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The Tetris Effect
The Game that Hypnotized the World
By Dan Ackerman
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Tetris is perhaps the most instantly recognizable, popular video game ever made. But how did an obscure Soviet programmer, working on frail, antiquated computers, create a product which has now earned nearly 1 billion in sales? How did a makeshift game turn into a worldwide sensation, which has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, inspired a big-budget sci-fi movie, and been played in outer space?
A quiet but brilliant young man, Alexey Pajitnov had long nurtured a love for the obscure puzzle game pentominoes, and became obsessed with turning it into a computer game. Little did he know that the project that he labored on alone, hour after hour, would soon become the most addictive game ever made.
In this fast-paced business story, reporter Dan Ackerman reveals how Tetris became one of the world’s first viral hits, passed from player to player, eventually breaking through the Iron Curtain into the West. British, American, and Japanese moguls waged a bitter fight over the rights, sending their fixers racing around the globe to secure backroom deals, while a secretive Soviet organization named ELORG chased down the game’s growing global profits.
The Tetris Effect is an homage to both creator and creation, and a must-read for anyone who’s ever played the game-which is to say everyone.
THE GREAT RACE
The airplane lurched into a final descent toward Moscow. Henk Rogers gripped the worn armrest wedged against him. Years of circling the globe chasing business deals and new technologies had left him feeling like a well-traveled citizen of the world, but this was something altogether different.
He looked around the shaking cabin with some trepidation. He had spent the last eleven hours on a flight jointly operated by Japan Airlines and Aeroflot, the notorious Soviet state airline that allowed the Russians a hand in the business of actually carrying paying passengers across the Pacific and over the Russian continent.
Eyes fixed on the seatback in front of him, he asked himself what was worse: going in blind to a strange city in a strange country without speaking a word of the language, or agreeing to enter one of the world’s most notorious international flash points under false pretenses?
The paperwork for his tourist visa to Moscow felt heavy in his jacket pocket. Rogers had no doubt that if he was caught lying about his reasons for visiting the USSR, the powerful business interests bankrolling his mission would cut him loose without a thought. They had built enough plausible deniability into the deal that he’d appear to be just another economic opportunist, looking to slice off a piece of Soviet prosperity for himself at the expense of the people.
He wondered how what should have been a simple software licensing deal had taken him from Japan, where he had lived for years, to the USSR, tasked with chasing down a shadowy arm of the Soviet government while staying one step ahead of a pair of powerful corporate mercenaries who would stop at nothing to steal away the prize.
To fly into the heart of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was to take an uncertain step behind the feared Iron Curtain, a political and psychological barrier that kept 280 million citizens locked away from the Western world. Secret police ears were still everywhere in Moscow during the final years of the Cold War. Visiting tourists, businessmen, and even journalists could expect their phones to be tapped and hotel rooms to be bugged, or even to be tailed around town by a boxy Lada sedan, the preferred vehicle of dark-suited government minders.
Yet a new reality had started to replace the traditional East-versus-West rivalry. A spirit of glasnost, or openness, was the Communist Party’s official marching order of the day, and with it came an influence both craved and feared—foreign money.
It was into this charged environment that Henk Rogers flew on February 21, 1989. He was one of three competing Westerners descending on Moscow nearly simultaneously. Each was chasing the same prize, an important government-controlled technology that was having a profound impact on people around the world.
That technology was perhaps the greatest cultural export in the history of the USSR, and it was called Tetris. This deceptively simple puzzle game had circled the globe numerous times in multiple formats before the government realized it was not only a rare cross-cultural Cold War triumph but also an untapped source of much-needed cash.
Street after street of identical gray slab buildings flew by the window of Rogers’s taxi on his way into the heart of Moscow from Domodedovo International Airport. Could this really be the epicenter of the fearsome Soviet empire? Long blocks of poured concrete high-rises were broken up by occasional flashes of brilliance, from Saint Basil’s Cathedral to the Triumphal Arch, shadows of the city’s history as a hub of art, architecture, and even commerce.
And it was commerce that had brought him here, despite his tourist visa. Rogers hoped the checkbook in his pocket and the promise of a hefty bankroll from his unofficial corporate sponsors would be enough to smooth over any ruffles with the Soviet government if his legal status became an issue.
What could possibly go wrong? After all, he was only entering one of the most closed-off societies on earth, looking to coax an Orwellian bureaucracy into dropping its current well-connected partners in favor of an uninvited guest. But he suspected the deal he had to offer might be the exact tool he needed to drill through the impenetrable wall of “no” he expected from the Russians.
Despite the military parades and positive state-run media reports, the Soviet empire was hanging by a thread. A brief era of government-sponsored prosperity in the late 1970s and early 1980s was over. This was a time of breadlines and frustrated citizens with little money and even less to spend it on.
One-half of the USSR’s bureaucracy was tasked with luring hard currency behind the frayed Iron Curtain; the other half was equally adamant in its mission to protect the hermetically sealed hierarchy of local privilege and power, by any means necessary. It was as if the country had put up a sign in its front yard that read “Open for Business,” and beneath it someone had scrawled, “Now, go away!”
In less than three years, the USSR would be gone, dissolved by Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union. Even now, the Cold War practices of spycraft and espionage were slowly being replaced, or at least augmented, by the cutthroat capitalism of international business deals. Intellectual property replaced state secrets as the intangible product to be fought over, bought, sold, and even stolen.
Rogers flipped through his pages of handwritten notes as the taxi sputtered toward his hotel. Even securing a room reservation had been a minor victory: customer service remained a novel idea in Russia (a situation some would say has changed little in the twenty-five years since).
But there were bigger problems on his mind. The pages of his notebook contained smatterings of conversational Russian, mostly in the form of simple questions, some back-of-the-envelope calculations on sales and royalty numbers, and a single name, circled for emphasis: Alexey Pajitnov.
Of the mysterious Pajitnov, Rogers knew little. Finding this man could be the key to stealing a multi-million-dollar deal away from his adversaries.
One of those adversaries was Kevin Maxwell, the privileged son of a hard-charging UK media mogul. Anyone who had taken on Maxwell and his well-connected father, Robert, found that the Maxwell family frequently proved the old adage about starting a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
Rogers’s other challenger was Robert Stein, a self-made software magnate with a street hustler’s flair. Some would call Stein little more than a calculator salesman who stumbled across a lucky break, but Rogers knew there was more to Stein than simple luck.
During this final week of February 1989, all three men were in a race to Moscow, each aiming to undercut the others and strike a deal worth millions with the increasingly paranoid Russian state for its unlikely prize. Tetris was the most important technology to come out of that country since Sputnik.
Tetris had stunning global impact. In 1984, a lone computer scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, working in his off hours on painfully outdated equipment, programmed it. Before Tetris and its trance-inducing waterfall of geometric puzzle pieces, video games were brain-dulling distractions for preteens, personified by Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and other cartoon-like kids’ fare.
Tetris was different. It didn’t rely on low-fi imitations of cartoon characters. In fact, its curious animations didn’t imitate anything at all. The game was purely abstract, geometry in real time. It wasn’t just a game, it was an uncrackable code puzzle that appealed equally to moms and mathematicians.
Today, Tetris is firmly established in the pantheon of the greatest video games of all time, but in 1989 its future was much less certain. The Tetris Henk Rogers pursued was a cult favorite that was starting to generate some real money for some major publishing companies, but like all underground phenomena, it had to either grow or fade away.
At the time, Tetris had yet to meet its perfect counterpart, another new technology that would come to be considered equally groundbreaking. That technology, called the Nintendo Game Boy, was a then-secret project hidden away in a series of R&D labs in Japan. It would form a powerful symbiotic relationship with Tetris: the handheld console and the puzzle game would be packaged together, and tens of millions of units would be sold worldwide.
That Game Boy version is the Tetris people know and love from childhood, and three decades after its birth, Tetris lives on in tablets, laptops, smartphones, game consoles, and more. It’s estimated that the dozens of official versions of Tetris have generated more than $1 billion in lifetime sales, and the game’s legacy has directly influenced time-sucking moneymakers from Bejeweled to Candy Crush Saga.
But, in 1989, none of that was on Henk Rogers’s mind. He instead focused on navigating the shadowy world of Communist trade negotiations, outmaneuvering his better-equipped rivals, and bringing West, East, and Far East together in an unprecedented level of commercial and creative partnership. The future of this game—later a cultural legacy of surprising persistence and reach—hung on Henk Rogers’s skillful detective work and backroom deal making. Any misstep on his part, and the game would be little more than another dusty eighties curio.
Striking a deal would not be easy. Tetris was treated like a valuable state secret, guarded by one of the Soviet empire’s final creations, a new division in its massive secretive bureaucracy named Electronorgtechnica, or ELORG.
ELORG wasn’t tasked with searching for nuclear secrets or flipping consular employees into double agents. Instead, it was officially an arm of the Soviet Ministry of Trade charged with handling the somewhat novel concept of protecting and licensing rights for computer software and other technology created under the government’s enormous umbrella.
For Rogers, one key to unlocking ELORG lay with Alexey Pajitnov, who had hand-coded the original version of Tetris five years earlier. The two had never met, never spoken, but perhaps, Rogers thought, they might have a lot in common.
They were both computer programmers at heart. Both outsiders who found themselves in the employ of massive power players, creators in worlds that did not often value the creator’s spark. Rogers was beholden to one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies; Pajitnov and his singular creation were both wholly owned subsidiaries of the Soviet Union.
Rogers knew enough of the tortured backstory of Tetris to peg Pajitnov as a useful ally to have on his side. Thanks to the byzantine nature of Soviet bureaucracy and fading, but still enforceable, ideas about collective state ownership, Pajitnov had no formal say in the future of Tetris and wasn’t entitled to a single ruble of the potential profits. But a vote of confidence in Rogers from the game’s creator would carry some weight with the technologically inexperienced negotiators at ELORG. Rogers hoped it might be enough to get the deal he wanted.
This was where Henk Rogers saw himself running into the first of many brick walls. Despite a pedigree in the video game world, he was clearly the odd man out in this three-way race. Both Robert Stein and Kevin Maxwell had previous dealings with the USSR and experience with its opaque business practices. Rogers was not only a new visitor to Russia but also an uninvited one.
He knew his rivals were on their way to ELORG’s Moscow offices to meet with its lead negotiator, vice chairman Nikoli Belikov, a broad-chested Russian bureaucrat straight out of central casting, known for shifting between amiable Russian hospitality and cutthroat Soviet aggression at a moment’s notice. Each had the goal to win ELORG’s blessing on producing and selling new versions of Tetris. In five short years the game had become one of the most-shared software applications of all time. As far as the Russians were concerned, most of those shared copies were unlicensed, which meant that some of the world’s biggest technology companies were unwitting partners in financial crimes against the Soviet Union.
Henk Rogers shared the same goal, but he lacked a formal invitation from ELORG and Belikov to take part in the negotiations over Tetris. He didn’t even know where in the sprawling city to find the headquarters of the secretive trade group.
Not an auspicious start for someone in Moscow for the first time, and carrying a suspect tourist visa. But that willingness to dive into unknown territory was exactly why Rogers, a thirty-six-year-old with a helmet of black hair and a thick Tom Selleck moustache, had been given the job.
Rogers found that understanding Moscow was not as easy as programming a computer game. The television set in his room seemed to have two modes of operation: shooting sparks from its power cord, or completely unplugged. Even a meal was hard to come by. Restaurants required twenty-four hours’ notice for reservations, and room service was as foreign a concept as Rogers’s full-tilt salesman’s smile.
When he asked about a trade group named ELORG, the hotel clerk’s fear-tinged blank stare told him all he needed to know. Asking for information, especially about government agencies in 1980s Moscow, was suspect. Locals assumed that if you didn’t know something, you weren’t supposed to.
But having earlier in his career talked his way into the executive suites of Japanese corporations—in some ways even harder for outsiders to penetrate, with their carefully constructed social mores of business culture—he would not be so easily deterred. In Japan it was a matter of learning a rigid code of respectful behavior. Here in Russia, it seemed to be a matter of finding the right person willing to bend the rules.
The more he considered the puzzle in front of him, the more the two cultures seemed to share a common denominator. The key to one could be the key to the other, a secret known only to a select few.
Rogers remembered the first time he talked his way into a meeting with legendary Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. It was 1985, and flush from the relative success of his first game, The Black Onyx, Rogers wanted nothing more than to make his next project for the hugely popular Nintendo Famicom console, known in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.
But getting in the door to see a major player such as Yamauchi was next to impossible for a non-Japanese small-time software publisher like Rogers. After reading in a magazine that the Nintendo president was a fan of the traditional board game Go, a strategy game dating back to ancient China in which players encircle each other’s positions on a game board with black and white stones, Rogers quickly composed a fax to Yamauchi’s office. In it, he proposed to program a version of Go for the Nintendo Famicom, a complex artificial intelligence task that most assumed was beyond the capabilities of the simple game machine. Less than forty-eight hours later, he was face to face with Yamauchi, pitching a game he wasn’t even sure he could deliver.
Yamauchi wasn’t known for small talk, and even less so with those outside his very small circle of trusted insiders. But the idea of releasing Go on the NES intrigued him. “I cannot give you any programmers,” he warned.
“I don’t need programmers,” Rogers said. “I need money.” A hefty publishing advance was the only way he could find the outside technical talent needed to actually make the game work.
Rogers reached for a number out of thin air, high enough to make him look like a major player, but not so much as to insult his host. “Thirty million yen.” The figure represented about $300,000 in American money at the time.
Yamauchi didn’t reply. He simply reached over the table and shook Rogers’s hand. The deal was done in minutes, and Rogers had accomplished the impossible: going from a niche PC game programmer to a licensed publisher for the biggest video game company in the world.
If the classic game of Go was the key to Yamauchi, perhaps it could also unlock a way to find Alexey Pajitnov and ELORG. Though Chinese in origin and especially popular in Japan and Korea, Go had millions of fans around the world, particularly in Russia. And, like chess, it was often a way for gamers to socialize across language barriers. There must be a Russian Go Association, there must be Go players here, he thought. And perhaps one of them is the game-loving Pajitnov, or at least someone who knows of him.
At the very least, Rogers hoped to connect with a sympathetic Muscovite who would act as a fixer and tour guide. Asking about government office addresses seemed to be off-limits, but the locations where Moscow’s Go players gathered were easier to uncover. After a day and a half, Rogers joined in a friendly match against a man another player had described as “the third strongest Go player in the Soviet Union.”
Predictably, the match ended with a win for the local. Just taking on the challenge endeared Rogers to other players. Though his new friends spoke no English, he felt the first cracks form in Moscow’s unfriendly social armor. He was soon able to connect with a young woman who worked as an off-the-books interpreter and guide and who claimed to know the directions to any location he wished to visit.
She operated carefully, because private work for foreigners was a sure way to attract the attention of the authorities. After listening impassively to his so far unsuccessful quest for ELORG, she explained to him the concept her countrymen knew as invisible boundaries: Russians weren’t allowed to go places they weren’t invited.
But Rogers felt emboldened by his success at getting at least a few steps closer to his goal. He wasn’t there to recognize any invented boundaries, he explained. His guide nodded. ELORG’s offices would most likely be within the massive Ministry of Trade and a simple matter to find.
In the country for less than forty-eight hours, Henk Rogers had gone from a lost soul on a tourist visa to the talk of the local Go community, and now he neared the moment when he would have to stare down stone-faced Soviet bureaucrats and talk his way into the most important meeting of his life.
But the clock was ticking. By now, Robert Stein and Kevin Maxwell were no doubt settling into their hotel rooms and preparing for their respective meetings with ELORG’s director, Nikolai Belikov. Neither was a favorite of the Russian official, but the pair had at least been formally invited to bid on the rights to Tetris.
Only a few blocks from his hotel, his guide stopped. Cars streamed along a main drag known as Kashirskoye Highway, a winding street that bisected Moscow, running south of the Moskva River. On one side stood Henk Rogers and his temporary traveling companion. On the other, a nondescript government building, identical to dozens just like it that ran several blocks in either direction.
Showing this man to a building was one thing; standing next to him when he knocked on the door was another, and she would go no further.
“You don’t just show up at a ministry and expect to talk to somebody. You have to be invited,” she warned.
But Rogers didn’t know how to get invited. And, anyway, here he was.
The odds were long, but Rogers was fairly sure he had arrived at ELORG’s offices before either Stein or Maxwell, and that first-mover advantage could prove valuable.
Abandoned by his guide, Rogers dodged the light traffic, barely breaking his stride as he pushed open the outer doors to the sparse Communist-era workplace. Just inside the lobby, he stopped the first official-looking person he saw and said, “I want to talk to somebody about Tetris.”
Tetris was the first video game played in space, by cosmonaut Aleksandr A. Serebrov in 1993.
ALEXEY LEONIDOVICH PAJITNOV
The telephone rang in Alexey Pajitnov’s Moscow apartment, a modest collection of rooms tucked away on a high floor of a Soviet-era apartment block. The voice on the other end was a familiar one—Nikoli Belikov. It could only mean that there was business about Tetris to be conducted, and Pajitnov’s presence was requested.
He was already apprehensive about a meeting scheduled for later that week with Tetris’s original licensee, Robert Stein, who Pajitnov disliked. As for Stein’s competitor, Kevin Maxwell, Pajitnov knew little about him other than that his father was important, and his father’s company was important, so therefore he was important.
During these occasional meetings with Tetris suitors, Pajitnov was invited to act as the public face of his creation. He might also be called upon to answer any technical questions about Tetris. Officially, he was there as the representative of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the government think tank that employed him and to which he had reluctantly signed over the rights to his game.
Because any money they might finally wrangle from Stein or Maxwell would go to ELORG or the Russian Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov was content to sit quietly in the background, unless someone asked him a question.
Over the phone, Belikov threw a wrench into the coming week’s carefully choreographed meeting schedule. A stranger from Japan is here, he said, and he wants to discuss something about Tetris. “No problem,” Pajitnov answered. “I could come over.”
Alexey Pajitnov learned patience early in life, like generations of Soviet citizens before him. Sitting through an extra negotiating session over video game rights was certainly a step above his early years at the RAS, when he spent much of his time engaged in that most traditional of Russian activities, waiting in line.
When he started there as a computer researcher nearly nine years earlier, he was supposed to have access to the latest in Russian technology. Instead, he frequently stood around waiting along with other researchers for his turn to feed a punch card into a wall-sized mainframe, the fearsome BESM-6. Its Russian name literally means “Large Electronically Computing Machine.” Set in an American computer lab, such a scene might have played out in the 1960s. In the Soviet Union, the same creaky mainframes were still in use twenty years later.
Had moving over to the RAS been a mistake? He had taken a professional leap of faith in joining the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre at the sprawling, sometimes rebellious, Russian Academy of Sciences. His previous position had been an enviable one, a safe academic track at the prestigious but ultimately stifling Moscow Institute of Aviation. It was a particularly good gig for a young scientist, trading in the cachet of the aviation industry—a field of endeavor that carried serious weight in Cold War Russia.
Lured by the promise of high-level access to computers, this former math prodigy saw a chance to be on the forefront of research in computer programming. To claim his spot, he started as a summer volunteer, taking courses and becoming a known quantity to the other computer researchers, until he was offered his first on-staff research job.
But his earliest days at the academy were not exactly promising. Pajitnov knew he was lucky to be there, but a machine designed in 1968 wasn’t exactly the ideal hardware for the assignments he tackled, researching speech recognition and artificial intelligence. Performing a series of complex calculations was one thing, but recognizing speech or mimicking human thought, those were serious problems that required serious computer time.
How to get enough computer time? Pajitnov considered the dilemma as merely another programming problem to solve. He staked out a desk in the office closest to the mainframe’s central location, which gave him the maximum possible computer access time. The extra cycles paid off. After a few years of dutiful work, as computers at the RAS shrank from room-filling goliaths to tabletop units, Pajitnov was rewarded with his own personal workstation.
It was a proud day when he felt the chunky computer keys yield under his fingertips, and he finally knew he had made the right decision to abandon the Institute of Aviation. Sitting in front of his new computer, one of the most advanced machines he had ever interacted with, he could sense a universe of possibilities unfolding. It was a rare feeling for any intellectually curious young man in the early 1980s in a Soviet Union presumed to be at the height of its powers.
Here was a gleaming example of Soviet technology at its most advanced, the Electronica 60, a rack-mountable desktop computer that resembled a clunky piece of midcentury stereo equipment. The bulk of the body was hidden inside a steel rack, and only an off-white faceplate pointed out, instantly recognizable by its Russian name, Электроника 60, in a bold red script across the top and a series of thick, white switches that would not have looked out of place in an episode of Space: 1999.
But, like most things in the Soviet Union at the time, scratch away the facade, and you’d find that nothing is what it seemed at first glance.
The Electronica 60, despite a smart-looking space-age industrial design, was just another Soviet knockoff of a more popular, and better-made, American product. In this case, internally it was a clone of the Digital Equipment Corporation’s LSI-11 computer. That machine had been state of the art in its day—but that day was in 1975, and anyone at a research facility or university in the West would have considered it a dinosaur.
Not only was this less than the modern hardware Alexey’s state-sponsored explorations into artificial intelligence and other advanced computing topics required but also it was somewhat less than the average early-eighties American middle school student had access to in classroom computer labs.
The definitive telling of one of the most fascinating stories in videogame history.” WIRED
Ackerman's account of the rise of Tetris is as captivating as watching the game's multi-colored, four-squared objects (known as tetrominoes”) vanish before your eyes with the right move.” Fortune Online
- "Half-origin story, half-cultural commentary, Ackerman leaves no block unturned, fitting the pieces together with effortless precision."—Steven Petite, Yahoo! Finance
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 272 pages