You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘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.

More Gaming

  • 'Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the

    'Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch' Is Still a Fantastic Anime Adventure

    Six years after it’s original release “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch” is coming back with a Nintendo Switch version and remastered edition on PS4 and PC. It’s time for more long-winded, adorable JRPG action. It’s odd since comparing the new version of the Level-5 developed classic with the original game is pointless [...]

  • ‘Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot’ Highlights The

    ‘Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot’ Highlights The Mundane Side of The Anime

    There have been dozens and dozens of games based on the popular anime “Dragon Ball Z.” While most focus on recreating the series’s electric fight scenes, very few have explored the more mundane and humorous aspects of the characters’ lives. Fortunately, “Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot” (releasing on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in 2020) [...]

  • 'Empire of Sin' is a Bloody,

    'Empire of Sin' is a Bloody, Strategic Take on the Criminal Underworld of 1920s Chicago

    When Paradox Interactive and Romero Games announced their new strategy game, “Empire of Sin,” some fans may have been disappointed. They could have wanted another intensely violent and fast-paced game from John Romero, one of the original creators of “Doom.” They shouldn’t be though as ‘Empire of Sin’ is a deep, violent take on criminal [...]

  • 'Marvel's Avengers' is Crystal Dynamics' Indistinct

    'Marvel's Avengers' is Crystal Dynamics' Indistinct Take on a Comic Classic

    After 22 films in the leadup to “Avengers: Endgame,” the culmination of everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe built up towards, you’d think any other take on the classic team of superheroes would fall flat on its face. New faces would be eclipsed by the likes of Chris Evans’ perfect Captain America, Robert Downey Jr.’s dashing [...]

  • The Inner Machinations of John Wick's

    The Inner Machinations of John Wick's Mind

    Many games have you play as a character but very few let you inhabit their psyche. That’s the aim behind “John Wick Hex,” a strategy game that puts you inside the scenarios found by the titular movie character. And if a choreographed action sequence is nothing more than a combination of well thought out punches [...]

  • ‘LEGO Star Wars’ Is Rebuilding ‘The

    ‘LEGO Star Wars’ Is Rebuilding ‘The Skywalker Saga’ Brick by Brick

    There was a lot of chatter about EA’s “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order” at E3 this year, but that wasn’t the only “Star Wars” game on display. Freshly announced at Microsoft’s media briefing earlier this week, “LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga” combines all nine core “Star Wars” movies, including the yet-to-be-released “The Rise of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content