A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 6: Total War

Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa

Henk Rogers returned to Moscow on March 15, 1989, under very different circumstances from those of his first visit of a month before. Then he had officially been a tourist, a complete unknown to ELORG with no right to do business in the Soviet Union; now he had a meeting with Nikoli Belikov and his fellow bureaucrats scheduled prior to his arrival. Then he had traveled alone; now he brought with him an American named John Huhs, a lawyer and fluent Russian speaker with no experience in videogames but heaps of experience brokering complex international deals with insular non-democratic countries like the Soviet Union. Then he had been working, ostensibly at least, as a free agent, trying to secure the handheld rights to Tetris for his own Bullet-Proof Software so he could license them on to Nintendo; now he was working as a more direct proxy for the Japanese videogame giant, hoping to broker an agreement in principle to license the North American console rights to Tetris directly from ELORG to Nintendo. If he could achieve that goal, Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln of Nintendo of America, two of the three most powerful people in videogames (the third being, of course, Nintendo’s overall president Hiroshi Yamauchi), were willing to drop everything and join him in Moscow for the final signing.

When Rogers walked into his meeting with Belikov, he threw Nintendo’s eye-popping offer for the console rights down onto the table without preamble. In addition to a generous royalty, Nintendo would guarantee that ELORG would make at least $5 million from the deal when all was said and done. If, in other words, royalty payments didn’t reach $5 million within a certain time frame, Nintendo would make up the difference out of their own pocket. This was big money by almost anyone’s standards, but in the context of the Soviet Union of 1989 it was an astronomical sum. The offer was intended to turn Belikov’s head, and in this it succeeded magnificently. Previous negotiations had dwelt on relative nickels and dimes: $50,000 here, $100,000 there. Nintendo’s offer elevated the discussion to another financial plane entirely. It was so much more generous than Belikov could have imagined in his wildest dreams that he was highly motivated to get an agreement finalized before cooler heads in the West prevailed. And this, needless to say, was just what Arakawa and Lincoln had intended.

As their initial offer testifies, Arakawa and Lincoln wanted those Tetris rights very, very badly. While their actions were partially motivated by their firm belief that Tetris was one hell of a game that deserved as wide an audience as possible, this was hardly the sum total of what was driving them. Nor did even the profits they expected the game to rake in fully explain their generosity. Unbeknownst to Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, or anyone else in the Soviet Union, the Tetris rights were about to be tossed like the mother of all live grenades into the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. The combatants were nothing less than the two most legendary trademarks in videogames. It was the architect of the first great videogame craze versus the architect of the second: Atari versus Nintendo.

The roots of the conflict ran deep. Forbidden from entering the console market by the agreement which had split the old Atari into two companies in the wake of the Great Videogame Crash, Atari Games had tried to content themselves with building standup arcade machines while Nintendo breathed life back into the supposedly dead North American console market. At last, unable to resist that exploding market’s allure any longer, they had formed their Tengen subsidiary to make console games of their own in 1987.

Whatever their personal feelings toward the company, Tengen had known that Nintendo was the only game — or, rather, the only game console — in town. They had thus signed a contract to become an authorized maker of games for the Nintendo Entertainment System in January of 1988. Tengen was limited, like most such licensees, to five games per year, which were to be manufactured by Nintendo at the times and in the quantities Nintendo chose. Therein lay the first concrete bone of contention between the two companies.

When Tengen delivered their first finished games to Nintendo in June of 1988, Nintendo ordered far fewer to be manufactured than Tengen had requested. They pinned the need for the reduction partially on overoptimism on Tengen’s part and partially on a worldwide microchip shortage they claimed was forcing them to scale back all cartridge production. To say the least, their licensee wasn’t convinced. A livid Atari claimed they could have sold ten times as many game cartridges as Nintendo deigned to provide them with, and openly suspected malice aforethought in Nintendo’s whole production-allotment process. Atari decided that in order to thrive again in the console market they must break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the manufacture of cartridges.

The key to breaking through on that front, they realized, was to break the lockout system employed by the NES. Nintendo’s ability to control their captive market without running afoul of antitrust laws hinged on this patented and copyrighted combination of code and circuitry, which prevented unauthorized cartridges from working on the console. If Atari could develop a lockout-defeating technology from scratch, making no use of any of Nintendo’s schematics or documentation, their lawyers believed that they would be legally in the clear to produce their own Nintendo games in whatever quantity they desired, and without paying Nintendo the customary licensing fee.

Unfortunately, reverse-engineering the lockout system was a tall order; it was by far the most advanced piece of a game console that was otherwise years out of date in purely technical terms. At last, they decided to cheat.

The code that operated the lockout system had been registered by Nintendo with the United States Copyright Office, an act which had required Nintendo to send to the Copyright Office a copy of the code. There it was kept under lock and key, inaccessible to third parties — except under one condition: if the code should become the subject of litigation, both sides were entitled to a copy. In other words, had Nintendo accused Atari of violating their copyright on the code, Atari’s lawyers would have been able to request a copy in order to defend their client.

Nintendo had not done any such thing. Nevertheless, Atari filed an affidavit with the Copyright Office in connection with legal proceedings allegedly about to get under way, for which a copy of the code was needed. The affidavit indicated that the code was “to be used only in connection with the specified litigation.” Failing to do their due diligence in verifying Atari’s claim, the Copyright Office complied, providing a copy of the code to be used in a legal case which didn’t exist. Not coincidentally, Atari’s ongoing efforts to reverse-engineer Nintendo’s lockout system finally bore fruit shortly thereafter.

On December 12, 1988, Atari Games filed suit against Nintendo, charging them with monopolistic business practices. “Through the use of a technologically sophisticated ‘lockout system,'” the complaint claimed, “Nintendo has, for the past several years, prevented all would-be competitors, including Atari, from competing with it in the manufacture of videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo home-videogame machine. The sole purpose of the lockout system is to lock out competition.” The complaint went on to make note of Nintendo’s stranglehold on the supply of third-party game cartridges: “The impact of Nintendo’s conduct has been to block any competition in the manufacturing market for videogame cartridges compatible with the Nintendo machine.” Atari asked for a staggering $100 million in damages.

On the same day they filed their lawsuit, Atari announced that they would start manufacturing and selling their own Nintendo games, without involving Nintendo at all or paying them anything at all. Tengen shipped new, unauthorized versions of their three extant Nintendo games — Pac-Man, Gauntlet, and R.B.I. Baseball — using their lockout-defeat technology. And they soon announced another four unauthorized games — Super Sprint, Rolling Thunder, Vindicators, and Tetris — which were to be released in May of 1989. Even more so in its way than the lawsuit, Atari’s decision to start making unauthorized games for the NES was the shot heard round the industry.

The  conflict between Nintendo and Atari was a deeply personal one. Whatever Nintendo’s real or alleged legal sins, Atari, barely half a decade removed from their glory days, resented them most of all as the usurpers of what they regarded as their rightful crown. For their part, Arakawa and Lincoln had known Hideyuki Nakajima, Atari’s president, for years, had imagined there was a bond of mutual respect that would prevent him from ever taking a step like this. When Atari had signed on as a Nintendo licensee, they believed they had shown Nakajima exceptional deference, freely divulging, as Lincoln would later put it, “the crown jewels of our business.” In their eyes, then, Nakajima’s declaration of war was a personal betrayal.

It was also nothing less than an existential threat to Nintendo’s entire business model. If Atari got away with this, other publishers would inevitably find their own ways to defeat the lockout system — who knew, maybe Atari would even sell their stolen secrets to them — and the walls around Nintendo’s carefully curated and absurdly profitable videogame garden would be demolished. That scenario must be prevented at all costs. Largely thanks to Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America already enjoyed a reputation for ruthlessness when their interests were challenged. Now, Arakawa told Lincoln to stop at nothing to quell Atari’s uprising. Atari had opted to go to total war with, in Lincoln’s colorful diction, “a tiger who will skin you piece by piece.”

Nintendo’s legal response to Atari was swift, multi-pronged, and comprehensive. On January 5, 1989, they filed a counter-suit alleging breach of contract (for reneging on Tengen’s existing agreement to sell authorized Nintendo cartridges) and trademark infringement (for printing the Nintendo logo on Tengen’s unauthorized packaging). More audaciously, the suit alleged that Atari had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known in law-enforcement circles as RICO and normally applied to gangland money-laundering operations, in setting up Tengen as essentially a shell corporation with the intention of defrauding Nintendo. Another suit, filed on February 2, accused Atari of patent infringement of the NES lockout system.

But the courts were hardly the only weapon which Nintendo, the company which for all intents and purposes was the American game-console industry, had at their disposal. They took to calling the major retailers, telling them that selling products “which infringe Nintendo’s patent or other intellectual-property rights” would have dire consequences for their supply of official Nintendo hardware and games. “Companies would not carry our games because there was pressure from Nintendo which could jeopardize their business,” says Nakajima. “Even the big companies like Toy ‘R’ Us couldn’t stand up to them.” Atari executive Dan Van Elederen imagines the way a conversation between a major retailer and Nintendo might have gone: “You know, we really like to support those who support Nintendo, and we’re not real happy that you’re carrying a Tengen product. By the way, why don’t we sit down and talk about product allocations for next quarter. How many Super Marios did you say you wanted?” “If a retailer carried Tengen games, their Nintendo allocations would suddenly disappear,” remembers one retail buyer who was caught in the crossfire. “Since it was illegal, there were always excuses: the truck got lost, or the ship from Japan never arrived.” Tengen was slowly but methodically squeezed out of retail.

A third theater of battle was the press, which the combatants used to lob statements back and forth, jockeying for advantage with the public and especially with the American political establishment, many of whose members had long expressed concern at their country’s longstanding trade deficit with Japan. Atari tried to frame a folksy narrative of a domestic upstart just looking for a fair shake against the calculated malfeasance of a shifty-eyed foe from the Orient: “Let’s say you buy a Ford, and the company says, ‘If you buy a Ford automobile from us, you have to buy Ford gas.’ That’s not the way business is done.” Nintendo replied by claiming — being partly if not entirely truthful about their motivations — that they had put their controls in place to keep the junk games that had done so much to precipitate the Great Videogame Crash of 1983 off the market this time around: “It was the only way we could ensure that there would be consistent, quality software.” Hoping doubtless to curry favor, some American publishers who were closely identified with Nintendo parroted this company line, among them Acclaim Entertainment: “Nintendo is trying to make this into a category, not a fad, where videogaming becomes another part of our entertainment life.”

But the majority of the American software industry stood — tacitly at least — with Atari. Indeed, Atari’s cause was increasingly becoming that of the American software industry as a whole — by which I mean many companies that had never heretofore made console games at all, that had concentrated on the less volatile home-computer market. Yet in recent months, in the face of a Nintendo market that had gone from nothing to three times the size of the total American market for computer games with incomprehensible speed, it had been hard for the computer-game publishers to resist the lure of the other side. Most of those who jumped into publishing agreements with Nintendo were frustrated by the same restrictions and policies that so infuriated Atari. The whole enterprise seemed consciously engineered to let them make some money but never too much — and certainly to keep them from ever making a truly iconic Nintendo game to rival the likes of Super Mario Bros.

The Software Publishers Association, the traditional American software industry’s biggest lobbyist and trade group, left no doubt where it stood on the question: “The SPA believes that Nintendo has, through its complete control and single-sourcing of cartridge manufacturing, engineered a shortage of Nintendo-compatible cartridges. Retailers, consumers, and independent software vendors have become frustrated by the unavailability of many titles during the [1988] holiday season, and believe that these shortages could be prevented by permitting software vendors to produce their own cartridges.” The SPA warned ominously and to some extent presciently of what the walled-garden philosophy of software marketing could come to mean if it spread further: “We don’t want any computer company to get the idea that what Nintendo is doing would be acceptable in the computer business. Software is an intellectual property that thrives in an unrestricted environment.”

That said, few companies were willing to attract the attention of the Nintendo tiger by stating their views too stridently or too publicly, much less by taking the sort of aggressive action Atari Games had opted for. There was, however, one notable exception.

On January 31, 1989, the other Atari — the home-computer company run by Jack Tramiel and his sons — filed their own suit against Nintendo, asking that the latter be forced to pay the towering sum of $250 million in damages. At issue this time was Nintendo’s policy of requiring that many licensees not port their games to other systems for two years from the date of their first appearance on the NES. This policy, Tramiel’s Atari claimed, was an abuse of Nintendo’s near-monopoly of the videogame market and thus a violation of antitrust laws. Atari Corporation’s claim to being an aggrieved party in the issue was perhaps debatable; Tramiel’s company produced mostly hardware, not software, and its main strategic focus was its ST line of computers, whose most successful games tended to be dramatically different in character from those which sold best on the NES. It was, in other words, hard to imagine that the lack of hot Nintendo-style games on the Atari ST was a primary reason behind its lackluster North American sales. But Jack Tramiel had a long history of using the courts as business competition by other means, and, gauging the political mood in the country with respect to Japanese imports, he thought he smelled blood in the water here.

So, it was now the two Ataris against Nintendo — the past of videogames against their future, one might say. Thematics aside, the two Ataris made for some very unexpected bedfellows. Each part of the old, monolithic Atari felt that they were the only part truly worthy of carrying the name’s legacy onward. To put it bluntly, the two companies “don’t like each other,” admitted Atari Games’s Dan Van Elderen. But, as they say, the enemy of my enemy…

Isolated in Moscow, Nikoli Belikov was unaware of this dramatic backdrop to Nintendo’s generous offer for the Tetris console rights. From his perspective, the only thing preventing the negotiation from moving forward immediately was the promise which he had made to Kevin Maxwell to give Mirrorsoft an opportunity to bid on the rights. Thankfully, the Russians hadn’t heard anything at all from Mirrorsoft since Maxwell had departed Moscow over two weeks ago.

On the same day that Henk Rogers first presented Nintendo’s offer, Belikov fired off a telex to London, saying that ELORG was about to sign a deal for the console rights to Tetris and that, in accordance with the arrangement he and Maxwell had arrived at, Mirrorsoft urgently needed to send their own best offer — if they wished to make an offer at all, that was. He gave them exactly 24 hours to do so, an intentionally impossible time frame. When the deadline expired, Belikov considered himself to have done his legal duty. Now nothing lay between him and a deal worth at least $5 million.

When word came to Arakawa and Lincoln from Rogers that an agreement for the console rights looked very possible, they scrambled to secure the visas and airplane tickets they needed to come personally to Moscow. This latest round of Tetris negotiations offered not just the opportunity to secure an all-but-guaranteed massive hit for Nintendo, but also that of taking away an all-but-guaranteed massive hit from Atari. Neither Arakawa nor Lincoln was an especially forgiving man, and they relished this opportunity with their every last fiber of vindictiveness. Their preparations for their journey smacked more of a spy thriller than a typical business trip. The comings and goings of two men such as them within what was once again a multi-billion-dollar American videogame industry hardly went unobserved even when the industry wasn’t racked by total war. On the contrary: their every statement, action, and, yes, movement was closely scrutinized for clues to what Nintendo might do next. Arakawa and Lincoln thus felt compelled to slip away in the dead of night, telling only two of their closest confidants where they were going and why.

They arrived in Moscow on Sunday, March 19. As befit the sense of occasion that surrounded their visit, Henk Rogers forewent the taxis that were his usual mode of transportation around Moscow in favor of picking them up at the airport in a big black Mercedes he had managed to rent at an exorbitant price. The two huddled in the back seat, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, and marveled at the Mirror World outside the windows, which Lincoln said reminded him of the mean streets of old black-and-white gangster films. Their self-appointed chauffeur, feeling himself by comparison an old hand with Moscow life, merely smiled and nodded. At the hotel, Arakawa and Lincoln were given a room with a single bed, a disconnected stove, and a refrigerator without a door. Don’t complain, Rogers told them; it can only get worse.

Whatever their other prowesses as negotiators, Arakawa and Lincoln weren’t gifted with Henk Rogers’s all-but-irresistible charm. Arakawa was reserved, stoic, even shy among new people, while Lincoln, who looked every inch the corporate lawyer he was, made the most of his native suspicious nature as Nintendo’s attack dog, willing to challenge every point and question every assertion in trying to secure for his company every possible advantage. Alexey Pajitnov, for one, sensed the change in the atmosphere around the table as soon as they all entered the conference room the next day.

Still, it was fascinating in a way to watch Belikov and Lincoln, two sly old foxes with far more in common than the gulf of culture, language, and politics that lay between them might suggest, sniff one another out. Lincoln questioned Belikov long and hard about the previous deal with Stein and the potential trouble it might present. Belikov, meanwhile, notwithstanding the incredible offer that lay on the table, pressed relentlessly for further advantage, persisted in testing every boundary. Apparently not understanding how unique Tetris was, he seemed to see game design as a commodity amenable to the typical Soviet model of mass production, proposing that Nintendo and ELORG set up a joint subsidiary to crank out many more games. Apparently not understanding that the key to Nintendo’s control of their walled garden was their ownership of the means of production of game cartridges — the very thing they were fighting so savagely to maintain far away in the United States — he proposed that the Tetris cartridges be manufactured by ELORG in the Soviet Union, a recipe for quality-control disaster if ever there was one. Then he proposed that ELORG make actual Nintendos in the Soviet Union for sale behind the Iron Curtain. The most surreal moment of the talks came when a cosmonaut trooped in to pitch an idea for plastering the Nintendo logo all over Soviet rockets; when the Soviet Union embraced capitalism, it seemed, it really embraced capitalism.

Another bizarre incident hearkened ironically back to that earlier pivotal instant when Henk Rogers had produced Bullet-Proof Software’s “pirated” Nintendo Famicom version of Tetris to gasps all around the conference table. Wanting to demonstrate how adept his people were at this consumer-electronics thing, one of the Russian bureaucrats reached under the table and came up with a Soviet knockoff of a Donkey Kong standalone handheld game which Nintendo had released back in 1982. In its Soviet form, it was bereft of any acknowledgment of its origins — and bereft of any agreement to pay Nintendo royalties for it. Under normal circumstances, such a thing would have set Howard Lincoln into a paroxysm of enraged threats. But today, managing to see the bigger picture, he swallowed hard and held his tongue with difficulty.

To be fair to Belikov, many of the kookier ideas that he was forced to pitch likely didn’t originate with him. In this era of perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev had tasked the masterminds of his nation’s economy, so long accustomed to looking inward to quotas and five-year plans, with looking out, with finding areas where the Soviet Union could compete with the other members of the community of free nations Gorbachev was intent on joining. Computer software had always seemed like an area with real potential in this regard, responsive as it seemingly was to the country’s long tradition of mathematical excellence. And now here was the Tetris deal. As a game rather than a more “serious” piece of software, it perhaps wasn’t the completely ideal vehicle for Soviet software’s coming-out party, but it would do. As soon as that $5 million figure started to spread through the Soviet bureaucracy, Belikov’s negotiations over what had heretofore been regarded as a silly little game — a minor transaction at best — took on a dramatically higher profile. Lots and lots of people with lots of different agendas were now trying to muscle their way into the room with these foreigners who so evidently had more money than sense. Lincoln batted away each crazy proposal as politely as he could, and kept trying to steer the discussion back to the deal that was already on the table.

Alexey Pajitnov in his Moscow apartment.

The atmosphere was warmer that evening when Rogers, still playing the role of chaperone and tour guide, located the only sushi restaurant in Moscow and took Arakawa, Lincoln, Pajitnov, and Nintendo’s legal consultant John Huhs out for dinner there. Pajitnov was skeptical of the notion of eating raw fish, but soon got with the program — at least until he popped an entire ball of wasabi into his mouth just ahead of his companions’ urgent warning cries, nearly causing his head to explode. Back at the Pajitnov family apartment, Arakawa gave the children a prototype Game Boy with a prototype of Tetris in the cartridge slot, telling them that they were now quite possibly the first people in the entire Soviet Union to own a Nintendo product. Pajitnov still stood to gain absolutely nothing from this game that so many others were now confidently expecting to earn them millions, but he did appreciate the attention and respect he was shown by the Nintendo delegation, so different from Robert Stein and the ELORG bureaucrats who did little more than tolerate his presence at the negotiating table. And he took Henk Rogers at his word that someday soon he would find a way to get him his financial due — if not with Tetris, than with the next game he designed.

A contract giving Nintendo exclusive worldwide-except-for-Japan console rights to Tetris was signed on March 22, 1989, alongside another giving the Japanese rights to Rogers, thus fully legitimizing in the eyes of ELORG the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris that had started this whole ruckus. Two heavyweight bureaucrats, the head of the State Committee for Computer Systems and Informatics and the head of computer research at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, came out to witness the signings, which were conducted with some pomp and circumstance. To commemorate the occasion, Rogers, who in his standard inimitable fashion was now wheeling and dealing on the Moscow black market like a native, presented Arakawa and Lincoln with tickets for that evening to the Bolshoi Ballet. Much to their amazement, Mikhail Gorbachev himself showed up for the performance — and took a seat that was worse than theirs. That was Henk Rogers for you.

From being the property of Robert Stein in their totality barely a month earlier, the rights to Tetris had now been sliced and diced into a whole pile of discrete parts. The computer-game rights lay with Mirrorsoft in Europe and, through Mirrorsoft, Spectrum Holobyte in North America and Bullet-Proof Software in Japan. The arcade rights lay with Atari Games in North America and Europe and, through Atari, Sega in Japan. The worldwide handheld rights lay with Bullet-Proof, who planned to use them to let Nintendo bundle a copy of Tetris with every Game Boy sold when the new gadget came to North America in four months or so. And now, as a product of this latest round of negotiations, the non-Japanese console rights belonged directly to Nintendo, the Japanese console rights to Bullet-Proof.

This, anyway, was the new world order according to ELORG and Nintendo. But there was soon trouble from the parties whose earlier deals had been retroactively voided, just as Rogers had warned Belikov there would be the previous month.

On the morning of March 22, even as the contract-signing ceremony was about to get under way, a belated response had finally arrived to the telex which Belikov had sent to Mirrorsoft six days before. In the message, Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft, adopting a posture of bemused confusion, said that Mirrorsoft didn’t need to bid for the console rights because they already possessed them. His obvious intention was to pretend that the disastrous meeting between Belikov and Kevin Maxwell had never happened, and to hope that thereby the old status quo would be allowed to reassert itself. But he learned that that most definitely wasn’t a possibility later the same day, when Belikov sent a reply stating that the console rights had never been Stein’s to license to Mirrorsoft, and that those selfsame rights had in fact just been licensed to Nintendo. To rub salt into the wound, Belikov also dropped the bombshell that the handheld rights already belonged to Henk Rogers.

The Mirrorsoft camp’s response was predictably swift and aggressive. Evidently not recollecting how well his last decision to shove Mackonochie aside had gone, Kevin Maxwell jumped personally back into the fray the very next day with a telex telling Belikov he was “in grave breach twice over of our agreements with you.” Having apparently remedied the ignorance that had led him to call the Bullet-Proof Tetris a pirated version on his last trip to Moscow, he wrote that “we already hold the worldwide rights to Tetris on the Nintendo family computer. Indeed, we have been marketing it accordingly, [through] Bullet-Proof Software in Japan since January 1989.” But he was willing, he graciously conceded, to come to Moscow to meet once again with Belikov and learn from him “how you intend to remedy your double breach of our agreement.” Should Belikov refuse to invite him to such a meeting, he warned of legal and political — yes, political — consequences.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert Maxwell. The latter was so chummy with the Kremlin that questions would later surface over whether he had acted at times as a Soviet spy.

He wasn’t just blowing smoke. His father, Robert Maxwell, was an absurdly well-connected man, the ruler of a communication and publication empire that spanned the globe and that had placed him on a first-name basis with countless current and former heads of state. When told by his secretary that “the prime minister” was on the phone for him, legend has it that Maxwell would ask, “Which one?” His Rolodex contained the home address and phone number of one Mikhail Gorbachev, just as it had Gorbachev’s predecessors Yuri Andropov, Leonid Brezhnev, and Nikita Khrushchev.

After the Nintendo delegation returned home from Moscow and it became clear to Kevin Maxwell that Belikov had no intention of granting him his mea-culpa meeting, he went to his father to explain what the Russians had done to him, eliciting a desk-pounding fit of rage: “They won’t get away with it! Rest assured of that!” Robert Maxwell wrote directly to the highest levels of the Kremlin, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the many investments he was making into Gorbachev’s new Soviet Union: “We attach high importance to our excellent commercial relations with the Soviet government and many leading agencies in the fields of information, communications, publishing, and, indeed, pulp and paper production. We face the prospect of all this being jeopardized by the unilateral action of one particular agency.” Nice economy you’re building there, Gorbachev, ran the subtext. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it — and all because of one silly videogame.

Maxwell contacted the secretary of state for trade and industry within Britain’s own government, pushing him to place the Tetris issue on the agenda for an upcoming summit between Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev. Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes was now threatening to impinge on agendas at the highest levels of international statecraft. In late April, Maxwell flew to Moscow to meet personally with Gorbachev, ostensibly to discuss his growing number of publication ventures within and on behalf of the Soviet Union. But he brought up the issue of Tetris there as well, and claimed that before he left Gorbachev assured him that he would personally take care of the issue of “the Japanese company” for him.

In actuality, though, Gorbachev did little or nothing, presumably judging that Maxwell wouldn’t really blow up deals potentially worth billions in the long run over a videogame-licensing spat. Still, plenty of others within the Soviet government — among them many representatives of the hard-line communist order that was at odds with Gorbachev — wanted an embattled Belikov to back down and give Maxwell what he wanted.

When Howard Lincoln returned to Moscow about a month after his first visit for a follow-up meeting, a tension that verged on paranoia was palpable around the conference table. Belikov spoke of “calls from the Kremlin, calls from people who never before knew we existed. Many of them have shown up to examine our records and to question us on this deal. We have told them we have done the right thing. We have stood up to them, but we do not know what will happen.”  There were even rumors that the KGB had been put on the case to dig up dirt on Belikov and his colleagues at ELORG, rumors of bugs in telephones and men in descriptly nondescript trench coats trailing people through the streets. Belikov had hired a pair of personal bodyguards for protection.

He clung to a simple but potent line of argument against his persecutors: Gorbachev had said that producers in the Soviet Union needed to have a degree of economic freedom, needed to make decisions in response to the market rather than a hidebound bureaucratic class. That was what perestroika, the buzzword of the age, was all about. He, then, was just doing perestroika. Nintendo had offered ELORG a better deal, and he was bound — duty-bound by perestroika, one might say — to take it.

Howard Lincoln’s son Brad plays Tetris with Alexey Pajitnov.

Helping Belikov stay strong was the fact that he and Howard Lincoln had gone from cagey adversaries to something approaching friends. In the months after signing their deal, Belikov arranged for Lincoln and his son to take a private tour of Star City, the heart of the Soviet space program. He took Lincoln on a traditional Russian fishing trip — “traditional” in this case indicating much more vodka-drinking than fish-catching. He felt a bond with Howard Lincoln and also Henk Rogers, two men who had talked straight to him and treated him as an equal, that he most definitely didn’t feel with Robert Stein or the Maxwell clan. He felt that Lincoln and Rogers had been in his corner, so he would stay in theirs. Crusty old bureaucratic knife fighter though he was, his sense of loyalty ran surprisingly deep.

While Belikov was weathering the storm unleashed by Robert Maxwell upon Moscow, Arakawa and Lincoln were left to deal with the issue of Atari, Mirrorsoft sub-licensee of the Tetris rights, in the United States. It seems safe to say that they relished their situation far more than their Soviet partner did his, not least because because it afforded them the luxury of going on the offensive in yet one more way against their bitterest enemy. With delicious satisfaction, Lincoln drafted a cease-and-desist letter that was sent to Atari on March 31, saying that the console rights to Tetris belonged to Nintendo rather than to Tengen, and that the latter thus needed to give up their own plans for Tetris if they didn’t wish to spark another legal battle in the ongoing war. He knew, as he would later put it, that Atari “would go nuts” when they received the letter. On April 6, Nintendo announced via an official press release their plans to release their version of Tetris for the NES that summer. Atari took the bait, suing Nintendo for infringing on their licensing deal with Mirrorsoft on April 18. They honestly believed that the rights they had licensed from Mirrorsoft were perfectly legitimate — “There was no inkling that we were in the wrong,” Tengen head Randy Broweleit would later say — and they had no intention of lying down for Nintendo. Quite the contrary. Having engulfed so much of the American videogame industry already, it hardly surprised anyone that the war between Atari and Nintendo had now sucked Tetris as well into its maw.

The Tengen Tetris, running in this version’s unique cooperative mode.

Ironically, the version of Tetris which Tengen was finalizing against the will of the game’s designer was by far the best version of the game that had yet been created. Indeed, plenty among the Tetris cognoscenti will tell you that the Tengen Tetris still stands among the best versions ever created, far superior to the versions Nintendo was preparing in-house at the time of its release. Tengen had assigned Ed Logg, creator of iconic arcade games like Asteroids, Centipede, and Gauntlet, to head up a team that wound up spending three person-years on the project, a rather extraordinary amount of time in light of what a simple game Tetris really was. Under Logg’s stewardship, Alexey Pajitnov’s core design took on a much more polished look than it had enjoyed to date. The pieces were no longer solid blocks of color, but were given texture and a pseudo-3D appearance that made them look more like falling blocks than falling abstractions, harking back to the physicality of the pentomino puzzles that had inspired the game. Logg also added a head-to-head competitive mode to the game, and an innovative cooperative mode in which two players could work together to clear away lines. And he made the speed of the falling shapes increase slowly and subtly the longer you played, instead of taking a more noticeable, granular leap only when you went up a level. Whatever you could say about the circumstances of its creation, taken purely on its own terms it was truly a Tetris to be proud of.

It needed to be great. Tengen was counting on this game becoming an unstoppable force that would bust right through the blockade Nintendo was erecting around their lifeline to retail. The launch was as lavish as they could make it, beginning with the game’s unveiling at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room restaurant. As that location would imply, the line of marketing attack developed by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte was employed once again by Tengen. In their hands, though, it came to read a little tone deaf, being amped up with far more testosterone than the game destined to go down in history as the very personification of a non-violent, casual puzzler really had need of. “It’s like Siberia, only harder,” ran one tagline. “It’s the nerve-wrackingest mind game since Russian roulette,” ran another. A third said it should only be played by “macho men with the first-strike capability to beat the Russian programmers who invented it. If you can’t make the pieces fit together, an avalanche of blocks thunders down and buries you weaklings!”

But, overheated rhetoric aside, Tengen clearly saw the potential of Tetris to expand the Nintendo demographic beyond boys and teenagers, buying full-page spreads in such mainstream non-adolescent publications as USA Today. And, now that they controlled the means of Nintendo cartridge production, they weren’t going to be caught out by any shortage on that front. They ordered an initial production run of fully 300,000 Tetris cartridges, at an expense of $3 million.

The Tengen Tetris was released on May 17, 1989. It took Nintendo exactly eight days to sue in response; in combination with Atari’s earlier suit against Nintendo, this latest legal salvo meant that each company was now accusing the other of making or planning to make what amounted to a pirated version of Tetris. While American courts tried to sort through the dueling lawsuits, American gamers faced the prospect of deciding between dueling versions of Tetris on the NES, each claiming to be the one and only legitimate version.

Alexey Pajitnov’s little game of falling shapes, having already sparked a bewildering amount of international intrigue, had found yet another role to play as a coveted prize in the greatest war the American videogame industry had ever known. Nintendo and Atari were both willing to use every resource at their disposal to ensure that Tetris belonged to them and them alone. All of the conspiratorial maneuvering that had taken place in Moscow the previous February and March was about to be put to the test. Did all of the rights to Tetris belong to Robert Stein to sub-license as he would, as Atari claimed, or did Stein possess only the computer-game and arcade rights, as Nintendo claimed? It must now be up to a court of law in the United States to decide.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Hardcore Gamer Vol.5 No.1; Nintendo Power of September/October 1989; The New York Times of February 3 1989 and March 9 1989.)


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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 5: The Inflection Point

Just a few weeks after the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions of Tetris went on sale, Robert Stein received a telex to which was attached a Russian name he had never seen before in all his negotiating efforts. One Alexander Alexinko from a previously unheard-of state agency called Electronorgtechnica — more colloquially referred to as simply ELORG — was taking over the negotiations, which were now expected to proceed on a more formal basis. Any hopes Stein might have harbored that the Russians would just go away quietly, allowing him to reap all of the profits from Tetris coming back to Andromeda Software, were thus dashed. On the other hand, though, the very fact that the Russians were reaching out to him — just about the first proactive step he had ever witnessed from them in the previous eighteen months or so of dialog — could be a positive sign that some sort of legitimate, mutually lucrative deal was possible after all. Anything was better than the fractured, pointless discussions they had had to date.

As happened more often in the Soviet Union than its rulers might have cared to admit, the sequence of events which had brought Alexinko into the picture had had more to do with happenstance that any orchestrated shift in strategy. ELORG lived under the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade, where it was charged, like several competing organizations within the labyrinthine and turf-war-plagued Soviet bureaucracy, with overseeing the import and export of technology. In the past, the agency had carved out a niche for itself under this absurdly broad umbrella as the calculator kingpin of the Eastern Bloc, exporting knockoffs of American and Japanese models that were much sought-after by scientists and engineers — even if, as was all too typical of Mirror World technology, they didn’t always work quite right. But now, Perestroika was in the air, and organizations like ELORG were expected to take an entrepreneurial role in forging a new Soviet Union that was happy to trade with its former arch-enemies in the West. It was thus in search of potential products that might be viable in the West that Alexinko had come to the Moscow Computer Center one day. He was there to beat the bushes and see if any golden nuggets fell out. Games were about the farthest thing from his mind; he was interested in serious software, as befit the very serious government institution he worked for.

Then one day a personable member of the research staff named Alexey Pajitnov mentioned in casual conversation that he and, more recently and thus more pertinently, much of the management of the Computer Center had been negotiating directly with someone in Britain named Robert Stein over a game Pajitnov had created. Alexinko was shocked. A new era may have been dawning in the Soviet Union, but the old way of doing things died hard with a hardened bureaucratic veteran like him. To his mind, this unauthorized negotiation bordered on the scandalous or even treasonous. And when the researchers produced the paper trail of their confused communications with Stein, full of broad statements ripe for misconstrual, his shock turned into horror. Just as Pajitnov had been shoved out of the dialog and out of pocketing any potential profits from Tetris by his managers at the Computer Center some months before, now those selfsame managers were taken off the case by Alexinko. He would manage the discussions from here, he told them. His first step took the form of that initial telex to Stein.

It’s not clear whether Alexinko, isolated as he still was in so many ways in the Soviet Union even in the time of glasnost and perestroika, was ever aware that Stein had jumped the gun and allowed Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte to release Tetris without a clear agreement with the Russians. It is clear, however, that Stein at the very least made it plain to Alexinko that the game was well on its way to being released. In doing so, he turned what could have been a disadvantage into its opposite. This was exactly the sort of deal that the new Soviet Union was supposed to be making, exactly the sort that Alexinko was supposed to be brokering. Did he want to enjoy the credit for it, or did he want to put the brakes on it, prompting anger in at least two other countries that could very easily get back to his bosses? Stein could be very savvy at times, and this is a fine example of one of them.

Dealing at last with a motivated individual with the wherewithal to make things happen, Stein hammered out a deal with his opposite number with head-snapping speed, in marked contrast to all those previous months of fruitless back-and-forth. He visited Moscow again to put the finishing touches on the contract in February; he and Alexinko shook hands over a final draft on February 24, 1988. Alexinko explained that he just needed to get the contract approved by his superiors, then he would send it on to Stein for his signature. The Soviet bureaucracy still being the Soviet bureaucracy, it took a little longer than he had implied it would, but the deal was finally signed on May 10, 1988. Stein breathed a sign of relief, thinking he had gotten away with one. He had his contract in hand, everything was now legal and above-board, and Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte needed never know that their permission to release Tetris post-dated their actual release of Tetris by some months. Alas, though, whatever good feelings were in the air weren’t destined to stay around for long.

The first inkling of trouble came when the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte versions of Tetris, filled with Westerners’ ideas of iconic Soviet imagery, finally made their way to Moscow. Alexinko was not at all amused by the tribute to Mathias Rust landing his private plane on Red Square, which appeared on the title screen before the game proper had even begun. What the Western media had reported as little more than an amusing human-interest story, the Soviet Union regarded as a national embarrassment. Rust had, after all, penetrated through the entire Soviet air-defense system to the very nerve center of the country flying nothing more advanced than a rickety old Cessna; Rust himself was still imprisoned in the Soviet Union, charged with terrorism. Pajitnov, for his part, took the Rust tribute in good humor, but was unhappy about portrayals of the Red Army in battle. He told Stein that he wanted Tetris to be “a peaceful game heralding a new era in the relationship between superpowers and their attitude toward world peace.” Stein dutifully took up the delicate task of requesting these omissions of Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who duly ponied up for some new graphics to replace the objectionable ones.

But tensions between Stein and the Russians were continuing to grow. Alexinko was coming more and more to distrust his opposite number. Royalties for Tetris were supposed to be flowing to the Russians through Stein, their only direct contact in the West. Yet by the end of September they still hadn’t seen any money at all, even as Tetris topped many computer-game bestseller charts in the United States. Stein tried to soothe an impatient and suspicious Alexinko by explaining that these things took time, that the money would be coming eventually. Alexinko didn’t believe his excuses, started mumbling about modifying the contract to include a firm time frame on royalty payments, with penalties for late payments. It’s not clear today whether Stein really was still playing fast and loose with the Russians, or whether he was, as he himself claimed, at the mercy of Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, waiting for his own royalties to filter through those companies’ accounting departments so he could send the Russians’ cut onward. What is clear, however, is that this pugnacious little Hungarian was once again rubbing everyone in Moscow the wrong way, raising hackles and raising suspicions.

And he was still overreaching himself in trying to keep the various Western interests placated. He licensed the arcade rights to Tetris to Atari Games in May, despite never having obtained those rights from the Russians. Putting the cart before the horse yet again, only after making that deal with Atari did he broach the subject of the arcade rights with Alexinko in Moscow, hoping to quickly get a deal that would once again keep his Western partners from realizing what a dangerous game he was playing. But Alexinko obstinately refused to even talk about the issue until he started seeing royalties from the computer-game versions — not even when Stein offered a $30,000 advance for the arcade rights in July. Soon Tetris arcade machines, made by Atari Games in the United States and sub-licensed by them to Sega in Japan, were pouring out of factories, without any form of agreement with the Russians, while Stein sweated it out and hoped the Russians’ isolation would keep them from noticing.

By the time it went into production, the arcade version of Tetris had already played a critical role whose importance wouldn’t become clear for many months. Atari took a prototype of it with them to an American arcade-industry trade show in June of 1988. There it was spotted by the two most important architects of Nintendo’s stunning American success: Minoru Arakawa, the president of Nintendo of America, and his right-hand man Howard Lincoln, who bore the official titles of Senior Vice President and General Counsel but in reality was all that plus much, much more. Neither had seen or heard about Tetris before encountering it that day in Atari’s trade-show booth. Both were immediately smitten by the Tetris Effect. Randy Broweleit of Atari’s Tengen subsidiary, who had a license to release five games per year on the Nintendo Entertainment System, was in the booth as well, and proved very forthcoming. He told Arakawa and Lincoln of the game’s unlikely origins in the Mirror World, and told how Atari had been able to acquire both console rights and arcade rights to the game from Mirrorsoft in Britain. Tengen’s Nintendo version for the North American market, he explained, would likely be coming out in May of 1989. In the meanwhile, a fellow called Henk Rogers had sub-licensed the Japanese Nintendo rights from Atari and would probably be releasing his version much sooner. Arakawa and Lincoln went away satisfied that Tetris, which they both recognized to be a natural fit on the Nintendo, would eventually be appearing for the console in both Japan and North America. Fair enough, then; on to other business. But then, several months later, the conversation with Broweleit and the demonstration of Tetris flashed back into the forefront of their minds in response to a new communication from Japan.

Deep in the bowels of Nintendo’s worldwide headquarters back in Kyoto, a team of 46 designers, programmers, and engineers were hard at work putting the finishing touches on a top-secret project with revolutionary potential: a handheld game console to be called the Game Boy. It would be a sharply limited device even in comparison to the less-than-technically-earth-shattering NES, with a tiny black-and-white 2.5-inch display that smacked more of a calculator than a conventional videogame. Clearly it wasn’t going to be possible to port Super Mario Bros. to the new gadget and call it a day. Therefore the call had gone out through Nintendo’s management ranks to keep eyes open for concepts which would work well on the Game Boy. This inevitably meant simple games, far simpler even than was the norm on the NES.

Tetris was perfect for the platform. It was as if Tetris had been made with the Game Boy in mind from the start — or as if the Game Boy had been made just to play Tetris. In this light, what Randy Broweleit hadn’t said to Arakawa and Lincoln on that day at the trade show was as important as anything he had said: he’d made no mention of handheld rights. Why should he? There wasn’t any market to speak of for handheld videogames at the time. If Nintendo had their way, however, that was all about to change.

Having heard from Broweleit that Henk Rogers in Japan had sub-licensed from Atari the rights to a Famicom version of Tetris, Arakawa and Lincoln decided he was the place to start in trying to secure the handheld rights. While Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software was undoubtedly a tiny player even by the standards of the domestic Japanese market, much less the world videogame stage, he had bonded with Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi — by no means an easy thing to do — over their mutual love of Go, and had acquired a reputation within Nintendo as an up-and-comer with potential. Rogers, who was close enough to Nintendo’s inner circle to be in on the Game Boy secret, was told that if he could get the handheld rights for himself then Nintendo would happily sub-license them from him. It didn’t take a savvy videogame veteran like Rogers long to recognize the synergy between the Game Boy and Tetris, and to recognize that millions and millions of dollars were potentially in such a deal for him. “If you’ve met Rogers, you know that he is capable of finding his way in the middle of any storm,” says Lincoln. “Telling him that we were ready to license from him was like showing red meat to a hungry lion.” Rogers reached out to Robert Stein on November 15, 1988, saying he’d like to discuss buying the worldwide handheld rights to Tetris. As a starting point for negotiations, he offered an advance of $25,000.

Nikoli Belikov circa 2004

Life by that point hadn’t gotten any easier for an increasingly addled Stein. In October, he had gotten word from Moscow that Alexander Alexinko had been taken off his case, to be replaced by one Nikoli Belikov. The change would not be to his benefit. If Alexinko had been a fairly typical example of the competent Soviet bureaucrat, Belikov was something else entirely, a man who had built a reputation for himself well before the era of perestroika as the consummate bureaucratic in-fighter, a master of the art of the well-timed back stab whom you trifled with at your peril. He was the sort of man who was put on the job to do an agency’s dirty work.

The conversation was soon verging on the openly hostile, as Stein and Belikov nurtured what had been from the first a pronounced dislike of one another. The fundamental impasse remained the same: Stein still hadn’t paid the Russians for the computer-game versions of Tetris that had been sold to date. “When I read [the contract with Stein], I felt very unhappy,” says Belikov. “It said the first payment should be made within three months. It was already October. I began to think what to do: how to force Andromeda Software to pay.” Yet even as he failed to pay the Russians Stein continued to pressure them to sign over arcade rights — and now, in the wake of Henk Rogers’s recent request, handheld rights. Understandably, Belikov wanted to see money from the deal that had already been signed before he signed another. “Andromeda Software sent me telexes asking to start negotiations for new licensing agreements,” says Belikov, “but my only reaction to these was ‘first honor the original agreement, then we can negotiate further.'”

Again, the reasons for Stein’s recalcitrance on this most critical of issues remain unclear. Had he really not yet been paid by Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte? Had he used the money for something else, perhaps to shore up his declining business, and thus no longer had it to give to the Russians? Or was he for some other reason simply refusing to part with it? He had happily accepted Henk Rogers’s $25,000, but continued to dither on producing the rights Rogers was after. The latter first grew impatient, then deeply suspicious. Something was wrong here. “He said he was going to go to Russia,” says Rogers. “He kept on saying that, but he wasn’t going.” With the Game Boy scheduled to ship in Japan in April of 1989, in North America in July, time was running dangerously short. At last, Rogers decided that if Stein wouldn’t go to Moscow for him, he would go himself. He would try to talk to these mysterious partners of Stein’s and see if he could negotiate a handheld deal for himself. In February of 1989, despite having no advance invitation or for that matter any official status whatsoever with ELORG, he bought a ticket for Moscow.

Rogers and Belikov weren’t the only ones sensing that Robert Stein wasn’t playing it straight. Mirrorsoft too had been inquiring about the handheld rights, perhaps envisioning a standalone handheld Tetris game, and had run into a similar pattern of delay and obfuscation, raising with them as well the question of what sort of relationship Stein really had with the Russians. The situation led Jim Mackonochie of Mirrorsoft to reach the same decision as Rogers: he would go to Moscow himself to see what was what. When he explained his plan at the next Mirrorsoft board meeting, however, he was overruled. Board member Kevin Maxwell, son of primary Mirrorsoft shareholder Robert Maxwell and thus not a man to be disputed, said he was going to Moscow for business anyway that February. He would meet with the ELORG people while he was there, he said in his confident way, and get everything sorted out.

In the United States, Phil Adam of Spectrum Holobyte had also decided to travel to Moscow himself, but was similarly shut down when he told the people back in London about his plans. Kevin Maxwell would take care of everything, he was assured.

The Chinese wall Stein had built between his partners in the West and his charges in Moscow was about to crumble. Yet Stein himself had hardly dropped out of the picture. While Rogers and Maxwell were making their plans, he finally arranged for his own trip to Moscow to try one more time to make his own deal for the arcade and handheld Tetris rights. All three parties would arrive within days of one another, none having any idea that the others were coming.

Henk Rogers in his Moscow hotel room, 1989

The first to arrive was Henk Rogers, primed to deploy the charm that had served him so well through his career to date. Rogers:

I did know I was going behind the Iron Curtain for the first time and I had no idea what I was getting into. I kind of knew how to deal with people who were not from my original culture. So, I was expecting to get off that plane and make friends. That’s not what happened. Everybody that I met was unfriendly and unhappy and grumpy. There was an information desk in the hotel. I asked them about ELORG. “Nope, I can’t find it.” No attempt at going any further.

The prevailing impression he had of Moscow can be summed up in the word “gray”: gray skies, gray streets, gray and unsmiling people. The television in his hotel room showed only gray snow, the radio played only gray static. Born marketer that he was, he was disturbed perhaps most of all by the complete lack of advertisements in the city: “Nobody was trying to sell you anything!” At last, he found a tour guide and translator who took him to the ELORG offices. In very un-Soviet fashion, he simply marched up unannounced and knocked on the front door.

Rogers in his Western naivete didn’t realize it, but he was actually putting his would-be negotiating partners in a very delicate position by doing so. Glasnost or no, the law still required that any meetings of Soviet citizens with foreigners be approved in advance by the state. Rogers himself was in the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, meaning that even discussing business on the trip was technically illegal.

As we’ve noted, though, Nikoli Belikov wasn’t your typical hidebound Soviet bureaucrat. He had meetings already scheduled in about a week with Robert Stein and this new, unknown quantity named Kevin Maxwell. He realized, as any savvy negotiator would, that a third party to play against the other two could be a very good thing to have. He talked briefly with Rogers that day, just long enough to tell him to come back the next day, by which time he could pull some strings to get an official meeting on the books. As a matter of courtesy, he also invited the original instigator all this chaos, Alexey Pajitnov, to attend what would turn into a solid week of negotiations.

When the next day came, Rogers found himself seated before a massive table much like the one that had greeted Robert Stein the first time he came to Moscow, inside a similarly forbidding room. Not allowing his stark surroundings to intimidate him, he launched into the sales pitch of his life. With most potential licensers, his cause would have been helped enormously by his being able to say that he enjoyed a close connection to Nintendo, by far the richest and most powerful entity in videogames, with 70 percent of the worldwide market at their command. He now realized to his shock, though, that Belikov and the rest of the Russians knew nothing about Nintendo or their enormous market clout. So, he took on the persona of a sort of consultant. He avoided the hard sell, treating the Russians more like confidants than potential marks, walking them patiently through the details of the Western videogame business in the way that Stein had never bothered to do, telling them in the process about this top-secret upcoming gadget called the Game Boy. Tetris, he said, would be the perfect game to sell millions of Game Boys — and Game Boy would be the perfect platform to sell millions of copies of Tetris. While it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that Belikov took a liking to Rogers — he really wasn’t the sort of person to like anybody sitting on the other side of the table from him — he was favorably impressed by the contrast with Stein. When the day was over, Belikov told Rogers to come back again the next day, this time with a formal offer for the handheld rights to Tetris.

Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov

Over the course of the meeting, Rogers had forged another relationship that would prove even more key to his future than the bridge he was building to the taciturn Belikov. Even before they were introduced, he had picked out Alexey Pajitnov; he was just so intrinsically different from the other unsmiling, gray-suited (of course!) bureaucrats sitting around the table. Rogers chatted with Pajitnov, something Stein had bothered to do in only the most patronizing of terms. “Finally out of all this dressed-in-suit business world, I saw a guy who really liked and understood the game,” says Pajitnov. “And somehow we liked each other, almost immediately.” Rogers calls Pajitnov “the friend I was looking for in Russia. We got together that night, started talking about game design, immediately jumped into [ideas for] Tetris II. We had stuff to talk about.” Bonding over vodka inside the Pajitnov family’s humble apartment, finding ways to communicate despite Pajitnov’s broken English and Rogers’s nonexistent Russian, the two formed a bond of friendship and trust that has endured to the present day. For Pajitnov, the key aspect of the evening was that Rogers “offered me nothing and asked for nothing” in relation to his game. Again, the contrast with Stein couldn’t have been more pronounced.

When a woozy Rogers stumbled home to his cold hotel room that night, he knew he had seen a side of Russian culture almost impenetrable to most Westerners — the warmer side that existed behind the closed doors of family life, the one that had nothing to do with politics and ideology. And he knew that, whatever else the next day might bring, he at least had Pajitnov in his corner. The problem, of course, was that Pajitnov had long since been forced to relinquish virtually all say in the fate of his own game.

Still, Rogers’s charm and his straightforward, very un-Stein-like manner were beginning to have their effect even on Belikov. Without much preamble on the next morning, Rogers and ELORG agreed to work on a deal giving Bullet-Proof Software exclusive worldwide handheld rights to Tetris. Steins’s Chinese wall had just crumbled to dust. After a few days of detail-ironing, on February 21, 1989, they signed the final contract. For Henk Rogers, it was the deal of a lifetime, one that was all but guaranteed to make him a very, very rich man. But his euphoria was short-lived.

A boxed copy of the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris, like the one that Henk Rogers showed Nikoli Belikov at a pivotal moment.

Wishing to show his new Russians friends and business partners an actual, tangible product his company had already created using the Tetris intellectual property, Rogers reached into his bag and pulled out Bullet-Proof Software’s Nintendo Famicom version of the game, which had been released in Japan the previous month and had already sold 130,000 copies. “We’re the biggest publisher of Tetris in the world right now,” he said proudly. But Rogers needed only take one look at Belikov’s face to realize he had made a serious error. He had simply assumed that, whatever else was going on with Robert Stein, his own Famicom version of Tetris, for which he had acquired the rights from Atari rather than directly from Stein, was entirely legal and above-board. But the Russians, it gradually became clear, had no idea that any commercial versions of Tetris beyond the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte computer games existed. Belikov, from being on the verge of smiling five minutes before — a smile represented a veritable outburst of joy from him — was now loudly accusing Rogers of software piracy. “You are illegally selling something that doesn’t belong to you,” he almost shouted, pounding the table to emphasize his point. The conversation began to take on the tone of an interrogation.

The prospect of Mirrorsoft sub-licensing part of their rights had apparently never occurred to the Russians, and had conveniently gone unmentioned by Stein. A flustered Rogers struggled to explain; flustering Henk Rogers wasn’t an easy thing to do, but Belikov had managed it. He took the Russians through the fine print on the back of the box, through Andromeda and Mirrorsoft and Atari and finally to Bullet-Proof. It was all nonsense, Belikov insisted. As far as he had understood it, the rights shouldn’t go further than Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte. Rogers asked about the videotape of the Famicom Tetris which he had been required to submit for approval, the one that Stein had told him had indeed been approved by the Russians. No one at the table had ever seen any such thing. Rogers mentioned that Stein had also licensed Tetris arcade games that were now in service all over the world. Once again, the Russians knew nothing about that.

This marked a pivotal moment — perhaps the pivotal moment in the entire negotiation. For the Russians, it provided the first incontrovertible evidence of what they had suspected all along: that Stein wasn’t an honest broker. For Rogers, it threw all of his assumptions into doubt — and suddenly threw everything, namely all of the various rights to Tetris, into play. It seemed that much of what Stein had told his Western and Eastern partners alike was, as Rogers would later put it, a “sham.” As the conversation/interrogation continued, it became clear that the Russians believed they had licensed only the computer-game rights, not console rights, to Stein. Belikov produced the contract they had signed. Whether by intention or accident, its wording on the subject was vague: it granted Stein the rights for “the IBM PC and other computer systems.” It was unclear whether “computer systems” should include game consoles. On its face, the lack of clarification was far from inexplicable: the Russians at the time had had very little idea if any what game consoles were, and even Stein had spent his career immersed in the European market, where home computers dominated in digital entertainment and consoles were almost unheard of. It struck Rogers as clear that the intent of the Russians — and most likely of Stein as well at the time of the signing — had been to limit the license to personal computers. Still, when he had seen the opportunity to make more money licensing Tetris for consoles, Stein had opted for a broad interpretation of the clause. It was difficult to say which way it would go in a court of law. And as went living-room game consoles, so potentially went handheld devices. Was a Game Boy really any less or more a “computer system” than a Famicom? Or, to really a stretch a point, could even a standup arcade game be construed as a “computer system?” It was all so damnably unclear.

Looking for a way to demonstrate his good faith, Rogers did some hasty calculations, reached again into his bag to pull out a checkbook, and wrote ELORG a check for the $40,000 he estimated he owed to Atari for the copies of Tetris he’d already sold under the terms of the contract he’d signed with them. He could sort that out with them later. Right now, he knew, much more than $40,000 was at stake. Voluntarily handing over a check was just about the last thing anyone sitting around the table could ever imagine Robert Stein doing. It made a huge impression on the Russians, not least Belikov. “Forgive me,” Belikov remembers Rogers saying. “I didn’t know. I want to work with you.”

Rogers understood that the great danger presented by the contract’s vagueness brought with it great opportunity. Everything truly was now in play. And Belikov had something of the same feeling. The next morning, he asked Rogers whether he and/or his friends at Nintendo would be interested in submitting a bid for the worldwide console rights to Tetris. Absolutely, Rogers replied, but warned that “there will be trouble.” The contract between Stein and ELORG was vague enough that Stein could make a plausible case for his interpretation, and the likes of Mirrorsoft and Atari who stood behind Stein had plenty of legal resources at their disposal. But Belikov was already hatching a scheme to clarify the situation. Implying as much to Rogers, he told him to go home, talk to Nintendo if he needed to, and prepare a proposal within three weeks.

Rogers had now been in Moscow for about a week. Stein was to come in for his scheduled meeting that very afternoon, and Belikov wanted to make sure that he didn’t get a whiff of Rogers’s presence. Really, he told Rogers in no uncertain terms, I need you to leave now. “I didn’t [yet] understand who was working for whom,” says Belikov. “But I did understand that they must not meet.”

Robert Stein in Moscow, 1989

Stein had already arrived at ELORG as Belikov hustled Rogers out the door; he had been taken to wait in a side room to ensure that Rogers wouldn’t meet him on his way out. Belikov, that master of the bureaucratic double-cross, was about to paint his masterpiece.

Assuming his most peremptory posture, he dropped a document on the table in front of Stein, demanding that he sign it before anything else was discussed. When Stein asked what it was, Belikov explained that it was an amended version of the contract that had been signed between Andromeda and ELORG back in May of 1988. The amendments were to be, by the mutual agreement of the signing parties, treated as having gone into effect with the original contract, treated for legal purposes as if they had always been there. Belikov strongly implied that the amendments applied entirely to what had been the primary source of rancor between Stein and the Russians for months now, the issue of timely payment — or, rather, the lack thereof on Stein’s part. The Russians’ determination to resolve this issue struck Stein as, if hardly welcome, not unexpected in light of everything that had transpired. Indeed, Alexander Alexinko had been threatening to add language to the contract on exactly this subject for months before Belikov had arrived on the scene. Belikov was counting on this sense of plausibility. “I artificially increased the penalties for delayed payment,” he says. “I knew that they were unrealistic, but I had to concentrate his attention on these figures, which I was naturally ready to reduce.”

Stein took the amended contract back to his hotel room that night to read it over. As expected, he returned to ELORG the next morning in a huff, insisting that the proposed payment schedules and penalties were impossibly stringent. Belikov grumbled and duly agreed to a compromise figure, whereupon Stein signed his name to the new document.

The squabbles about payments had all been an elaborate smokescreen. The real point of the amended contract was a clause which Stein had, as Belikov had intended, entirely overlooked. It clarified “computer systems” as meaning “PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard, and operation system.” In signing the contract, Stein had just retroactively voided the deal which had given the console rights to Tetris to Atari (and, yes, passed those same rights further to Henk Rogers in Japan). And in the process, he’d cut himself out of the staggering amounts of money Tetris would soon be generating on consoles and handheld devices. An embittered Stein would later call Belikov “a son of a bitch”: “They made it so matter-of-fact — we would like you [to sign this] for the sake of bureaucracy — and I agreed because I was so focused on getting what I wanted I forget about watching what they wanted.”

The things that Stein wanted were the handheld rights, which unbeknownst to him Belikov had already signed away to Henk Rogers, and the arcade rights. Belikov rebuffed him in his usual non-committal fashion when it came to the former, telling him they’d talk about them later, but showed him a little mercy when it came to the latter. The arcade rights wouldn’t, however, come cheap: Belikov demanded a $150,000 advance, plus payment of all of Stein’s outstanding obligations for the computer-game versions of Tetris, with the late-payment penalties described in the amended contract, and all within six weeks. Still having no idea what he had done in signing the amended contract, Stein agreed to all this as well on the morning of February 24. He was then hastily bundled out of ELORG’s offices, thinking the Russians had driven hard bargains but that his trip had been at least a partial success in spite of it all.

Belikov needed to get rid of him, given that Kevin Maxwell was scheduled to arrive that very afternoon. He still had one more double-cross to pull.

Robert and Kevin Maxwell

Manifesting all of his father’s arrogance and authoritarianism without the same native business acumen, Kevin Maxwell was regarded as a troublesome dilettante within the Maxwell empire, with a tendency to meddle in affairs about which he had an imperfect understanding at best. It was all too typical of him to parachute down on a problem that was on the verge of being solved and take charge at the last minute, thereby to walk away with the credit from his father, whom he worshiped with a perhaps unhealthy ardor. Thus this meeting with ELORG. Maxwell seemed to expect that his name alone — his father was personally acquainted with Mikhail Gorbachev, and had been among the first Western financiers to invest in Gorbachev’s rapidly changing Soviet Union — would bring these Russian rubes into line. He walked into ELORG’s offices that afternoon oozing self-importance and condescension, but with very little idea of the particulars that he was supposed to be negotiating. The wizened old fox Belikov practically licked his lips at the sight of him.

Belikov threw the Bullet-Proof version of Tetris which Henk Rogers had left behind onto the table. “What’s this?” he asked. Maxwell said he had no idea, said it must be an unauthorized pirate version of the game. When Belikov showed him the fine print on the box, tracing the rights through Mirrorsoft to Atari and so on to Bullet-Proof, Maxwell stuck to his guns. Mirrorsoft hadn’t authorized any such release, he insisted more stridently than ever, having never bothered to research all of the side deals that had been made involving Tetris by that point. Ironically, this “pirated” version of Tetris was the only one for which the Russians had actually been paid what they were owed, thanks to the check Rogers had written a couple of days earlier. That irony wasn’t lost on Belikov. If the rights wound up disputed in court, he now had Maxwell on record admitting that a console version of Tetris which Mirrorsoft had in fact authorized — by extension anyway, through the deal with Atari — was illegitimate. It would add weight to the Russians’ claim that the console rights had never been Stein’s to license to Mirrorsoft in the first place.

But Belikov didn’t let on at this meeting that any disputes surrounded the deal the Russians had signed with Stein; better to let Maxwell find out about that later. On the subject of the handheld rights that were Maxwell’s primary goal, he proposed a quid pro quo: he would promise Mirrorsoft the opportunity to bid on the handheld rights as soon as they became available in exchange for the right to reprint a number of Maxwell Communications reference publications, such as Collier’s Encyclopedia, royalty-free in the Soviet Union. He made it sound like “waiting for the handheld rights to become available” referred to some irksome bureaucratic process that had to be finalized. In reality, of course, Mirrorsoft would be waiting a very long time, approximately forever in fact: those rights had already been purchased by Henk Rogers, and would never, ever be relinquished by him.

Belikov also promised Maxwell the right to bid for the console rights, offering to sign an agreement to that effect. Maxwell, either out of confusion or out of total ignorance of what rights Mirrorsoft already claimed to own, readily agreed. Since signing an agreement to negotiate on a set of rights carried the natural implication that one didn’t already possess said rights, Belikov now had Maxwell further on record as tacitly acknowledging that the console rights did not and had never belonged to Mirrorsoft.

A self-satisfied Kevin Maxwell walked out of ELORG on the same day he had first arrived like Neville Chamberlain leaving Munich, having signed away a whole pile of publication rights and tacitly admitted that Mirrorsoft’s contract to publish Tetris applied only to computer games — and all in return for a promise from the Russians to listen to future proposals.

Belikov, on the other hand, had more than earned the right to smile, having in the course of one rather extraordinary fortnight completely reshaped the state of Tetris as a commercial entity. He finally had Stein firmly on the hook to pay ELORG the royalties he owed, with penalties. He had licensed the arcade rights to Stein for a lucrative advance. He had tricked both Stein and Maxwell into acknowledging that their rights didn’t cover console versions, and he was awaiting new bids for those rights from Rogers and Maxwell that should be on his desk within a few weeks. He had licensed the handheld rights to Rogers on very good terms — a deal that, if Rogers’s optimism had any grounding at all in reality, could be by far the most profitable of all. He had even gotten paid by Rogers for the sales to date of the Japanese Famicom version Stein had apparently tried to slip past him, and had a promise from Rogers to continue to pay him for it while everything else got sorted out. No, it wasn’t a bad fortnight’s work at all.

Still, it wouldn’t be all smooth sailing from here. Powerful organizations had a vested interest in the previous status quo, and were hardly likely to take this sweeping realignment with equanimity. Alexey Pajitnov’s simple little game of falling shapes would cause much more international drama before all was said and done.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love. Most of the images in this article are borrowed from From Russia with Love.)


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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 4: A Different Mirror

Another day at the office for Henk Rogers: haunting the trade-show circuit, looking for games to license for the Japanese market.

Encompassing three different continents, the story of Henk Rogers’s formative years reads like a preview of the world’s multicultural future. Born in Amsterdam in 1953, Rogers immigrated to New York City when he was 11 years old, courtesy of his mother’s second marriage to an American. He spoke no English at all at the time his family made the move; he could only communicate with his stepfather using their mutual broken German. But Rogers, as he would prove repeatedly throughout his life, was a quick assimilator. Within a year, he was out of his school’s English-as-a-second-language curriculum and into the regular pool of students. And not long after that, he won admission to New York’s Stuyvesant High School for gifted kids.

When he was 19, his family was uprooted again, when his stepfather shifted the center of his business as an importer and exporter of gemstones from New York City to Yokohama, Japan. Not excited about the prospect of another new culture and new language, Rogers wound up in Hawaii as a compromise destination; it would be, relatively speaking, easier for his parents to keep an eye on him there than if he remained on the mainland. In Hawaii, he attended university on and off between working odd jobs. But his real passions were surfing and playing a strange new game called Dungeons & Dragons that was being passed among residents of this far-flung outpost of its home country in the form of dog-eared photocopies. “Some weekends we’d start playing on a Friday evening and wouldn’t stop until Monday morning,” he remembers. “It was a huge part of my life.”

In the meantime, Japan had begun to look more and more attractive after all, thanks to that most eternal of motivations: he had fallen for a Japanese girl studying English in Hawaii. In 1976, he abandoned his own desultory studies to follow her back to her homeland; the couple married the following year. Cut off from his old Dungeons & Dragons buddies, Rogers found both a new hobby and a mode of integrating himself with his new surroundings in the traditional Japanese board game Go. Following the example of his stepfather, whose own passion for Go was so pronounced that Rogers suspected it to be a partial motivation for relocating the family business to Japan in the first place, he would eventually advance to become a six-dan player — just shy of tournament-worthy.

As we’ll soon see, his knowledge of Go would prove unexpectedly valuable later in his life. Right now, though, it certainly wasn’t going to pay the bills. Rogers had always had a somewhat strained relationship with his stepfather, but, cast adrift in Japan with no knowledge of Japanese and no university degree, he had few prospects other than the family business. So, he spent the next six years traveling the world as a gem trader, spending almost as much time in Thailand, a major source of gemstones, as he did in his new home of Japan. In fact, he was there in 1982 when his wife gave birth to the couple’s third child. Dissatisfied alike with travel, gems, and working with his stepfather, he decided after that experience to quit his burgeoning career in gemstones at the age of 29. He was determined to find a more forward-thinking line of work, and one where he could be his own man. In the future, if he missed something as earth-shaking as the birth of a child, it would be by his own election, not his stepfather’s.

From the first time he had encountered a vintage IBM mainframe back in high school, Rogers had had a strong if usually latent interest in computers. Now, using his native charm and family connections, he managed to finagle himself a contract job as a microcomputer programmer at Hitachi. His brief tenure there would set another pattern for his future — that of an aggressive defender of intellectual-property rights. For his first assignment, his superiors, displaying the blissful disregard of copyright law that was so endemic inside even big companies like Hitachi during the early days of the microcomputer industry, asked him to break the protection on a copy of VisiCalc so that it could be shared throughout the company. When Rogers flatly refused to do so on ethical grounds, he was instead asked to create a simple home-accounting program to be sold for Hitachi’s computers. In addition to writing the program, he engineered his own ingenious copy-protection method, using a pair of strong magnets to corrupt certain sectors of the disk. Determined to secure his royalty stream from the ravages of software piracy, he told Hitachi that he would only give them permission to release the program if his copy protection remained on the disk. Hitachi demurred, and that was that for the accounting program and for Henk Rogers’s career as a contract programmer. Luckily, he already saw a brighter prospect on the horizon.

Thanks to his contacts in the United States, Rogers was aware of the phenomenon that was Wizardry, the computerized implementation of the Dungeons & Dragons experience that had taken the Apple II by storm in 1981 and was still selling like crazy a couple of years later. Despite a vibrantly creative culture of arcade games, console games, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) computer games, Japan had nothing remotely like Wizardry. As a Westerner based in Japan and a programmer with a background in Dungeons & Dragons, Rogers realized he was wonderfully positioned to remedy that failing. “I had never built a product,” he says. “I had no idea what I was getting into. But I did have a bold vision for the game: a full Dungeons & Dragons game featuring fighters, warriors, wizards, clerics. All of that stuff.” Over the course of nine months, he programmed a dungeon crawl, heavily derivative of Wizardry but simplified in many ways, on the NEC PC-8801 home computer. The finished product, if it perhaps didn’t quite live up to that first “bold vision” of being everything Dungeons & Dragons was, would prove good enough for his purposes. He called it The Black Onyx, a nod to his old career in the gemstone trade. Unhappy with the deals offered by the established publishers, he formed his own little company, which he named Bullet-Proof Software, to publish the game himself.

The Black Onyx

Lacking though it was in many ways compared even to the original Wizardry, much less the many CRPGs that had followed the latter game onto the North American market, The Black Onyx was nevertheless the first really playable CRPG to hit Japan, manifesting just enough of the qualities that can make the genre so compelling. Rogers’s biggest problem was figuring out how to market it in a country that had little awareness of Dungeons & Dragons, or for that matter of the Western tradition of epic fantasy in general. He claims that, upon publishing the game via magazine advertisements in December of 1983, he sold just one copy in the first month, four in the second. Desperate for a breakthrough, he hired a translator to alleviate his still-dodgy Japanese and conducted a personal publicity blitz, visiting each of the major Japanese computing and gaming magazines and teaching the staff there how to play a CRPG.

It worked. Each magazine’s April issue ran a long and very positive review, and sales exploded. Soon The Black Onyx was selling 10,000 copies per month and being ported to every viable home computer in Japan. It ended 1984 as the best-selling Japanese computer game of the year, and actually wound up fueling sales of its own inspiration, Wizardry, when the older game was ported to Japanese computers; being more advanced than Rogers’s game, Wizardry was ironically taken to by Japanese players as the logical next step in dungeon crawls. In the longer view, The Black Onyx set the stage for franchises like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy that are still going strong today. The Japanese would never lose their passion for the genre, although they would soon take it in their own distinct direction. If anything, the CRPG is even more popular today in Japan than in the land of its birth.

The voice of Henk Rogers, however, wouldn’t be a notable one for very long in the craze he had done so much to foment. He hammered out a Black Onyx II to more modest success, but by the time he was starting on a third game it was becoming clear that the series’s reign was destined to be a short one in the face of the competition now entering the market. “I was flattered on one hand,” he says. “But I also realized that I didn’t quite understand the Japanese aesthetic and way. These games were quite different to mine, and just struck a more effective cultural chord.” He never even finished the third game.

While it’s certainly true that Japanese CRPGs would take on their own personality in time, it’s perhaps debatable, given the more sustained success enjoyed by the Wizardry series in Japan, whether The Black Onyx‘s short day in the sun had more to do with cultural factors or fundamental issues of design and implementation. In the final analysis, the game’s success had been at least as much a tribute to Rogers’s skill at personal salesmanship and his talent for straddling cultural divides as a reflection of the rather workmanlike implementation of a dungeon crawl at the root of it all. Tacitly acknowledging this, he now largely abandoned game design in favor of playing to these, his real strengths.

Rogers continued to see opportunity in the cultural divide between the West and Japan, which was in its own way as pronounced as that between the West and the Eastern Bloc. When Western eyes peered toward Japan, they saw a pictographic alphabet even more cryptic than the Cyrillic glyphs found in the Soviet Union, supporting a language lacking any of the Latin antecedents shared by its Western peers. And they saw a culture that could seem almost as impenetrable as the language. What to make of a country where comics full of the most transgressive (to Western sensibilities) forms of sexual violence were everyday fare in family bookshops, yet the incidence of actual sexual violence was one of the lowest in the world? What to make of a country with one of the healthiest diets in the world — resulting in one of the longest average lifespans in the world — that nevertheless took Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame to heart as some combination of Santa Claus and minor deity? What to make of a country whose rules of social etiquette were so infamously complex and nuanced that it was doubtful whether any Westerner had ever fully understood them, where an extra inch or lack thereof in a bow could spell the difference between decorum and boorishness? Plenty of Westerners over the years would find this alternate Mirror World as fascinating as the one behind the Iron Curtain, would fall into rabbit holes of Japanophilia from which they would never emerge. Most Western game publishers of the 1980s, however, had enough problems selling games to their own citizens. They had no time to try to figure out what might appeal to those strange people on the other side of the Mirror.

In this ongoing cultural disconnect, Henk Rogers saw opportunity. Just as he had sensed the appeal of a game like Wizardry in Japan, he was convinced that there were plenty of other great game ideas waiting to be imported from the West, and that he was just the person to do the importing. His new life as a game importer took on certain ironic similarities to his old one as an international gemstone trader. He roamed the world, haunting trade shows to check out the latest and greatest games.  He looked for games that had commercial potential in Japan, which weren’t always easy to find; in general, games in Japan had a different, simpler aesthetic than the complex simulations and adventure games that dominated much of computer gaming in North America in particular. When he found a game he judged to have potential, he deployed his sheer personableness — by far his greatest asset in business — to more often than not work out a deal with the publisher. He then carried the game with him back to Japan, where he put his handful of programmers to work porting and translating. Bullet-Proof Software wasn’t the only importer and porter of Western games in Japan — a company called StarCraft had been at it since before The Black Onyx had been a gleam in Rogers’s eye — but they were quite successful at it. Among the games they introduced to Japanese audiences were such classics as Archon and M.U.L.E.

But for all the success Rogers was enjoying, the full-fledged computers to which he ported his games made up a very small part of the overall market for digital games in Japan. By the mid-1980s, the heart of the market lay with the Nintendo Famicom console, which would sell a stunning 10 million units in Japan — approximately one for every twelve people living in the country — in its first three and a half years on the market there. By disposition a mainstream rather than a niche sort of guy, Rogers desperately wanted a piece of that action. Unfortunately, Nintendo ruled every aspect of the Famicom, computing’s first great walled garden, with an iron fist. Very few third parties were allowed to make games for the platform, and then only under the strictest of terms. After rejecting the bids of some of the biggest names in consumer electronics, it was difficult to imagine them giving Rogers’s tiny Bullet-Proof Software more than the slightest glance.

Yet Henk Rogers had never been one to take no for an answer. When he learned that Nintendo’s famously imperious president Hiroshi Yamauchi was, like himself, an avid Go player, he saw his opening. He wrote directly to Yamauchi, saying he owned the best computerized Go game in the world — he owned no such thing, but needs must — and was interested in porting it to the Nintendo Famicom. Much to Rogers’s own surprise, Yamauchi invited him to a visit at Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto to discuss the proposal. Over a Go board and glasses of Yamauchi’s good Scotch, the two struck a deal that many companies many times the size of Bullet-Proof would have killed to have. Rogers hastily sourced an extant Go computer game from a tiny publisher called Edge Computers in Britain — perhaps not actually the world’s best computerized Go program, but it would do — and had his team port it to the Famicom. It sold 150,000 copies, hardly a spectacular figure by Nintendo standards, but pretty darn great by Bullet-Proof’s. Most importantly, Bullet-Proof was now established as one of the elite circle of developers able to make games for the Famicom. Rogers, still embracing the role of Western gaming’s ambassador to Japan, went off again in search of more games that would work within the technical and cultural constraints of the Japanese Nintendo market.

The two annual Consumer Electronics Shows, the high points of the American games industry’s calendar, were musts for a person in Henk Rogers’s position. Thus it was that he found himself wandering through Spectrum Holobyte’s display at the Winter CES in Las Vegas in January of 1988. Running there was this odd game of falling shapes called Tetris, which was about to be released for computers in Europe and North America. Like Robert Stein before him within the much more austere environs of the Institute of Computer Science in Budapest, Rogers’s initial instinct was to dismiss the game as too simple even for the Nintendo. And yet somehow he kept drifting back over to it. When he finally stepped up to play, he didn’t want to stop. He found that Tetris reminded him of Go in the way it built a well-nigh compulsive experience out of the most basic of raw materials: black and white stones and a grid of tiles in the case of the latter, seven distinct shapes falling endlessly down the screen in that of the former. “Tetris was probably the quietest game at the show,” he remembers. “Even then, products were graphically exciting, but this game was a totally different thing. I wanted to play it because it struck some basic chord. I couldn’t stop playing.”

Tetris was the ultimate find for a games importer like himself: utterly abstract, it carried along with it no cultural baggage whatsoever, wouldn’t really even require any language translation. And thanks to its simplicity it would be dead easy to port like crazy. Rogers decided he had to have Tetris for Japan, and he had to publish it on everything there: Nintendo, home computers, even in the form of standup arcade games if possible. Determined to deliver his patented sales pitch to maximum effect, he invited Phil Adam and Gilman Louie, the partners in charge of Spectrum Holobyte, to visit Japan at his expense to see his operation in action and hopefully make a deal. In May of 1988, a euphoric Rogers secured from them an agreement in principle to license Tetris for the Nintendo Famicom and for Japanese home computers.

But competing interests and miscommunication would combine to make his euphoria short-lived. Robert Stein, you’ll remember, had licensed the rights to Tetris to Mirrorsoft in Britain, who had then brokered a second deal with their semi-sister company Spectrum Holobyte in the United States to sell the game in that market. One problem with all this was that, unbeknownst to his Western partners, Stein had never actually signed a contract with or otherwise gotten clear permission from Alexey Pajitnov and/or the Soviet state to do anything at all with Tetris before Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte released it; we’ll return to that ticking time bomb in the next article. But a second, subtler potential bombshell also lurked beneath the surface of the deal: it wasn’t at all clear where the rights of Spectrum Holobyte, Mirrorsoft, and Stein’s Andromeda Software began and ended when it came to making further licensing deals involving the game. Before Henk Rogers arrived on the scene, Mirrorsoft, believing themselves to be the senior partner, at least in comparison to Spectrum Holobyte, and thus empowered to make sweeping deals involving the property that affected the American publisher as well, had already sub-licensed it to no less storied a name in videogames than Atari — or, rather, to a subsidiary of Atari called Tengen.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that Atari in the aftermath of the Great Videogame Crash had been split into two entities that were sold off separately by Warner Communications, the company’s brief-lived corporate parent. And just to make things extra confusing, both entities retained the Atari name. Atari Corporation went to Jack Tramiel, the recently deposed head of Commodore. It had jurisdiction over home computers and game consoles. Atari Games went to the Japanese company Namco, a big player in standup arcade games (among other claims to fame, Namco had created Pac-Man). It had jurisdiction over the old Atari’s substantial arcade-game business. Each new Atari was strictly forbidden under the terms of the sales to enter the other’s area of specialization.

At first, Atari Games had reason to believe they had gotten the better end of the bargain. The arcade market had never cratered quite as badly as the console market, and, although it would never enjoy a return of the glory days of the early 1980s, did make a modest recovery from its worst depths in relatively short order. Hideyuki Nakajima, the executive whom Namco had placed in charge of Atari Games, was so bullish about the arcade market that in early 1987 he engineered a stock purchase giving him and a handful of his top employees complete control of the company. Atari Games was now an independent maker of arcade games once again, just as the original company had been back in the days of Pong.

By 1987, however, the Nintendo Famicom had finally come to North America under the name of the Nintendo Entertainment System, and console gaming, just a few years on from being pronounced a dead fad, was exploding once again. A new generation of kids were replacing Pac-Man with Super Mario on their tee shirts and lunch boxes. Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation, the only version of Atari with permission to enter the console market, seemed nonplussed by it all, focusing instead on the exercise in diminishing returns that was their ST line of home computers. Atari Games, on the other hand, was positively aching to find a way back into the console market, which soon dwarfed that of the arcades.

Peering closely at the legalese which bound their operations, Atari Games realized that it prohibited them only from entering the console market under the name of Atari. So, they created a subsidiary, peopled with veteran Atari staffers, to make console games under a different name. They called the new subsidiary Tengen Corporation. Ironically in light of the role Tengen would later play as an arch-nemesis of the Go lovers Henk Rogers and Hiroshi Yamauchi, the name was a reference to the classic Japanese board game. Go players call the board the universe, and the central spot on it is known as the “tengen.” Thus the name was a reference to the spot the “new” company hoped to occupy: one at the center of the videogame universe. Placed in charge of achieving that goal for Tengen was Randy Broweleit, late of the computer-game publisher SSI.

The initial strategic plan at Tengen would have them leverage the strengths of the parent company by making home versions of Atari’s latest arcade hits. Such a plan would require them to release their games on the Nintendo, the only truly viable platform in the console market of the time. In January of 1988, days after Henk Rogers first encountered Tetris in Las Vegas, they thus signed a contract with Nintendo. Despite an already palpable tension between the two management teams — the Atari veterans saw Nintendo as usurpers of their rightful crown, and didn’t do a terribly good job of hiding it — Atari’s suite of major arcade properties that were natural candidates for porting to the home made their offer a difficult one for Nintendo to refuse. Still, Nintendo wasn’t interested in making things too easy for them. Under the contract’s terms, Tengen was allowed to make exactly five games per year for the console, a restriction that, although standard boilerplate for Nintendo’s third-party licensees, nevertheless chafed from the get-go.

Yet the restriction didn’t keep them from exploring the possibility of releasing games that had never appeared in an arcade. Shortly after signing the deal with Nintendo, Tengen fell under the thrall of the Tetris Effect when an employee brought a boxed copy of the Spectrum Holobyte release of the game into the office with him. Broweleit couldn’t help but note that the game had far more in common with the simple aesthetic of Nintendo than it did with its more complex peers on computers. He thought it might make a good fit on the console, and passed this recommendation on to Hideyuki Nakajima, the head of Atari Games and thus the man who really called the shots at Tengen.

Following the legal fine print on the back of the box through Spectrum Holobyte, Mirrorsoft, and Andromeda, Nakajima decided to contact the middle of these entities, with whom he already had a relationship thanks to past deals. In lieu of cash, he worked out a straightforward rights swap with a Mirrorsoft executive named Jim Mackonochie: Tengen would get worldwide console rights to Tetris, while Mirrorsoft would get worldwide computer-game rights to Blasteroids, one of Atari’s big arcade releases of the previous year. Seen retrospectively, it wasn’t a very good deal at all from Mirrorsoft’s perspective, given that Tetris would go on to conquer the world while Blasteroids would go down in arcade history as an over-complicated, not-very-fun dog of a game. At the time, though, Mackonochie, one of that minority of players who were immune to the Tetris Effect and who thus saw it as little more than an interesting curiosity, believed he had done very well indeed.

Simultaneously, Atari went directly to Robert Stein to acquire the heretofore unsold arcade rights. Molding Tetris to their normal business model, they planned to release the arcade game first, letting it build name recognition and momentum, then bring it to the Nintendo in 1989.

Atari’s arcade version of Tetris, which proved very successful after it started shipping in the summer of 1988. In some ways the forgotten version of Tetris, this is the form in which many players who would later become full-blown addicts on the NES and/or Game Boy first encountered the game. Note that the Russian and Soviet imagery from the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte releases is maintained.

Even as Atari was making these deals, Phil Adam and Gilman Louie of Spectrum Holobyte were shaking hands with Henk Rogers over some of the same Tetris rights. When Louie called Mackonochie to tell him about the deal he’d negotiated, and the magnitude of the screw-up became clear, the conversation turned into a shouting match. Something obviously had to give — and Mirrorsoft, who had made the first deal with Robert Stein to license the game and lay much closer to the heart of Robert Maxwell’s publishing empire, was in the stronger position. As a sop, Spectrum Holobyte was allowed to sell the Japanese home-computer rights to Tetris to Rogers. But the Nintendo rights — the ones Rogers really coveted — would go to Tengen. The final contract specifying as much was signed between Mirrorsoft and Tengen on May 30, 1988.

But, as we’ve already had ample occasion to observe, Henk Rogers wasn’t easily denied. If Tengen now owned the console rights to Tetris, he would simply have to get his piece of the action from them instead of from Spectrum Holobyte. He immediately started pleading his case to Hideyuki Nakajima and Randy Broweleit. Being afflicted with the same trepidation about doing business in the Japanese Mirror World that afflicted most American companies, Atari had already flipped the Japanese arcade rights to Sega. Thus that part of Rogers’s Japanese plans for Tetris was a non-starter. But Tengen decided at some point during Rogers’s charm onslaught that there was really no reason not to let this upstart have the Japanese Nintendo rights. Once that deal was made, the rights had reached four degrees of separation from Alexey Pajitnov back in Moscow: they passed through Robert Stein’s Andromeda Software to MirrorSoft, from Mirrorsoft to Tengen/Atari, and finally on to Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software. The contract which Rogers signed with Tengen reflected this convoluted chain of ownership. It specified that he would have to give a videotape of his Nintendo Tetris to Tengen once it was finished. If it met their standards, they would pass the videotape on to Mirrorsoft, and so on, until it arrived in Moscow for final approval. Happy to jump through whatever hoops were necessary to get his hands on Tetris, Rogers readily agreed, and set his small team of programmers to work. When they were finished, he duly passed the end result up the chain, receiving within a few weeks word from Stein that his Russian charges had given the final stamp of approval.

Bullet-Proof’s version of Tetris for the domestic Japanese Nintendo Famicom market. Note that they followed the lead of Vadim Gerasimov in implementing the game in English, and that of Mirrorsoft, Spectrum Holobyte, and Atari in yet again filling it with Russian and Soviet imagery.

Bullet-Proof Software’s home-computer version of Tetris hit the Japanese market in November of 1988, and was a solid success. The Nintendo Famicom version followed in January, and blew up huge, exceeding by an order of magnitude any of Rogers’s previous successes. Indeed, it was in the poetically appropriate alternate Mirror World of Japan that Tetris first became a truly mass-market phenomenon, selling 130,000 copies in its first month on the market — as many as the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte releases combined had sold in their first year. It would go on to sell another 2 million copies. Tetris had now circumnavigated the globe from east to west, finding its greatest success to date very nearly back at its original starting point, in a country from which a westward-facing observer could see the Soviet Union on a clear day. Henk Rogers enjoyed vindication for his faith in the game. And he enjoyed the tangible rewards of that vindication: he was suddenly a rich man.

Anyone taking stock of the situation now couldn’t help but acknowledge that Tetris was far more than a niche curiosity. With computer versions having proved successful in North America, Europe, and Japan, with the Nintendo Famicom version having proved very successful in Japan, and with Tetris arcade games eating quarters (or their monetary equivalents) in prodigious fashion all over the world, a North American Nintendo version had to stand front and center in Tengen’s plans for 1989. There seemed little reason to doubt, given the relative size of the markets, that this version would become the most successful yet. Things were beginning to move quickly — perhaps a little too quickly for one Robert Stein, still clinging to his role as the rest of the world’s sole conduit back to the game’s country of origin, still trying to mask how sketchy his relationship with the Russians actually was. Everything that had happened to Tetris since it had escaped through the Iron Curtain had been built on the foundation laid down by Stein. Now everyone was about to discover how shaky that foundation really was.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Computer Gaming World of April 1987; Electronic Games of July 1993; GamePro of December 1990; Game Developer of August 2012; the article “Off the Grid” from the Hawaii Business website.)


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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 3: A Game of Falling Shapes


Alexey Pajitnov

Alexey Pajitnov was the proverbial Russian bear, albeit more of the teddy than the grizzly variety. Big-boned and bearded, loose-limbed and always a little rumpled, his sunny disposition would brook no opposition even from the perpetual gray of the Mirror World. Not that he had much cause to complain, all things considered. Compared to many of his fellow citizens, Pajitnov had an easy time of it, being born into an intellectual family in Moscow; both of his parents were writers. Like many Russians, Pajitnov’s parents harbored no love for the Soviet system, but weren’t willing to die in a gulag in the name of some abstract cause of Freedom either. They taught their son to master the art of remaining quietly noncommittal when politics entered a conversation, and when the day came for young Alexey’s class to visit Lenin’s tomb, his mother wrote a note to the school saying he was sick. For the nonce at least, such small rebellions would have to suffice.

A lover of logic games and puzzles from an early age, Pajitnov excelled at math competitions as a teenager, and went off to university to study the subject. “Mathematicians are usually very strange people,” he admits. This mathematician, however, was a little different from the norm, a kid who loved movies almost as much as he loved numbers, who wasn’t any stranger to vodka and girls. With his big toothy smile, Pajitnov could be ingratiating even when he wasn’t trying to be. It was a quality that would serve him as well as an as-yet latent talent for game design over the course of the very unlikely career to come.

In 1984, Pajitnov was 28 years old, married, and starting a family; his wife was an English teacher, another stroke of luck that would serve him well in his future life. His early interest in pure mathematics had long since passed into a fascination with computers. “It doesn’t matter to a hacker what he is working on,” he says. “It could be a game or an abstract math problem, but if a computer is involved, he is a god and can do whatever he wants inside that world.” Living in the restricted society of the Soviet Union, such a sense of control was very appealing indeed to Pajitnov. He’d therefore managed to get a position at the Moscow Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest and most important hubs of computer research in the Soviet Union. (You may recall from the first article in this series how prominently it featured in the first extended visit by an American computing delegation to the Soviet Union back in 1959, or from the second article how it was the workplace of Leonid Genrikhovich Khachiyan when he made a significant discovery in linear programming.)

But with the excitement of Soviet computing’s early, pioneering days and the heyday of the cybernetics dream now well in the past, the Computer Center was limping along, like the rest of the country, without a great deal of direction. Pajitnov was supposed to be doing research into artificial intelligence and voice recognition, but that was difficult given the overcrowded conditions at the Computer Center. There was barely enough physical space to breathe there, let alone get real work done. He took to working a late shift, going in in the afternoon and staying at the office until around midnight, because that was the only way he could get a desk to himself. Nor was he happy about the uses to which the state dreamed of putting his work in voice recognition, such as a bugging device that would switch on automatically if certain words were spoken within a room. Still seeing programming as a form of escape, he started spending much of his time tinkering with games, beginning a friendly competition with a similarly disposed colleague named Dmitry Pavlovsky to see who could make the most popular software distractions. The computer on which they both worked was called the Elektronika 60, a clone of the American DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. Their terminals had no graphics capabilities whatsoever, sharply limiting the sorts of designs they could hope to implement. Initially, the audience they wrote for consisted only of their comrades at the Computer Center.

That began to change when Pajitnov and Pavlovsky added a third programmer to their little game-making collective. Vadim Gerasimov was a 16-year-old hacker who, thanks to the good offices of a high-school teacher, had gotten permission to hang around the Computer Center. Gerasimov became something of an expert in programming a very exotic bit of kit in the Soviet Union of those times: the EC-1840, a Soviet knockoff of the IBM PC, of which the Center had a few examples. As Pajitnov and Pavlovsky came up with promising games on their text-only Elektronika 60 terminals, Gerasimov ported them to the EC-1840, adding real graphics and sound effects.

Later accounts would often paint Pajitnov as a complete babe in the woods when it came to the idea of selling games, but reality paints a somewhat different picture. While they were isolated from goings-on in the West in countless respects, he and his two friends were tuned-in enough to know that plenty of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain were making real money doing exactly what they were doing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t at all clear how they could turn games into a business in the Soviet Union, where business itself in the Western sense was largely illegal, where there was no way whatsoever to buy software even if you had the money to do so. So, Gerasimov distributed their games for free among the few other people in Moscow with access to the computers that were needed to run them, and the trio continued to complain, speculate, and dream.

The game that would change Pajitnov’s life and in its modest way change the world was born when he came across a pentomino puzzle in a toy shop one day. If you’ve played the popular board game Blokus, you have a good idea what such a thing is all about. A set of geometric shapes made up of differing arrangements of five squares — thus the name of “pentomino” — must be arranged onto a grid to fill every space on the grid and/or to use up every shape. For a mind like Pajitnov’s, the attraction was immediate. Indeed, pentomino puzzles were actually a rediscovery rather than a new find for him; he’d spent many hours playing with them as a boy.

His first reaction to this reignited passion was to attempt a fairly literal translation of a pentomino puzzle to the computer, departing from his inspiration in just one significant respect. Pajitnov realized that five-square shapes would be too complicated on the computer, too difficult for the programmer to draw and too difficult for the player to place in the limited screen space available. So, he decided to use four-square shapes — tetrominoes — instead. He called his game Genetic Engineering. The player had to move the pieces around the screen using the arrow keys, assembling them into larger “organisms.” But the concept lost something in the translation from the physical to the virtual. It wound up being, in the words of Vadim Gerasimov, “rather dull” to play.

Then a new idea burst into his imagination with the force of vision. He saw a never-ending stream of shapes falling toward the bottom of a rectangular “glass” at ever increasing speeds, the player trying frantically to arrange them into filled rows. Once filled, a row  would be wiped off the screen, buying the player a little time and space in what must ultimately be a fruitless battle against entropy. Pajitnov called his game Tetris, a contraction of “tetromino” with, for reasons nobody could ever quite get him to explain, “tennis.” (One is tempted to imagine the name being some form of homage to Tennis for Two, arguably the first true videogame ever, and/or Pong, the game of electronic table tennis that kicked off the arcade craze in the West, but Pajitnov was nowhere near familiar enough with the Western videogame tradition to draw such inspiration from it. Chalk it up as just one more example of so many early videogame designers’ odd fixation on tennis.)

The very first version of Tetris, as it looked on Alexey Pajitnov’s Elektronika 60 terminal.

Working on his text-only Elektronika 60 terminal, Pajitnov was forced to draw the “graphics” using brackets and spaces. Monochrome, absolutely silent, and possessed of plenty of ugly flicker as the shapes drew and erased their way down the screen, Tetris was a long way from any Westerner’s idea of a cutting-edge videogame. But it didn’t matter. From the first, Tetris captivated.

Some years later, pop psychologists would take to using the term “Tetris Effect” to describe the state of mental flow, of complete yet almost unconscious absorption, that could cause Tetris players to begin seeing the real world around them as a manifestation of the game. But the phrase could serve equally as shorthand for the effect Tetris has always had on the productivity of people who encounter it. When Pajitnov started to show the game to his colleagues, the sterile confines of the Moscow Computing Center became host to the first ever cases of both versions of the Tetris Effect. “Everybody who touched this game couldn’t stop playing it,” remembers Pajitnov. His fellow programmer Mikhail Kulagin remembers how “people started to gather together and play Tetris. There was a time when the whole Computer Center started to play Tetris.” “The game was compelling, and many of the employees got carried away, often to the detriment of their work,” says Yuri Yevtushenko, the director of the Computer Center. Vladimir Pokhilko, a psychology researcher working on a project with the Computer Center, saw the game there, liked it, and made a copy to play back at the medical institute where he usually worked. Productivity plummeted so badly thereafter that he finally had to erase every copy he had handed out. “I can’t live with your Tetris anymore,” he told Pajitnov, only half joking.

Of course, the Tetris Effect wasn’t wholly unprecedented in the hallowed halls of institutional computing. One is reminded of the unleashing of Adventure upon the world of Western computing in 1977, and the apocryphal claim that it set an entire industry back by two weeks while everyone solved it. Tetris, though, was even more dangerous in that it could never be solved. There was just that never-ending stream of falling shapes, and that never-ending compulsion to clear a few more rows than you managed the last time around.

With Tetris so popular inside the Center, it was inevitable that Vadim Gerasimov would program it for the EC-1840 in short order. Thus Gerasimov’s version became the first of the countless thousands of ports of Pajitnov’s original that were still to come. Writing in Turbo Pascal, a programming language that had been smuggled out of the West and was now as commonplace on Soviet PC clones as it was back where it had come from, Gerasimov not only added color to the game but did much to refine the way it played. In a telling indication that he and his partners continued to harbor grander, more international ambitions than what might be apparent on the surface, Gerasimov also translated all of the text in the game to English. Even if it never left Moscow, doing so would ironically make it more likely to be taken seriously by his fellow Russians. A huge cachet came attached to games out of the West; fascination with the Mirror World applied no matter which side of the mirror you happened to be on. And if Tetris should get beyond Moscow, beyond the Soviet Union even… well, you never knew, right? Gerasimov started passing Tetris around Moscow for free, as he had his previous ports of Pajitnov and Pavlovsky’s creations.

Vadim Gerasimov’s first microcomputer port of Tetris.

The Tetris Effect didn’t disappoint. Pajitnov describes the game spreading across Moscow, then across the Soviet Union, then across Eastern Europe “like a wood fire.” The fire’s spread was limited only by a lack of tinder, in the form of extant IBM PC clones behind the Iron Curtain to run the game. Hackers being hackers, other programmers took up the slack. Within a year, very good versions of Tetris were available on relatively more common homegrown Soviet microcomputers like the Agat and the BK-0010, along with their equivalents in many other Warsaw Pact countries. The Tetris Effect followed in the wake of each new version. For instance, the management of the Scientific Research Institute of Computing Systems, the home of the Agat, complained that further development on the machine’s systems software essentially stopped once Tetris invaded the programmers’ offices.

Tetris on the Agat computer.

A Digression on Design

My task of writing about Tetris as a design is made easier by the game’s sheer ubiquity. In 2010, it was estimated that two-thirds of all Americans had played Tetris at one time or another. Never before have I and never again will I be able to write about a game with more confidence that absolutely everyone likely to read my words has played it. So, I won’t bore you with a detailed description of its mechanics.

Yet the what of Tetris isn’t the why. Why do so many people find this incredibly simple game so addictive?

One answer is its unpredictability. Often classified as a puzzle game, Tetris can just as validly be seen as a throwback to the classic arcade game. Reflexes are as important as logic, and, thanks to the magic of the random-number generator that decides which of the seven possible shapes to drop next, every game of Tetris is different. If Tetris was deterministic in the way of its inspiration, the pentomino puzzle, it could be solved and dispensed with. Ditto if it offered a winning screen of any sort. But a game of Tetris ends always in defeat and that siren call to try again for a higher score. (“Life is hard and unjust, and ends always in death,” my father-in-law loves to say in his deadpan German. Tetris agrees wholeheartedly with that philosophy.)

The sheer simplicity of Tetris is actually its greatest asset, not only for the would-be player but also for the would-be programmer. Requiring as it does no artificial intelligence or advanced algorithms of any stripe, it’s become the first game ever made by thousands upon thousands of programmers over the course of decades. The countless legitimate and illegitimate versions have won it the official title according to Guinness of most-ported videogame in history. Whatever digital gadget you care to name, chances are it plays Tetris.

Yet the game’s simplicity has also been of more subtle benefit. Within the context of its goals, no other game design has ever been more perfect than Tetris. As many disappointing attempts to iterate on the concept proved — including quite a number of attempts by Alexey Pajitnov himself — you can’t add to, take away from, or modify Tetris in any way to turn it into a better game of falling shapes. The first iteration on the Tetris concept remains the definitive iteration, almost a unique phenomenon in the history of videogames.

Tetris is as abstract as any videogame ever made, without even the modicum of context provided by arcade classics like Pac-Man and Centipede. You’re never given any reason why you need to clear row after row of shapes; the game lacks any sense of embodiment or physicality whatsoever. For this reason, it’s often been held up as an ideal by members of the ludological school of game design. By many metrics the most popular videogame ever created, Tetris is also the ultimate in process intensity, proof positive that games are better — or so the ludologists allege — without messy distractions like story. When the narratological versus ludological debate was still in its infancy, academic theorist Janet Murray decided — full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes! — to wrench Tetris into a narratological frame. “The game is a perfect enactment of the overtaxed lives of Americans in the 1990s,” she wrote, “of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.” Even if one forgot that this “perfect embodiment of the overtaxed lives of Americans” was designed by a Russian who had never been to America, it sounded a little ridiculous, and the ludologist contingent justifiably savaged her for it. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an abstract game of falling shapes is just an abstract game of falling shapes.

In its abstraction and its complete disinterest in the experiential side of gaming, Tetris is the extreme opposite of the sort of games I usually write about. As an old literature major, I tend to approach games with an eye to story, texture, theme… all the things Tetris so conspicuously lacks. It may come as little surprise, then, that the Tetris Effect is to a large extent lost on me. Personally, I find Tetris amusing in short bursts, but grow bored in pretty short order. I appear to be immune to its legendary addictive qualities. I can recognize that it’s the quintessential masterpiece of minimalism in game design, even as I also recognize that I’m really not a minimalist sort of guy. Certainly I don’t think that we can take Tetris‘s undoubted success as a game design as proof that other, radically different approaches to the art are illegitimate. Tetris, a game bereft of context — almost bereft, one is tempted to say, of culture — is very nearly the polar opposite of what I personally look for in a game. In that perverse light, perhaps the greatest tribute I can offer to its genius is to note that I can actually enjoy it in short bursts.

If I wished to sculpt a less personal critic of Tetris, I would have to start with the words that always seem to surround it: words like “addiction,” “compulsion”, “obsession.” Writer Jeffrey Goldsmith coined the term “pharmatronic” to describe it — as in, an electronic drug. Pajitnov responded that “many people say that, but my feeling is it’s more like music. Playing games is a very specific rhythmic and visual pleasure. For me, Tetris is some song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop.” Fair enough — except, as Goldsmith himself countered, a song that gets stuck in your head can start to feel as much like a compulsion as any narcotic. A 2014 study showed that playing Tetris reduced cravings in smokers and drinkers by 24 percent. Could this be a case of one sort of addiction supplanting another?

While a dependence on Tetris is probably preferable to a dependence on cigarettes or alcohol, it is interesting to note how often negative adjectives like “addictive” are used in connection with Tetris in lieu of words with more positive connotations. As I viewed the (highly recommended) film Ecstacy of Order, about a Tetris “world championship,” I couldn’t help but wonder whether most of the eccentric cast of characters on the screen were really better off for having Tetris in their lives. “I’ve been playing Tetris for, like, twenty years” says one; “I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve played Tetris,” says another; “I play it, like, non-stop,” says a third; “I daydream it during the day and I have Tetris dreams at night,” says a fourth. Perhaps most ominously, one character in the film describes playing Tetris as “programming yourself to do it.” There is, it seems to me, not a lot of joy in Tetris.

Beginning in 1992, University of California, Irvine, professor Richard Haier conducted a series of studies measuring the effect playing Tetris had on subjects’ brain activities. He discovered that as his subjects spent more time with the game and were able to advance to higher levels their brains showed less activity rather than more as they played. There are many ways to interpret these results, most of which I’m eminently unqualified to even broach. It does, however, strike this non-neuroscientist as interesting that Tetris comes to engage less of the mind the longer you play it. All others things being equal, I think I prefer games which do the opposite.

But whatever your opinion of Tetris as a force in gaming and, indeed, in society, few would argue that there’s genius of some sort or other in this simple game of falling shapes. Many more words than those I’ve just spent here have been used trying to come to terms with why so many people find it so irresistible. Call it genius, call it kismet, call it addiction if you must. In the end, it’s grappling with the ineffable.


Tetris had become a sensation within the circumscribed and sparsely populated world of Eastern European computing, but it remained unknown in the West. In 1986, that situation began to change, thanks to a chance encounter in Budapest, Hungary.

The confluence of factors that made Hungary Tetris‘s port of departure for Western climes began with the country’s long pre-communist tradition of scientific and engineering excellence. In the twentieth century alone, this tradition had yielded such pivotal figures as John von Neumann, the most important early computer-science thinker this side of Alan Turing, and Edward Teller, the inventor of the hydrogen bomb. In the Soviet era, Hungary had played a major role in Project Ryad and other joint computer-development projects, and had been officially designated, along with the similarly capable Czechoslovakia, as one of the Warsaw Pact’s two non-Soviet centers of electronics development and manufacture. The Hungarian government took the assignment very seriously; children were required to start taking computer classes while still in elementary school.

Indeed, the Hungarian version of communism in general was progressive in some ways, at least by the standards of most of its Warsaw Pact peers. Years before Perestroika, Hungary had begun allowing a certain degree of private enterprise and private ownership. The result was an economy that worked just a little better than was the norm behind the Iron Curtain, one that could even manifest a modicum of entrepreneurial spirit on occasion.

The final great advantage enjoyed by Hungary was that of simple geographic proximity. Budapest and Vienna were only about 100 miles apart, the shortest distance between any two major Eastern and Western capitals. Alone among their peers living behind the Iron Curtain, Hungarian citizens could slip across the border for a day or a weekend in the West, then slip back into their homeland relatively painlessly. A steady stream of licit and illicit goods flowed into Budapest with them, and from there across the rest of Eastern Europe. For example, the master copies of most of the hand-dubbed cassettes of Western rock music that were at the center of a booming underground trade throughout the Warsaw Pact had their point of origin in the bright shopping districts of Vienna.

By the mid-1980s, the Hungarian habit of smuggling in goods from the West, not officially condoned by the country’s government by any means but not all that seriously prosecuted either, had come to include computer software and even hardware. A fair number of Hungarians managed to secure for themselves Commodore 64 systems, the ultimate gaming machine of the era; again, this made them uniquely blessed among Eastern Europeans. Others had access to the knockoff Sinclair Spectrums that were being produced in several Warsaw Pact nations. Every weekend a huge flea market was held in the courtyard of Budapest’s Petőfi Csarnok concert hall, during which thousands of pieces of software were sold, almost all of it pirated from the West. A Hungarian cracking group who called themselves FBI Crew became a prominent member of the international piracy scene as early as 1984, a first for any Eastern European country. FBI Crew made their name as “importers” from the West to the East, receiving pirated software from Western contacts via the post and then selling or trading it to locals. Thus the group became just one more part of Hungary’s cottage industry of bridging the capitalist and communist worlds.

Along with all of the goods moving eastward, it wasn’t totally unknown for Hungary to send something to the West. In the late 1970s, Ernő Rubik, a Budapest architect, had come up with a three-dimensional puzzle, a cube of colored squares which challenged one to twist and turn them in such a way as to make each face of the cube a single color. Tibor Laczi, a Hungarian entrepreneur who had partnered with Rubik, took it to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in West Germany in 1979, and soon signed a deal with the Ideal Toy Company to sell it throughout the West. The Rubik’s Cube became an early-1980s pop-culture sensation, selling in the hundreds of millions and spawning a whole library of often-bestselling books purporting to describe the best way to solve it. For once, the communists had managed to beat the capitalists at their own game.

Robert Stein saw the story of the Rubik’s Cube as an inspiration. Born in 1934 in Hungary, he’d come to Britain as a refugee following the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There he’d made a successful career for himself in office equipment and electronics, going from selling typewriters to calculators to microcomputers. As managing director of an electronics distributor called Vulcan, Stein played a major role in popularizing Commodore’s first low-cost home computer, the VIC-20, by getting it into department stores across the United Kingdom.

Commodore at the time sold games for their computers as well as hardware, and was keenly interested in acquiring new titles on the cheap. Stein, for his part, still had connections in Hungary; in fact, he had recently inked a deal that let Vulcan import single-purpose chess-playing computers from Hungary for sale on British high streets. He knew there was a treasure trove of eager young programming talent in his homeland with no commercial outlet for their skills. Best of all, he knew that, the differences between the economies of East and West being what they were, he could hire these programmers cheap. He quit Vulcan and started a company of his own, naming it Andromeda Software. He would buy games from a stable of Hungarian hackers and sell them to Commodore and other Western publishers eager for more product to feed the demand of Britain’s big home-computing boom.

Stein had no personal interest in games, and Andromeda didn’t place a big priority on quality as opposed to quantity. Over the course of just two or three years, he imported several dozen cut-price original games and ports, many of which went entirely uncredited to his company on the packaging and none of which are much remembered today.

When the home-computing boom began to tail off circa 1985 and the market settled back toward its natural equilibrium, it was largely the second-tier companies like Andromeda that failed first. Stein’s little venture would doubtless have fallen into the dustbin of history without another peep had he not dropped in on the Institute of Computer Science in Budapest, one of his big sources of programming talent, one day in 1986, just to see if they had anything new and interesting in the works that might save his declining business. Stein:

We were wandering around in a big room with all kinds of computers going, all kinds of software going. And suddenly in a corner I saw a game which consisted of bricks coming down, or some kind of shapes. It was tucked away somewhere in a corner. I was asking, “What is this?” They said, “Oh, ignore it.” So we wandered on, but I kept coming back to it.

Stein eventually sat down to try the game, and promptly had an experience all too typical of many avowed non-gamers’ first exposure to Tetris: he couldn’t stop playing. His tour guides could only sympathize; their Institute was itself in the full thrall of the Tetris Effect. But the reason they’d been so reluctant to show the game to Stein soon became clear: Tetris wasn’t actually one of their games. The Hungarians had ported the game, just for personal pleasure, to the Commodore 64, a far more marketable platform in Britain than the IBM PC on which Vadim Gerasimov’s version ran. Stein would have happily bought that version from them without another thought about its real origins. But the Hungarian programmers were too honorable to take the deal. Tetris simply wasn’t their game to sell to him, they insisted. If he wanted to buy it, he would have to do so from the Russians who had originally created it.

Back in Moscow, a colleague of Pajitnov at the Computer Center handed him a telex message written in English. “It looks like someone is interested in your game,” the colleague said. The message was indeed from a someone in Britain, who said he had seen Tetris while visiting Hungary and wished to license it and sell it in the West. Pajitnov, who had dreamed for years of something like this happening to rescue him from his life of institutional captivity, felt like a Cinderella who had just been handed a glass slipper. Still, as he would soon learn at extensive length, the devil is always in the details. It took him several weeks just to collect the authorizations he needed to send a telex back. “Yes, we are interested,” he wrote. “We would like to have this deal.” There followed a trans-European dance that sometimes resembled a farce more than a serious negotiation, complicated by the limited organs of communication between East and West and the Russians’ sketchy command of English. Most of all, though, the whole situation was just completely unprecedented on the Soviet side. “We had no idea what to do,” Pajitnov says.

Convinced by the Russians’ initial response that they were ready to sign a contract, and convinced by their seeming lack of business acumen that he would be able to dictate the terms of that contract, Stein started to shop Tetris to publishers while the negotiating farce had hardly begun. In a telling sign of his conviction that this game could be huge, he even reached out to American publishers, something he had never bothered to do with his other bargain-bin games. There’s an amusing entry in the diary of Jordan Mechner of Prince of Persia fame, who was working at Brøderbund Software in California at the time he wrote it. It’s dated October 23, 1986: “Everyone in the office has been playing a lot of Tetris — a Russian submission for the IBM PC. It’s a classic, like Breakout.” October 31 finds him beating out his colleagues for the number-one spot on the intra-office Tetris high-scores list. The Tetris Effect had come to Brøderbund, and to plenty of other British and American publishers as well.

Yet Stein found the game to be a harder sell than he’d anticipated. For all that everyone who sat down to play it seemed to have difficulty standing up again, Tetris was just so different from anything else that marketing departments didn’t know quite what to do with it. It was all just so abstract. There was no obvious hook: no starring character, no story line, no explosions. What would they put on the box? Even Brøderbund, home of The Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego, whose instinct for selling software to Middle America was normally unparalleled, took a pass, despite the Tetris Effect taking place right there in their offices. “I don’t think Brøderbund is going to publish it,” wrote Mechner in disgust. “The knaves.” A Brøderbund executive, seeing his programming staff so consumed by the game, had allegedly called it “a game only programmers could like.”

In the end, Stein wound up inking a deal in June of 1987 with the British publisher Mirrorsoft, a well-funded operation owned by the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell. Through a Byzantine array of tax dodges involving a charitable trust based in Lichtenstein — the Maxwell business empire was built on the most ethically shaky of foundations, as would become clear when it collapsed in scandal a few years later — Maxwell also owned a controlling interest in the American publisher Spectrum Holobyte, an up-and-comer best known for their complicated, very un-Tetris-like military simulations. Mirrorsoft, who had no presence in North America, brokered a deal to give Spectrum Holobyte publication rights across the pond. But Stein still hadn’t secured the Tetris rights from the Russians; he had sold two separate publishers a game he didn’t yet own. Don’t worry, he assured them; the deal was all but done. But the reality was that a deal with the Russians seemed farther away rather than nearer with each passing week.

Any dreams Pajitnov might have had of profiting from Tetris had been strangled. His managers had gotten word of what was going on with his game, and had taken over the negotiations, such as they were. As an employee of the Moscow Computer Center, Pajitnov was informed, any and all software he created there belonged to the Soviet state. “Nobody gave a shit about my small game,” says Pajitnov — other than, apparently, to make sure he didn’t make any money off it. “Games were absolutely alien to their nature.” The dialog with Stein proceeded at the speed of government. Desperate to get a firm yes, frustrated by the noncommittal and poorly translated replies he continued to receive to his telexes, Stein secured a visa and visited Moscow personally at last. There he encountered a scenario that seemed to confirm every Western stereotype about life in the Soviet Union. In a chilly, undecorated room containing only a single huge table and about fifty uncomfortable chairs arrayed around it, he confronted Alexey Pajitnov, little more than an interested observer at this point, and the half a dozen or so bureaucrats who now controlled Tetris‘s fate. Always more noted for his pugnaciousness in business than his charm, Stein misjudged the power dynamic in the room and played everything wrong. He tried to butter up Pajitnov, the least empowered person there, saying that “in our country the most important person is the one who designs the game. I’m here to listen to his wishes because if we don’t sign a contract, it is he who will suffer.” Not only did this alienate the bureaucrats, who had little interest in attributing credit for what they regarded as the property of the Soviet state, it also had the opposite of the intended effect on Pajitnov. He saw Stein’s words for the clumsy pandering they were, and took an immediate dislike to him that would never abate.

A frustrated Stein flew home no closer to a deal than before, even as the planned release date inched closer. He decided that if the Russians continued to prove difficult he’d just let the game come out anyway. What could do they do about it, trapped behind the Iron Curtain as they were? In the meanwhile, his negotiating tactics didn’t exactly smack of good faith. He offered them what sounded like a preposterously generous royalty of 75 percent — but the fine print revealed that this was 75 percent of the game’s profits after everyone else had taken their cuts, not 75 percent of gross sales. At another point, he offered to pay them in Commodore 64 computers instead of cash, a scheme ripe for accounting tricks on his side. The Russians may not have known much about the videogame business, but one thing life in the Soviet Union inculcated in everyone was a keen instinct for the double-cross. Liking Stein less and less, they dragged their feet more and more.

When a final impassioned letter to the Russians fell on the usual deaf ears in December — he asked for “a simple letter stating that you approve the terms under which we have signed this contract with Mirrorsoft,” but got no such thing — Stein decided to lie to his other partners about the real state of affairs. He told Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, who had already missed the Christmas buying season and were making their impatience known in no uncertain terms, to go ahead and release their versions of Tetris, telling them that he now owned all the rights. Maybe, he thought, the Soviets would get serious about negotiating at some point, and they could make a retroactive deal. If not… well, they’d had their chance. And anyway, taking 100 percent of the profits that came back to Andromeda for himself was a lot better than taking just 25 percent.

Alongside rewriting the game for several popular Western computers, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte solved the marketing problem brilliantly. They asked themselves what was the most salient point about the game, the thing you’d be most likely to mention first when describing it to a friend. For all the brilliance of the game itself, the answer was of course its origin in the Soviet Union of all places. That’s how they should market it — by playing up its exotic origins in the Mirror World for all they were worth. They designed a commie-red box for the game, with the name written in Cyrillic script, the final character drawn in the form of a hammer and sickle. They replaced the original game’s silence with a soundtrack of Russian folk songs. They replaced its blank backgrounds with iconic Russian and Soviet imagery, some of it ripped straight from the headlines; the imagery included the brave (and probably mentally ill) West German activist Mathias Rust landing his private plane in Red Square, an incident which had garnered huge international attention just the previous May. Timeless though Tetris is as a piece of game design, its first commercial incarnation is as of-its-time as a game can be.

Fortunately, its time was a heady time indeed. Since Pajitnov had programmed his first version of the game, the world had changed dramatically. The Cold War was thawing; Glasnost and Perestroika were the new order of the day. A few years earlier, no publisher would have dared release a game in a box that looked like this one, for fear of being run out of business on a rail as fifth columnists in league with what Ronald Reagan liked to call the Evil Empire. Now, with fear of the Mirror World in the West being replaced by a friendlier but no less abiding sort of curiosity, the Soviet angle was the perfect marketing coup.

The Soviet hockey team on the ice in the Amiga version of Tetris.

Spectrum Holobyte in the United States promoted the game with more energy and enthusiasm than Mirrorsoft in Britain. They spared no expense in emphasizing their theme of cross-cultural communication. Following an appearance at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Tetris made a more lavish public bow that same January of 1988 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, the site where the United Nations charter had been signed in 1945. Spectrum Holobyte invited the ambassador to San Francisco’s Soviet consulate to attend the unveiling. On the trade-show circuit, the game was presented by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev lookalikes.

Robert Stein’s instinct that Tetris could be huge was proved correct. At the 1988 Software Publishers Association Excellence in Software Awards, the game won virtually every category conceivably open to it: “Best Action/Strategy Program,” “Best Entertainment Program,” “Best Consumer Program,” “Best Original Game Achievement.” Yet such recognition among insiders was far from the greatest of Tetris‘s achievements. Spectrum Holobyte had recognized early the potential of Tetris for opening gaming up to a whole new demographic. In a telling demonstration that they expected it to be played in offices at least as often as it was in bedrooms, they had built a “boss key” into the IBM PC version of the game: a hotkey which instantly paused the game and replaced it on the screen with an innocuous-looking spreadsheet, just the thing for when the manager came around peering into people’s cubicles.

Spectrum Holobyte’s expectations weren’t disappointed. The perfect exemplar of a casual game many years before the so-called casual market became a recognized part of the industry, Tetris appealed to people who could never have imagined playing a computer game before encountering it. It garnered glowing write-ups in places where few computer games had ever ventured before, such as the lifestyle sections of newspapers like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. It was in fact the latter that first coined one of the most potent Tetris memes: that it might just be a plot on the part of the old Soviet hardliners to ruin the productivity of the West, their revenge for losing the Cold War. Knowing good marketing copy when they saw it, Spectrum Holobyte soon worked this angle as well into their presentations and advertisements. Ditto the description of Tetris as “the Rubik’s Cube of software,” which drew a line between the last great Eastern European puzzle phenomenon to strike the West and this latest example of Eastern deviousness.

It all paid off splendidly where it really mattered. The Spectrum Holobyte version of Tetris alone sold over 100,000 copies in its first year, a substantial success by the standards of the time. More remarkably, its sales actually increased rather than decreased over time; its second year brought a figure of 150,000.

For all that, though, sales of the Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte releases were but the merest shadow of what was still to come. The business of selling Tetris, already a complicated tangle of personalities and cultures, was about to get a lot more complicated for everyone concerned.

(Sources: the books The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993 by Jordan Mechner, Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray, Freax: A Brief History of the Computer Demoscene by Tamás Polgár, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff, and The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; the documentary film Ecstasy of Order; STart of June 1990; Compute! of April 1990; Your Computer of June 1982; Popular Computing Weekly of March 15 1984; Computer Gaming World of September 1993; Compute! of June 1988; The Boston Globe of January 30 1990; The Los Angeles Times of September 24 1992. Online sources include Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia postmortem at the 2011 Game Developers Conference, Vadim Gerasimov’s Tetris Story,” and Jagger Gravning’s “The Man Who Made Tetris.” Once again and more than ever, thank you to Peter Sovietov for being my advisor, translator, and spirit guide to Russian and Soviet computing.)


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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 2: From Mainframes to Micros

The BESM-6

Seen from certain perspectives, Soviet computer hardware as an innovative force of its own peaked as early as 1968, the year the first BESM-6 computer was powered up. The ultimate evolution of the line of machines that had begun with Sergei Lebedev’s original MESM, the BESM-6 was the result of a self-conscious attempt on the part of Lebedev’s team at ITMVT to create a world-class supercomputer. By many measures, they succeeded. Despite still being based on transistors rather than the integrated circuits that were becoming more and more common in the West, the BESM-6’s performance was superior to all but the most powerful of its Western peers. The computers generally acknowledged as the fastest in the world at the time, a line of colossi built by Control Data in the United States, were just a little over twice as fast as the BESM-6, which had nothing whatsoever to fear from the likes of the average IBM mainframe. And in comparison to other Soviet computers, the BESM-6 was truly a monster, ten times as fast as anything the country had managed to produce before. In its way, the BESM-6 was as amazing an achievement on Lebedev’s part as had been the MESM almost two decades earlier. Using all home-grown technology, Lebedev and his people had created a computer almost any Western computer lab would have been proud to install.

At the same time, though, the Soviet computer industry’s greatest achievement to date was, almost paradoxically, symbolic of all its limitations. Sparing no expense nor effort to build the best computer they possibly could, Lebedev’s team had come close to but not exceeded the Western state of the art, which in the meantime continued marching inexorably forward. All the usual inefficiencies of the Soviet economy conspired to prevent the BESM-6 from becoming a true game changer rather than a showpiece. BESM-6s would trickle only slowly out of the factories; only about 350 of them would be built over the course of the next 20 years. They became useful tools for the most well-heeled laboratories and military bases, but there simply weren’t enough of them to implement even a fraction of the cybernetics dream.

A census taken in January of 1970 held that there were just 5500 computers operational in the Soviet Union, as compared with 62,500 in the United States and 24,000 in Western Europe. Even if one granted that the BESM-6 had taken strides toward solving the problem of quality, the problem of quantity had yet to be addressed. Advanced though the BESM-6 was in so many ways, for Soviet computing in general the same old story held sway. A Rand Corporation study from 1970 noted that “the Soviets are known to have designed micro-miniaturized circuits far more advanced than any observed in Soviet computers.” The Soviet theory of computing, in other words, continued to far outstrip the country’s ability to make practical use of it. “In the fundamental design of hardware and software the Russian computer art is as clever as that to be found anywhere in the world,” said an in-depth Scientific American report on the state of Soviet computing from the same year. “It is in the quality of production, not design, that the USSR is lagging.”

One way to build more computers more quickly, the Moscow bureaucrats concluded, was to share the burden among their partners (more accurately known to the rest of the world as their vassal states) in the Warsaw Pact. Several members states — notably East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary — had fairly advanced electronics industries whose capabilities in many areas exceeded that of the Soviets’ own, not least because their geographical locations left them relatively less isolated from the West. At the first conference of the International Center of Scientific and Technical Information in January of 1970, following at least two years of planning and negotiating, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria,  Hungary, Poland, and Romania to make the first full-fledged third-generation computer — one based on integrated circuits rather than transistors — to come out of Eastern Europe. The idea of dividing the labor of producing the new computer was taken very literally. In a testimony to the “from each according to his means” tenet of communism, Poland would make certain ancillary processors, tape readers, and printers; East Germany would make other peripherals; Hungary would make magnetic memories and some systems software; Czechoslovakia would make many of the integrated circuits; Romania and Bulgaria, the weakest sisters in terms of electronics, would make various mechanical and structural odds and ends; and the Soviet Union would design the machines, make the central processors, and be the final authority on the whole project, which was dubbed “Ryad,” a word meaning “row” or “series.”

The name was no accident. On the contrary, it was key to the nature of the computer — or, rather, computers — the Soviet Union and its partners were now planning to build. With the BESM-6 having demonstrated that purely home-grown technology could get their countries close to the Western state of the art but not beyond it, they would give up on trying to outdo the West. Instead they would take the West’s best, most proven designs and clone them, hoping to take advantage of the eye toward mass production that had been baked into them from the start. If all went well, 35,000 Ryad computers would be operational across the Warsaw Pact by 1980.

In a sense, the West had made it all too easy for them, given Project Ryad all too tempting a target for cloning. In 1964, in one of the most important developments in the history of computers, IBM had introduced a new line of mainframes called the System/360. The effect it had on the mainframe industry of the time was very similar to the one which the IBM PC would have on the young microcomputer industry 17 years later: it brought order and stability to what had been a confusion of incompatible machines. For the first time with the System/360, IBM created not just a single machine or even line of machines but an entire computing ecosystem built around hardware and software compatibility across a wide swathe of models. The effect this had on computing in the West is difficult to overstate. There was, for one thing, soon a large enough installed base of System/360 machines that companies could make a business out of developing software and selling it to others; this marked the start of the software industry as we’ve come to know it today. Indeed, our modern notion of computing platforms really begins with the System/360. Dag Spicer of the Computer History Museum calls it IBM’s Manhattan Project. Even at the time, IBM’s CEO Thomas Watson Jr. called it the most important product in his company’s already storied history, a distinction which is challenged today only by the IBM PC.

The System/360 ironically presaged the IBM PC in another respect: as a modular platform built around well-documented standards, it was practically crying out to be cloned by companies that might have trailed IBM in terms of blue-sky technical innovation, but who were more than capable of copying IBM’s existing technology and selling it at a cheaper price. Companies like Amdahl — probably the nearest equivalent to IBM’s later arch-antagonist Compaq in this case of parallel narratives — lived very well on mainframes compatible with those of IBM, machines which were often almost as good as IBM’s best but were always cheaper. None too pleased about this, IBM responded with various sometimes shady countermeasures which landed them in many years of court cases over alleged antitrust violations. (Yes, the histories of mainframe computing and PC computing really do run on weirdly similar tracks.)

If the System/360 from the standpoint of would-be Western cloners was an unlocked door waiting to be opened, from the standpoint of the Soviet Union, which had no rules for intellectual property whatsoever which applied to the West, the door was already flung wide. Thus, instead of continuing down the difficult road of designing its high-end computers from scratch, the Soviet Union decided to stroll on through.

An early propaganda shot shows a Ryad machine in action.

There’s much that could be said about what this decision symbolized for Soviet computing and, indeed, for Soviet society in general. For all the continuing economic frustrations lurking below the surface of the latest Pravda headlines, Khrushchev’s rule had been the high-water mark of Soviet achievement, when the likes of the Sputnik satellite and Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space had seemed to prove that communism really could go toe-to-toe with capitalism. But the failure to get to the Moon before the United States among other disappointments had taken much of the shine off that happy thought.1 In the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, which began with Khrushchev’s unceremonious toppling from power in October of 1964, the Soviet Union gradually descended into a lazy decrepitude that gave only the merest lip service to the old spirit of revolutionary communism. Corruption had always been a problem, but now, taking its cue from its new leader, the country became a blatant oligarchy. While Brezhnev and his cronies collected dachas and cars, their countryfolk at times literally starved. Perhaps the greatest indictment of the system Brezhnev perpetuated was the fact that by the 1970s the Soviet Union, in possession of more arable land than any nation on earth and with one of the sparsest populations of any nation in relation to its land mass, somehow still couldn’t feed itself, being forced to import millions upon millions of tons of wheat and other basic foodstuffs every year. Thus Brezhnev found himself in the painful position, all too familiar to totalitarian leaders, of being in some ways dependent on the good graces of the very nations he denigrated.

In the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev, bold ideas like the dream of cybernetic communism fell decidedly out of fashion in favor of nursing along the status quo. Every five years, the Party Congress reauthorized ongoing research into what had become known as the “Statewide Automated Management System for Collection and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning, and Management of the National Economy” (whew!), but virtually nothing got done. The bureaucratic infighting that had always negated the perceived advantages of communism — as perceived optimistically by the Soviets, and with great fear by the West — was more pervasive than ever in these late years. “The Ministry of Metallurgy decides what to produce, and the Ministry of Supplies decides how to distribute it. Neither will yield its power to anyone,” said one official. Another official described each of the ministries as being like a separate government unto itself. Thus there might not be enough steel to make the tractors the country’s farmers needed to feed its people one year; the next, the steel might pile up to rust on railway sidings while the erstwhile tractor factories were busy making something else.

Amidst all the infighting, Project Ryad crept forward, behind schedule but doggedly determined. This new face of computing behind the Iron Curtain made its public bow at last in May of 1973, when six of the seven planned Ryad “Unified System” models were in attendance at the Exposition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. All were largely hardware- and software-compatible with the IBM System/360 line. Even the operating systems that were run on the new machines were lightly modified copies of Western operating systems like IBM’s DOS/360. Project Ryad and its culture of copying would come to dominate Soviet computing during the remainder of the 1970s. A Rand Corporation intelligence report from 1978 noted that “by now almost everything offered by IBM to 360 installations has been acquired” by the Soviet Union.

Project Ryad even copied the white lab coats worn by the IBM “priesthood” (and gleefully scorned by the scruffier hackers who worked on the smaller but often more innovative machines produced by companies like DEC).

During the five years after the Ryad machines first appeared, IBM sold about 35,000 System/360 machines, while the Soviet Union and its partners managed to produce about 5000 Ryad machines. Still, compared to what the situation had been before, 5000 reasonably modern machines was real progress, even if the ongoing inefficiencies of the Eastern Bloc economies kept Project Ryad from ever reaching more than a third of its stated yearly production goals. (A telling sign of the ongoing disparities between West and East was the way that all Western estimates of future computer production tended to vastly underestimate the reality that actually arrived, while Eastern estimates did just the opposite.) If it didn’t exactly allow Eastern Europe to make strides toward any bold cybernetic future — on the contrary, the Warsaw Pact economies continued to limp along in as desultory a fashion as ever — Project Ryad did do much to keep its creator nations from sliding still further into economic dysfunction. Unsurprisingly, a Ryad-2 generation of computers was soon in the works, cloning the System/370, IBM’s anointed successor to the System/360 line. Other projects cloned the DEC PDP line of machines, smaller so-called “minicomputers” suitable for more modest — but, at least in the West, often more interesting and creative — tasks than the hulking mainframes of IBM. Soviet watcher Seymour Goodman summed up the current situation in an article for the journal World Politics in 1979:

The USSR has learned that the development of its national computing capabilities on the scale it desires cannot be achieved without a substantial involvement with the rest of the world’s computing community. Its considerable progress over the last decade has been characterized by a massive transfer of foreign computer technology. The Soviet computing industry is now much less isolated than it was during the 1960s, although its interfaces with the outside world are still narrowly defined. It would appear that the Soviets are reasonably content with the present “closer but still at a distance” relationship.

Reasonable contentment with the status quo would continue to be the Kremlin’s modus operandi in computing, as in most other things. The fiery rhetoric of the past had little relevance to the morally and economically bankrupt Soviet state of the 1970s and 1980s.

Even in this gray-toned atmosphere, however, the old Russian intellectual tradition remained. Many of the people designing and programming the nation’s computers barely paid attention to the constant bureaucratic turf wars. They’d never thought that much about philosophical abstractions like cybernetics, which had always been more a brainchild of the central planners and social theorists than the people making the Soviet Union’s extant computer infrastructure, such as it was, work. Like their counterparts in the West, Soviet hackers were more excited by a clever software algorithm or a neat hardware re-purposing than they were by high-flown social theory. Protected by the fact that the state so desperately needed their skills, they felt free at times to display an open contempt for the supposedly inviolate underpinnings of the Soviet Union. Pressed by his university’s dean to devote more time to the ideological studies that were required of every student, one young hacker said bluntly that “in the modern world, with its super-speedy tempo of life, time is too short to study even more necessary things” than Marxism.

Thus in the realm of pure computing theory, where advancement could still be made without the aid of cutting-edge technology, the Soviet Union occasionally made news on the world stage with work evincing all the originality that Project Ryad and its ilk so conspicuously lacked. In October of 1978, a quiet young researcher at the Moscow Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences named Leonid Genrikhovich Khachiyan submitted a paper to his superiors with the uninspiring — to non-mathematicians, anyway — title of “Polynomial Algorithms in Linear Programming.” Following its publication in the Soviet journal Reports of the Academy of Sciences, the paper spread like wildfire across the international community of mathematics and computer science, even garnering a write-up in the New York Times in November of 1979. (Such reports were always written in a certain tone of near-disbelief, of amazement that real thinking was going on in the Mirror World.) What Khachiyan’s paper actually said was almost impossible to clearly explain to people not steeped in theoretical mathematics, but the New York Times did state that it had the potential to “dramatically ease the solution of problems involving many variables that up to now have required impossibly large numbers of separate computer calculations,” with potential applications in fields as diverse as economic planning and code-breaking. In other words, Khachiyan’s new algorithms, which have indeed stood the test of time in many and diverse fields of practical application, can be seen as a direct response to the very lack of computing power with which Soviet researchers constantly had to contend. Sometimes less really could be more.

As Khachiyan’s discoveries were spreading across the world, the computer industries of the West were moving into their most world-shaking phase yet. A fourth generation of computers, defined by the placing of the “brain” of the machine, or central processing unit, all on a single chip, had arrived. Combined with a similar miniaturization of the other components that went into a computer, this advancement meant that people were able for the first time to buy these so-called “microcomputers” to use in their homes — to write letters, to write programs, to play games. Likewise, businesses could now think about placing a computer on every single desk. Still relatively unremarked by devotees of big-iron institutional computing as the 1970s expired, over the course of the 1980s and beyond the PC revolution would transform the face of business and entertainment, empowering millions of people in ways that had heretofore been unimaginable. How was the Soviet Union to respond to this?

Alexi Alexandrov, the president of the Moscow Academy of Sciences, responded with a rhetorical question: “Have [the Americans] forgotten that problems of no less complexity, such as the creation of the atomic bomb or space-rocket technology… [we] were able to solve ourselves without any help from abroad, and in a short time?” Even leaving aside the fact that the Soviet atomic bomb was itself built largely using stolen Western secrets, such words sounded like they heralded a new emphasis on original computer engineering, a return to the headier days of Khrushchev. In reality, though, the old ways were difficult to shake loose. The first Soviet microprocessor, the KP580BM80A of 1977, had its “inspiration” couched inside its very name: the Intel 8080, which was along with the Motorola 6800 one of the two chips that had launched the PC revolution in the West in 1974.

Yet in the era of the microchip the Soviet Union ran into problems continuing the old practices. While technical schematics for chips much newer and more advanced than the Intel 8080 were soon readily enough available, they were of limited use in Soviet factories, which lacked the equipment to stamp out the ever more miniaturized microchip designs coming out of Western companies like Intel.

One solution might be for the Soviets to hold their noses and outright buy the chip-fabricating equipment they needed from the West. In earlier decades, such deals had hardly been unknown, although they tended to be kept quiet by both parties for reasons of pride (on the Eastern side) and public relations (on the Western side). But, unfortunately for the Soviets, the West had finally woken up to the reality that microelectronics were as critical to a modern war machine as missiles and fighter planes. A popular story that circulated around Western intelligence circles for years involved Viktor Belenko, a Soviet pilot who went rogue, flying his state-of-the-art MIG-25 fighter jet to a Japanese airport and defecting there in 1976. When American engineers examined his MIG-25, they found a plane that was indeed a technological marvel in many respects, able to fly faster and higher than any Western fighter. Yet its electronics used unreliable vacuum tubes rather than transistors, much less integrated circuits — a crippling disadvantage on the field of battle. The contrast with the West, which had left the era of the vacuum tube behind almost two decades ago, was so extreme that there was some discussion of whether Belenko might be a double agent, his whole defection a Soviet plot to convince the West that they were absurdly far behind in terms of electronics technology. Sadly for the Soviets, the vacuum tubes weren’t the result of any elaborate KGB plot, but rather just a backward electronics industry.

In 1979, the Carter Administration began to take a harder line against the Soviet Union, pushing through Congress as part of the Export Administration Act a long list of restrictions on what sorts of even apparently non-military computer technology could legally be sold to the Eastern Bloc. Ronald Reagan then enforced and extended these restrictions upon becoming president in 1981, working with the rest of the West in what was known as the Coordination Committee on Export Controls, or COCOM — a body that included all of the NATO member nations, plus Japan and Australia — to present a unified front. By this point, with the Cold War heading into its last series of dangerous crises thanks to Reagan’s bellicosity and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States in particular was developing a real paranoia about the Soviet Union’s long-standing habits of industrial espionage. The paranoia was reflected in CIA director William Casey’s testimony to Congress in 1982:

The KGB has developed a large, independent, specialized organization which does nothing but work on getting access to Western science and technology. They have been recruiting about 100 young scientists and engineers a year for the last 15 years. They roam the world looking for technology to pick up. Back in Moscow, there are 400 to 500 assessing what they might need and where they might get it — doing their targeting and then assessing what they get. It’s a very sophisticated and far-flung organization.

By the mid-1980s, restrictions on Western computer exports to the East were quite draconian, a sometimes bewildering maze of regulations to be navigated: 8-bit microcomputers could be exported but 16-bit microcomputers couldn’t be; a singe-user accounting package could be exported but not a multi-user version; a monochrome monitor could be exported but not a color monitor.

Even as the barriers between East and West were being piled higher than ever, Western fascination with the Mirror World remained stronger than ever. In August of 1983, an American eye surgeon named Leo D. Bores, organizer of the first joint American/Soviet seminar in medicine in Moscow and a computer hobbyist in his spare time, had an opportunity to spend a week with what was billed as the first ever general-purpose Soviet microcomputer. It was called the “Agat” — just a pretty name, being Russian for the mineral agate — and it was largely a copy — in Bores’s words a bad copy — of the Apple II. His report, appearing belatedly in the November 1984 issue of Byte magazine, proved unexpectedly popular among the magazine’s readership.

The Agat computer

The Agat was, first of all, much, much bigger and heavier than a real Apple II; Bores generously referred to it as “robust.” It was made in a factory more accustomed to making cars and trucks, and, indeed, it looked much as one might imagine a computer built in an automotive plant would look. The Soviets had provided software for displaying text in Cyrillic, albeit with some amount of flicker, using the Apple II’s bitmap-graphics modes. The keyboard also offered Cyrillic input, thus solving, after a fashion anyway, a big problem in adapting Western technology to Soviet needs. But that was about the extent to which the Agat impressed. “The debounce circuitry [on the keyboard] is shaky,” noted Bores, “and occasionally a stray character shows up, especially during rapid data entry. The elevation of the keyboard base (about 3.5 centimeters) and the slightly steeper-than-normal board angle would cause rapid fatigue as well as wrist pain after prolonged use.” Inside the case was a “nightmarish wiring maze.” Rather than being built into a single motherboard, the computer’s components were all mounted on separate breadboards cobbled together by all that cabling, the way Western engineers worked only in the very early prototyping stage of hardware development. The Soviet clone of the MOS 6502 chip found at the heart of the Agat was as clumsily put together as the rest of the machine, spanning across several breadboards; thus this “first Soviet microcomputer” arguably wasn’t really a microcomputer at all by the strict definition of the term. The kicker was the price: about $17,000. As that price would imply, the Agat wasn’t available to private citizens at all, being reserved for use in universities and other centers of higher learning.

With the Cold War still going strong, Byte‘s largely American readership was all too happy to jeer at this example of Soviet backwardness, which certainly did show a computer industry lagging years behind the West. That said, the situation wasn’t quite as bad as Bores’s experience would imply. It’s very likely that the machine he used was a pre-production model of the Agat, and that many of the problems he encountered were ironed out in the final incarnation.

For all the engineering challenges, the most important factor impeding truly personal computing in the Soviet Union was more ideological than technical. As so many of the visionaries who had built the first PCs in the West had so well recognized, these were tools of personal empowerment, of personal freedom, the most exciting manifestation yet of Norbert Wiener’s original vision of cybernetics as a tool for the betterment of the human individual. For an Eastern Bloc still tossing and turning restlessly under the blanket of collectivism, this was anathema. Poland’s propaganda ministry made it clear that they at least feared the existence of microcomputers far more than they did their absence: “The tendency in the mass-proliferation of computers is creating a variety of ideological endangerments. Some programmers, under the inspiration of Western centers of ideological subversion, are creating programs that help to form anti-communistic political consciousness.” In countries like Poland and the Soviet Union, information freely exchanged could be a more potent weapon than any bomb or gun. For this reason, photocopiers had been guarded with the same care as military hardware for decades, and even owning a typewriter required a special permit in many Warsaw Pact countries. These restrictions had led to the long tradition of underground defiance known euphemistically simply as “samizdat,” or self-publishing: the passing of “subversive” ideas from hand to hand as one-off typewritten or hand-written texts. Imagine what a home computer with a word processor and a printer could mean for samizdat. The government of Romania was so terrified by the potential of the computer for spreading freedom that it banned the very word for a time. Harry R. Meyer, an American Soviet watcher with links to the Russian expatriate community, made these observations as to the source of such terror:

I can imagine very few things more destructive of government control of information flow than having a million stations equivalent to our Commodore 64 randomly distributed to private citizens, with perhaps a thousand in activist hands. Even a lowly Commodore 1541 disk drive can duplicate a 160-kilocharacter disk in four or five minutes. The liberating effect of not having to individually enter every character every time information is to be shared should dramatically increase the flow of information.

Information distributed in our society is mainly on paper rather than magnetic media for reasons of cost-effectiveness: the message gets to more people per dollar. The bottleneck of samizdat is not money, but time. If computers were available at any cost, it would be more effective to invest the hours now being spent in repetitive typing into earning cash to get a computer, no matter how long it took.

If I were circulating information the government didn’t like in the Soviet Bloc, I would have little interest in a modem — too easily monitored. But there is a brisk underground trade in audio cassettes of Western music. Can you imagine the headaches (literal and figurative) for security agents if text files were transported by overwriting binary onto one channel in the middle of a stereo cassette of heavy-metal music? One would hope it would be less risk to carry such a cassette than a disk, let alone a compromising manuscript.

If we accept Meyer’s arguments, there’s an ironic follow-on argument to be made: that, in working so hard to keep the latest versions of these instruments of freedom out of the hands of the Soviet Union and its vassal states, the COCOM was actually hurting rather than helping the cause of freedom. As many a would-be autocrat has learned to his dismay in the years since, it’s all but impossible to control the free flow of information in a society with widespread access to personal-computing technology. The new dream of personal computing, of millions of empowered individuals making things and communicating, stood in marked contrast to the Soviet cyberneticists’ old dream of perfect, orderly, top-down control implemented via big mainframe computers. For the hard-line communists, the dream of personal computing sounded more like a nightmare. The Soviet Union faced a stark dilemma: embrace the onrushing computer age despite the loss of control it must imply, or accept that it must continue to fall further and further behind the West. A totalitarian state like the Soviet Union couldn’t survive alongside the free exchange of ideas, while a modern economy couldn’t survive without the free exchange of ideas.

Thankfully for everyone involved, a man now stepped onto the stage who was willing to confront the seemingly insoluble contradictions of Soviet society. On March 11, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the eighth and, as it would transpire, the last man to hold that title. He almost immediately signaled a new official position toward computing, as he did toward so many other things. In one of his first major policy speeches just weeks after assuming power, Gorbachev announced a plan to put personal computers into every classroom in the Soviet Union.

Unlike the General Secretaries who had come before him, Gorbachev recognized that the problems of rampant corruption and poor economic performance which had dogged the Soviet Union throughout its existence were not obstacles external to the top-down collectivist state envisioned by Validimir Lenin but its inevitable results. “Glasnost,” the introduction of unprecedented levels of personal freedom, and “Perestroika,” the gradual replacement of the planned economy with a more market-oriented version permitting a degree of private ownership, were his responses. These changes would snowball in a way that no one — certainly not Gorbachev himself — had quite anticipated, leading to the effective dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War before the 1980s were over. Unnerved by it all though he was, Gorbachev, to his everlasting credit, let it happen, rejecting the calls for a crackdown like those that had ended the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 in such heartbreak and tragedy.

The Elektronika BK 0010

Very early in Gorbachev’s tenure, well before its full import had even started to become clear, it became at least theoretically possible for the first time for individuals in the Soviet Union to buy a private computer of their own for use in the home. Said opportunity came in the form of the Elektronika BK-0010. Costing about one-fifth as much as the Agat, the BK-0010 was a predictably slapdash product in some areas, such as its horrid membrane keyboard. In other ways, though, it impressed far more than anyone had a right to expect. The BK-0010, the very first Soviet microcomputer designed to be a home computer, was a 16-bit machine, placing it in this respect at least ahead of the typical Western Apple II, Commodore 64, or Sinclair Spectrum of the time. The microprocessor inside it was a largely original creation, borrowing the instruction set from the DEC PDP-11 line of minicomputers but borrowing its actual circuitry from no one. The Soviets’ struggles to stamp out the ever denser circuitry of the latest Western CPUs in their obsolete factories was ironically forcing them to be more innovative, to start designing chips of their own which their factories could manage to produce.

Supplies of the BK-0010 were always chronically short and the waiting lists long, but as early as 1985 a few lucky Soviet households could boast real, usable computers. Those who were less lucky might be able to build a bare-bones computer from schematics published in do-it-yourself technology magazines like Tekhnika Molodezhi, the Soviet equivalent to Popular Electronics. Just as had happened in the United States, Britain, and many other Western countries, a vibrant culture of hobbyist computing spread across the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact nations. In time, as the technology advanced in rhythm with Perestroika, these hobbyists would become the founding spirits of a new Soviet computer industry — a capitalist computer industry. “These are people who have felt useless — useless — all their lives!” said American business pundit Esther Dyson after a junket to a changing Eastern Europe. “Do you know what it is like to feel useless all your life? Computers are turning many of these people into entrepreneurs. They are creating the entrepreneurs these countries need.” As one glance at the flourishing underground economy of the Soviet Union of any era had always been enough to prove, Russians had a natural instinct for capitalism. Now, they were getting the chance to exercise it.

In August of 1988, in a surreal sign of these changing times, a delegation including many senior members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences — the most influential theoretical voice in Soviet computing dating back to the early 1950s — arrived in New York City on a mission that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years before. To a packed room of technology journalists — the Mirror World remained as fascinating as ever — they demonstrated a variety of software which they hoped to sell to the West: an equation solver; a database responsive to natural-language input; a project manager; an economic-modelling package. Byte magazine called the presentation “clever, flashy, and unabashedly commercial,” with “lots of colored windows popping up everywhere” and lots of sound effects. The next few years would bring several ventures which served to prove to any doubters from that initial gathering that the Soviets were capable of programming world-class software if given half a chance. In 1991, for instance, Soviet researchers sold a system of handwriting recognition to Apple for use in the pioneering Apple Newton personal digital assistant. Reflecting the odd blend of greed and idealism that marked the era, a Russian programmer wrote to Byte magazine that “I do hope the world software market will be the only battlefield for American and Soviet programmers and that we’ll become friends during this new battle now that we’ve stopped wasting our intellects on the senseless weapons race.”

As it would transpire, though, the greatest Russian weapon in this new era of happy capitalism wasn’t a database, a project manager, or even a handwriting-recognition system. It was instead a game — a piece of software far simpler than any of those aforementioned things but with perhaps more inscrutable genius than all of them put together. Its unlikely story is next.

(Sources: the academic-journal articles “Soviet Computing and Technology Transfer: An Overview” by S.E. Goodman, “InterNyet: Why the Soviet Union Did Not Build a Nationwide Computer Network.” by Slava Gerovitch, “The Soviet Bloc’s Unified System of Computers” by N.C. Davis and S.E. Goodman; the January 1970 and May 1972 issues of Rand Corporation’s Soviet Cybernetics Review; The New York Times of August 28 1966, May 7 1973, and November 27 1979; Scientific American of October 1970; Bloomberg Businessweek of November 4 1991; Byte of August 1980, April 1984, November 1984, July 1985, November 1986, February 1987, October 1988, and April 1989; a video recording the Computer History Museum’s commemoration of the IBM System/360 on April 7 2004. Finally, my huge thanks to Peter Sovietov, who grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1980s and the Russia of the 1990s and has been an invaluable help in sharing his memories and his knowledge and saving me from some embarrassing errors.)

  1. Some in the Soviet space program actually laid their failure to get to the Moon, perhaps a bit too conveniently, directly at the feet of the computer technology they were provided, noting that the lack of computers on the ground equal to those employed by NASA — which happened to be System/360s — had been a crippling disadvantage. Meanwhile the computers that went into space with the Soviets were bigger, heavier, and less capable than their American counterparts.