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A New Generation of Gaming: Social and Viral (Part 2)

Posted on Sunday, Aug 16th 2009

By Guest Author Cindy Weng

Putting a new spin on an old game is not always easy. However, the Tetris Company has managed to transform the classic video game into something that millions of internet users play daily. What is its secret to keeping up with today’s gaming market and even becoming a leader in the online gaming industry? An interview with Tetris pioneer Henk Rogers and Casey Pelkey of Tetris Online gives us a look inside this innovative company.

Rogers is perhaps best known for securing a license for Nintendo’s handheld and console versions of Tetris. He first saw the video game at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 1988. He explains his attraction to the game, “What caught my eye about Tetris was its simplicity. I am a Go player, simplest graphics, deepest game play. Tetris did that for me. It seemed so simple, yet it was so magnetic.”

Certainly, the game has evolved throughout the decades, with many improvements that have fine-tuned the playing experience. Said Rogers, “We added points for clearing lines, bonuses for simultaneous line clears, super-rotation, delayed lock-down, next piece queue, the bag system to improve Tetrimino generation and the “hold” piece. All of these things are similar to the creature comforts in cars like automatic transmission, power steering, ABS, power windows. The net result of our changes is that more people can play Tetris than before and the game is easier and more fun to play.”

While these features have definitely contributed to the expansion of Tetris, Rogers warns against changing the classic too much. “There is always the danger that by making it too wild, we are losing our core demographic (adult women) and gaining fickle teenagers who hop from game to game and music to music. I’d like to enable user-created content as decoration and music around the game.” However, by offering customization to a wide audience, it is sure that most players will find the perfect game for themselves,” he says.

Rogers also talks about the future of Tetris and what the company is currently developing. It is clear that the game is becoming a lot more social and high-tech. According to Rogers, “Tetris has been evolving into a multi-player game. We have created two-player head-to-head as well as cooperative. We have also created versions with up to six players playing three vs. three, or two vs. two vs. two, or everyone for themselves. Eventually, however, I think we will have cooperative team vs. team so that we can have inter-city and inter-school competitions. Tetris will evolve into the first virtual sport. We will have a giant Tetrion (a machine that plays Tetris) in Avatar Reality (the new and improved Second Life). Question: Who is playing? You or your avatar? If it’s your avatar, you could send him/her to take Tetris lessons and become much better than you will ever be at Tetris. We could have the system watch you play and mimic your play style when you’re away.” Tetris Online (a division of the Tetris Company) is the force behind a website and Facebook application that allow players to compete against one another in live matches. Vice president of marketing Casey Pelkey explains, “The mission of our company, Tetris Online, Inc., as it relates to Tetris Friends, is to become a premiere online destination for Tetris fans and other casual gaming enthusiasts to enjoy an array of world-class video games featuring Tetris, as well as discover and cultivate relationships with other users.”

Tetris Friends is a great example of how multiplayer functions have added to its success. The website had over one million unique users in the month of June and much of this can be attributed to the social features. Pelkey elaborates, “We’ve seen a steady increase in users since launching our multiplayer titles in early June. Not surprisingly, our advertisements that focus more on the multiplayer aspect of the game tend to perform better than their single-player counterparts, so we know there’s a higher level of attraction for multiplayer experiences. We’re also seeing players spend more time on the site since adding the multiplayer games. Users spend as much as 30-plus minutes at a time, playing 10 or more two-minute multiplayer games during each visit.”

Facebook has helped Tetris Online greatly in game development. Pelkey says, “Our product on Facebook was originally developed as a test to refine the technology we chose to develop the games in. We’ve temporarily moved our attention outside of Facebook to further the development of Tetris Friends Online Games (www.tetrisfriends.com), but our experience within the Facebook platform has been tremendously helpful. Our time spent with Facebook allowed for quicker iterations of our game development and also allowed us to establish a very beneficial relationship with its users, who provided critical feedback during our early stages of development. We also fully intend to return our attention to the Facebook application to leverage what we’ve developed and learned outside of the platform. This means that Facebook users can expect to see some long-overdue improvements and new features to Tetris Friends in the near future.”

Rogers also talks about the role of social networks in Tetris. “Social networking is socializing built around an activity. I play golf. I would not play golf if I had to play by myself. The fact that golf requires four people to spend quality time together is everything. Tetris is better in that anyone can play it—all we have to do is wrap a social experience around it. We will have Tetris team play, so that people can work together to beat the people in another place. We will have between-game chat, so that people will bond. We will have avatars, so that players can have intelligent agents do interesting stuff during game play.”

In addition to using user feedback to help improve its games, Tetris Online also takes advantage of Facebook’s connecting features to market its product. This is a great strategy for any business, big or small, and Pelkey discusses at length more details of how exactly to achieve success on Facebook:

“There are several tactics that can be utilized on Facebook to promote applications. The most cost effective tactic is to leverage their feeds, which are generated after a user interacts with the application. For example, if we’re playing the same game of Tetris and I happen to beat your high score, our application can automatically send you a message informing you that your high score was overtaken. This type of message is intended to encourage you to revisit the application to try and improve your score. More importantly, if used properly, these feeds are also visible to other people who visit your profile page, so visibility of the application increases, thus driving more traffic into it.

“Another tactic is to leverage Facebook’s Advertising platform, which allows you to advertise small ads (110×80 pixels) in the vertical space on the right side of Facebook. This tactic allows you to target your advertisements to users based on geographic location, interests, gender, and/or age. We’ve had a lot of success using Facebook’s Advertising platform, but are much more compelled to leverage the more cost effective solutions for obvious reasons.

“Judging the effectiveness of the advertising truly depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. We’ve found if conversion rates are important, there’s typically a pretty healthy conversion from users clicking on the ads within Facebook to visit applications hosted inside Facebook; however, if we use the same ads to drive traffic outside of Facebook (i.e., towww.tetrisfriends.com), the users are less likely to stick. Users often visit the homepage of the website, but then leave before exploring it any further. This is referred to as a ‘bounce,’ and we have witnessed much higher bounce rate outside of Facebook. On the other hand, if reach is important to you, advertising outside of Facebook has more advantages. The small ‘static’ ads inside of Facebook can also make it more challenging to communicate your messages, but in some cases, less is best! Once again, it really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Though Tetris Friends currently does not have a friend connect feature, it is something that’s in the works. Connectivity within networks and amongst users is important in attracting more players. Pelken says, “Social gaming is definitely the “in-thing” right now, but I don’t see it as being the only way to go—simply because it’s not for everyone. The industry, as a whole, still has ample room for innovation and we hope to find ourselves at the forefront of new and exciting forms of gaming yet to be discovered.”

When asked about Tetris Online specifically, Rogers focuses on the company’s next step. “My dream (and I am pretty persistent about turning my dreams into reality) is to have a true Tetris Friends product where I get to make new friends, play Tetris, but also communicate with them in other ways (I’m working on a translation software that can connect people chatting in different languages). Hopefully we will be able to match lots of people on opposite sides of conflicts to enable peaceful resolution through communication rather than conflict.” The power of community is undeniable, and creating a product that harnesses this power for good is admirable.

Looking at the progress that Tetris has made over the past twenty-one years, it is impressive to see how the simple game has adapted and refrained from becoming an outdated form of entertainment. With creative individuals like Henk Rogers, the Tetris Company has taken its games to the next level, involving multiple players and networks. In order to keep up with the fast-evolving gaming industry of today, it is necessary to be at the head of the pack, looking for the next big thing. Right now, gaming is definitely becoming increasingly social, and increased connectivity online has been a great contributing factor to that. A game that takes full advantage of this new way of playing is likely to see much success.

This segment is part 2 in the series : A New Generation of Gaming: Social and Viral
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