Editorial: Why the Tetris Formula Works

Greetings, Lusipurr.com. I was playing the PSN version of Tetris earlier when I began to think about it, about Tetris as a whole. One thing that began to confuse me is the sheer popularity of Tetris. Why is it that such a seemingly simple game has been so successful for over twenty-five years? After some thinking, I came to realize that Tetris works so well because it has the three elements that every casual game should ideally have to appeal to a wide audience. More than nearly any other game, Tetris seems to sit on the border between “casual” and “hardcore” gaming, and therein lies its greatest strength. Today, I would like to discuss what I feel are the three biggest reasons for the ongoing popularity of Alexey Pajitnov’s falling shapes game.

Don't lie, readers, you now have Korobeiniki stuck in your heads.

An easy to learn game was especially nice in the NES era, when games tended to be fairly hard.

Simplicity: The Game is Easy to Learn
Tetris is extremely easy to learn. There are only seven tetrimino shapes to learn, and since each tetrimino is only made up of four smaller blocks, the shapes are not particularly complicated. The goal in Tetris is also simple: fill a row on the screen with blocks and that row will be cleared. The basic core mechanics of Tetris are not hard to grasp and take very little time to work. This is absolutely key in a casual experience; for a game to have massive appeal to a non-gaming audience it must be fairly quick and easy to pick up and play. The simplicity of the basic Tetris mechanics makes the game easy to pick up, even for non-gamers, and that is a key part of why Tetris has managed to acquire its popularity.

Difficult to Master: Hours and Hours and Hours of Gameplay
And here is the real beauty of Tetris, especially in its newer iterations. T-Spins, item holding, and drop speed that increases as level increases add complexity to the simple formula. Playing Tetris competitively against others is a great way for a gamer to be humbled; there are some absolutely staggering players out there in the world. Additionally, there are versions of Tetris that are fast enough to provide a huge challenge level; the “Radical” variant of the PSN version of the game and the JP-ONRY Tetris: The Grand Master both spring to mind immediately. Combined with the first point, then, it is easy to see why the Tetris franchise has had such longevity: for new players, the game is easy to learn, but the old players still have room to improve themselves.

The PSN version of Tetris is one of the few things that EA has done right.

Multiplayer is one of the greatest things to happen to the Tetris license.

Dynamicism: The Game is Fun to Play
And of course, the obvious one: Tetris is fun. This is a valid point, however, because so many other casual games are not dynamic and are certainly not fun to play. Mafia Wars is always the same boring thing every time a player revisits it, but no two Tetris games are ever the same and many are not even remotely similar. Tetris manages to do what almost no other casual game since then has managed: Tetris has created an experience that starts off fun and manages to hold up even after dozens of hours. Combined with its easy to learn, difficult to master style of design, it is easy to see then why Tetris has managed to stay popular for over twenty years.

It is no secret that I love Tetris, and now I realize why that is. Like the Pokemon games or Plants vs. Zombies, Tetris manages to be one of very few games to have wide casual appeal while also simultaneously offering up an experience that hardcore gamers will not find disappointing. How many other popular casual games will have anywhere near the longevity that Tetris has managed? In this reviewer’s opinion, the number of casual games as appealing as this one is extremely slim.

6 Comments

  1. Ethos
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 11:17 | Permalink

    “Multiplayer is one of the greatest things to happen to the Tetris license.”

    So true. Despite the DS’ excellent library of games, Tetris DS is probably my most played title. My best friend lived very far away from downtown at the time, so we would spend the long public transit ride competing furiously against each other. Never got old. Just got more competitive.

  2. Mel
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 13:38 | Permalink

    I think all the cool additions to Tetris (i.e., any multiplayer modes, special block types, and other additional features) really only build off of something that makes Tetris appealing in the first place. And this is what got it popular enough to warrant games with multiplayer modes and the rest. And I think that something is the easy and simple gratification Tetris affords us.

    Playing Tetris is a simple game of progression. Your progress is easily seen and felt, and, at first, easily attained. The difficulty curve is what brings people into more serious play, but that easy gratification is what gets people to turn the game on. My mother (along with many other people’s mothers) played a TON of Tetris on the Gameboy and NES when it was relatively new. This game’s appeal to women is legendary, and the reasons for it are very interesting. I find (and these are my observations alone, I don’t speak for everyone) that men often find escapism in games that represent overcoming intense odds. Women, on the other hand, find escapism in games that foremost show clear and distinct progression. Tetris has both of these qualities, but it mostly features that aspect of clear progression. Someone once called playing Tetris a “defrag for your brain”, and I think that works with my observations a bit. Tetris is a calming, progress-oriented game. It gets nerve wracking later on, sure, but its those opening levels that gets everyone into it…and KEEPS them coming back.

    Now, there are exceptions here. You don’t have to be a woman to like Tetris, duh, but from what I’ve seen the playerbase trends this way and I think biology has a fair amount to do with it.

  3. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 13:52 | Permalink

    The original NES iteration of Tetris (and, by extension, the SNES remastering of that title) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest games ever made. This article goes a long way to explaining why.

  4. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 14:04 | Permalink

    I think it just tickles their nesting/tidying-up instincts/inclinations.

    My mother is certainly no gamer, but I have often joked to her that she’d be great at Tetris on account of how effortlessly she seems to be able to pack my entire life into the back of a car.

  5. Lusipurr
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 18:34 | Permalink

    @SN: Tetris is the ONLY video game I have ever seen my mother play. She was totally addicted to the NES version back in the day.

    My friends’ parents were in a similar boat. The parents of one friend were ALWAYS playing Dr. Mario whenever I went over. It was a guarantee. It was all they did. They played Dr. Mario in nearly every moment of their free time. Which is fine, because I think that Dr. Mario is the greatest puzzle game ever made, and I’m (still) glad that some adults appreciated this back when adults appreciating anything about video games was an unlikely occurance.

  6. Mel
    Posted 2012.05.10 at 23:51 | Permalink

    Yup. Dr. Mario was another big one for my mother. Along with similarities like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods.