Multiplayer Tetris: Communities in Context
When most people think of Tetris, they probably think of the most quintessential single player experience: a single person endlessly placing blocks until they lose. Most academic work has also taken this view. Whether it’s Janet Murray’s famous narratological read of Tetris as commentary on the oppressive nature of the American work life (Murray 1997) or Nick Montfort’s joking label of ludological investigations as “Tetris studies”, there’s always this framework of the player vs. the game itself (Post 2009). Tetris seems like it can be interpreted as a generalizable set of tetromino placement rules that solely and directly interface the player with the game.
Although this simple abstraction leads to interesting discussion into narrativity and game structure, it ignores the many vibrant communities that have sprung up around the game. Whether working within pre-coded multiplayer features or creating entirely new modes, these communities have taken Tetris as a malleable social object and formed cultural structures / conventions around its gameplay (Hughes 2005). Since each community is still fundamentally centered around the basic game of Tetromino placement, we can understand how the social context around the game (ex. commercialization, platform, explicit / implicit rule following) can create different atmospheres of casual / hardcore play and overall community engagement.
To help narrow the scope from the infinite range of Tetris variations, we will be focusing on agonistic gameplay on official Tetris releases. Specifically, we will be analyzing the communities surrounding the original Nintendo NES version of Tetris, the website tetrisfriends.com, and the Facebook version of Tetris Battle.
NES Tetris + Classic Tetris World Championship
The Nintendo NES Tetris is the original format of Tetris so it is unsurprising that the Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC) – the premiere “official” competition for best Tetris player – uses this game as its format. However, since the Nintendo NES Tetris doesn’t have a multiplayer mode (unlike the rarer and unofficial Atari / Tengen Tetris), this “multiplayer” format is really just players playing in parallel with one another, trying to beat the other opponents in terms of numbers of line completed or points scored.
Although it’s interesting that fans of the original Tetris intentionally made a structure out of a single player game, it is not as successful at creating a community between players as compared to other competitive e-sports. As Chris Higgins noted in an interview with competitor Bo Steil:
it’s a lonely game. “It is a battle with yourself. That’s who you play with over and over,” he told me. It’s rare that he has the opportunity to interact with other players in person.” (“Playing to Lose » Chris Higgins” 2016)
Here is a sample video clip of gameplay, taken from the finals of CTWC 2015:
Note how there is zero physical interaction between players at all. The only marker of interaction is the score at the top. The numbers underneath the score show how much further ahead (green color) or behind (red color) the player is. While other typical e-sports like Starcraft or DotA have an avatar that players can at least project onto, all social interaction in this Tetris format is abstracted away into numbers, further compounding this paradoxical sense of isolation in a social setting.
Similarly, even outside of the game space, there still seems to be this sense of isolation / abstraction away from the game. . By the very nature of the physical setup (CRT + NES + authentic NES controller), players need to fundamentally be in person to interact. This leads to a community feeling of several single player who just come together for one moment to show off their achievements creating an arcade / retro feel much like the NES version of Tetris itself. This also is revealed in the fact that the community uses traditional methods of social interaction rather than creating a dedicated space for their community – using Youtube for uploading videos rather than streaming, and being Facebook friends rather than creating a forum to connect (“Playing to Lose » Chris Higgins” 2016). The following clip from “Ecstasy of Order” highlights how the single-styled nature of the game makes it a big deal when competitors actually get to meet in person for the first time
This isolation seems to be mainly be driven by a strict focus on the explicitly laid out rules of NES Tetris, even externally to the play space itself. Looking at the rules of the current CTWC, the insistence on “original unmodified NES controllers”. In the following picture from the 2013 CTWC, note the extremely traditional setup of the CRT monitor and original NES machines.
Although CRTs do help with lag, it is a conscious decision to choose a physical set up that hasn’t been changed from the 1980s instead of say, an emulator with custom control set up schemes. Although there is some variation on the rules (see following clip from “Ecstasy of Order” of a local tournament’s house rules), the adherence to tradition probably contributes to the singular nature of the NES Tetris community, continuing the same design principles that caused the original Tetris to be read as a lonely battle between player and computer (Cornelius 2011).
Tetris Friends + HardDrop
In contrast to the somewhat isolated community of the NES Tetris world, the community that has built up around Tetris Friends (tetrisfriends.com) is much more active and communicative. Tetris Friends is a sort of hub website made by the Tetris Company to host many different dedicated modes. One can play a version of Tetris similar to the single player Gameboy version, but one can also find modes to clear a certain number of lines the fastest, modes to score the most number of points within a certain amount of time, etc. These modes generally come in single player or asynchronous multiplayer modes, where play data from other players’ previously played games are given back to the current player.
The synchronous multiplayer mode (Arena) is the primary area of focus. Unlike NES Tetris, Arena is a dedicated multiplayer “battle mode”. Instead of competing with scores, one sends extra “garbage” lines to the bottom of another player’s playspace whenever one clears out lines. There are also powerups that can be activated to make it harder for your opponent to play or help clear out your board more easily. One can also pay extra money for custom skins, added powerups, and improved mechanics.
The Arena mode has sparked tremendous interest in one of the most active Tetris interest website – HardDrop (harddrop.com). Although there are other Tetris sites like Tetris Concept (tetrisconcept.net) that look down on Arena’s powerups and casual appearance, Tetris Friends Arena mode has remained HardDrop’s preferred format for championship tournaments and casual pick-up games (“TETRIS Tournament Online IV | Tetrisconcept” 2016).
Although it’s tempting to say that this extra socialness stems from The Tetris Company intentionally baking it into the design(i.e. the “friends” part of TetrisFriends), the social support seems to be coming from the community itself. HardDrop is not affiliated with The Tetris Company but seems to be doing the majority of the socialization. Unlike the NES community (which prefers TetrisConcept), HardDrop has a Twitch team, a newsfeed highlighting interviews with community members, and a thorough and up-to-date wiki to share techniques with beginners (TetrisConcept’s wiki has not been updated within the past month and seems to consist of reposts from HardDrop’s). In other words, the community is creating the less-isolated social context, not the game designers.
Perhaps most tellingly, in one of the interviews in “Ecstasy of Order”, one of the competitors, Harry Hong, actually mentions going on Tetris Friends as a sort of break
This division in Hong’s mind between “Nintendo Tetris” and “Tetris Friends” highlights how the Tetris Friends community differs from the NES scene. Rather than the intensive mostly-single-player training that Hong usually faces, he finds a supportive social space that helps him get back to “Nintendo Tetris”.
This less isolated social context directly follows from a greater willingness to break explicit rules and create one’s own social construct. Again, even though the Tetris Company created features for multiplayer interaction such as in-game chat and avatars in Arena mode, HardDrop community members took it on themselves to support forums and shoutboxes to provide a better experience. For a more explicit example, compare these videos of two highly-ranked HardDrop members
These videos are of the same players, but again, HardDrop members took the preexisting Tetris Company provided code (top video) and made it into something more legible and easier to follow (bottom video). HardDrop community members even created “hack-y” workarounds for ad-less interfaces (minimize lag) and tweaking piece delay settings (for high-level play) without going through The Tetris Company’s pay structure (“Minimal Tetris Friends: Reducing Lag as Much as Possible (updated 2016-08-02) – Forums – Hard Drop – Tetris Community” 2016)(“TETRIS Tournament Online IV | Tetrisconcept” 2016). These definitely go against the intent of the Tetris Company but they help provide equal playing fields for everyone in the HardDrop community by ensuring similar setups across the board. This willingness to go beyond what is given, to treat the game as a more malleable cultural object, helps HardDrop have a more participatory culture than the NES tetris community.
Tetris Battle + Facebook
The final variation of Tetris communities to talk about is the Tetris Battle community on Facebook. This game is identical to the Tetris Friends’ asynchronous multiplayer modes, complete with sending garbage lines to other opponents. The main difference lies in the Facebook integration and the heavy monetization schemes. The number of Tetris games one can play is now tied to an energy system which recharges slowly over time. Energy can be bought with real money to have faster playtime.
The game became massively popular in 2011-2012, becoming a top 10 game on Facebook with a peak of 4.1 million daily active users (Youm 2012) . However, despite this extremely large community, there was very little community engagement. Most Tetris Battle videos highlight individual achievement with almost no concurrent gameplay, while more hardcore Tetris fans were turned off by the blatant cash grabs and asynchronous play. Take these HardDrop comments for instance:
“[The Tetris Company] redefines multiplayer. I miss good old times when multiplayer meant to play with other people.”
“I agree, [Tetris Battle] is as “multiplayer” as talking to a television set is “socializing”.”
(As a side note, the analogy between the versions of multiplayer and television set socializing could be read as a dig towards the NES tetris players as well. By limiting interaction between game boards to a number, the socializing that happens at the CTWC could be thought of us as “talking to a television set”)
This lack of caring about a user community is reflected in the developer dialogue / literature surrounding Tetris Battle. Most of the dialogue about Tetris Battle refers to increasing revenue, increasing number of users or becoming a successful Facebook game (“Inside Tetris Battle, Facebook’s Top Multiplayer Arcade Game” 2016)(Youm 2012). If we continue to use the implicit / explicit rule framework, it seems that the increased drive for monetization allowed users no avenue to mess with the code or rules for fear of losing possible income. By shutting down this creative structure, the developers of Tetris Battle prevented a more participatory culture from forming, which may explain why Tetris Battle engagement has since died off after its fad days.
However, what Facebook Tetris Battle does do well as a community is having a gentler introduction for newcomers to Tetris. HardDrop’s pooh poohing of the lack of “real” multiplayer in FB Tetris Battle already hints at a superiority that may be intimidating for new players. Even by choosing the name “HardDrop”, it is already referencing an intermediate level technique that puts distance between new players who may not be aware of the distinctions between hard and soft drops.
From our analysis, we see that by analyzing different communities around multiplayer Tetris, we understand now that the simple “player vs. computer” narrative that Tetris usually has is not sufficient to describe the game as a whole. We also gained a new perspective on how willingness to follow implicit / explicit rules can radically change how a community feels and welcomes new members.
As mentioned earlier, we had to significantly narrow down the scope of this piece in order to provide a tractable piece. There are many other avenues for investigation:
1. We focused solely on official Tetris productions. However, off-brand Tetris clones such as Atari / Tengen Tetris or fan-made versions can highlight key aspects missing from the central Tetris series.
2. We had a primarily Western focus on Tetris. This ignores Japanese and Korean influences, where Tetris streaming is more popular and widespread (Jordan 2009)
We focused on purely competitive modes, but many co-op modes exist. For example, two competitors on the Tetris NES scene have met up to play Tengen Tetris in person.
All of these avenues provide a good next step for future exploration, which can definitely build on the work done in this paper highlighting the key role that company monetization and willingness to break explicit rules play in forming a community.
Jordan, Will. 2009. “Evolution of the Tetromino stacking Game: An Historical Design Study of Tetris.” In Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Proceedings of DiGRA 2009. University of California, Irvine. http://web.archive.org/web/20120301202513/http://wiki.igda.org/images/e/ea/Will_Jordan_-_Evolution_of_the_tetromino-stacking_game.pdf.
“Minimal Tetris Friends: Reducing Lag as Much as Possible (updated 2016-08-02) – Forums – Hard Drop – Tetris Community.” 2016. Accessed October 19. http://harddrop.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=5597.