Bejeweled and Tetris

bejeweled_screenshotBejeweled: perhaps one of the most popular and well-known of all modern casual games. The BBC states it as having sold over 25 million copies and boasts a 150 million downloads. Since these figures seem to be from 2008, it’s anyone’s guess what the counters are at in 2013. The game is so popular, it should hardly be necessary to explain the (simple) premise: swap two adjacent gems to make a group of 3 or more gems of the same color. Matching larger groups produces special gems which can help to further clear the field. The object is never to empty the field (as new gems keep appearing), but to reach a certain score in order to progress to the next level.

The game is often considered Popcap’s flagship title, and has definitely helped put this casual gaming giant on the map. Almost 20 official versions and sequels of the game have been released to this date, on platforms as diverse as Facebook and Xbox360. As always with immensely popular titles, many clones have also arisen. Often, the gem theme is abandoned, probably to add a fresh theme and avoid those nasty copyright lawyers. This has led to games like Zoo Keeper and Candy Crush.

A lesser know game is Bejeweled’s forefather, Shariki. We should be glad that Eugene Alemzhin, the creator of this DOS title from 1994, decided to name it in Russian, or the world would have had a game called “the Balls”. To me, it seems rather sad that Alemzhin didn’t gain the immortality and wealth that Popcap has, the same way that Alexey Pajitnov (coincidentally another Russian) never saw much gain from his wildly popular creation Tetris. This is another best-seller, with sales figures for the Nintendo NES and Gameboy alone stated to be 8 million and 33 million copies respectively.

4-Tetris-NintendoNow that we’re on the topic of action/puzzle games, let’s compare these two best-selling titles (which I’ve both played far too much). A few differences come to mind.
Even though both games haveĀ  a very simple set of rules, Tetris has no special items. Also, the gameplay does not involve combos like in Bejeweled (one merely clears 1, 2, 3 or 4 rows at a time). This might make it visually less exciting, but I actually like the simplicity.
The urgency of play seems more apparent to me in Tetris than in Bejeweled. You cannot help but notice as the pile of blocks builds up to the top, whereas in Bejeweled, I’m always too preoccupied with the game field. “Oh yes, there was also a timer…”
In Tetris, you are mainly the architect of your own fate. Assuming you are fast enough to place the blocks as you want them, it seems to be impossible to fail at Tetris. Hardly ever do you get a series of blocks that cannot be properly placed anywhere. With Bejeweled, you can actually run out of options to swap. I find this one of the most frustrating parts of Bejeweled. You feel like you’re doing well, you’ve almost cleared the required number of gems… and then the game decides to give you lemons. The board can fill up with completely useless blocks in a matter of seconds, and you’re doomed. I know that most of these games have a “shuffle” feature, but I’ve always had the feeling that the game should have some way of managing this problem on its own.

Now that I’m complaining anyway, I’ll quickly elaborate on Bejeweled Blitz, on Facebook. Even though it’s a good port of the original, and has some added power-ups and other features, there is one thing I don’t understand about this game.
As with many other Facebook games, it tries to get you to buy in-game “currency” for cash. Many games allow you to earn “currency”, but it’s usually slow, or have a time limit on how often you can play over the course of a day. This is all intended to tease you, make you impatient and want to spend cash. In the case of Bejeweled Blitz, playing costs currency, and if you run out of currency, you will need to pay. There is but one big flaw with this model: everyone knows Bejeweled, and there are an ungodly number of places online where you can play it, or its myriad clones absolutely free, with no limits. I would be very interested to see sales figures on in-game currency for this game.

Putting personal gripes aside, what is it about these games that makes this genre so popular? Some of the best-selling casual games of all time are timer-based action/puzzle games. This is probably due to their simplicity — there is little need for a manual, and almost anyone can immediately start playing (albeit at a slow speed setting).
The games have a strong feel of mathematical elegance to them, where a very simple principle can lead to a very intricate puzzle. Perhaps that is why both Shariki and Tetris were designed by Russians — Russia seems to have a knack of producing many great mathematicians and chess players. I get the same feeling of mathematical elegance/intricacy when I play the Asian board game GO. The pieces and rules are very clean and simple, but the resulting game is unbelievable complex. You can play these games as a novice and have fun with them, but if you play enough, there is enough depth to the game to become a grand master.

This may be the key to the genre’s success: anyone can pick these games up in a matter of minutes, but they can fascinate you for years. Where the puzzle aspect brings a lasting mental challenge, the timer aspect makes the game exciting. Finally, the random nature of the elements as they appear means that every new game is fresh, challenging and has the potential for that awesome combo or insane high-score.

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