Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Tetris Effect

Tetris is a fascinating video game. It is simple, yet challenging and very addicting. I remember spending way too many hours playing "Nyet", a Tetris clone on the IBM PC. I managed to justify this as "study" for the computer science class project. (In the end, we implemented an "online" version of Tetris for computer bulletin board systems.) The code is easy to implement. However, if you do it a little bit wrong, the quality of the gameplay can significantly degrade. Do it right, and you have an addicting experience.
The story of Tetris is even more intriguing than the game itself. Tetris was one of the earliest of the "casual games". It has been implemented on just about every platform imaginable. It came out of communist-era Russia, being implemented originally by Alexey Pajitnov in his spare time. It ran only on some ancient Soviet hardware. However, it quickly became popular there. But do to the platform, was somewhat limited in how far it spread. Dmitry Pavlovsky and Vadim Gerasimov then ported it to MS-DOS, and it started to really take off. (The original version can be downloaded from Vadim's site - alas without the source code- at ) The name is a combination of "Tetra" (four) and "Tennis" and really has nothing Russian about it. I had always thought it was a Russian word - especially with the frequent backwards-R version of writing it.
Tetris spread behind the iron curtain where it was discovered by Robert Stein, who was looking for software in Hungary. He had license it to MirrorSoft (owned by the infamous Robert Maxwell) and tried to officially secure the rights from Russia. There was only one catch - Russia had very little understanding of intellectual property rights. Eventually, they were able to have something worked out. However, Henk Rogers was later able to scoop in and snatch the rights away for Nintendo.
The bulk of this book covers the protracted negotiations for the rights to the game. Rogers is portrayed as the "hero" of the negotiations. He originally developed Black Onyx - an early fantasy role playing game. He had branched from development to the business side, and thus was able to connecty well with with Pajitnov. (The two eventually obtained the rights for themselves.) The book waffles on the portrayal of Stein. First he is a great guy, who seems to know how to get through the Soviet system to get the world a great game. Later, however, he is a greedy businessman who doesn't have the charisma to get along with the programmers.
The book clearly has its biases. (For example, Tengen is portrayed as an evil corporate entity that "lost", even though they had the best version of Tetris.) Telling a story a story involving cultural barriers a few decades after it occurred also introduces additional challenges. The book also repeats itself at times and the "bonus" chapters stuck in the middle seem to go on for too long. In spite of these shortcomings, it is a riveting read that is difficult to put down. I just it was easier to come by a good Tetris game.

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