By Edge Retro

Originally published in EUG #68

Edge talks to Alexey Pajitnov, the man behind the most compulsive videogame ever, and finds out all about Tetris's troubled genesis, its hideously convoluted licence history, and just why he shows absolutely no remorse for the people whose lives the game wrecked

At an otherwise humdrum arcade trade show in June 1988 Minorou Arakawa, the president of Nintendo America, saw Tetris for the first time. Among the noisy beat 'em ups and driving games stood a machine in stark contrast to everything else. It was designed in Russia, emitted meagre sound effects, and featured a few basic shapes falling down the screen. Gripped by curiosity Arakawa tried the game and was instantly hooked. More importantly, he had discovered the title Nintendo had been searching for: a killer app for fuel demand for its newly constructed handheld system. Since 1988 Nintendo has sold an incredible 120,000,000 Game Boy units. Unarguably, Tetris played the most significant role in the format's success.

But the real Tetris story began in a cluttered and overcrowded computer lab back in 1984. Alexey Pajitnov was a Russian researcher working on artificial intelligence systems at the Moscow Academy of Science when he hit upon the Tetris formula. "Alongside my regular job I had a special interest in everything which had some relationship with computers and the human mind," he recalls. I did work with psychologists and I tried to invent creative appliances with computers. The games were part of this general interest. I loved to small small games and puzzles."

Pajitnov had already created several logic applications with his Electronica 60 computer, but the significant breakthrough came when he discovered a game called Pentominoes in a local toy shop. "It is a box with all different shapes formed around five squares," he explains. "There are twelve different shapes with you put together in different ways. Those shapes are very amazing. The standard puzzle is to put them all back into the box, which is quite a challenge because it is very geometical. Straight away, I decided to make a two-player game using the same shapes and rules. Five squares was too much because people can't remember 12 shapes, so I simplified it down to four. There are seven of them, and seven is very good number to remember. At this moment Tetris was ready. The rest was technical stuff."

Pajitnov couldn't write graphics for his alpha-numeric screen so he had to construct the first ever Tetris blocks from open and closed brackets symbols. The prototype was completed after just two weeks, but things soon began to slow down. "My programming stopped because I couldn't stop playing," admits Pajitnov. "I needed to improve the scoring, speed and difficulty, but I was very slow with this. I just kept playing and playing, and pretending that I was designing the game."

The coder already realised that he had created something special, but he wanted to see the effect it had on his work colleagues. He loaded the game on their computers and left the room. When he returned, everyone was hunched over their machines transfixed by the falling blocks. The Tetris phenomenon had begun, and Pajitnov behan converting the formula to the only IBM PC in the building.

The process was arduous. Unfamiliar with MS-DOS and lacking any support documentation, Pajitnov found the going tough. Salvation came in the form of a reculsive high school student. "The conversion to PC took half a year because I wasn't familiar with it," says Pajitnov. "A schoolboy called Vadim Gerasimov helped me. He was 16 and a kind of genius. He knew DOS and really understood all the specifics of the machine. There were several real-time problems. When you have the pieces falling down the screen they need to fall down at the same speed on whichever computer you use - small processor, quick processor, one monitor, another monitor. That's why you need to use the timer. The timer on the very early PC was very weak. We needed to reprogram the timer and to write lots of assembly routines to make sure everything was standard, no matter what equipment it was on. It was very difficult."

During that period, copyright was the last thing on Pajitnov's mind. He was happy to see his game distributed among the computer centres of Moscow. In 1985, the Tetris bug had truly bitten, and Moscow businesses complained of low productivity due to the phenomenon. It became so bad in some companies than an anti-Tetris computer program was created. The special code hid in memory space waiting to delete the game as soon as it became resident on machines. "Some people were so addicted to Tetris that they didn't let other people work on their computer," recalls Pajitnov. "I never thought that Tetris would become so big, but later on in the computer centre I didn't see anybody who wasn't addicted."

Though the game exuded simplicity, the scramble for the rights to publish Tetris were among the most hard-fought and convoluted in videogame history. In the spirit of Russian law, Pajitnov's work belonged to the State, but the Soviets were unfamiliar with software licensing. By 1986 Tetris had filtered into Hungary, where it was seen by Robert Stein, a London-based software agent. Stein was no gameplayer, but he instantly realised the puzzle game's potential, and decided to export it to the west. Over the next two years Stein attempted to gain the rights to Tetris by sending telex messages to the Moscow Academy of Sciences. Stein received many tacit agreements to his ownership but there was never any officially binding contract. Believing he had the rights, Stein sold them on to Spectrum Holobyte and BBC Mirrorsoft. Thus began a chain of events which would see the rights and licences passing from company to company with little legitimacy.

As the legal wrangling over rights and licences continued, Pajitnov quietly got on with his work at the Academy. "I was in Russia and I didn't see any success," he recalls. "I saw several magazines with Tetris advertisements, but I had no time to enjoy the glory. I gave my work and granted the rights to be published. I kept my mouth shut for ten years." Pajitnov knew little of the international tension his simple puzzle game was causing.

In 1988, just after Arakawa had seen Tetris for the first time, the race for the all-important handheld rights began. Nintendo asked Henk Rogers - the man who had gained the Japanese computer rights from Spectrum Holobyte - to hammer out a deal with the Russians. Meanwhile, Stein was entering his own negotiations, and Robert Maxwell sent his son, Kevin, to close a deal for Mirrorsoft. Unknown to each other they were all to be brokering deals with the Russians on the very same day, in the same building, but in separate rooms. Eventually, Rogers secured the 'legitimate' home game and handheld rights; Stein returned with the coin-op rights; while Kevin Maxwell came away with nothing but empty assurances. It was a situation which was to see Robert Maxwell - furious at his company's loss of the rights - holding crisis meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. But the Russians would not budge; Nintendo had found its killer app for the Game Boy.

Production began immediately, and Arakawa's expectations were confirmed. The universal game had found its perfect home. Parents, teachers, and executives - as well as the more typical gamers - were drawn to the falling block phenomenon, and the Game Boy's success was assured. "I was very lucky because of the Game Boy," remarks Pajitnov. "Game Boy was invented for Tetris, and Tetris was written for Game Boy, let's put it that way. They were so well matched for each other. It was a very good version, very well done."

Tetris has certainly generated some disturbing and surprising effects. Some players complain of becoming 'Tetrisised' - a form of insomnia induced by the relentless appearance of falling blocks in the mind. Other research has maintained that playing Tetris can improve IQ scores. But it is the game's ability to cross age and gender barriers which remains its most profound quality. "I've played the game for more than sixteen years," adds Pajitnov. "I like that you order the world. You have chaos in your play field with this random sequence of pieces, and what you do is you put everything into order. When you clean the field you have a really good feeling. I would say this is very female. I think a lot of women are fascinated with the same kind of concept, because it's putting things into order. That's why the game is very popular amongst females."

Pajitnov moved to the US after Hank Rogers - who had become a good friend - persuaded him to stay after a visit. "The first time I got excited by Tetris was when I first came to the Computer Electronic Show in 1990," he recalls. "Then I was treated like a king. People were fascinated to meet me - a strange person from a strange country. Russia was very popular at that time because of Perestroika, and I eventually moved to the States in 1991."

But why is Tetris so addictive? Pajitnov seems as baffled as anyone else as to its secret. "People are fascinated by successful products and try to analyse it and see how it works. But no one really discovered the real secret of the game - which nobody knows. There is no universal law which makes Tetris very successful. There are just several factors which work well in combination. I do remember one guy in Japan who asked for my autograph on the Tetris cartridge for the Game Boy. When I signed it he took some super glue and glued in into the Game Boy. He said: 'This Game Boy is dedicated to Tetris only.' These things I can't explain."

Pajitnov is now receiving royalties for the game, which has successfully crossed all boundaries of taste and culture. Now working for Microsoft on other puzzle titles, he is still searching for a game to rival his most famous creation - although there must be some obsessive types out there who hope he never succeeds.

"Everyone talked about how many hours they played Tetris and how many careers I ruined," he concludes. "But if I ask them, did you have a good time? They'd say yes. So, no complaints."