‘Tetris Effect’s’ Development Was Anything But Zen-Like

“Tetris” is one of the most popular games in the world, one that many people consider to be a near-perfect experience. So when Enhance Games set out to make “Tetris Effect” for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR, the studio had to figure out whether or not it should even alter the core “Tetris” gameplay.

That was one of many struggles Enhance founder and CEO Tetsuya Mizuguchi talked about during a panel at the 2019 Game Developers Conference. The easy part was getting the license: Mizuguchi met with licensor holder Henk Rogers (who affectionately refers to the game designer as “Gooch”) on the island of Hawaii in Rogers’s massive ranch.

Rogers was a fan of Mizuguchi’s past work with “Rez” and “Lumines,” so he asked him if he could make a “Tetris” game that incorporated music-based gameplay. He also wanted the project to take advantage of VR and to reflect what it’s like to play “in the zone,” referring to the way players can lose themselves and align the Tetrimino blocks without thinking.

When Mizuguchi traveled back to Tokyo, he spoke with Enhance artist Takashi Ishihara to brainstorm new ideas. Ishihara came back with evocative pieces of concept art, including one that had fire and smoke surrounding the familiar “Tetris” play space, and another that featured underwater creatures. They looked remarkably similar to the stages that ended up in the final product.   

Early stumbles
The developers also made a non-interactive video to demonstrate the kind of mood and music they were aiming for. According to VP of production and business development Mark MacDonald, those early concept pieces helped them refine their ideas, especially in regards to how the game — at this point called “Zen Tetris” — would look like in VR. In total, the studio spent two years in pre-production.

“That’s one of the things we really believe in at Enhance … where we can just have a couple people noodling on something for a couple years getting the art right,” said MacDonald.

After that long gestation period (and the release of “Rez Infinite” in 2016), Enhance put together a playable prototype of “Zen Tetris” in three months. They made everything in 3D, including the blocks and the deep-sea background animations (with fish, manta rays, and whales swimming around). But Ishihara, who Mizuguchi promoted to be the director of the game, quickly realized that the prototype didn’t feel good, and the VR version caused drowsiness and fatigue.

It was so bad that during testing sessions, Ishihara often found himself falling asleep with the VR headset still on. The team figured that the gameplay was just too overwhelming for players and that the visuals and sound design needed to balance it out. Enhance prides itself on creating gameplay that just feels good, so it had to address this issue right away.

“We place a great deal of importance on the linking of three elements: gameplay, visuals, and sound. And when balancing these elements, we strive to achieve a perfect ratio of 1:1:1,” Ishihara explained.

The studio expanded their proprietary Synesthesia Engine to improve the animations and environments, and tweaked the speed at which the blocks fall —  they slow down when there’s a lot going on on-screen (so the player can take it all in), and speed up when the presentation isn’t as busy. Ishihara also decided to split the main campaign into seven areas, likening it to finding rest stops along a highway. The goal was to give players a chance to take a break if they felt too tired.

Last-minute changes and rejections
As development progressed, Enhance still felt something was lacking in “Zen Tetris,” that the gameplay was too mundane. The team talked constantly about this, debating whether they needed to come up with a unique mechanic to separate the game from other iterations of ‘Tetris.’ Eventually, the main programmer came up with an idea: wouldn’t it be cool if the blocks didn’t disappear when you cleared them?

This was the basis behind what became the Zone system, an ability that allows you to accumulate Tetriminos even if you complete the lines, giving you a chance to rack up a ton of bonus points. Ishihara said this new feature “did a truly amazing job of expressing what it means to be in the zone.”

And in lieu of a typical 1-on-1 “Tetris” battle between players, Enhance decided to do something different with online multiplayer. Taking inspiration from his favorite meditation app Headspace, MacDonald proposed that they should make something that evokes the same variety of emotions that the campaign provides. That’s why “Tetris Effect’s” Effect Mode is more of a curated experience, offering different playlists of levels and music that match your mood.

But before it settled on those playlists, Enhance considered other wildly inventive ideas. It prototyped a mode where clearing special power-ups on the board would change the lyrics of a song, theoretically coming up with a different song every time you play. Another resembled Harmonix’s “Rock Band” games: Using the L2 and R2 triggers, you can switch between instruments (like drums, bass guitar, piano, etc.) and time your drops to the beat for a better rating, making music as you went along.

However, all of these experimental modes shared one thing: It would’ve taken way too much time and resources to properly polish them.

“Take this game and make it, please, because I would like to play it!” MacDonald said of their scrapped instrument mode.

The last aspect of the game to receive a major change was the title. While Enhance liked “Zen Tetris” for a while and came up with several logos, the developers ultimately felt that “zen” just wasn’t a good descriptor for the game anymore. Their marketing plans already revolved around the idea of the real-life “Tetris” effect, so in a last-minute move, they turned that into the official title.

Mizuguchi concluded the panel by saying that, while it was a “long journey” to create “Tetris Effect,” the studio learned a lot about how to use new technology to create emotionally moving experiences. He implored the developers in the audience to keep experimenting with their work and to help redefine what games can be.  

“We’re facing the next experiential era [of gaming],” said Mizuguchi.

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