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Q&A: Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov

The father of one of the most popular games of all time talks about his inspiration, his latest project, and how he feels about the fact that the game was originally property of the Russian state.


It's one of the best-loved games of all time, with eight million game carts sold to date on Nintendo systems, and countless versions made on a variety of different platforms. The game is Tetris, which was developed by Alexey Pajitnov while he was working at the Computer Centre in the Russian Academy of Science. It was inspired by a puzzle game called Pentomino, which consists of several differently shaped blocks that can only be fitted together on a board in one particular way.

The Original Blockhead.
The Original Blockhead.

The original Tetris game was a mere 27kb in size, and Pajitnov programmed it in Pascal, on the Electronica 60, a computer that had only slightly more memory at 32kb. The original build of the game took him between 10 to 14 days, and didn't include things such as the score bar, which was added later.

Pajitnov was at the GameCity event in Nottingham, where he gave two talks about Tetris, and answered questions on panels with Margaret Robertson and Paul Carruthers. GameSpot also caught up with him after the event.

GameSpot UK: Were you worried Tetris could be addictive?

Alexey Pajitnov: It is addiction. It was designed for this. Our goal was to provide you guys with 100 hours of gameplay. I never do the game a little bit boring so people won't want to play it too much.

GSUK: Do you think there should be more emotion in games?

AP: I can't say wrong way for sure--no one has the right way. As games designers, we just set up the environment and some motivation. Emotion comes from you guys, and we can't control that. As soon as I design drama for you, I take away your freedom in the game environment. Either we do action and we are in the game, or we do emotion and we are in the movies.

GSUK: Where are your sources of inspiration?

AP: I can't say I have found one single very reliable source of inspiration. I like to solve puzzles and do board games. So lots of good ideas come from those games and those activities. Sometimes I sleep at night and I have a good idea in a dream--so my dreams are a very important tool for me.

GSUK: Do you ever still play Tetris for fun?

AP: Yes, but pretty rarely. I play the new versions to see if everything's correct, but that's work.

GSUK: Will Tetris be played forever?

AP: Yes. Technology may change but our brains don't. So basically, I don't know why not.

GSUK: Have you ever felt it was a burden because any game you produce after Tetris will be judged against it?

AP: You're right. When I first came to the US, those first two years, I tried to beat myself and create something better than that, and that was a very hard time because I couldn't do it. So then I just decided to stop thinking about that and just go ahead and design what I wanted to do.

GSUK: Are you a very good Tetris player?

AP: Oh no, I'm not. There are lots of professional players and they are unbeatable. But I am a good player, I could finish the Game Boy game up to level 10.

GSUK: What current games are you enjoying?

AP: I really enjoyed World of Warcraft. Last year, I played a lot.

GSUK: Did you think Tetris was a good game when you'd finished it?

AP: When I saw how I played and other people played it, I thought it was a good game. I thought it was about the same as other PC games that were out at the time, certainly not worse, not better either.

GSUK: Can you tell us about your latest project, Hexic?

AP: Hexic is done. I was really angry with the guys who made Bejeweled; they had a wonderful idea and concept and they realized it really badly. So basically, I decided that I will design a game similar to Bejeweled, but the way it's supposed to be.

GSUK: Is it true there's a Tetris bible for developers?

AP: Yes. I was very much involved in this. I was part of the team that wrote the original document. We got very tired of the variety of different versions of the game in the world, and players were complaining that some of the versions didn't work the way they were supposed to--for instance, they could get a really high score on one game, but not do well on another. So we decided to make a list of the specifications.

GSUK: Is it theoretically possible for one person to play Tetris forever?

AP: No, because the score counter is limited. If you play for two weeks, then all of a sudden, your score counter is zero.

GSUK: What do you consider to be the definitive version of Tetris?

AP: I'm not sure if it's still available, but Tetris Zone from Blue Planet Software. It accommodates all the rules in the bible. Before that, we considered the original game to be the best standard.

GSUK: What are you working on now?

AP: I don't have anything really right now. I'm at the early stages with a couple of concepts. Now I feel like it's about time to do two-player puzzle games. But I feel like I may be too late, and someone else will come up with the perfect game in the next two to six months.

GSUK: Would the game be working together or against each other?

AP: For players, competitive mode is usually much more powerful, much more attractive. So probably competitive, I'm afraid.

GSUK: Does it ever bother you that you never got paid for Tetris?

AP: Well, first of all, it's not true, because originally I granted my rights to Tetris to my Computer Center, to my organisation, for 10 years. And when those 10 years expired, I got my rights back. And since 1996, I've been receiving some royalties for it. And I'm pretty happy with what I'm getting now. And I never complain about those 10 years, either... In order to fight for my rights for the rest of my life, I decided to give it up for a while and make it happen. This decision should be done before people realise what we've given them.

GSUK: Have you ever considered making a different genre game rather than puzzles?

AP: Yeah, actually I tried to do different games, actually I was very desperate to do something else, but then I realized that what I am good at is puzzles. And I am okay, probably, with the other stuff. So, why bother? There are lots of really good designers of adventure games out there. I would rather exploit my stronger points. Our attempt to make a kind of shoot-'em-up game failed completely. Oh, my goodness. That was in 1994, I believe, and the game called Ice and Fire. So, hopefully, nobody played this game. [Laughs.]

GSUK: Can you tell us anything about the other games that you created before Tetris? Is there anywhere to get hold of them?

AP: Yeah, I did several games. They are not significant. Most of them were published in Microsoft Entertainment Pack Puzzle Collection. There were 10 games, and four of them were mine. Two of them were Colour Collision and Snake Charmer.

GSUK: What do you think of the Russian game industry now?

AP: Two or three years ago, I did feel some promising kind of tendency there. There were three or four very powerful companies, which were doing something good. Later on, now somehow they--I can't say they failed. But they stopped their good way. So, right now, the economical situation kind of took Russia out of outsourcing [that] kind of stuff because now it's too expensive, but didn't bring it to their publishing world. So, we became again kind of in-between. So, there are several companies, at the moment. But mainly they are adapting famous games from overseas to the Russian market mainly. That's their business, unfortunately.

GSUK: Thanks for your time.

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