Inside Tetris Battle, Facebook’s top multiplayer arcade game

Tetris Battle started out in 2010 as a quiet attempt to bring a classic video game brand to Facebook. Now, just over a year later, the game is on track to compete with the very biggest Facebook games from giants like Zynga and EA.

Already ranked among the top ten most popular games on Facebook as recorded by our AppData traffic tracking service, Tetris Battle currently enjoys about 3.1 million daily active users with 2 million of them arriving in the game within the last two months alone. Honolulu-based developer Tetris Online Inc. has set the sky as the limit for the game’s growth in 2012, hoping to grow the total player base of Tetris Battle to between 5 and 10 million DAU this year. If successful, this would place Tetris Battles in serious competition for the top spot of most popular Facebook game overall.

In this report, Tetris Online VP of Marketing Casey Pelkey and VP of Game Design & Executive Producer Eui-Joon “Ace” Youm share the design and deployment decisions that make the game an ongoing success, their monetization strategies, other Tetris Online games and future plans for Tetris Battle expansion Tetris Arena.

Tetris Battle gameplay: Variations of multiplayer

Tetris Battle’s basic gameplay is similar to the original arcade version, except played in several varieties of multiplayer with enhanced competitive aspects. In “Sprint” mode, players race to be the first to create 40 lines the fastest; in “Battle” modes, when a player forms one or more lines on their board, obstacles and hazards are sent onto the playing field of her competitors.

Gameplay makes use of both synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer competition. The developer prefers not to publicize the specific deployment method used in Tetris Battle, except to say that its goal is to make gameplay feel the same in both synchronous and asynchronous matches. Players are pit against competitors of a similar level and when competing in real time, they will see their competitors’ actual gameplay depicted onscreen. When playing the game with Facebook friends, matches are entirely synchronous and feature a live user-to-user chat feature. The company intentionally throttles live play connections to maintain good performance, but Pelkey says it still represents “a significant percentage of total games played each day.”

Tetris Online incorporates a number of mechanics to encourage continued engagement, including a leveling system which is used to match players with similar playing abilities, and to unlock new game modes. As with many social games, Tetris Battle also has an energy meter which is drained during play, but replenished over time or via monetization. A “Daily Bonus Spin” encourages regular play by offering players special items for playing the game over consecutive days.

Growth and usage: 80 percent word-of-mouth installs

Unlike many Facebook games, Tetris Battle does not employ a mandatory friend-adding mechanic in which a player cannot progress further unless they send game installation invites to their friends. Instead, says Youm, “We focus on the core gameplay… our core belief is if [players] enjoy the game and stay there, they will invite their friends.”

This partly explains the game’s relatively slow growth rates in its first 6-8 months. Initially launched in July 2010, it first had slow growth and low engagement rates, fluctuating between 7 and 15 percent of DAU as a percent of MAU (or DAU/MAU). Technical issues were also a culprit.

The game’s slow growth was also due in part to a lower install rate: Only 55 percent of players would go from launching the app to completing their first game. The reason for this, the developer believes, is that many Facebook gamers were unaccustomed to Tetris’ keyboard-driven gameplay, since nearly all games on the social network platform are mouse-driven. To address this challenge, Youm and his team put the game’s keyboard instructions in the first loading screen and focused players on only using the game’s main key controls for the initial game. As a result, Tetris Battle’s install-to-play rate increased to 80 percent.

The results of this design and layout change became quite evident in April 2011. According to AppData, the DAU/MAU rate then leaped from 20 to about 27 percent, and then began trending toward 35 percent. (Engagement rates of 20 percent DAU/MAU or higher are extremely good for a Facebook game.) Youm also believes that by April 2011, Tetris Battle had reached sufficient critical mass (then about 500,000 DAU) that word of mouth began to drive strong adoption rates, with current players actively inviting their friends to play. According to Youm, installations based on word of mouth are “at least 80 percent… and the funny thing is, it’s increasing.”

Some of Tetris Battle’s growth is also attributable to a viral mechanism involving tetrimino blocks, which can be combined and redeemed for additional energy. A player who invites Facebook users gets more chances to win tetriminos. Players who are Facebook friends with each other can give each other their tetriminos, which creates incentive for friend invites. Tetris Battle also sees significant growth via updates on friends’ Facebook walls, where news on winning games and other Tetris Battle successes can be posted. (As a skill-based game, Youm speculates that players feel more encouraged to share Tetris Battle victories with friends, than non-skill game updates.) Further, the developer reports that players who come to Tetris Battle via friend requests are more likely to put a full effort into the initial on-ramping experience, and are therefore more likely to convert.

In more recent months, Tetris Battle has seen noticeable growth through Facebook’s launch of the canvas app ticker, which amplified the game’s viral word of mouth. The developer hopes that Facebook makes it possible for users to immediately join friends in a multiplayer session, just by clicking on the relevant app ticker update. Doing this, they believe, would increase general growth of multiplayer games on Facebook.

According to the developer, the game now enjoys a peak concurrency of nearly 200,000 players, and routinely averages about 100,000 players throughout the day. Twenty percent of the total playerbase is classified as core players, defined as those who play over an hour a day. As noted, the game has an energy system, which kicks in after 30 minutes; at that point, a player must wait for an hour to refill their energy (i.e. playing time), or purchase extra energy. Core players are therefore playing at least twice a day and/or monetizing.

Monetization and demographics

The developer reports that Tetris Battle earns close to the puzzle game average of 1 to 2 cents in average revenue per daily active user, or ARPDAU. (Tetris Online declines to state specific ARPDAU for their game.) That monetization rate is typical for the game’s US audience, they say, with other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, the UK) also earning good monetization. At this range and at a conservative estimate, revenue for Tetris Battle probably exceeds $1 million per month.

Tetris Battle’s monetization options center around energy, decorations, and functional items, such as “armor,” which protects a player’s rank on the game’s leaderboard from decreasing whenever a player loses a match. Overall, functional goods that improve a player’s gameplay, such as speeding up the movement of their game pieces, monetize best. For the game’s 20 percent core users, a “fast speed drop” of incoming blocks is the most popular monetized item. Special discount sales of goods also increase monetization rates, as does localization of the game. Tetris Battle was also recently localized in Chinese, which resulted in a revenue increase among Chinese-speaking players.

Demographically, Tetris Battle players are roughly split 50/50 by gender, and retention tends to skew younger; in this case, meaning players in the 20-40 range. Core gamers (those playing for over an hour a day) are more male. In terms of players by country, the game reportedly grows in tandem with Facebook’s expansion into the international market. (Players from Denmark, for unknown reasons, comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the user base.)

Leveraging and protecting the Tetris brand on Facebook

According to Pelkey, the Tetris brand name has been an important draw for first-time players; however, retention depends not on the brand, but gameplay and user experience. He applies this lesson in general advice to Facebook game developers involved with other well-known brands and franchises: “You have to deliver a great game, period,” he says. And that includes adding features to the game that leverage all of the platform’s social components: “In Facebook, you better deliver [a game] that has something extra, and not only engages the player, but engages their friends as well.” So far, Tetris Battle is among the rare examples of games from the arcade era to succeed on Facebook.

Given that, and the continued growth of Tetris Battle, some might wonder if it will face copy-cat competitors which frequently beset successful Facebook games. In this case, Tetris’ holding company, Blue Planet Software, has a history of successfully protecting the Tetris brand from imitators in the legal arena. While games in themselves cannot be copyrighted, elements of a game can be trademarked; in this case, the Tetris logo, Tetris theme song, and tetrimino playing pieces enjoy that legal protection. As an example of Blue Planet’s protection strategy, a Facebook game called Blockstar, which had a striking resemblance to Tetris, was legally acquired and co-opted by the company in 2007. This move contrasts the fate of Scrabulous, a Facebook imitator of Scrabble that was shut down by the board game’s rights holder.

Instead of doing that, says Pelkey, “To help reduce the amount of time our legal team spent on shutting this particular game mode down, we were fortunate to befriend the individual who programmed [Blockstar]”. The company went on to “embrace it as an official game mode, making it a part of the Tetris history.” It’s still available within Tetris Friends, with 350,000 MAU. (Before joining Tetris Online, Youm himself was developing a knock-off of the original Tetris for an Asian developer.)

Future plans: Tetris Arena, localization and beyond Tetris Battle

In the second quarter of 2012, Facebook should see the launch of Tetris Arena, a gameplay mode in Tetris Battle that’s now in closed beta. Aimed at the core gamer market, Tetris Arena focuses on multiplayer, synchronous play, in which players compete live using the same playing pieces.

Given that focus, it will also come with a global ranking system — the first Tetris title to have one. For this reason, Tetris Online believes that the Arena mode will draw core players hungry to prove that they’re among the very best at the game overall. Also reflecting the developer’s goal to present Tetris as a competitive sport, Arena will also come with a spectator mode. The company has been testing it on gamers by publishing the Arena game mode’s unlock code on Twitter. Since starting this activity, the Tetris Battle Twitter account has gained 260,000 followers within two months. The Arena game mode is entirely live play, but since it’s still in closed beta, it represents a smaller percentage of the daily games played; the company expects this to grow as the game is opened to more players.

Monetization for Tetris Arena will vary from the main Tetris Battle game, with more functional consumable items. Since the game exists within the main app, the company plans to focus early launch on in-game cross-promotion.

As noted, Tetris Online recently launched a Chinese-localized version of Tetris Battle, garnering improved monetization in Chinese-speaking countries. In 2012, the company also plans to release localizations of the game in Spanish, French, Italian and German, with one new language deployed each month. All these versions will exist within the same Tetris Battle app ID, which will therefore enjoy any growth these additions are likely to attract. The developer notes that the game tends to gain growth momentum when it’s made available in a given country, and word of mouth kicks in; localization should further drive this growth.

Tetris Online also plans to launch a second product in 2012, a head-to-head multiplayer game, which will not be Tetris branded. Another game, Tetris Stars, which combines mouse-driven gameplay with a more casual variation of Tetris, is currently in open beta; the developer is still developing its Q1 2012 plans for that title.

Facebook games in 2012: Words With Friends vs. Tetris Online

At the start of 2012, several top Facebook games shared some common traits with Tetris Battle. Among these are Words With Friends (with 7.9 million DAU, 16 million MAU), Bubble Witch Saga (4 million DAU, 11 million MAU), and Bejeweled Blitz (3.1 million DAU, 9.2 million MAU). All currently enjoy strong growth, especially as compared to other games now topping the popularity charts, such as CityVille and The Sims Social, which have comparatively flat growth. Given these trends, it’s likely that puzzle/arcade games will emerge as 2012’s leaders on the Facebook platform.

For the part of Tetris Online, they consider Tetris Battle’s most direct competitor in the coming year to be Zynga’s Words With Friends. From Youm’s perspective, Words has the advantage of mobile connectivity and cross-platform play. By contrast, competitive Tetris games are difficult to deploy on phones, especially smartphones with touch screens. Additionally, EA holds the rights to mobile versions of Tetris and would need to be brought on as a partner for any mobile deployment of Tetris Online games. However, Youm argues that Tetris Battle has a more global reach than Words With Friends, with the Scrabble-like game probably limited in appeal to regions where English or Romance languages predominate.

These strategic assumptions will be tested as Tetris Online rolls out localized versions of Tetris Battle in 2012, aiming to cater more directly to European and Spanish-speaking countries. In any case, the company sees this year as an opportunity to transform the Facebook platform’s competitive space. Youm argues that multiplayer competitive games are more sustainable for developers, because unlike most other genres, there’s no clear end point where all the game’s content has been enjoyed. Just as Tetris the brand continues to thrive nearly three decades after launch, he believes multiplayer games on Facebook can thrive as long as people are interested in playing them against each other.

“The success of puzzle games gives people something to think about,” as Pelkey puts it. ”At the end of 2012, maybe there’s a different face of gaming in Facebook.”

Full Disclosure: In 2010, the author briefly consulted for Avatar Reality, an unrelated 3D virtual
world developer founded by Henk Rogers, president of Blue Planet Software.