Interview: Tetris Friends

As far as fun goes, Tetris Friends Online is serious business.

Introduced to the site a few months ago, I spend more time than I should with the site — an online portal for free, playable varations of Tetris in a web browser — than I probably should. In fact, in between this sentence and the last, I’ve logged in at least three games. My biggest mistake was telling the rest of the staff, people I’m responsible for when it comes to getting work done, about Tetris Friends. Productivity? Shot.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with Casey Pelkey, VP of Sales and Marketing at Tetris Online to talk about the future of the site, and why Tetris could be the next big sport.

Give me a bit of background information on Tetris Online. You guys are exclusively responsible for the online license for the Tetris Company, is that right?

Right. So basically anything that’s digital distribution at this point for North America and Europe, so that covers also WiiWare, Xbox LIVE Arcade for Microsoft, in addition to the Web site stuff we produce.

You guys did the Tetris Party for WiiWare, and Tetris Splash for Xbox LIVE Arcade, right?

That’s right. So Tetris Splash was our first product that came out back in October of 07, and then we launched Tetris Party last October.

So what we’re mostly going to be talking about is the Tetris Friends Online. But before we talk about that, I have a question about the WiiWare and the XBLA games. Those were both paid consumer products, where as Tetris Friends Online — at least in beta, and I think permanently for the most  part from what I can tell — is free.


What’s the model for that in terms of making a profit?

Well, there’s short term and there’s long-term. Short-term you know really what we’re focusing on before we start looking at monetization plans are the technology, accessibility, the feature set… we didn’t want to come out and put ourselves in a situation where we were going to charge for a particular feature or features while the site is still in this early beta phase. We’re really just scratching the surface of what we’re preparing to offer in the future. So once we start getting into the full-fledged community with “Friend Connect,” real-time multiplayer and all that stuff, we’ll continue to be in a free format where we offer the site, make it available to users, to enjoy it for free. And we’ll monetize for advertising, advertising opportunities.

So most recently the promotion for Ice Age: Dawn of Dinosaurs is kind of an indication as to where we’d like to go with it. And this idea of not only putting advertising on our site, but integrating an advertisement or a brand into the game — as in the case with Tetris Acorn Drop — so it’s just yet another example. There’s a lot of interest in that space, because there’s a lot of time spend inside the game. We’ve had many, many instances of the game play on a daily basis. You have people coming to the game and the average game is about eight minutes, but up to 30 minutes, and that’s really good for the advertisers. So we’re wanting to leverage that and figure out how to monetize that as much as we can.

And then long term, we’re looking at additional things where there might be premium items or other services that our users can take advantage of. But once again, our goal is to provide a service at  base level for free, and continue to provide a deep, fast Tetris experience.

The reason I started off asking you about the “free to play” stuff, and questions of money, is that Tetris Friends is a pretty incredible suite of games for free. And I’m a fan of Tetris, so when I originally went to the site I didn’t expect that much, and I think I got a lot more than I had expected. Which is great. But do you feel that might undermine the value of the paid products, like the XBLA game or Tetris Party?

You know, not really. What we’ve found actually, when we launched Tetris Party we also have an application on Facebook, a slightly different version of Tetris Friends. The appearance is just a tad-bit, different. That’s really where we cut our teeth on the technology, we shipped it out of C+ development environment to Java, which was closest to what we were familiar with to then Flash. We are still learning how to optimize Flash and make the best Tetris experience using Flash, and the developers are really making strides in that direction.

But when we launched that Facebook site, we actually did 100% advertising against our Tetris Party game, and Tetris Party has gone on to be one of the most successful WiiWare titles to date. Much of the traffic that we sent to our own site, came from our own product.

So not only can we promote our Tetris brand, but we can promote other Tetris products such as what EA is doing on mobile. There are actually several licensees, so example Radica with Mattel we can promote their products that are more packaged products. And we’re actually working with the entire suite of licencees to do that.

The other thing is that, you know, Tetris is available in so many different areas — console, mobile, online. But there was no official version of Tetris online. It was very important for us to offer something that was extremely accessible, high-quality. Because we’re really competing with a lot of infringing versions of Tetris out there. That have unfortunately been out there for many, many years. The Tetris Company realized that this was problematic, and instead of just taking down all of those sites, they needed to offers something in return. So what we’re doing is basically, we’re working on not only providing the site, but then going in with legal reinforcement and we’re slowly but surely taking down all of these infringing versions of the site, and we believe that that is a good trade-off for the brand as a whole.

What would you say is the most popular version of the game on Tetris Friends?

Without a doubt, Tetris 6P.

Why do you think that is?

Mainly because of how often it’s played. [laughs]

No, no. Why do you think that’s more popular than, say, the 1989 version of Tetris that’s up there.

I think the biggest reason is that it offers something that multiplayer feel that being able to compete against other people, and the addition of maps. Maps have come quite popular in the game. Maps are of course where instead of opening up with a blank matrix, you have a pre-set matrix — a smiley face or something like that. That competitive feel, and being able to knock out and work your way through the ranks, really gets people going.

We have a pretty even split — male-female. Maybe it skews just a little bit male at this time. What we see at this particular time is that there are a lot of male players, and that competitive side of Tetris really shows through in the six-player version.

Yeah, I probably would have guessed the competitive games were popular. So what do you think of Tetris as a sport?

I think the concept is really interesting. I’ve always been a fan of Tetris, and never really saw it as a sport until I started working here and started to recognize how competitive certain people are. We did a tournament here in Hawaii, at the university of Hawaii campus, it was quite amazing. It’s on YouTube. They’re actually playing the Tetris DS version, and because there are three different ways to play Tetris — whether you’re playing straight forward or using T-spins and combos, all those three types it’s kind of like analogous to Tennis where as people are better at playing in one particular condition — clay court, grass court, those type of things. They really take that an run with it.

And visually, as a spectator sport, which is where I questioned it the most — because it’s one thing to have people play head-to-head. It’s been competitive since you’ve been able to have people link  up Game Boys. But, you know, watching it is a different thing. I was quite surprised at now only the crowd reaction, but the crowd reaction. It was a lot of fun to watch. I was blown away by how creative the players were in getting out in what I would have thought were basically impossible circumstances.

These guys just do amazing things, and there are more and more players, and that’s why we added the replay features to the site. Because we can actually analyze the games, and it’s quite shocking how good these players are. And it’s not just a small subset of players; it’s actually a very large community of players. And that sounds like a good set of circumstances to put a sport behind it.

I’ve been playing it for awhile, almost excessively. Like when I should be working, I’ll stop and say “Let me play a couple games of Tetris. And then an hour later I’m like, “Oh crap. How did that happen?” How does the rankings and that stuff work? Like on the two player battle, I’m ranked 10… I don’t really know what that means globally. Where do I stand?

Well, it puts you at the 50th percentile right now in terms of ranking. But in terms of the average player, it’s above average. It might sound a little bit confusing, but what happens is as you move your way up through the ranks – there’s 20 ranks — the competition is going to get that much harder. And really what it’s doing is that, the reason there’s a star system is that there’s an option to continue to advance, but if you slip, you’re not going to get pushed too high up so it’s going to happen over time. Then of course there’s skipping features so that if you play a really strong game and we recognized it, based on how many lines per minute you clear, all that kind of stuff, that we would suggest that you skip and you might move up two levels instead of just a star. That’s just meant to keep the balance in there.

What we’re finding is that with these competitive modes, the 6P and 2P, because there are a different thing that you can do that you’re sending garbage back and forth and we’ll have new features coming out soon for these more integrated items and those type of things. There’s a little bit of luck involved, so in 6P there’s a chance that you might be the victim of lines coming your way from multiple people just because it happens that way, so there’s a bit of chance, a little bit of luck. But in case of games like Marathon, even thought we don’t have a ranking system, we’re able to watch the level of how good players are, how fast they react to those higher levels. Only 6% of our users can actually beat Marathon, so if you think about where you’re at, you can try to play Marathon to see where you can get.

Can you get to player level 15, what your score is looking like once you get there, how do you rate in the particular leaderboards for that. And then you go back to a Battle 2P, and you put that to use against the other people. I would say 10 is a good place, and you’ve got 10 more levels to go.

[Editor’s note: I’m currently ranked 15. I’m saying.]

So, the site’s called Tetris Friends … emphasis on “friends”… and I can’t choose who I’m going to play with. I’ve turned a lot of people on to the game, they’ve signed up, and it’s just like I “play” with randoms. There’s no way to face one another, or talk any smack. Is that something you’re working on right now?

Yes, absolutely, and you know the story behind the title for this is that the product…the original product for Tetris Friends as it was envisioned was bringing the friendship role into it. Not only friends you know in real life, but creating friends for people you’re playing with. When it started out on Facebook, the focus of Facebook is very much leveraging the Facebook features to keep track of how you’re doing with your friends. And there’s a challenge feature where you can play against your friends. So as it moved towards the world wide web at, we basically had to run the risk of putting a product out there first, to build interest on it. As we’re building the technology behind it.

Because certain we can leverage things like Facebook connect or the different connect features that MySpace offers, etc. but we want to make sure that’s fully integrated, versus kind of forcing people down a path. We want to offer friend connect systems something that’s a little more homegrown, something that’s a little more integrated, a hybrid between the two. So that is coming, and it is stuff you’ll start seeing more of definitely this year. The next six months are actually jam packed with features, and our goal is to build this cadence of features on a monthly basis to get things moving, so yes, you will see that.

The other thing is when the name was first created it wasn’t supposed to be “friends” as in people playing together, it was “Friends of Tetris.” So all of these different modes were essentially friends of Tetris so of course, it’s flipped that and we want to focus more on the community than the novelty of being able to play multiple different Tetris variants.

I’m used to the keyboard now, but I’d love to just use a traditional controller maybe. Is there any way to do that with the Flash software and is something you’re planning to do.

Yeah, we are actually working on that. And at one point we did have a controller configuration with just a USB, you could use the Xbox controller. It is something we’ll continue to look at. The biggest part is when we decide to put in a particular feature we look at how many people can take advantage of it, and we’ll do like quick surveys to see how many people are trying to use these controllers, etc. So our goal is to put out features that accommodate the masses in general, versus trying to focus on a very small niche group, and finding the right balance in that. We do recognize that the niche group is probably  the people that play the most, and we wanted to cater to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see controller features in the future, but I’ll let the team know that you’re interested in that and we’ll put in another vote for expediting it.

Yeah, I’d imagine, I work at home so I can pull out an Xbox 360 controller. People probably can’t pull out of a 360 controller in their cubicle.

We’ve actually found in our research that it’s very niche, that most people are content with the keyboard. But there is no dobut people are interested; we have a version upstairs where all of the stuff works with a controller. So we know that it’s capable, that the product can do it. It’s just making sure that if we put the additional features in there we do it in a way that it doesn’t seem like we’re adding too many features to cater to a very small subset. It’s just a balance situation.

I personally, when I first started working on this product, I was convince that it had to have a controller. And now that I’ve used the keyboard as much as I have I don’t think that I can move back to the controller. What we’re really trying to do is get away from using the keyboard and the mouse, so that everything is done using the keyboard, so that there’s no reason to actually switch to the mouse. Because right now the mouse is used to sometimes navigate, and so we’re looking to put hot keys and whatnot throughout the site.

In most cases you can. If you see a screen if you just press enter it was automatically use whatever the highlighted button is  like “Play,” etc. There are a lot of shortcuts like that that we haven’t really revealed, but they do exist, the escape key, those type of things. We’ll look to take advantage of those, and just make it so that when you jump in, you know you’re focused on just playing and not the back and forth between the mouse and keyboard.

Nick Chester