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Four years ago, Tetsuya Mizuguchi shared a trailer for his next game.
It began with bright colours dancing across a dark background and a voice over speaking enigmatically about a medical study during which participants reported seeing colourful images from a game in their mind, just as they were falling asleep.
As the soothing trance music swelled and the colours became overwhelming, the voice over read the line: “Blocks, they all saw blocks. Falling through space, sometimes rotating or fitting neatly into empty spaces between other blocks. Some participants also reported seeing completed lines disappear.”
Then, one minute and thirty-five seconds into the trailer, a T-block appeared.
Tetusya Mizuguchi was making a Tetris game.
The game was released in 2018 to incredible reviews and a positive word of mouth which cemented the game as the must-try PSVR title in its early years. A truly overwhelming spectacle to play, the game manages to take arguably the most recognisable, and one of the best selling games of all time, and re-define it.
Since then, a multiplayer mode has been added, it’s released on practically every (but not quite every) platform that it could, and it’s earned an adoring fan base from hardcore Tetris players to those who just like to play on easy and watch the dazzling light show.
So, four years after that spine-tingling trailer, we spoke with Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Producer Mark MacDonald and Director Takashi Ishihara about Tetris Effect, their experience working on the project, and what’s next for the innovative developer.
What do you remember about the beginning of the Tetris Effect project?
Tetsuya Mizuguchi : I have fond memories of going to Hawaii with Ishihara-san and meeting with Henk Rodgers of the Tetris team. I remember admiring the wonderful nature and brainstorming what our next game could be. We were on Big Island, which is an area of Hawaii that’s full of nature. There are huge mountains with snow, as well as volcanoes, it’s an amazing place. It has eleven different climates.
Mark McDonald : It has eleven of the thirteen climates on planet earth! You can be five minutes between some of them. You could be skiing one day and then scuba-diving or surfing an hour later.
TM : We sat around the campfire under the stars and discussed things, and that inspiration really became Tetris Effect. Every day Ishihara was drawing, every time he could. It was an amazing opportunity.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in the early stages of development?
TM : Everybody knows Tetris, it’s one of the most famous games in the world. If we used Tetris and then incorporated synthesia, but people thought ‘this is not so gorgeous’ or ‘this doesn’t deserve to be called Tetris’ there would be no emotional response. But we wanted to make Tetris so we struggled with that final vision and how that would be presented. We faced many trials, and that was a great challenge.
Takashi Ishihara : We’re talking about Tetris, it’s very simple and very beautiful. There’s beauty in the simplicity of it and so it was scary adding all of these extra sounds and visuals. I was nervous about how players would respond to that, but in the back of my mind, I had this confidence that people were going to love it. So the hardest thing was adding on to something simple and so elegant.
MM : The first time I saw the concept for Tetris Effect, Ishihara-san and Mizuguchi-san had been working on it for over a year. There was a video, which was a ‘look and feel’ concept which used licensed music. In some ways, it was pretty close to a few of the final stages, but it wasn’t in 3D, it was 2D images layered on the game. It definitely gave you a sense for the game.
It was my job to pitch it to partners, and we’d show it to friends, or fellow developers that we’d have to the studio, people we trusted. You would tell them, “our next game is Tetris” and they would have this weird look on their face like, “you’re making a Tetris game? Really?” and then we’d explain that it was going to be in VR and they’d say, “oh so the pieces are going to fly down and you’re going to be dodging them?” and we’d have to be like, “no…” to which they’d say, “Oh!, so are you going to be tagging the Tetris blocks and moving them?” “no…”
MM: [Laughs] So we had to just say: “Here, sit down and play it” because honestly, I think we got good at explaining what the game is, but nothing compares to sitting down to play the game. We had this three-stage demo early on which included Deep Sea, and they got it. And some of them really got it. That was a great memory, seeing the look on people’s faces. We’ve been doing this long enough to know when someone is being polite and when they’re feeling something, and people were feeling something. I remember the look on specific people’s faces after playing the first demo and that is such a great feeling.
Today will mark four years since the game was first shown publicly, what do you remember about the reaction to the game and how did it make you feel?
TM: It was a big moment for me. We showed the first trailer at E3 and we were so nervous. We decided on the title; Tetris Effect and then Mark gave us the amazing idea to include the gentleman’s voice talking about the Harvard Medical School experiments on the Tetris Effect. We didn’t show any Tetris at first. We showed the music, and the effects, we wanted to achieve synthesia and then finally, a Tetris block appeared.
The reaction was really big. We hoped for a big reaction, but we were so nervous. It was so positive. People asked “What is this? Tetris Effect?” it was a really good buzz. Then we showed the game and saw people play with VR and after seeing people’s faces we were very confident.
Deep Sea, which will be better known to fans by its song, Connected (Yours Forever) was the soundtrack of the original trailer and has become the track most closely associated with the game. Composed by Hydelic, the music unit behind the game’s soundtrack, like every track in the game, it evolves as the player progresses through the level, dropping blocks to the beat.
TI: I felt the same, but from my perspective was the first major title from Enhance. I was working with Mizuguchi-san since Q Entertainment, and we had Rez Infinite, but this was our first big original title for Enhance. So I was super, super happy that I was able to release the game and that everything came together. This was the first time that I was the director, so it was a huge accomplishment for me.
MM: I was having stress dreams almost a year before launch about making a trailer for the game. I had confidence in the game idea, we didn’t know how big of a success. We knew it wasn’t going to be a creative failure. Commercial who knows, but we knew the game was there.
How do you make an exciting trailer for any Tetris game much less a Tetris game which is about Tetris but also about all of these other things? How do we judge that? How do you make it clear that this is a new different kind of Tetris? So I was thinking about it constantly and struggling with it for a long time.
So when that trailer came together, and that was thanks to a lot of people but mostly my comrade Yamada-san, who was the person that pushed the Tetris Effect name, it was going to be called “Zen Tetris” up until pretty close to reveal. We collaborated on the trailers and we worked really well together. I was very happy with how it turned out.
We couldn’t impact the team too much, so we had to use small amounts of gameplay to make it work. And then when we showed it on June 6, World Tetris Day, we were initially a little bummed that we weren’t going to be part of Sony’s E3 conference, then we found out they were doing this new thing in the lead up where they highlighted one new game each day and we thought “is anyone going to care?” but, to (Sony’s) credit, it worked out great. Arguably better than being on the E3 stage, because there was nothing out that day.
That trailer was getting great views, we were checking the views throughout E3, it was a really electric feeling, especially with all of the press playing it for the first time and people coming up to us and saying “that trailer was amazing”. That was a great feeling.
Flashing forward, how did you feel when the game finally released and was met with incredible reviews and would later be considered for, and win, several Game of the Year awards?
TM: We were so happy. It was a great honour, and it gave us confidence and energy. We were super happy. At the same time, this is Tetris Effect, Tetris is already a great game, but I think the positive and good reaction to the new additions and the mixing of the new technology to achieve the feeling the game can give was special. We can make a simple game like Tetris and add emotional elements and it made people cry. We did that and people’s reaction was, “what the… what happened?”
We wanted that. We spent a long time on that and had long discussions, but we never gave up. It made us super, super happy.
MM: Word of mouth was so important for this game, and reviews were really the kickstart to that. When we saw reviews and people doing the reviews really getting it and being like; “I know you can play any Tetris game on the web right now, but trust me you have to buy this game”. People struggling to explain it was incredible, that’s what we were hoping for because we’d seen it happen in development.
The Game of the Year awards were a big surprise, to be honest. I didn’t think anyone would give it to a Tetris game, it wouldn’t matter how good, the fact that it’s Tetris, I thought, was a curse and that no one was going to consider it, but they did, and we got a lot of nominations and were lucky enough to win a few, and we did not expect that or take that for granted.
I distinctly remember I would go to Twitter to feel good, as opposed to what normally happens when you go to Twitter and you kinda have to guard yourself because you’re about to see all the crap that’s going on with the world, but it would be the opposite. I would search Tetris Effect and scroll through every mention because it was so positive. People were vibing with it and it was so kind and it was helping people sleep, in a good way! (laughing). People were using it for self-care and all these really cool things that we hoped that people would use it for.
“I distinctly remember I would go to Twitter to feel good, as opposed to what normally happens when you go to Twitter and you kinda have to guard yourself because you’re about to see all the crap that’s going on with the world”
TI : It was great seeing our hard work come to fruition. We had a lot of different ideas and seeing all of the positive reviews made us realise we’d made the correct decisions. People were liking it, people were enjoying it, and getting the awards really gave us so much motivation to push the boundaries in development.
TM : We had a voice message from a Discord user who played the game with VR. He was very depressed during the Covid situation and he used Tetris Effect to keep hope. He got a very positive power from the game and he was very thankful. That was incredible energy for us. Another player gave the VR version of the game to his mother, who is suffering with cancer. She’s unable to move, but she can play Tetris. This is the first VR experience for her and it’s helping improve her mood. These were very unexpected reactions, but incredible.
How important was the original PlayStation VR to Tetris Effect?
TM: The PSVR was super important to us. This was the medium that we wanted to use to deliver the Tetris Effect experience that we had with all the music and the images, and this played a huge role in being able to deliver this type of experience. We’d previously released Rez on the PSVR, and so being able to achieve snythesia with PSVR was the ideal platform to convey that.
TI: For Tetris Effect, the whole concept is “Zen”. Basically, we wanted players to enter this world, and we felt that VR was the perfect way. The whole vibe was perfect for PSVR. On top of that, we weren’t just going for a simple experience, we wanted a whole-body experience and PSVR was perfect for that.
Mark and Mizuguchi-san told me to imagine that I was putting a VR headset on a monk so that I could visualise and create through the theme of zen. So I wrote a whole planning sheet with that in mind (laughing), I really wanted to share that with you.
MM: It was incredibly important. As the launch system for the game, it was the ultimate way to play the game. It was the way that we demoed the game, we did it in VR. When we had to check builds on the publishing side, we would do a little bit in 2D, but it was mostly done in VR, it was very much prioritised because the feeling was that it played up all of the strengths of the game. It blocked out everything else, it primed you to get into the zone. Having headphones on was also such a big difference-maker for that.
What is your lasting memory of the Tetris Effect project?
TM: Like what Mark was saying earlier, it was great seeing the reaction from people actually understanding what we were going for. Personally, I’ve always wanted to make VR games, since I was at Sega in the early 90s. I did a lot of research for VR in the arcade space, unfortunately, it was very limited at the time, we weren’t able to deliver an experience that I thought was satisfactory.
So it’s amazing to do this now where we can actually make good VR experiences and the technology has caught up. For a creative experience, my time with it has been excellent. I have a lot of strong memories of Tetris Effects, and the reaction has allowed us to continue to support it, so I’m incredibly thankful for that.
TI: With Tetris Effect we made the Zone feature, which I feel is very unique, it’s like innovation in Tetris. There are so many Tetris games, they can be simple, you clear four lines, but with the Zone Feature, we wanted people to push limits, we had to make new names for when people clear certain amounts of lines, as the Zone allowed for more lines to be cleared at the same time than ever before. That feels like innovation in itself. I’m really proud of being able to accomplish that.
“PSVR was incredibly important. As the launch system for the game, it was the ultimate way to play the game. It was the way that we demoed the game”
MM: I remember when Ishihara-san first showed the Zone feature, we’d been trying to add something to gameplay and when he showed it, it was like; “Oh my god, I think we found it!”. Before that we’d tried stopping time, we tried being able to reverse time. All credit to Ishihara-san and the team, it was simple, but it appealed to beginners and veterans. It was one of those things where we felt like “We got it”. It was super exciting.
We did a PR trip throughout the States, from the West Coast to Minneapolis, through the East Coast and then on to Europe and the UK, and it was a blast. It was really hard, it was a lot of work, but we were proud of the game and wanted to show it off to people so getting to see people’s reactions was special. I was in the gaming media before myself and so I think there’s a reason why people get into it and I have a quick comfort level with people who get into the media because we love games.
It’s that way with game developers too, but on the media side it was just so much fun to see old friends and to get to travel, it was a magical fun time. I believe in the press tour. I know it’s not been possible in the last few years, but even before then, it felt out of style. I’m a big lover of that and a big believer in it too. I think it makes a big difference.
Do you feel like the chapter on Tetris Effect has closed or is there still more you’d like to do with the game?
MM: There are still platforms that we’re not out on that we’d like to be. There might be future platforms that are coming out that we’d like to be on. I’ll say that not only do I not feel like it’s dead, but we are also actively still working on the game and still including things into the game. We added a colourblind feature in the latest patch. We’re not adding big new modes, but we’re doing balance changes, and we’ve got things coming up that will help people running tournaments.
One of the things about the word of mouth is that it allows us to be able to have resources to update the game and then bring it out on multiple platforms and that’s something we’re still continuing to look to.
[Game Pass] was big. That was our first system that was on that was a large subscription-based platform. We find people are like “I can’t get over paying money for a Tetris game” and despite as many people as possible saying how good it is, we still find that and then what happened when it came to Game Pass, we did very well, and continue to do very well. It removed the barrier to entry and so we saw an uptick on all systems when that happened, more people were talking about it.
The Switch version was the perfect OLED launch game.
MM: (laughing) Thank you so much, that was definitely not an accident that we released on that date, we were hoping that would be what people thought. So thank you very much.
On the future of VR, Ishihara-san mused that he thinks we’re in the infancy of what VR can do to expand genres, in the same way, that Tetris Effect took a simple game like Tetris and redefined it.
TI: A lot of developers have this idea that developing VR is very difficult, but I think that it opens up a lot of possibilities. It adds more impact, not just the visuals, but the sound and everything too. And just like we did with Tetris, I think more genres can come to VR and be amazing experiences, and that will bring new genres with it. I think that’s incredibly exciting.
Before we finish, we have to ask Mizuguchi-san about the upcoming PlayStation VR 2 and what Enhance would be interested in making for the hardware.
TM: [Laughs] I can’t say anything very specific… but we are very interested, and we’re thinking about how we can push VR, so we’re very interested in new hardware and how we’re looking to make VR games better. We’re very interested in the PSVR 2.