Level 1 - Let's Start Simple

Level 1 - Let's Start Simple

Every day I feel the heavy flow of questions inside my brain coming to hunt me and force me to answer every single one of them. I'm very convinced there's a Question Factory inside my brain with tiny creatures working hard to produce thousands of questions every few seconds! I tried to stop them but nothing worked. I believe they are the reason why I decided to start this Game Design Research. Therefore, Expect this research to have questions more than answers! Well, maybe some answers. Anyway, please continue reading :(

After negotiating the direction of this research with the workers of my brain's Question Factory, we have decided to start simple and answer the basic question in game design, what is a game?

So, What is a game?

I like this question because there's no right or wrong answer. Everyone has their own definition of a game. I have mine as well!

For me, a game is an adventurous and unique learning experience! It's a learning experience simply because in order to beat a game you have to learn its mechanics, make mistakes, learn from them and improve your skills. Whether the game is teaching you something good or bad, you will always learn something, implicitly. As a result, it will have a great impact on your brain. I'll talk in more details about how games affect our brains at some point in this research, until then let's hold that thought.


Let me know  what is your definition of a game.


Now that one question is out of the way let's move on to the next one. You see, huge part of this research is going to be about analyzing games, books, comics, & movies. The challenge is that I want to analyze everything as a game designer or a creator instead of a player, reader, or observer. I have to be able to deconstruct every part, understand why it was created the way it did and how. By understanding other people's creations, I can improve my own. Therefore, my next question is how to play as a designer, read as a writer, or watch as a director? I'll focus on the first part of the question in this post.

How to play as a designer?

Playing as a designer simply means playing a game from a game designer's perspective. For me it also means to understand the designer's goal and purpose of the game and sometimes beyond that. You can apply that by observing the gameplay and analyzing everything while you're playing. There are many approaches and ways to analyze a game. To be honest, I'm learning these approaches as I'm documenting my research. Thus, instead of explaining how to play as a designer which is a topic I'm not fully expert in, I'll share how I played as designer along with my analysis, observation, mistakes and my results. This way you will be able to see how I applied the different techniques, what worked and what didn't.


Try to guess what game I'll analyze from the game's theme song below (Don't scroll down -.-)

Guessed it? No? Ok, I'll just assume you did! The game I'll analyze in the first level of the Game Design Research is ......


(Obviously I was very bored -.-'')

Anyway, few important things to note before I start analyzing:

  • A super Alnin has joined me to help with analyzing Tetris and his name is Rayan. Discussing game design with Rayan is always interesting, informative and fun. He started his game design research long before me, that's why his feedback is very valuable.
  • My analysis is based on questions, of course. I'll start with the basic ones then I'll go deeper.
  • You can use this as a template for you to start analyzing games. Also, you're welcome to improve mine.
  • I'm not an expert in analyzing games but I will share whatever I learn in my research. Including my mistakes!
  • There are many versions of Tetris each with slightly different rules or algorithms. The version I'm using in this analysis is the online version. You can find it here.

Why Tetris??

Well, I wanted to start the first level of this research with a simple, yet, powerful game. Tetris is exactly that. Also, I'm almost sure that most of you Alnins have played it before and are familiar with its basics and rules. If you're not familiar with it, don't panic! You can always play it online. It's free.

Another reason is that I wanted to start with a successful game! Yes, I will analyze unsuccessful games at some point. I'm convinced that I will learn from the mistakes of other game designers as much as I'll learn from their successes.

What is Tetris?

Tetris is a game about building. Your job as a player is to build a horizontal line using different falling geometric shapes called tetrominoes. The horizontal lines you build will disappear giving you empty space to build more lines. 

The 5 main tetrominoes in Tetris.

The 5 main tetrominoes in Tetris.

When I analyze a game which I've never played before, usually I play it as a player first. I don't try to analyze or think too much about the design. I just enjoy the game. After I finish it I play it again but with a designer's eyes and mind. This way I won't ruin the game experience for myself. Also, when I play it again I will be able to observe and realize new perspectives I didn't notice the first time. I believe playing as a regular player is what enables me to play as designer.

The History of Tetris


Tetris was developed in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian researcher working for the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Tetris history is filled with battles, trials and many people! I'll leave the history for you to read more about. It's a very interesting story, sad, but with a happy ending, I promise.


More about the story of Tetris here & here.


What Inspired Alexey to develop Tetris?

Alexey, love puzzles and one of his favorite puzzles is Pentominoes.

At first he created a digital version of Pentominoes. Then, he realized that the time spent on the game was very short. He thought about enlarging the grid and enabling the player to scroll down. He scratched that idea for obvious reasons! Then, he noticed that the falling shapes can form a line. This filled line wasn't needed or important to the game and it was taking space and memory (He was working on a very old computer). His final decision was to eliminate any filled lines. And so Tetris was born!

For me, analyzing a game is like peeling a fruit. You start with the outside layer then you go deeper and deeper until you reach the fruit's seeds. following this analogy I start my analysis from the first layer. Meaning, I start simple and with the basic questions. When I find my answers I go deeper until I reach the core of the game which corresponds to the fruit's seeds in this case. Always start simple.

What are the mechanics in Tetris?

Rayan and I discussed the mechanics in Tetris and divided it into two parts, core and supportive mechanics. The first is the main mechanic that Tetris won't be Tetris without and the later is any mechanic which is used for support but without it the game will still be playable and enjoyable to some extent. I also define supportive mechanics as the mechanics that enhance your skills in the game. By using them you can master the game faster.

Core Mechanics

There are two core mechanics in Tetris:

  • The ability to rotate the falling tetrominoes.
  • The ability to choose where to place the tetrominoes.

Supportive Mechanics

  • The ability to check the next tetromino.
  • The ability to hold a tetromino.

The Hold mechanic was added in later versions of Tetris and the Next mechanic was improved with time. I will discuss why these improvements were applied in later sections of the analysis.

When Does the player win?

I define winning in Tetris as the following:
As long as the player is plying the game it means they're winning which also means they're filling as many horizontal lines as possible. Another way to define winning is if they got the maximum score.

When Does the player lose?

The player loses when they fill a vertical line to the top of the grid.

What is the goal of Tetris?

Every game is designed around a certain purpose or goal. It could be to make the player pay money, learn a specific skill (educational games), end a story and so on. Tetris has no story and getting money from the player while playing did not exist. Reaching the end is not the purpose of Tetris as well, because there is no defined ending that you're trying to reach. Of course, you can end the game when you reach the maximum score, however that won't prevent you from playing the game again. The end of Tetris doesn't affect how many times you will play the game nor how you solve it. From my analysis I found that the purpose is to keep the player playing the game as long as possible.

But what motivates the player to play the game continuously??

Since every game has a purpose, then it should have different motivational elements which correspond to its purpose. The motivational elements in Tetris that myself and Rayan agreed on are the score, the randomness of the falling tetrominoes and lastly the loop of object removal as Rayan calls it. Let's take one step deeper to understand how these elements encourages the player to keep on playing.

1) The score (I mean by score points, lines & level)

When you play a game there must be type of feedback to inform you of your improvement and how well you are getting. This feedback can vary from text, sounds, visuals to numbers. As well as player's progress in the game. Tetris uses numbers, visuals & sound. We will focus on the numbers for now. It calculates points, number of lines you cleared, and which level you are at. This type of feedback is a powerful motivational element, mostly because it serves the game's purpose which is getting the player to keep playing.

Remember when you were in school, when you got that low score on your test and thought there must be something wrong with the teacher's pen or brain? And you were angry because that score was unfair and you understood everything! First of all, I'm sure you deserved a higher score since you're an Alnin!! Second of all, in games, scores do measure your skill and encourage you to improve it. So there you have it, that's the reason why score motivates the player to play more. It proves how skilled the player is. It also shows that the player used smart strategies to clear the lines. It becomes the player's goal to get the highest score they possibly can get to show off their points and feel rewarded. Which in return motivates the player to keep playing and achieve the game's purpose.

Let's understand how the score  can measures your skill:

**Side note, not all Tetris games follow the same scoring system but the goal is the same.

Points:  the points are calculated in Tetris based on the number of lines you cleared and which level you were at. Clearing one line will give you 40 points on level 0 but it will give you 80 on level 2 and so on. Clearing more lines will give you more points. Some Tetris games give you points for how or where you placed the Tetrominoes, like T-Spin or Perfect Clear. This proves that your skills are measured in Tetris. These points are calculated based on what strategies you use to solve the puzzle.



You can see here how points are calculated in Tetris. 


Lines: Tetris calculates how many lines you cleared while playing.

Level: You level up in Tetris when you clear 10 lines (This calculations is in the Tetris I'm analyzing)


A Challenge for me and you is to think about the motivational feedback we need to include in our games that will serve their goals? How do we want to encourage the player to improve their skills and show them how they've improved?

2) The randomness of the falling shapes:

When you play Tetris you notice immediately that the Tetrominoes are generated randomly. But are they really random? Randomness in games is a huge topic and I'm definitely going to dive into it later in my research but not in this level. How randomness work in Tetris and whether it is really random or not is a topic I'll discuss in the second part of the analysis. However, for now let's try to understand how randomness urges the player to continue playing Tetris.

The falling random tetrominoes trick your brain that the game is endless. Another thing that randomness does is that it makes the game unpredictable every time you play it. You might be able to find patterns to solve the puzzle but you won't expect the same tetromino to fall at the same place every time. That would have been very boring and killed the magic of Tetris! As a result, the randomness in Tetris succeeded in getting the player to continue playing.


Is using randomness suitable for all games? A question for me and you to think about when we design our games.


3) The loop of object removal

The main concept of Tetris is to build and remove horizontal lines. It's a very simple concept. Yet, very powerful. Whenever you remove a line you need to build another one and remove it and so on, hence the loop of removal starts. I mentioned above how randomness gives the player the feeling of endless gameplay, it's the same here. This loop of removing lines pushes you to remove more lines and surprisingly removing a line feels like a reward for your awesomeness and gives some sort of satisfaction (Like peeling XD). For that reason, the object removal is an important motivational element which keeps the player hooked and unable to stop peeling I mean removing lines :) I also consider the object removal to be the visual feedback in Tetris. Having an almost empty grid means you're good or getting better.

Let's eliminate!

In one of Alexey's interviews, he mentioned that after he finished the basic development of the game, he couldn't stop playing it even though there was no score system.

I paused for a moment and thought of the three elements above. Are they really what keeps the player playing? What is the key element? Is there an element I missed? I started eliminating each one to understand which element is affecting the player's engagement the most. I found some interesting psychological explanations to my question!

I'll share them with you in Level 2 where I'll dive deeper into the world of Tetris and answer many questions like how does randomness work? How the increasing difficulty is applied? What was improved in Tetris game design and why? And many more!



Tell me what you think about this analysis. Do you have any feedback or questions? Let's discuss Tetris :D

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