You like their podcast? Finally, someone gets it. All Keith ever gets is flack about his opinions.

  • keithburgun

    Glad to know you agree!

  • keithburgun

    Just so you know, we’ll be moving the Dinofarm Podcast over here under a new name. Should hopefully get to do the first (or fourth?) episode in the next couple days.

    As for other podcasts that I recommend on the topic of videogames/game design, I seriously have zero. I’ve looked, too, it’s just that there really aren’t any good ones.

    In boardgames, there are a few at least listenable ones. “On Board Games” has Scott Nicholson, who’s pretty smart, and that’s an alright show. The Dice Tower podcast is almost totally useless, but I listen to it anyway for some reason.

  • Pingback: Superlicious | Superlevel

  • codnik

    I agree with 95% of what you’ve said. The only difference is that I don’t abhor the Tetris spin offs. Truth is that there are people doing it the right way regardless of how mainstream Tetris has changed, so we’re not really at loss.

    I agree with Rich S. about Tetrinet. It was really great. I spent most of my teenage years playing that and had a blast.

    Nowadays I play Cultris II. Take a look at that. It keeps up with the core of the original Tetris, while having a kickass multiplayer implementation.

  • Nicholas

    To me, the most interesting and redeeming feature of the game is the spatial reasoning and problem solving aspects of it. If a Tetris game has this, people will enjoy playing it. As a result, the people behind the brand can screw the design up in a lot of ways, but people will still play. The core feature is so good, it tends to compensate for the other stuff.

    So the idea behind game design for Tetris is how to take that “core feature” and apply a goal to it somehow. Let’s say there’s no gravity. A decently experienced player could play a single game his entire life without losing. That’s possible even with 1 preview, normal randomizer, no hold chamber, etc. Even without a bag randomizer, the chances of getting a sequence of pieces so difficult that it would top you out is just that rare.

    If you don’t want the game to degenerate into an endless grind that bears no challenge, you need to attach some other goal to it. The original method was to increase the gravity so that players had increasingly less time to think about and execute their moves. The goal was not to die.

    In The New Tetris, these extra tools were added for a reason. Otherwise, it was too difficult to create silver and gold squares. (A silver or gold square is an uncleared 4×4 configuration of tetrominoes.) Once these features were added (namely infinite spin), a player could survive indefinitely even despite gravity. A player could survive until he either fell asleep or lost electricity.

    They eventually scratched the silver and gold squares idea. However, instead of changing the game back, The Tetris Company (TTC) decided to keep these extra tools. To address the “endless grind” problem, they simply changed the goal. Nowadays, it’s based on either time or lines (instead of endurance). For example, in Ultra you have 2 minutes to score as many points as possible. In Marathon, you have a set number of lines to clear before the game ends.

    Time-based modes retain some of the same elements as the old survival kind of gameplay. Quick decision-making is the key to scoring high, only the game doesn’t try to kill you anymore. I think this was TTC’s way making the game nice for new players but still interesting for the better players. To be honest though, I think most players prefer the old, more sadistic model where the game tries to kill you.

  • Kdansky

    There does not need to be infinite spins. If you can reset that one second about two or three times, you probably get enough slack to fit it in, but you don’t gain a huge amount of time for planning (and it’s exceptionally risky, because you might end up with a piece in a horrible spot).

  • Kdansky

    I hate the 7-bag. It made a game of tension into a memorisation contest. You can look up the algorithm which allows you to deal with any piece in any order.

    I do like another variant: Muliplayer Tetris with power ups. Those either help you deal with a mess, or mess up your opponents play area. It’s like the Mario Kart of Tetris. Less balanced, more chaotic and a lot of fun with a group of people.

  • farter

    those new features reduced the difficulty of the game, and makes it no challenge to JUST survive. that’s true.
    but there are lot of ways to make it harder and also visually more interesting/exciting, such as very-fast dropping speed (a.k.a. 20G) (which also implements lock delay, wallkick, that also made “half hole” fixing possible/easier).
    also one may play in more ways. hold box and next queue let making real-time perfect clear and even tetris patterns easier (or say possible?) (but still need a lot of thinking!), which is a bit too hard and luck-dependent without these things. there are video of building NES Tetris “playaround” pattern, needs very hard TAS, according to the TAS-er’s introduction.

    well, as for newbies, if one is still struggling for survivor, he/she might not pay attention even to the first preview piece.

    btw “infinite spin” issue is now updated to limiting a number of on-land moves, which forces the piece to lock when it reached the limit. although in some special cases, player may still spin infinitely without landing, using SRS wallkick.

  • Belgin

    OK i am a conservative raipblucien and i dont even believe in global warmin. Mother nature is doing 98% of global warming and we are doing the other 2% so all those freaks that say that we caused global warming are wrong, i believe that we should do things like recycle but dont go to crazy, and they say that were running out of oil, well we still have enough oil for the next 100,000 years.