Bringing Tetris Into the Third Dimension

Hey friends!

Nolan — developer and designer of delightful diversions — here to tell you about my most recent Volume demo and my design process in general. Often in curt sentences. This assumes an awareness of Looking Glass’ volumetric display — Volume.

I typically establish a set of design criteria to guide the process. This demo’s driving challenge was to create a cooperative game played by two people on opposite sides of the Volume.

The following additional criteria are common to all the Volume demos I develop.

  1. The experience necessitates a 3D display. If it could be collapsed into 2D and play exactly the same then it doesn’t need Volume.
  2. The use of depth is intuitive. If it needs to be explained how the assets’ Z positions relate to the gameplay, it doesn’t show Volume in a positive light.
  3. The game can be described simply. If a user needs to learn a deep game alongside parsing an additional dimension, the combination is too complicated for a demo.

After some complicated and sufficiently abstract prototypes, I settled on a 3D multiplayer update to the classic Alexey Pajitnov game, Tetris.

The Gameboy version of Tetris, which is by far the most popular.

In borrowing mechanics or systems, I find it helpful to identify exactly what’s happening and why.

A Description of Tetris Rules:

Tetris is played on a (10 x 20ish) grid. Players guide abstract shapes comprised of 4 blocks — or tetrominoes — as they slowly drop from the sky. If the blocks stack up to the top of the grid, the player loses. If a player manages to completely fill a row with blocks, it disappears and every row above it drops down. Players can control the tetrominoes by shifting them horizontally and rotating them 90 degrees.

A tension exists between the player’s ability properly manipulate pieces such that they form complete rows of blocks and the increasing fall speed of the tetrominoes. Mistakes compound on mistakes as the player attempts to prolong their inevitable defeat as long as possible, thereby increasing their score.

In bringing Tetris into the third dimension, I consciously only changed what was absolutely necessary.

A critique from an earlier prototype pointed out that, given a singular all consuming task, two players could view the volume from the same side and succeed just as easily. If both players are doing the same thing at the same time, they don’t need the second side. This idea became the progenitor of Tetris for Two: both players needed a sufficiently complicated task to command their attention and the cooperation comes in moments of fleeting but intense compromise.

A rare glimpse inside my Game Design Moleskine, which I assume will be incredibly important someday

While there have been multiplayer versions of Tetris before, none arranges the players in this unique formation. Two boards, back to back, occasionally sharing extra long tetrominoes that occupy equal but opposite space.

Super Scientific Diagram detailing the Theoretical Structure of Tetris for Two

In many implementations, the next tetromino is pulled from a deck of every possible orientation of 4 blocks, meaning a player will see every shape before they repeat. In Tetris for Two, the players share the deck of tetrominoes, each player drawing the next tetromino when their last one lands. The final tetromino in each deck is extra long and both players are able to control it. It interacts with both players’ boards and will stop, often floating in mid air, when it lands on geometry from either board. Successful players must work together to place the tetromino in a location that works for both of them, or they will quickly lose.

An extra complication! Since players are sitting opposite each other, they should avoid relative terms like “left” and “right” as their controls are mirrored.

The first playable prototype

The final breakthrough came on a hardware level. On Volume’s landscape display, the tall orientation of Tetris meant a small grid and lots of empty space on the sides. We solved this problem in the dumbest smartest way possible — by tipping Volume on its side.

Introducing Portrait Mode!

Tetris for Two is truly an experience that can only be played on the Volume. It uses depth to give glimpses of the other player’s board, show the extra long pieces that span both players’ boards, and help facilitate a complex interaction between two players. By using Tetris as a jumping off point, most players can easily pick up and play the game, using their existing knowledge to navigate the additional complexities introduced by multiplayer and a volumetric display. Finally, as a modern twist on an old classic, it fits nicely with previous experiments we’ve done at Looking Glass including reinventing Pong for a 3D display and designing 3D Asteroids for Volume.

Until next time!