It might not look or play all that much different than it did way back in 1984, but that hasn’t stopped Tetris from remaining one of the most iconic and well-known games in the world. And while Tetris Ultimate is adding an array of new features, including power-ups, new game modes, and a global ranking system, it’s still a very familiar (and addictive) game about dropping blocks to form and clear lines. With Tetris turning 30 this year, we caught up with its legendary creator, Alexey Pajitnov – as well as Tetris Company co-founder Henk Rogers, Tetris Ultimate producer Adrian Price, and Tetris Ultimate content game designer Florence Vaillant – to talk about the game’s roots and how Tetris Ultimate will “earn” its title.
Not a lot of Americans associate the Soviet Union in the ’80s with videogames. What was the development scene like there when you created Tetris in 1984?
Alexey Pajitnov Generally, there was no game development there. There was no industry, there was no kind of market involved. The only kind of game entertainment we had were board games and maybe some very ancient arcade machines. Basically nothing existed as even a sign of [a game] industry. But the fun of making games was there, and it’s still there.
Was Tetris the first game you designed? How did you get into this?
Pajitnov No, it’s not my first game. I did work as a programmer, as a researcher in the computer center of [the Soviet Academy of Science], and I was mainly involved in artificial intelligence and other serious kinds of programming problems. But part of my job was to check out new hardware from our computer center, and the best way to do it is to put together short program and see how it works. So that was a good excuse for me to put together the games. And I did several small puzzle games; I like puzzles and riddles and everything mathematical. Tetris was just one of them.
As its creator, what do you think is behind Tetris’ 30 years of success? Why is it such an enduring, beloved game?
Pajitnov Well, first of all, it’s a good game, and that’s important. I have no doubt that every good game will survive for a while. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The other stuff, it’s very simple: It’s very movable from platform to platform. Everybody says it has a very strong creative spirit, rather than destructive. So people have illusions that they build something there, so that is important. But the most important thing is that we worked hard for 30 years to maintain the brand, and the brand is still strong.
Tetris Ultimate shares the original’s minimalist aesthetic, except for the new power-ups and multiplayer modes. Do you think it’s important to maintain that minimalism?
Pajitnov Absolutely, yes. That’s the point of our brand. Our titles should be immediately recognizable and provide the same fun and enjoyment they used to provide.
Henk Rogers The basic concept of Tetris, where you have the blocks falling and then you’re clearing lines, has to be part of Tetris for the rest of time. We can add bells and whistles, we’re going to add power-ups and things like that, but the core game still has to be there, and be easily recognized by the player – or we lose the basic concept of the game. So when we design a new version of Tetris, we always go back to the basics, we always start from scratch, we don’t build on the previous version, because that might’ve been something going in the wrong direction. We go back and we start with the basic Tetris, and we build on that, and then we add new things.
What sorts of new things are being added for Ultimate?
Florence Vaillant We have the six fan-favorite modes, called Marathon, Endless, Sprint, Ultra, Battle, and Battle Ultimate. So the Battle Ultimate is our little twist on the regular Battle mode, and the power-ups that we’re putting there are a little homage to the previous modes that were created over the years. For instance, we have one that is called Carousel that is gonna shift your opponent well to the left for 13 seconds, I think…
Adrian Price I think it’s about three or four game turns, the power-ups, they last for about 13 seconds, and if you don’t clear one line with them, you lose them.
There are offensive and defensive power-ups. So if you’re getting near the top, you kinda want Buzzsaw to come and help you out, right? That clears extra lines on top of the line you’ve just cleared.
The basic concept of Tetris has to be part of Tetris for the rest of time
Vaillant We designed the modes to be very flexible, and you can play single-player, versus, and co-op with up to four players for any mode. You can play online and offline as well, if you want to play with friends on your couch. Now, what we really are proud of in this version of the game, the reason we call it Ultimate, is because we sat down with the creators of Tetris, and we discussed the history of Tetris and the changes it’s undergone. But there are some people who are nostalgic, and they just want to play, for example, the Game Boy version. So what we did is give you the opportunity to customize the gameplay options.
Price We’ve worked with the guys over at the Tetris Company, and we’ve been asking them questions that some of the fans in the community have been trying to get fixed for years in previous versions. And they’ve been really accommodating. You want this? Well, this is the way it’s going to be, then. So we get official word from them on what we need to do.
How exactly do you play co-op Tetris?
Vaillant You basically share a well. So everyone starts with a well that’s slightly bigger, and there’s a piece in the middle that is the shared area of the well. So people will have their pieces coming in on their allocated well, and you can drop the pieces in that shared well. Basically what’s going to happen is, we have an overall score, but then you’re able to determine who did what, who contributed what to the party.
What’s the benefit of making Tetris Ultimate a next-gen game?
Price It’s 60 frames per second…
Vaillant No loading…
Price 1080p… One of our big things was one button-press to get into the game as quickly as possible. If you just want to restart, boom, it happens immediately. So the benefit of being on these systems is practically no loading time, which is amazing. The social aspect is something we’re pushing as well; the connected nature of these consoles now means that I can see who the best players in the world are on leaderboards and challenge them.
Rogers Alexey’s original command to me was, I want to know who the best player in the world is. And this is something that this game on this platform can actually help us find out. Because all the scores, and all the gameplay of all the players, whoever played this game, will be accessible by all the other players. So I’ll know who’s the best player, and I’ll be able to see his game.
Price Yes! Replay’s in there. So if you set a score, I can go in, watch that round, and then I can go and play that mode and try to beat that score. Then when I beat that score, you’ll get a message saying you’ve been surpassed.
Rogers So the point there is that if there is a Tiger Woods of Tetris, and he’s playing somewhere in the world, in the old days, only Tiger Woods gets to see his own game. But now, everybody in the world gets to see his game. Everybody gets the benefit of watching other people’s techniques, and then their levels will go up. So it’s like the beginning of Tetris as a virtual sport, and that is the potential of this product.
Pajitnov I am very pleased that [Tetris Ultimate’s developers] were very, very careful with the Battle mode. They work with the material the game provides, and I think they did a very good job on it. So we will see. The players are judges, not us.