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Putting the puzzle pieces back together: Alexey Pajitnov has a new game plan for Tetris.
Monika Guttman. U.S. News & World Report. June 10, 1996.


Oblivious to the multicolored strobe lights and pounding music reverberating through the darkened convention hall, two bearded men compete fiercely on a Sega video game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. The product description on a nearby wall says the soon-to-be-released puzzle entertainment ''follows in the same top-selling genre of classics like Columns and Tetris.'' Suddenly, the red-haired man raises his arm, victorious. No surprise. This is, after all, Alexey Pajitnov, the man who invented Tetris.

Ironically, almost 10 years after Tetris and its cascading geometric puzzle shapes took the game world by storm--it sold over 40 million copies, including many for Nintendo's Game Boy--Pajitnov is not a clear winner. Under Soviet-era licensing agreements, the Russian pocketed none of the profits from the game's $800 million in sales. In fact, few outside the game world connect Pajitnov's name with Tetris, making him ''probably the least recognized and the least compensated major inventor in the industry,'' according to David Sheff, author of Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World.

Online. Since moving from Moscow to the Seattle suburbs five years ago, however, Pajitnov has been busy developing a new game plan. The 41-year-old former mathematician has now gained the rights to Tetris and formed a company with Electronorgtechnica, a privatized Russian entity that retains the Tetris trademark, and Henk Rogers, the entrepreneur who spearheaded Tetris's Game Boy gambit. Using Hawaii-based Blue Planet Software as their agent, Pajitnov and his new colleagues hope to revitalize Tetris. ''We want to make sure that Tetris is exploited correctly over the next 10 years,'' explains Rogers. ''It's got to be dealt with like an intellectual property, like Disney handles Mickey Mouse.'' To ensure his game's longevity, Pajitnov is developing fresh computer and arcade versions of Tetris that will be ready early next year; he also is creating a multiplayer online Tetris game that will be launched this fall.

Pajitnov hopes that these Tetris spinoffs will put him back on the cutting edge. They just might. Multiplayer online games, which allow contestants around the world to compete against each other in real time, are expected to boost the interactive game business. Still, the market is a puzzle, and it's not at all clear where Tetris fits in. Pajitnov helped produce several sequels, including Tetris 2 and Super Tetris, and none sold as well as the original. But, if any game has Net potential, predicts Sheff, it's Tetris. ''Like Scrabble,'' he says, ''it's not going to go away. It's brilliant, and those who come to it get hooked.''

Pajitnov is optimistic about the future, but he's not bitter about the past. ''I wasn't supposed to get any money for [Tetris],'' he shrugs. ''I made a lot of friends, and we made history.'' And his world has changed dramatically since he left Russia, where he made about $30 a month as a programmer for the Computer Center of the Academy of Science of the USSR. Working as a consultant to various software companies on the West Coast, Pajitnov now makes a comfortable living; he also receives some royalties from other games he has invented, such as Welltris and Hatris. Meanwhile, his wife, Nina, is a teacher, and his sons, Peter, 14, and Dimitri, 9, are happily enrolled in school.

For his part, Pajitnov has learned a lot about the game market, where even savvy entrepreneurs can get zapped. Although he prefers challenging puzzles to violent shoot'em-ups, he now realizes that software like his Elfish program, which allows users to design tanks of artificial fish, doesn't sell. That's why he's adding better graphics and new sounds to his latest version of Tetris. Maybe this time he'll get a piece of the action.

© 1996 U.S. News and World Report Inc.



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