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Tetris 99 devs on how the game came to be, scrapped targeting mechanics, future plans, much more

Posted on May 25, 2019 by (@NE_Brian) in News, Switch eShop

Japanese website 4Gamer recently conducted a big interview with a pair of developers behind Tetris 99. Director Ryuichi Nakada and producer Akira Kinashi discussed the Switch Battle Royale game in-depth.

During the discussion, Nakada and Kinashi talked about Tetris 99’s origins, a few targeting mechanics that were scrapped, and what lies ahead for the game in the future. Of course, there was plenty of other discussion as well like recommended tactics for players and more.

Here’s our full translation:

Early Days

First off I’d like to ask the two of you how you were involved in the making of this game and also the titles you have worked on in the past.

Nakada: I worked as the director and also, for the first time, was involved in other duties such as the drafting and planning stages. In the past I have worked on the Metroid series, WarioWare: Touched! And also Luigi’s Mansion 2.

Kinashi: I worked as the producer on Tetris 99 and also looked after the merchandising side of things. Ever since I joined this company I have always been working on the Pokemon series.

The combination of Tetris and Battle Royale is a novel idea, so could you tell us a little about how that idea came about?

Nakada: The planning started in April 2018. In our company the development team meets once a week to discuss new ideas for games. That ended up being the inspiration for this one. We sometimes talked in those meetings about how popular the Battle Royale genre had become, but I think someone also said it was about time we made another Tetris game. At that time those two ideas instantly came together and we thought a Battle Royale Tetris game would be really fun.

I see. So rather than an attempt to make a Battle Royale game it was more the case of an evolution for the Tetris genre. What was your initial impression?

Nakada: Basically, I thought that since I wanted to play that type of game I also wanted to make that type of game. At that time I already had this idea floating around in my head of one game panel being the focus on the screen, but with the screens of other players being lined up beside.

I’m surprised that idea came to you so soon. Was the reception also good from the rest of the team?

Nakada: At first, not really. Even though I told them I was going to be combining Tetris and Battle Royale, it was hard for me to explain in words that would help them imagine it. So I had some of the attendees at that meeting make a provisional version of what was in my head. I showed that to them and from then on they were fully behind the game.

I think after seeing that screen it’s hard to forget it.

Nakada: The truth is that when I showed off that initial screen design, I had decided exactly how the game would play. But I didn’t actually get the go ahead to start doing research into the Battle Royale genre until afterwards. So I think the impact of that initial screen was pretty huge. Although, that original design had 100 contestants and not 99.

So I’m curious, why did you decide to take one of the players out?

Nakada: Mainly the impact of the layout. We were able to arrange the other players neatly in 7X7 columns from right to left. With the player’s own field in the middle, that meant that number then became 99. It was just that one remaining person that was the odd one out.

What sort of response did you get from the owner of the licence, Blue Planet Software?

Nakada: We spoke to them when we were still in the early stages of development. But the truth is that we didn’t tell them explicitly that we were making a Battle Royale until just before the release. They were really surprised! (laughs)

I imagine they would be! (laughs)

Nakada: They came to try out the game at our company and gave us positive feedback, which we were pretty relieved by. Come to mention it, they took first place very quickly… (laughs)

Probably to be expected… I’m guessing some are them are really good at Tetris… So Tetris 99 released on the 14th of February 2019. Thinking back on what you said earlier, that means development didn’t even take a year. That’s pretty fast.

Nakada: Yes, that’s right. We came up with the idea in April 2018 and I showed off that provisional screen at the end of that same month. In October the work on the early tests was completed, and we worked on the final build, which we then released in February 2019.

*A wild Kinashi appeared*

Kinashi: News came to me when the final decision had still not been made, and I thought there were many practical problems that would make it difficult. Those fears were resolved one by one and the quality of the game steadily improved.

What exactly concerned you?

Kinashi: Even though our company is currently looking in to the practicalities of online games with many competing players, the truth is that we haven’t made one yet. Also, one of my main worries was: would battling 98 other people at Tetris be that fun in the first place?

Nakada: Since we wouldn’t be able to get a feel for it without giving it a go, we went to Arika with our plan and they made a prototype for us.

Arika has a good pedigree when it comes to handling Tetris games.

Kinashi: That prototype was completed in less than a month and that’s when the playtesting began.

You mean testing with the full 99 players?

Kinashi: Yes. From sometime in July we had large numbers of adult play testers trying out the game and somewhere in-between we would set aside three hours every week for the full 99 player tests. That continued right up until release.

Just the fact that you were testing with 99 players every week is surprising enough… How did you recruit all of those people?

Kinashi: We got them from Arika, Mario Club (company tasked with testing and debugging Nintendo games) and members of the attendees at the meetings we mentioned; we also put word out internally. Initially we didn’t have any of the rules or fixed strategies in place – we just wanted to see if we could even do it. Even so, we could tell it was going to be fun just from that testing alone.

A kind of fun that is unique to Tetris 99?

Kinashi: Just trying to survive while everyone else is eliminated and rising up the leaderboard is pretty tense. In true Battle Royale form, many of the players were looking around at their competitors, wondering how best to defeat them. It wasn’t just a case more players meaning more fun, but a new type of experience altogether.

How did you gather feedback from all of those 99 players?

Kinashi: We had a lot of different ways, including handing out questionnaire forms and speaking to people directly. We had tests where everyone was gathered in the same meeting room too, so we could see the positive reactions to the game for ourselves. While we continued with these tests, we really started to polish the game.

Nakada: Once that first stage of playtesting and fine-tuning was over, the core prototype model was finished in October 2018.

Kinashi: From then onwards we continued development to get the game in a launch-ready state. Because we were to be announcing it at the next Nintendo Direct, we had to have it all finished by the end of January. Thinking back on it now, it was a pretty tight schedule.

What was the hardest part of going from the prototype to the finished version?

Kinashi: Making it ready for the presentation was pretty tough. Because the event was going to broadcast globally, we had to prepare language tracks for each country, as well as think about promotion and take care of the legal side. We only just finished everything in time.

Nakada: But thanks to all that hard work we were able to hold the Anniversary Tetris Cup on March 8. After this event we decided that we wanted to do something more regular for fans, so on May 17 we also plan to hold an event to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Tetris.

I see. Because this is a large-scale online game, I was convinced I would have a hard time connecting, but that wasn’t really the case.

Kinashi: At first we were worried about connectivity issues, but after we decided for definite on making this type of game we talked a lot with the internal server team, meaning we had a fairly polished model to work with.

The Art of War

In this game there are four different tactical plays: Random, KOs, Badges and Attackers. The computer automatically targets in line with to the player’s selection. Could you tell us why you chose to go with this system?

Nakada: At first we made it so that you had to select your opponent with the stick or touchscreen, but with frantically re-arranging the Tetrominos the player had very little free time. The test players told us they would prefer the targeting to be done automatically. That’s when we created this system.

And right from the start there were always those four tactical options?

Nakada: No, originally there were eight, including things like ‘Defensive’ and ‘Slowdown’. From there we cut them down to the current four.

I get the feeling that with more options to choose from, the tactical element of the game would broaden. Why did you choose to remove those other four?

Nakada: For example, in the case that someone with the ‘Slowdown’ option was put in a game, they would be paired with someone with the same tactics selected and battle each other one-on-one. There were a lot of people that thought this went against the basic ethic Battle Royale. With the ‘Shield’ mode, instead of attacking other players after clearing away your blocks, you instead create a barrier around yourself. The problem with this was that in playtesting there were those who only chose this tactic and instead of attacking simply defended themselves, leading to long stalemates.

Kinashi: What happened with the play testers was surprising. I knew there would be players who didn’t want to actively attack but instead avoid being attacked, but there were actually far more than I expected. The result was that the game dragged on so that one match could take more than twenty minutes.

I think most beginners now choose ‘Random’ as their opening tactic. But true, if everyone simply tried to avoid being attacked, the match would really drag on and not be that exciting.

Nakada: So then to encourage aggressive play we introduced the KO badges. If you defeat an opponent and get more badges your attack capabilities increase (i.e. you send more garbage blocks), meaning the next opponent is easier to defeat. Because of that system, players are trying to get badges from the very start, which livens up the game. Exactly how much the badges increase attack capabilities was something we tweaked quite a lot.

Kinashi: Aside from that we spent some time balancing the ‘Attackers’ and ‘KOs’ tactics. The current version of ‘Attackers’ focuses on those that are targeting you so that you can attack them back with increased power, but originally there wasn’t an attack boost. This led to anyone near death being targeted by both attacking players and then those using the ‘KOs’ tactic at the same time, which was unfair. So after that we went with a tactic where the player would actually be pleased to be attacked by many people at the same time. That way, those targeted by ‘KOs’ players would actually be thankful for that attack. And now there is also always that risk that someone you attack will counter you with increased power.

I definitely think the ‘Attackers’ and ‘KOs’ tactics lead to some intense battles. It’s really exciting when someone with the counter play tactic activated is targeted by ten or so people. If things go well there are even times when you feel like: ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’

Kinashi: And then there are really skilled players who play while anticipating who will attack them and when, which really widens the tactical possibilities.

I hear a tactic that is really popular now is to stockpile blocks so that you are targeted by other players and then switch to the ‘Attackers’ mode.

Kinashi: That was happening even during the playtesting. But then this also has a weakness in that if there are a lot of players stockpiling their blocks to be targeted, then the ‘KOs’ tactic will chose only one player out of those many. In other words, those players trying to play the system will not be highlighted and their attempts to provoke others will have come to nothing. If there’s something to be gained there is always a risk too. The player has to play with this always in mind.

I see.

Kinashi: Because being targeted by a lot of people means that your attack power increases, there are many that use ‘Attackers’ not to counter directly but instead go after powerful players while using the ‘Badges’ tactic.

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