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The beloved video game Tetris is 25 years old, but its opening page still honours its Russian roots, as seen here on an arcade screen in Brooklyn – though people today are more likely to be playing it on their cellphones. (Mark Lennihan)
The beloved video game Tetris is 25 years old, but its opening page still honours its Russian roots, as seen here on an arcade screen in Brooklyn – though people today are more likely to be playing it on their cellphones. (Mark Lennihan)

Tetris

Rock around the blocks Add to ...

Alexey Pajitnov is by no means a household name. But chances are that if you've ever played a video game, you've played his.

Exactly 25 years ago, Mr. Pajitnov was a researcher at the Moscow Academy of Science. A superstar mathematician with a love of logic puzzles and arithmetic games, he was recruited directly out of university and put to work on a new Soviet artificial-intelligence project.

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He was given access to his first desktop computer, the 64-kilobyte Russian Elektronika 60. Before long, his fascination with the machine and his passion for puzzles began to mesh. Instead of programs, he started designing games.

"I put together five or six different games," Mr. Pajitnov says in an interview. However, one in particular began to dominate his attention. He found himself staying at work for 14-hour days, working on it long into the cold Moscow nights. Even without defined levels or any way of keeping score, it quickly became a favourite of his co-workers.

And in two weeks, on June 6, 1984, the first version of Tetris was complete.

Tetris convinced many people that games weren't just for pubescent boys and didn't need to be violent or destructive. They also found out how addictive games could be.

College students who spent hours enthralled by the falling bricks reported "Tetris hangovers" in which they could still see the blocks after closing their eyes and trying to sleep.



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The object is to complete full rows of blocks without a hole. When this happens, the row disappears. Otherwise the rows pile up and the player has less room to manoeuvre. Players advance to the next level when they've completed a set number of rows.

"The simplicity is a very important part of it," Mr. Pajitnov says. "It takes the chaos of the falling pieces and tries to make them into some sort of order - to build something reasonable out of it."

Early versions of Tetris began circulating around Eastern Europe in 1985 after being produced by the Soviet ministry in charge of importing and exporting technology, known as ELORG. But under Communism, Mr. Pajitnov wasn't able to cash in on his creation.

At least not yet.



The basic difference between Tetris and most other games in history is that they are destructive and Tetris is constructive. You're not blowing anyone up. You're building little blocks, little walls, lines. Order out of chaos is basic human nature. Henk Rogers, game developer and publisher who license Tetris and helped turn it into an international sensation


Henk Rogers played his first game of Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1988. Netherlands-born, U.S.-educated and living in Japan, Mr. Rogers was a seasoned game developer and publisher. He didn't think much of Tetris when he first played it and walked off to the thousands of other booths. But something drew him back.

"I kept coming back more and more," Mr. Rogers says. "And I realized that I wanted to license this game."

He flew home to Japan with a plan to make Tetris an international sensation. It wasn't long before he had inked a deal with the copyright holders there to publish it on several platforms. But he also knew that Nintendo was planning to launch a new hand-held system in the U.S. - the Game Boy - and was looking for a game to package with it.

Nintendo was considering Super Mario Land, but Mr. Rogers explained to Nintendo executive Minoru Arakawa that Tetris could reach a different kind of audience.

"I told him, 'If you want to sell your Game Boy to little boys, pack in Mario. If you want to pack in my game, Tetris, you can sell it to everybody.'"

"He said that I was the first game designer he had met from another country. We hit it off," Mr. Rogers remembers. "Everybody else in the room didn't have a clue about what was going on."

The Soviets initially demanded nearly $1-billion, but Mr. Rogers left Russia a week later with a global-distribution contract in hand. The rest is video-game history: More than 35 million copies of Tetris were sold with the Game Boy.

"Game Boy made Tetris and Tetris made Game Boy," Mr. Rogers said. "We became a worldwide title and we were protected by Nintendo on a worldwide basis."

It was the beginning of a lucrative partnership and lifelong friendship. Within a couple of years, Mr. Rogers started arranging speaking engagements for Mr. Pajitnov around the world. On one of those trips, the Russian brought his family - and decided not to return to Moscow.

The pair set up a company to produce new versions of the game for distribution around the world. A few years ago, they bought out ELORG (now a privatized company) and gained complete control of Tetris's destiny.

Tetris was the first truly mainstream "casual" video game. Bejeweled, Minesweeper and others followed. In recent years it's been the industry's fastest-growing segment, turning new audiences on to the medium. The success of Nintendo's Wii console has been attributed largely to these games anyone can play.



For fans of the falling blocks, Tetris is more than a game. It's a language that geeks and gamers speak fluently. Syd Bolton owns more than 30 different versions. The proprietor of the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, Ont., Mr. Bolton has a special affinity for games of yore. He believes Tetris's lasting appeal is in part that it is so easy to learn and yet impossible to master.

"It's pretty simple to understand in the first few moments, but it's one of those games that is really difficult to get very good at," says Mr. Bolton, who works full time as a software developer.

Last September, Mr. Bolton organized a Tetris championship that drew nearly 200 participants to Brantford and featured myriad competitions on different Tetris platforms. Dozens of different playing styles were on display, each one revealing a little about that person's personality.

While some people would play conservatively - aiming just to finish lines as quickly as possible - others would play more aggressively, building and saving pieces in an effort to score a "Tetris," in which four lines disappear all at once, awarding the player more points.

"There's this inherent depth there that is very deceiving at the beginning because it looks like it's just blocks," Mr. Bolton says. "It really gives you all kinds of options about how you play and it's really interesting to see people's personality come out in how they play the game. It's something you would never expect from something that's just a bunch of blocks and colours."

Mr. Rogers attributes Tetris's success at least partly to its timelessness.

"We've never attached any culture to the game," he said. "It's a pure mathematical and geometric puzzle. Every other game that has a cartoon character or something else topical at the time will go out of style, just like music."

He goes on: "The basic difference between Tetris and most other games in history is that they are destructive and Tetris is constructive.

"You're not blowing anyone up. You're building little blocks, little walls, lines. Order out of chaos is basic human nature. The destruction phase that we go through when we're teenaged boys - we're trying to prove ourselves. We grow out of it. But constructive? We never grow out of that."

As for Mr. Pajitnov, he never expected that Tetris would become such an international and seemingly eternal phenomenon. "I thought it would be as good as Pac-Man," he says. "Maybe."

Matt Hartley is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeTechnology

 

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