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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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).
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!
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.
me," she told him, "nowhere else on the
planet is like this."
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.
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.
seemed like pitifully little return for the money
he had raked in for the Soviet Union - not to mention
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!"
all laughed, but it wasn't really funny.
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
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!
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