October 30, 2019

How Tetris Effect became a modern work of art

By Jimmy Thang

Originally released on PlayStation 4 late last year, Tetris Effect more recently launched on PC, where it continued garnering stellar reviews. PCWorld, in particular, noted, “Tetris Effect is more than a Tetris game. It's a work of art that you just happen to interact with by stacking blocks and clearing rows.” 

To discover how the development team was able to re-invent the Tetris experience in the modern era using new tech like VR and UE4, we interviewed Enhance Games VP of Production & Biz Dev Mark MacDonald and Monstars CTO & Tetris Effect Technical Director Takanori Uchida. They share what motivated them to re-imagine the age-old classic and elaborate on how they created the game’s surreal and otherworldly visuals, which were incorporated to both overstimulate players as an added challenge, while at other times helping them better reach a flow state. They also talk about how the Tetris Effect’s visuals influenced the game’s awe-inspiring soundtrack and vice versa.    

MacDonald then goes onto discuss the new Zone mechanic, which walks the fine line between assisting Tetris newcomers while offering more depth to seasoned vets. He also reveals how the game’s new bonus Tetris Effect modes stemmed from an internal game jam. Finally, Uchida touches upon how specific Unreal Engine tools and features like Blueprints and source-code access were valuable components in making the game the monumental success it is today. 
What drew the studio to re-imagine Tetris? 

Enhance Games VP of Production & Biz Dev Mark MacDonald: After the development of the original Rez, there was the idea of “musical Tetris” back before the Sony PSP launched. There were issues surrounding the Tetris license, so nothing came of it at the time, but that led to the creation of Lumines for the PSP. Since then, we wanted to make a proper Tetris game that most everyone is familiar with and can pick up and play without any barriers. 

With breathtaking levels that take you underwater, to the moon, through an aurora borealis, and more, Tetris Effect is truly a work of art. How did you design and execute on the game's dream-like graphics?

MacDonald: From the start, we settled on using particles as a base for most of our graphics, as they can react really well to the music; from there, we wanted a mix of the real and the surreal to create something familiar yet otherworldly, or dream-like, as you might say. It took lots and lots of iteration to get things looking right, though.
The visuals are so hypnotic that they almost overwhelm the senses. Was this deliberately done to create an added challenge? 

MacDonald: At times, yes; we tried to create a cycle of excitation and relaxation to get people into “the zone,” or a flow state, and one way of doing that was with music and the visuals ramping up and down. At the same time, we spent a ton of time tweaking the visuals as to not become problematic (causing nausea, visuals getting in the way of the gameplay, etc.), Hopefully we found a good balance, but we also included an option for players who want to see less of that sort of thing.

Tetris Effect's electronic soundtrack is mesmerizing and blends perfectly with the otherworldly visual elements of the game. Did the aesthetics influence the music or vice versa? 

MacDonald: Both. Often it would go back and forth — the visual artists would hear something the music folks made and go back and change things based on that, which would then inspire the musicians to take things another way, and so on. 
Tetris Effect introduces the Zone mechanic, which allows players to build up a meter that slows down time. Considering this maneuver can help novice players stay alive longer and allow veteran players to form unprecedented combos, can you explain your design goals here?

MacDonald: We wanted something that felt significant, but at the same time did not get in the way of the “pure” Tetris gameplay, which has stood the test of time. Also, as you mentioned, we really wanted something that would appeal both to novice players and those who have played the game for a long time.

Again, the key was experimentation and iteration; we tried lots and lots of different ideas, eventually coming to a few that involved time — stopping time or reversing it, etc. From there, it was just a few tweaks and one idea of not clearing completed lines immediately that lead us to the Zone.

Tetris Effect features numerous modes that offer a twist on the classic Tetris gameplay, such as mechanics that force players to defuse explosive Tetriminos or one that flips the entire board upside down. How did the studio craft these fun, new takes on Tetris?

MacDonald: We basically had our own little game jam — anyone who had ideas for a variation on the Tetris rule pitched it to the team; the ones that sounded promising, we prototyped, and the ones that seemed fun from there went into production. Again, the key was experimentation and iteration! Luckily, Unreal makes such things not only possible, but relatively fast, easy, and cheap to do.
Having worked on Tetris Effect and Rez Infinite, both of which are VR-compatible games, what are your thoughts on VR?

MacDonald: We are huge, huge believers in the potential and future of VR; we are still in the very early days — basically the equivalent of Pong for [traditional] games with the first few years of the medium even existing — but we’re already seeing amazing experiences. As the hardware gets inevitably cheaper, lighter, and easier to use, the games will only get better than before as well. There are already great times to be had in VR, but we believe we will see a VR “tipping point” in the next 5-10 years when it becomes truly mainstream.

How big was the team that worked on the game?

MacDonald: It varied with contractors and such, but roughly 15 people.
What made UE4 a good fit for the game?

Monstars CTO & Tetris Effect Technical Director Takanori Uchida: UE4 was a good fit for this game because it gave more freedom for the artists to work on the visuals. Especially the Material Editor and particle editor was easy to use and helped speed up the development process. Also, UE4 has great VR support and it was easy for us to debug 2D and VR at the same time. Since the source code is open to the public, we have been able to enhance and optimize the particle system to achieve the visuals we want, which also made UE4 a good fit for this game.

Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?

Uchida: Our favorites are Blueprints and Material Editor. The UI is also well thought out and intuitive. It is easy to search from the large Blueprint function/Material node library. Also, we really like the fact that in the Material Editor, you get to see your changes reflected in real time very quickly!

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Tetris Effect?

MacDonald: Thanks! People can learn more at our website, on Twitter @enhance_exp, and Instagram.