The Making Of: Tetris
If so, they’re the lucky ones because I dream of blocks comprising four squares, falling downwards, rotating and slotting together to create solid lines, which subsequently vanish, along with a small amount of my sanity each time. This kind of dream, referred to as the ‘Tetris effect’ is perhaps more common than you would think (which doesn’t mean you’re any less crazy if you experience it – just that there are more crazy people out there than you thought), and it highlights the massive reach of the action-puzzler that prompts it. Because, for all of videogaming’s attempts to become increasingly mainstream, there are few games that achieve the lofty goal of being truly recognisable to all – even stalwart classics such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man may be unknown to younger audiences.
As a graduate of computer science, Alexey’s work at the Academy of Science was largely based around artificial intelligence research, and he describes himself at the time as “a young workaholic – the type that loves to program and sit for long hours at work”. Alexey was also tasked with figuring out how new hardware that regularly arrived at the academy could be put to use for his research. “The best way to learn a new machine is to try and make a small program for it to see how it works,” he explains, leading up to the reason why Tetris was initially created. “Small computer games were the ideal form for this kind of testing program, and that’s why I had some kind of excuse, if you will, to work on my game.”
Of course, hardware is somewhat by the by – the crux of any game (or, at least, any good game) is its concept, and although Tetris would become a fluid, organic project during development, its seeds were sewn early on in Alexey’s life. “I was a sharp kid, and have always been interested in riddles and puzzles, and I even changed schools to join one with a special mathematical component,” he explains. “That was also the time of communism in Russia, and so we didn’t have too much entertainment around us – and so intellectual mind games were a very good diversion. I saw this passion all around me, and children used to compete in a kind of ‘mathematical Olympics’ competition, in which I participated a lot. This part of my life later translated into the games that I did.”
Of the puzzles that fascinated Alexey, pentominoes stood out. “It’s a dozen pieces made out of five squares, and they kind of look like jigsaw pieces, only more mathematical,” he explains. “The puzzle existed in Russia, sold in stores and fashioned in plastic, and I thought it was absolutely great – the best puzzle in the world.” What appealed most was the simplicity of the pieces and the massive scope they offered for multiple combinations: “There’s no technology in pentominoes – you just take the pieces from the box, play with them and enjoy them. But when you want to put them back in the box, you can spend a couple of hours doing so – at least if you’re stubborn enough to try!”
Alexey decided a two-player version of pentominoes might make an interesting game to use for testing the Electronika 60 desktop computer that had recently arrived at the Academy of Science. “I thought that you could somehow divide the pieces – six to each player – and start to put them back into the ‘box’, and whoever was unable to make the next move would lose,” he says.
Without any specification of a final set of rules, Alexey set to work on programming his new game: “First, I needed to create an environment, some kind of graphical procedure to visualise the play field and the pieces. However, at the time this was tricky because my display didn’t have any graphics at all – all I had were 24 lines of 80 alphanumeric symbols.” In order to design the squares that made up the various pentominoes, open and close square-bracket symbols were used – two together forming a basic square. A ten-by-six play field was created, along with the mechanism to position, rotate and flip each of the pieces before moving them to the field. “But when I wrote the procedure for rotating the pieces, it worked very fast and looked funny – if you frequently pushed a key, the puzzle piece rapidly rotated on the screen,” remembers Alexey. “This was so amazing for me. That sounds really ridiculous now [he laughs], but that was the first time I had ever seen such stuff on the screen.”
Upon seeing the spinning pieces, Alexey hit upon the idea of making them rotate and move in real time upon being placed on to the screen. “This was a very important moment for Tetris”, says Alexey. “It went from being a two-player version of a strange game based on an obscure mathematical puzzle to the idea of a realtime game that used the same pieces.” First, gravity was used as a natural way for the pieces to fall down. It then became apparent that the original field of play was too restrictive, and so it was enlarged and aligned vertically. “Everything worked, but when I started playing the game, I realised it was really complicated,” remembers Alexey. “Pentominoes are fine when you have unlimited time to sit and think about how to use them, but they were too complex for my real-time game where you need to immediately recognise a piece and know what to do with it.”
The pieces were honed down to forms made up of four squares – tetrominoes. The complication of piece-flipping was also dispensed with, Alexey instead adding the symmetrical forms of non-symmetrical pieces to the available set. “Suddenly, the interface was much simpler”, he says. “You only needed to move and rotate pieces. Because the set was now simpler, I decided you didn’t need for the entire set to fall down – pieces could appear in a random order.”
Tetris started to resemble the game that we all know and love, but one major component was still missing. “At this point, the game ended really quickly, even if you didn’t make mistakes, because the play field was so small, and so I started thinking of ways to prolong my pleasure,” laughs Alexey. “My original idea was to create a long, narrow well that could scroll. But after thinking about this, I didn’t like the idea – it was difficult to get scrolling working on my machine, and the player would also have to remember what was already on the board. I didn’t think my simple mind game should be that complicated.” The solution was far simpler: Alexey realised that when a horizontal line was completed, it became obsolete, just taking up space. “I thought, ‘Why keep it on the screen?’, when I need more space to prolong my pleasure,” says Alexey. “Instead, I could take it away and give a score for it. And that was the last important moment for Tetris – once I did this, the game was kind of ready.”
The Tetris on Alexey’s machine at this point was, by his admission, something of a prototype. However, all of the game’s important mechanics were there, and the game had been surprisingly easy to create. “I give you such details about the game, but all the decisions were done in one day, in a couple of hours,” claims Alexey. “In reality, somehow, all these decisions were made so naturally.” Most importantly, the game was fun – so much so that it took another couple of weeks for Alexey to get the game into a state he was happy with: “The screen was really ugly, and the interface was very primitive – no real decoration on the screen – but it worked. It was so addictive that I couldn’t stop playing, in order to finish the damn thing!”
With the game debugged, complete with a level system, scoring and a high-score table, Alexey decided to spread it around Moscow. “It was like a wood fire”, he exclaims. “Immediately, every place where they had the Electronika 60, my Tetris game was working there, and I realised that maybe the game was not bad and should be ported to the PC, because that was the only way to show it to the world outside of Russia.”
The only snag was Alexey’s lack of familiarity with the PC – at that point, the first PC had only recently arrived in the computer centre, but it wasn’t in Alexey’s possession, and he didn’t know how to program it. “I was interested in lots of other stuff, and so it might never have happened if it wasn’t for Vadim Gerasimov,” states Alexey. “He was a schoolboy at the time, but an absolutely genius programmer who fell in love with the PC and knew every bit of the operating system – many big guys in the computer centre went to him for consultation, and someone recommended I work with him on my game.” And so, Alexey gave Vadim his code in Pascal, and he began the process of transferring the 2000 lines of code from one machine to the other. “There was nothing in common with the machines – no format, no disks, nothing – but once the code was across, the rest was a piece of cake.”
Unlike Alexey’s original, colour was possible in the DOS conversion, giving players an additional way to recognise each tetromino. Other features were added over the following months, including the ability to show the next piece, an option to make the square tetromino an invisible ‘phantom’, and settings that dictated the starting level and height of ‘garbage’ at the bottom. One similarity to the original was how the game was spread. “The release process was simple – we just gave the game to a couple of our friends,” jokes Alexey. “Within a couple of weeks, I saw it everywhere – on every PC in Moscow – and within a couple of months, we got a PC from Eastern Europe that was entirely empty, apart from MSDOS and Tetris.”
From there, Tetris exploded on to the world scene. Each version was followed by a lawsuit, as various companies battled to secure rights to the game, while Alexey looked on, not receiving any remuneration, due to ownership residing with the Academy of Science. Alexey is reluctant to talk about what he refers to as Tetris’s ‘business period’, but he’s happy to elaborate on what he thinks made the game so popular in the first place, to make the gaming giants scrap over it. “It appeared in the right place, at the right time”, he says. “At the time, we didn’t have many games on the PC, especially fresh games and puzzle games. Most of what I saw at the time were arcade games, and they looked a little childish.” Alexey’s keen to note that he loves most types of games and played the likes of Pac-Man a lot – the problem was with professionals that had no direct interest in games: “Many people didn’t feel good with that type of childish design, but Tetris was abstract and without any age connotation, and so everyone felt fine to play it.”
The other thing Alexey believes helped Tetris become so popular was that it enabled everyone to join the party: “In the Eighties, computers were a relatively new phenomenon, and some people were almost afraid of them. You never knew what would happen when you pressed a button, and lots of programs were very buggy, which didn’t help matters. Tetris was very simple and accessible, and it helped people get more familiar and comfortable with computers.” Alexey then, appears to consider Tetris as a product of its age, rather than a timeless classic: “I’m pretty sure that had I released Tetris ten or twelve years later, it would have been seen as just some ordinary game – nothing really so exceptional – but it appeared on the PC at the right kind of social moment.”
At this point, I’m not sure I agree. I mention the reception Tetris got on the C64 and the Spectrum. Even though both platforms already had a wealth of available titles, and despite the 8-bit conversions of Alexey’s game not being particularly good, Tetris still stood out from the crowd, receiving near-unanimous acclaim. “I guess that might be true as well”, muses Alexey, “but then many people have put forward theories for the popularity of Tetris, and no one has a definitive answer – not even me.” He does, however, note that the Game Boy might just have had something to do with the endurance of his creation. “The Game Boy release was the most lucky moment for Tetris – it’s what made the game a real phenomenon,” he explains. “Somehow, Tetris and the Game Boy were born for each other – they fit together so well, in terms of form and design. If I think about it, I can’t imagine two other products created absolutely independently that fit each other so well.” And the result of the pairing is well known; the combination of Nintendo’s hardware and Russian gaming going on to sell over 30 million bundles.
As the interview draws to a close, I ask Alexey if he had any idea what kind of a monster he was creating while working back in his lab in Eighties Moscow. “No, of course not”, he laughs. “I started with the intention of creating a kind of two-player game for pentominoes. I was always writing very small, insignificant games for different processors and computers, and Tetris was just one of them.” To hear him talk of the game in this way is strange, but it’s easy to imagine how creating a ‘Tetris’ is a blessing and a curse for a designer. “I became famous for Tetris, and decided to study to become a professional games designer. I had lots of small puzzle ideas and was excited to realise them, and so I started five or six games in a row, one after another,” explains Alexey. “I was very productive – very active – I loved creating this stuff, but somehow, every time I proposed a game, everyone looked at me and expected me to deliver another Tetris.”
After a tough couple of years, during which time Alexey regularly dismissed concepts, due to them being weaker than Tetris, he realised he needed to start afresh. “I decided Tetris was a story I had to forget about, and that I had to move ahead and start as a young, unknown designer. If you want something in this life, you sometimes have to forget your achievements and start from scratch. I started to work on naïve concepts, and decided that I needed to love it in order to do it, and that was enough – no kind of predictions or expectations of success, and no comparisons. And it started working, because although I did a lot of bad games, I created several good ones, and I’m pretty happy with my career.”
We talk about other games and projects, and Alexey lets slip that it’s puzzle collection Pandora’s Box that’s closest to his heart: “All this Tetris story is great, but a big part of the story is luck – I was lucky to create something like that at the beginning of my career. But with Pandora’s Box, I created the concept, the genre, and put in so much effort from beginning to end.” Clearly, though, Tetris will always be with Alexey, the two inextricably linked, the creator watching from the sidelines as his creation rampages onwards to dominate new territory. With that in mind, one final question; is Alexey still happy with his original blueprint, that’s become a template for an entire genre? “When working on the original game, I had lots of ideas, such as putting garbage on the screen, but I thought it wouldn’t be good for beginners,” he says. “I also thought about a more complex scoring system, with premiums for clearing multiple lines, but I wanted to make the scoring as understandable as possible.” Alexey pauses for a moment to consider what he would do to the original Tetris, given the chance, and then he finally answers: “I don’t think I would change a thing.”