Books

Tetris's Unlikely Beginnings—From Behind the Iron Curtain to International Acclaim

Tetris is firmly established in the pantheon of the greatest video games of all time, but in 1989 its future was much less certain.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Tetris Effect by Dan Ackerman (Public Affairs, 2016): 

The airplane lurched into a final descent toward Moscow. Henk Rogers gripped the worn armrest wedged against him. Years of circling the globe chasing business deals and new technologies had left him feeling like a well-traveled citizen of the world, but this was something altogether different.

He looked around the shaking cabin with some trepidation. He had spent the last eleven hours on a flight jointly operated by Japan Airlines and Aeroflot, the notorious Soviet state airline that allowed the Russians a hand in the business of actually carrying paying passengers across the Pacific and over the Russian continent.

Eyes fixed on the seatback in front of him, he asked himself what was worse: going in blind to a strange city in a strange country without speaking a word of the language, or agreeing to enter one of the world’s most notorious international flash points under false pretenses?

The paperwork for his tourist visa to Moscow felt heavy in his jacket pocket. Rogers had no doubt that if he was caught lying about his reasons for visiting the USSR, the powerful business interests bankrolling his mission would cut him loose without a thought. They had built enough plausible deniability into the deal that he’d appear to be just another economic opportunist, looking to slice off a piece of Soviet prosperity for himself at the expense of the people.

He wondered how what should have been a simple software licensing deal had taken him from Japan, where he had lived for years, to the USSR, tasked with chasing down a shadowy arm of the Soviet government while staying one step ahead of a pair of powerful corporate mercenaries who would stop at nothing to steal away the prize.

To fly into the heart of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was to take an uncertain step behind the feared Iron Curtain, a political and psychological barrier that kept 280 million citizens locked away from the Western world. Secret police ears were still everywhere in Moscow during the final years of the Cold War. Visiting tourists, businessmen, and even journalists could expect their phones to be tapped and hotel rooms to be bugged, or even to be tailed around town by a boxy Lada sedan, the preferred vehicle of dark-suited government minders.

Yet a new reality had started to replace the traditional East-versus-West rivalry. A spirit of glasnost, or openness, was the Communist Party’s official marching order of the day, and with it came an influence both craved and feared—foreign money.

It was into this charged environment that Henk Rogers flew on February 21, 1989. He was one of three competing Westerners descending on Moscow nearly simultaneously. Each was chasing the same prize, an important government-controlled technology that was having a profound impact on people around the world.

That technology was perhaps the greatest cultural export in the history of the USSR, and it was called Tetris. This deceptively simple puzzle game had circled the globe numerous times in multiple formats before the government realized it was not only a rare cross-cultural Cold War triumph but also an untapped source of much-needed cash.

Street after street of identical gray slab buildings flew by the window of Rogers’s taxi on his way into the heart of Moscow from Domodedovo International Airport. Could this really be the epicenter of the fearsome Soviet empire? Long blocks of poured concrete high-rises were broken up by occasional flashes of brilliance, from Saint Basil’s Cathedral to the Triumphal Arch, shadows of the city’s history as a hub of art, architecture, and even commerce.

And it was commerce that had brought him here, despite his tourist visa. Rogers hoped the checkbook in his pocket and the promise of a hefty bankroll from his unofficial corporate sponsors would be enough to smooth over any ruffles with the Soviet government if his legal status became an issue.

What could possibly go wrong? After all, he was only entering one of the most closed-off societies on earth, looking to coax an Orwellian bureaucracy into dropping its current well-connected partners in favor of an uninvited guest. But he suspected the deal he had to offer might be the exact tool he needed to drill through the impenetrable wall of “no” he expected from the Russians.

Despite the military parades and positive state-run media reports, the Soviet empire was hanging by a thread. A brief era of government-sponsored prosperity in the late 1970s and early 1980s was over. This was a time of breadlines and frustrated citizens with little money and even less to spend it on.

One-half of the USSR’s bureaucracy was tasked with luring hard currency behind the frayed Iron Curtain; the other half was equally adamant in its mission to protect the hermetically sealed hierarchy of local privilege and power, by any means necessary. It was as if the country had put up a sign in its front yard that read “Open for Business,” and beneath it someone had scrawled, “Now, go away!”

In less than three years, the USSR would be gone, dissolved by Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union. Even now, the Cold War practices of spycraft and espionage were slowly being replaced, or at least augmented, by the cutthroat capitalism of international business deals. Intellectual property replaced state secrets as the intangible product to be fought over, bought, sold, and even stolen.

Rogers flipped through his pages of handwritten notes as the taxi sputtered toward his hotel. Even securing a room reservation had been a minor victory: customer service remained a novel idea in Russia (a situation some would say has changed little in the twenty-five years since).

But there were bigger problems on his mind. The pages of his notebook contained smatterings of conversational Russian, mostly in the form of simple questions, some back-of-the-envelope calculations on sales and royalty numbers, and a single name, circled for emphasis: Alexey Pajitnov.

Of the mysterious Pajitnov, Rogers knew little. Finding this man could be the key to stealing a multi-million-dollar deal away from his adversaries.

One of those adversaries was Kevin Maxwell, the privileged son of a hard-charging UK media mogul. Anyone who had taken on Maxwell and his well-connected father, Robert, found that the Maxwell family frequently proved the old adage about starting a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

Rogers’s other challenger was Robert Stein, a self-made software magnate with a street hustler’s flair. Some would call Stein little more than a calculator salesman who stumbled across a lucky break, but Rogers knew there was more to Stein than simple luck.

During this final week of February 1989, all three men were in a race to Moscow, each aiming to undercut the others and strike a deal worth millions with the increasingly paranoid Russian state for its unlikely prize. Tetris was the most important technology to come out of that country since Sputnik.

Tetris had stunning global impact. In 1984, a lone computer scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, working in his off hours on painfully outdated equipment, programmed it. Before Tetris and its trance-inducing waterfall of geometric puzzle pieces, video games were brain-dulling distractions for preteens, personified by Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and other cartoon-like kids’ fare.

Tetris was different. It didn’t rely on low-fi imitations of cartoon characters. In fact, its curious animations didn’t imitate anything at all. The game was purely abstract, geometry in real time. It wasn’t just a game, it was an uncrackable code puzzle that appealed equally to moms and mathematicians.

Today, Tetris is firmly established in the pantheon of the greatest video games of all time, but in 1989 its future was much less certain. The Tetris Henk Rogers pursued was a cult favorite that was starting to generate some real money for some major publishing companies, but like all underground phenomena, it had to either grow or fade away.

At the time, Tetris had yet to meet its perfect counterpart, another new technology that would come to be considered equally groundbreaking. That technology, called the Nintendo Game Boy, was a then-secret project hidden away in a series of R&D labs in Japan. It would form a powerful symbiotic relationship with Tetris: the handheld console and the puzzle game would be packaged together, and tens of millions of units would be sold worldwide.

That Game Boy version is the Tetris people know and love from childhood, and three decades after its birth, Tetris lives on in tablets, laptops, smartphones, game consoles, and more. It’s estimated that the dozens of official versions of Tetris have generated more than $1 billion in lifetime sales, and the game’s legacy has directly influenced time-sucking moneymakers from Bejeweled to Candy Crush Saga.

But, in 1989, none of that was on Henk Rogers’s mind. He instead focused on navigating the shadowy world of Communist trade negotiations, outmaneuvering his better-equipped rivals, and bringing West, East, and Far East together in an unprecedented level of commercial and creative partnership. The future of this game—later a cultural legacy of surprising persistence and reach—hung on Henk Rogers’s skillful detective work and backroom deal making. Any misstep on his part, and the game would be little more than another dusty eighties curio.

Excerpted from THE TETRIS EFFECT: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman. Copyright © 2016. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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