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How Alex Pajitnov was Tetris-Ized!
Why Tetris' creator got the cultural bends upon his arrival in America
by Bill Kunkel

It is, in my opinion, the ultimate second generation electronic game (the first generation being signified by the arrival of Pong-type games). In comic book terms, it is the masterpiece of the Silver Age. It is a game so visually and conceptually simple that it can be played on a telephone, yet it would cost millions to reproduce in the real world.

It provides a deeply satisfying yet ironically ongoing sense of closure and it fits my oft-quoted definition of what makes for a great videogame: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.

My subject, of course, is Tetris, a game so rich in impact and insider electronic entertainment history that several books have devoted chapters to its backstory, which would have made a great novel - and later, of course, an HBO movie.

Here's the pitch: It's the mid-80s and Nintendo has had such an incredible success with its Famicom game unit in Japan that it is preparing to take over the abandoned US videogame market.

Cut to the USSR, where an affable computer functionary (we suggest Robin Williams for the HBO version) at the Moscow Academy of Science's Computer Center creates a game on a crude Electronica 60 computer inspired by a version of pentominoes he happens to encounter. It has something. People can't stop playing it. A second programmer ports it to the PC and word of this fantastic new computer game begins to pollinate through the Moscow gaming community… and beyond!

The game soon starts attracting opportunists like a magnet collects iron filings. In a race to see who could screw who first, a cast of characters assembled, most of whom were in such a hurry to snatch up the rights to this obvious classic that the vaguely-worded contracts which were produced would subsequently provide a small army of lawyers with an extra two weeks in Bali during the winters to come.

By the summer of '86, a group of Hungarian programmers slam the incredibly simple program into C64 and Apple II+ formats. These versions are spotted by a somewhat predatory president of a Brit software house, who plans to obtain the rights as quickly as possible. Alas, before he actually gets around to, oh, say, meeting the game's creator, he represents himself as the agent for Tetris and deals off most of the rights to an even bigger English game publisher (and its similarly successful US affiliate). They publish the game and it is wildly successful, as both a compelling contest and a gesture of détente (Tetris was heavily marketed as the first Iron Curtain-produced electronic game).

The predatory president/agent, meanwhile, somehow scores the rights to publish the game on the PC during summer '87, but he still doesn't have a solid deal with the Russians. In fact, he's having so much trouble wading through the obdurate, bureaucratic waters of the Moscow Academy of Science that he may be thinking of hijacking the game and assigning authorship to the Hungarians!

Meanwhile, back at the Soviet science ranch, sensing that it might have something big here, the Russians stall and our harried agent's designs are torn further asunder when the American media interviews the game's actual creator in response to the buzz that Tetris has created in the States.

This goes on and on, with the agent eventually signing a legit deal to make the game for "home computers." Meanwhile, Tetris is getting bigger and bigger, and the big Brit software company that purchased those rights from our agent have, by now, created a sub-licensing tangle of horrific proportions. As for the Russians, they've transferred the negotiating rights from the Academy to a group of legal specialists and bean counters dubbed ELORG.

That's when Nintendo enters the picture. Sensing that Tetris is the perfect software vehicle to launch its new Game Boy system, an American trouble-shooter is dispatched to Russia and arrives at almost the same time as the agent and the president of the British software company on a sub-licensing binge (this last character is also a major political power in Great Britain, as if the story needed any additional juice).

But the American troubleshooter (we recommend Ben Afflick for the role) reaches the Russians (who had retained rights to the hand-held version of Tetris) first and not only steals the deal from under the feet of his competitors, but blows the Russians' minds when he shows them the Famicom. The Russians had never considered a console TV system when they sold the agent the "home computer" rights.

At this point, the English agent arrives, and the Russians politely but firmly sequester him in a room and offer him a contract in which he specifically agrees, once again, that he is buying the "computer rights" to the game. In the pressure of the moment, the slick agent never considers that videogame consoles would be a different set of rights. The Russians play him like a Stradivarius, then walk back in and eventually sign the deal of a lifetime with the American troubleshooter (on behalf of Nintendo) for the hand-held and console rights to the future phenomenon known as Tetris.

The story ends up with the American troubleshooter as the hero (i.e., the Winner). Nintendo becomes a gigantic success ("Tetris-izing" America on its fantastically-successful Americanized Famicom then using Tetris to launch its Game Boy as the most successful handheld game system in history). The agent makes some money off the arcade rights, but is basically disgraced while the British software kingpin threatens to take his political influence all the way to the Kremlin. Soon thereafter, he dies mysteriously.

And just so you can run some post-movie text, you might add that a whole host of smaller software companies were left holding a wholly unpleasant bag when the bullet-riddled contracts were finally sorted out.

I'm telling you, boys, this story is m-o-n-e-y. (It has also been considerably shortened and modified to fit on TV screens.) If you'd like the complete saga, I recommend you visit this website, which has a version of the story that is, to my mind, more equitable than the reportage that appears in "Game Over."

Alexey Pajitnov

When I met Tetris' creator Alexey Pajitnov, however, all these machinations lay far in the future. Following the summer '89 release of Nintendo's NES version of Tetris, the game literally dominated American consciousness. Nintendo's brilliant marketing had made us see every skyline as the bottom of a Tetris playfield - we had truly been "Tetris-ized".

It was in Las Vegas, however, at the January 1990 Winter Consumer Electronics Show (WCES) that the game's creator was flown into the United States to meet the Fourth Estate. Most of the interview time went to the mainstream press, but at the time, Katz, Kunkel and Worley were three of the best-known names in the business and Nintendo graciously invited us to chat with the man behind the biggest phenomenon in electronic gaming since Pac-Man (which, ironically, was created by a designer who was so badly compensated by Namco that he reportedly left the game business).

More than anything, Alexey looked like a victim of severe culture shock. In 1990, the USSR was crumbling. Food shortages were everywhere, and the basic technology rarely worked. Now here they had transported this quiet, rather shy man from a comparative Third World Country not only to the United States, but to a United States entertainment technology industry expo… being held in Las Vegas!

"So much food!" was his response when Joyce asked him about his impressions of America. We were sitting in a room which was dominated by a relatively modest buffet - by Vegas standards, anyway - complete with ice-sculpted swan and what looked like about 200 pounds of shrimp on ice. "Is all of America like this?" he wondered, his eyes unable to believe the excess he was witnessing.

"Believe me," she told him, "nowhere else on the planet is like this."

Alexey soon relaxed, got past the piles of food and we all had a pleasant chat about technology, entertainment and the relative quality of life in the two nations then designated as "the Super-Powers". He told us he had begun the Tetris project as an educational exercise to demonstrate some facet of programming logic to students.

I asked if he had reaped some material benefit as a result of his having created the most successful videogame in the world. He told us he had been given his own home computer - a 286 PC, as I recall - a machine that was already dated by American standards, but are probably still running the Mir space station.

It seemed like pitifully little return for the money he had raked in for the Soviet Union - not to mention Nintendo.

I wondered if he had been given a modem with his computer, since the online world was really beginning to open up in America at that time. "What good is a modem?" he asked rhetorically. "In Moscow, you can't even make a regular telephone call!"

We all laughed, but it wasn't really funny.


I don't believe I saw Alexey again at the following Summer CES in Chicago. I think it was actually some time later. He was then the major face behind the launch of Bullet Proof Software (which was actually organized by our American Troubleshooter, Henk Rogers), a software company that primarily produced Tetris-like games.

But I could hardly believe I was looking at the same man! Gone was the shy, self-effacing cog in the Soviet Science Machine - hell, I thought I was looking at one of the Festrunk Brothers from the SNL "Wild & Crazy Guys" skits! The guy had seemingly gone completely American!

But the outfit was mostly a rib as I found Alexey to be the same nice guy I had met in Las Vegas. And while he had barely seen a pittance from Tetris, he was proud of what he'd created and happy to be in the games industry. Rogers helped him create The Tetris Company in the mid-90s, allowing Alexey to finally collect a small piece of the incredible profits that were generated by the man who helped Tetris-ize the world.


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