Why Does Tetris Get Faster?

I was watching my daughter play Tetris on her Nintendo DS the other day. (I found a copy a while back.)  She picked it up out of our box of DS games and decided to give it a try as a break from various flavors of Pokemon. (Pokemon Mystery DungeonNetHack meets Pokemon… has been the favored flavor of late.)

I was interested to see what she thought of the game.  But I am always interested to see what she gets out of older games, classics or ones with which I have a history.

Those Famouse Tetrominoes

Those Famous Tetris Tetrominoes

She grasped the game pretty quickly and enjoyed it for a bit.  But Tetris on the DS advances levels at a rather swift pace if you’re any good at all, and soon she was at the frantic stage of blocks dropping out of the sky and the game was over.

After a couple of games she asked, “Why does it have to get faster?”

A deceptively easy question, that.

The obvious answer is that it gets harder because that is the challenge.  If a game always ran at the same speed you would lose only to boredom.  The history of video games is jam packed with games that get harder the further you progress.

But that is not entirely correct.  Challenge can go too far, at least for each individual.  There is a point for all of us just shy when we have essentially given up control of those falling blocks where the game is exactly as challenging as it needs to be, where we are immersed, tense, and on the edge of losing control.

In a perfect world games would be able to analyze our play and keep us at or near that threshold, advancing only when we had begun to master the current level of difficulty.

Now Tetris is an older game, so it is tough to fault it for not being perfect.  I first played it back on my Macintosh SE over 20 years ago.  It was a best seller on the original GameBoy, the esteemed ancestor of my daughter’s DS.  There were versions out for all sorts of systems including the Apple II.  I am surprised there wasn’t an Atari 2600 version of the game.  If ever there were a console system well adapted to dealing with things shaped like blocks.

So we can forgive Tetris its jumps in difficulty, but it does point to an interesting aspect of game design.  How quickly should difficulty ramp up in a game?

Which in turn makes you wonder about some MMORPGs.  Well, it made me wonder.

This week I ran some quests with my level 78 paladin and my level 44 druid (who is cat, so dont heel) in World of Warcraft, and playing one was not particularly more or less difficult than the other.  34 levels between the two but no noticeable change in skill required to play.  The effort expended doing quests was about the same.  Sure, the monsters being slain were higher level for my paladin, but his equipment and abilities canceled that out.

Would I put that much time into a game like Tetris if it never got harder?  Maybe if the level of challenge was right, but probably not.

Since I enjoyed playing both characters, it would seem that for me the level of achievement was in balance with the level of challenge.  WoW seems to work for me.

But you can see that if the level of challenge versus the achievement doesn’t work for somebody after the first 20 levels or so in a game like WoW, it isn’t going to get any better for them beyond that.

But does any MMORPG really get more challenging as you move through the main body of content?  Sure, there are dungeons, and even heroic versions thereof, as well as raiding, but I would argue that most players never go far in those directions.

And should they get more challenging?  Should getting from level 79 to 80, for example, require not just more experience points and some equipment upgrades, but additional skill?  Is character advancement enough?  Is there some happy medium between the two?

And my daughter?

She thinks WoW is great, Tetris is not, and that comparing the two is “totally ridiculous.”

The view from age 7 1/2.

9 thoughts on “Why Does Tetris Get Faster?

  1. Zubon

    Have y’all heard of the Grand Master series for Tetris? Here’s a video:

    Note how it starts. And that around the 3 minute point, it speeds up. And that after the 5 minute point, blocks become invisible, so you must keep playing by memory.

    Just sayin,’ some people like their Tetris really hard.


  2. Sören

    To the MMOs: It’s long been my opinion that games like WoW are masterpieces of balancing. So the absolute level number is unimportant – every serious MMO-Player thinks like: “I can manage 2 mobs +3lvl” or so. Even the game itself hints it by coloring the mobs from dark red to grey.

    You are dancing on a knife’s edge between the pure impossibility of red-mob-havoc and total-easy-grey-mob-pwnage-farming. You can, of course, position yourself in this narrow range to adjust the difficulty a bit.

    Real advancement is only in games like Tetris => so it’s for the “l33t gusy”, MMO is for lame carebears :-)


  3. *vlad*

    The first time I saw Tetris was in an arcade, somewhere around 1988.
    The difficulty ramped up incredibly quickly, though it wasn’t quite in the same format:
    Rather than a continuous stream of falling blocks, there was instead a series of rounds, and in each round you had to complete a certain number of lines.
    For example, Round 1 would ask you to complete say 20 lines. Once completed, the game stopped, and you then proceeded to ‘Round 2’ , which started after a short pause.
    By about Round 5 the blocks were falling so quickly it was almost impossible to play. I didn’t play it very often ,as it wasn’t good value for money.

    As for games getting harder, I remember plenty of games back in the 80’s that didn’t get any harder – they were the same round after round (and pretty boring, too).
    Gauntlet was a game that started off fairly easily and got harder, but the difficulty remained the same after a certain level, and you could play the game for hours on end.


  4. syncaine

    An interesting experiment would be to have your daughter play a version of Tetris that does NOT speed up, and see how long that keeps her interested. What makes her quit faster; losing to a high difficulty or getting bored due to the difficulty never increasing?

    I think that’s fundamentally something that separates players, be it in MMO games or otherwise. It ‘counts’ in MMOs because of how the profit model works (the longer someone stays interested, the more profit). Some people don’t WANT a challenge, they just want to go through the motions. Others need that challenge or they grow bored quickly. Chess vs checkers argument in a way.


  5. Stabs

    I think the key distinction is that in Tetris the gameplay is the whole whereas in WoW levelling is only a means to an end.

    If WoW had no end game, just levelling without a level cap and your level 44 character played at the same difficulty as your level 78 character and your level 3,459 character you would see levelling as more boring.


  6. Loredena

    @Stabs — I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve only just reached max level, in EQ2, for the first time in 10 years of playing MMMOs. I don’t raid. I play as much for the social aspects as anything, I admit. But, there are plenty of ways to challenge yourself while leveling, and I also simply enjoy just exploring, or gaining the lore/story from the quests, or even just decorating!


  7. p@tsh@t

    Very interesting. I wonder how much the business model (as opposed to technical limitations) affected the design of those early games like Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, etc.

    With limited technology, they didn’t have too many options to mix it up. At the same time however, their business model was to extract quarters (individual non-recurring transactions– 1 quarter, 1 play session) from players as quickly as possible. The easiest way to maximize revenue was to find that balance where speeding up resulting in the shortest possible session that would encourage repeat purchase/play. More sessions = more revenue. Altering game speed conveniently served both purposes and set the paradigm.

    Consider the subscription based MMO– success on the business model side requires user retention– effectively longer game times. The game operator needs to find the balance between achievement and boredom to encourage the longest possible subscription time. More time (i.e. subscription periods) = more revenue (at least on a per player basis). As you note, the game play doesn’t differ significantly between fighting “challenging” mobs at level 20 and those at level 80. The big difference is that it takes an exponentially longer amount of time to go from 79 to 80 than from 19 to 20.

    If MMO designers were able to tune difficulty to each player in real time as they played (a great idea IMHO), the progression model would have to change as well as the business model. Unless there is real value in replayability, people wont keep paying for a game where gear/skill/time checks gate progress or access to new fun. Crack that nut at you’ve got a WoW-killer model.


  8. Bhagpuss

    The game should get harder when YOU decide to let it get harder. In other words, there should be specific difficulty settings that you select, not a sliding scale controlled by the game.

    I have no interest at all in any game getting “harder”. If I watch a movie I don’t expect it to get more and more difficult to follow until eventually it overwhelms me and I give up with a headache. Nor when I’m reading a book do I expect to have to read a chapter fifteen or twenty times before I finally “get it” and can move on to the next.

    I like games to develop thematically, but in no way do I want them to get “harder”. I am not competing or testing myself, iam consuming entertainment and I don’t want needless obstacles put in my way.


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