25 years ago the Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov created the ur-video game Tetris. Simple to play, hard to win and ubiquitous, the game continues to frustrate and entertain the masses. We speak with Pajitnov about how he started the shapes falling.
[MUSIC: TETRIS THEME] Odds are you've heard that theme music before. Odds are you've heard it many, many times. It belongs to Tetris, the world’s most ubiquitous and probably most addictive video game. It’s easy to play, hard to win and, with 125 million copies sold on more than fifty gaming platforms, one of the great time wasters in human history. And this year it turns 25. Alexey Pajitnov is the man who started the shapes falling, and he joins us now from Moscow. Alexey, welcome to On the Media.
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Okay, thank you for having me at your show.
BOB GARFIELD: When you created Tetris, what were you doing?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: In 1984, I was a researcher and programmer in the computer center in Academy of Science of Russia, of USSR. My field of research was artificial intelligence, but really my heart was in riddles, puzzles, all mathematicals kind of diversions. I love it since I was boy. And as soon as I got a more or less powerful computer on my desk, I immediately start to put together some riddles and word games and all this stuff. And Tetris was just one of these amusements for myself which I did for my spare time.
BOB GARFIELD: And when you finished the program and then actually experimented with it at your desk, did you realize that you had come up with video pistachio nuts – you know, once you start you can't stop?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Exactly. [LAUGHS] I wasn't exception. What happened to me happened with everybody else [LAUGHS] afterwards. So I did have my prototype without any scoring, any decoration, any even leveling, just the piece on the screen. And I couldn't stop playing it even to finish program. At this moment [LAUGHS] I realized that this is [LAUGHS] – this must be really good game.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now the Soviet Union in 1984 was not a noted exporter of consumer technology. Au contraire, how did it come about that this actually did become a substantial export product for the USSR?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Well, that was very true. We didn't have any experience in selling or licensing any intellectual properties. The only way that software was distributed was just copying from friend to friend on floppy disks. Tetris was a pioneer in this area, so [LAUGHS] -
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm, so you were an employee of the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the time. And when Tetris began taking off outside of the USSR, through these licensing agreements, naturally, the state came to you and said, we're going to share the revenue - congratulations, you’re a rich man. Right?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: No, no. No, absolutely opposite.
[LAUGHTER] So – so when the license was close to happen, the question of my ownership comes up. And the situation in Russia was very unclear about that. So, basically I came to my authority and told them, please, if you could pay me, please do, if you can't, that’s fine. But just help me to publish this game - it’s pretty important for me. And basically I grant my rights for ten years, and they really helped me to do all this awful paperwork with licensing, negotiation and so on. And after ten years, the rights naturally came back to me. But that was already in ’95.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, a lot changed in those intervening ten years, like the dissolution of your country.
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you still, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, unable to get what was due you?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Yeah, that was a very unclear and hard moment because they pretend that I never had rights, or something like that. So we had temporary agreement and we share some royalty without resolving this debate for a number of years. And finally me and my partner bought out the rest of the rights, and since 2004 we are fine; we are completely controlling Tetris rights now.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to ask you about the game itself.
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to go back to the '70s, actually, and I remember playing one of the early video games called Pong, which was developed by -
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - Atari. And when I think back to how ridiculous I was, to be putting quarters into machines in video arcades, to play [LAUGHS] – to play that game, you know, I feel like an idiot. But I don't feel like an idiot, going back to my first experience, more than two decades ago, with Tetris. Why does this game have such legs?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Well, many people have different opinion about that. But I still like Pong, and I wouldn't mind to put couple of quarters to enjoy it. I don't see anything wrong with it, by the way. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER] But as far as Tetris is concerned, the game is very simple and it has very natural user interface. It has some kind of creative style. In most of the game you just shoot and destroy. In Tetris you try to build something, to put the order in the scales of random pieces. And probably that’s what make you feel a little bit better [LAUGHS] about what you’re doing with your quarters.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Let me ask you one last thing. Tetris, how good are you at that game?
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Not very good. You know, and first of all, I'm 54 already, and none of the people of that age could - could even compare with 14-, 15-, 16-year-old guys. I'm a little bit above average. I could reach level 12, time to time. I'm not absolutely bad, but nothing exceptional.
BOB GARFIELD: Congratulations on 25 years.
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexey Pajitnov is the designer of Tetris, which celebrates its 25th anniversary. He spoke to us from Moscow.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN: I know you are going to dig this!
[VERSION OF TETRIS THEME UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, and edited by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.