Tetris: how falling figures conquered millions of players
The golden rule for any game: if the mechanics are simple and straightforward, there is a real chance to capture a large segment of the audience. That's why the genre of casual games is so popular these days, whose audience does not qualify themselves as part of the community of gamers - for such games the entry point is minimal, and the audience, on the contrary, the widest possible.
The creation of "Tetris" was a landmark event not only for our gaming industry but for the whole world. Its versions were released on almost all existing platforms and are still releasing today, even though "Tetris" has existed for over 30 years and on its classic version every year held tournaments among professional players at the world level. It is surprising that, unlike Japan and the United States, this game appeared in a place where such a concept as the "game industry," much less any mass-market one, did not exist at all.
In 1984, while Nintendo was just beginning its expansion into the as yet uncharted territory of home game consoles in US homes, Alexey Pajitnov wrote the very first version of Tetris on a computer "Electronica-60" at the Computing Center of the USSR Academy of Sciences. At the Computing Center of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov worked on speech recognition and problems of artificial intelligence. There he also used various puzzles to test his ideas. In an attempt to automate the process of constructing a large figure from several small ones, Pajitnov tried to make a game where this could be done in real-time, and the figures would fall from above. At first, these figures consisted of five elements and had to flip around their own center of gravity as they fell. The computing power of the Computing Center computers was not enough, and Pajitnov reduced the number of block figures to four, abandoning the fifth so the very name "Tetris" takes its origin from "tetra" (from the Greek for "four").
The first version of "Tetris" for the computer "Electronica-60".
The very first "Tetris" was written in Pascal. Pajitnov had no experience with PCs, so eight months later he asked a 16-year-old schoolboy, Vadim Gerasimov, to port the game to IBM computers. He ported the game using Turbo Pascal in just a few days while adding a score counter and color graphics. It takes a few more days to debug the timer, work with the screen and other details, and another six months to add color, output a table with ratings, and adapt to different types of displays. The screen output program was borrowed from Dmitry Pavlovsky, Pajitnov's colleague, and another member of the computing center, Mikhail Potemkin, who later ported the next version to the "Electronica" computer, adding the function of auto-filling half of the playing field with pieces.
The improved version.
"Tetris" became popular in just two weeks in Moscow and then throughout the USSR, spreading by copying on floppy disks. At that time, all the rights to the game belonged to the computing center, so Pajitnov did not even think about making any profit, because according to the laws of the time, the sale of such things could only be carried out by the state.
In 1986, "Tetris" first went abroad to The Research Institute for Computer Science and Control (MTA SZTAKI), with which the computing center cooperated at the time. There it was ported to the Commodore 64 and Apple 2, and there the game was introduced to Robert Stein, owner of a British software company Andromeda Software, who visited the Institute to look at new products suitable for export to the UK. Stein immediately saw the game's potential and immediately decided to buy the rights. Having arrived back in Britain, he writes a letter to Pajitnov offering to buy the license and, having received a preliminary agreement, promises to send a formal agreement within a few days, not calculating that with the closed regime, things would drag on. Stein begins to lose patience and, not having any official rights, shows the game to a British company, Mirrorsoft, owned by British media proprietor Robert Maxwell. Contrary to Stein's expectations, they don't share his confidence in the game's success and send it to their American subsidiary, Spectrum Holobyte, which instantly sends a reply that the rights to the game must be bought immediately. Mirrorsoft signs a £3,000 contract with Andromeda Software with 7-15% (depending on the number of copies sold) of the sales profits and buys the rights to a PC version of the game (although Stein still had no contract with the game's creator in hand).
Mirrorsoft and Andromeda Software version
That does not prevent him from selling the game rights to every possible publisher worldwide at will and, meanwhile, Spectrum Holobyte takes the game seriously and adds to the game all possible stereotypes: a red box topped with a sickle and hammer image, Russian folk songs, St. Basil's Cathedral in the background and other attributes with direct associations with the USSR, emphasizing the role of the first game from behind the Iron Curtain. Stein doesn't stop there and makes it clear that getting the rights for arcade and home consoles is only a matter of time. Mirrorsoft asks him for licenses for the console and arcade versions of the game and, before he gets them, resells them to the already familiar Atari.
In January 1988, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte released Tetris versions for home computers, and the game sold out 100 thousand copies this year. Stein was immediately informed that his deal was canceled, but he somehow managed to convince the representatives of ELORG (aka "Elektronorgtechnica") not to cancel the deal on the rights to the computer versions, though he was in no hurry to let them know that he was selling licenses to home consoles and arcade machines at the same time.
Tetris on Nintendo's Game Boy.
At the same time, Stein receives a call from Henk Rogers, the head of the Japanese game company Bullet-Proof Software, with a request to purchase the rights to a version of the game for portable platforms. At the time, he already had the rights to release the game on Japanese computers, arcade machines, and consoles. Rogers had already sold the rights to SEGA arcade machines, had successfully sold Famicom versions of the game in Japan, and was just about to release it on Nintendo's newest handheld platform, which was then just getting ready to launch. Speaking to Nintendo of America's president, Minoru Arakawa, Rogers proposed that Tetris become the flagship game for the Game Boy, believing that it would become a flagship and allow the system to gain phenomenal popularity. Initially negotiating with Stein, Rogers, however, began to suspect that things were unclear and two days later flew himself to Moscow for negotiations. Along with Rogers and Stein, Kevin Maxwell, the Mirrorsoft director, flew to Moscow. He, as well as Rogers, decided to negotiate with ELORG directly without waiting for answers from Stein. During the negotiations between the three parties, Alexey Pajitnov himself was on Rogers' side: his open approach was able to convince ELORG to sign a big contract for copyrights for handheld platforms. In addition, Rogers was made to understand that ELORG was interested in receiving his offer of copyrights for home consoles.
TETЯIS: The Soviet Mind Game
In Seattle, Henk Rogers negotiated with Nintendo for help in obtaining the rights to video game consoles, and in total secrecy brought Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln to Moscow. Nintendo and ELORG signed a contract, and still, in 1989, Nintendo gets all the rights to Tetris for video consoles for half a million dollars in guaranteed revenue and 50 cents per cartridge (which, by the way, is 30 times more than Stein's first offer). The first thing Nintendo did was to send a notice of exclusive rights to its main competitor Atari, which said to stop any advertising or production of Tetris. Then litigation ensued between Atari and Nintendo, which was resolved in favor of the latter, and Atari, after losing millions of dollars, was forced to pull all copies of the game called TETЯIS: The Soviet Mind Game from Tengen (a division of Atari Games) from sales. By the time of the court order, Atari had managed to sell only 100,000 copies. There are a lot more details in this story, including how the Stein and Maxwell case ended, but it's a drop in the bucket in video game history.
Alexei Pajitnov with his son, 1981.
The important thing is that Tetris, released for Nintendo's Game Boy handheld platform, sold 7 million copies. Alexey Pajitnov still did not get anything from his invention, but we should not worry about him - in 1991, with the help of Rogers, he and his family moved to the United States. Though it was not until 1996, when the original contract expired, he started to receive dividends, founding with Henk Rogers The Tetris Company, which began to deal with all the rights of Tetris. Henk Rogers made a decent $40 million on the Nintendo deal, and Alexey Pajitnov worked at Microsoft from 1996 to 2005, where he led the development of Pandora's Box, a puzzle game. To this day, he can still be spotted at the World Tetris Championships, the game that has become the best-selling game in history.
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