Creative Minds: Alexey Pajitnov
13th Dec 2007 | 15:27
Next to the likes of Mario and Sonic (and probably Master Chief these days) Tetris is the most recognised videogame brand ever created. Its geometric charm has been the subject of advertising campaigns and the game was alluded to in episodes of The Simpsons, Futurama and even in the movie Police Academy: Mission to Moscow - you know you've made it when that happens.
Long before Wii was even a glimmer in Miyamoto's eye Tetris was recruiting people to videogames: businessmen, housewives, vicars, pensioners.
Its creator, Alexey Pajitnov, still remains proud of his 'child' and never gets tired of answering questions about its addictive qualities. But, as we discovered, there's more to Pajitnov than puzzle titles. He did once make an obscure action game called Ice & Fire...
What are you doing at the moment?
Alexey Pajitnov: Right now I am freelance but I still have a contract with Microsoft. I'm currently considering my next project. I have a small group at the moment based in St. Petersburg and we are working on a two-player game. But it is too early to say what it is. We are early in the project.
Do you get sick of hearing about Tetris?
Pajitnov: No, I consider it a part of my job and a part of my life. Tetris is my child and I am very fond of it. I never looked for publicity but I never reject it either.
Do you still play it?
Pajitnov: Yes, I still play it, especially to coordinate new version. We are working on a new Tetris version. Our licences send us any new versions for approval to make sure that everything is fine and balanced. As far as a new version is concerned we are looking at several online versions. These will be coming out very soon in Japan.
Do you own the rights to Tetris?
Pajitnov: We have Tetris Holdings which hold all the rights to Tetris and we have a partnership with them.
What do you think of Tetris on DS?
Pajitnov: The main version is very good. It's designed with all the regular elements. I think it's well done. I also like the kind of puzzle version in there.
Is it true there's a Tetris bible?
Pajitnov: Yes. The story is that Tetris was published many times from many different companies and in many countries. The versions were very, very different. Players didn't really know what they were getting and couldn't really judge who was the best player. They had issues playing each other. So we decided to standardise Tetris, especially for competitions.
We've worked on this for a long time, to come up with a standard for Tetris. It's a never ending war. We are still working on this. Also any new proposal about Tetris that may differ needs to be looked at. If it's a good addition we will add it and keep it.
What elements do you especially need to standardise?
Pajitnov: The size of the fields, the speed of the levels, the speed pieces rotate. There needs to be rules about how the pieces rotate. Also we like to have consistency with the colours of the pieces.
What is it about shapes and puzzles that fascinates you?
Pajitnov: [Laughs] That is my love! That's my main area of expertise. I love puzzles and play them a lot. When I want to design something that is the first thing I put my eye on.
Have there been any puzzle games that have inspired you?
Pajitnov: When I wrote Tetris I based it on a classic board puzzle called Pentomino. So I like all these puzzles, not just computer puzzles. I keep a Rubik's Cube on my desk. I am holding it now.
Have you tried to create any games that were not puzzle-based?
Pajitnov: I have done several arcade games. Indeed, I think Tetris is more of an arcade game. I did a type of puzzle collection. I had a game in my records which I completely failed with, an action game. We were a small company and the game was called Ice & Fire. It was an original game but id not do so well [laughs]. Later on I realised that I should probably stick to the type of games I know very well.
A lot of modern games are narrative-based but don't' really seem to have much gameplay. Do you think too many games focus on story at the expense of gameplay?
Pajitnov: Well I like some of those games. It is just a different product on the market. Those games have a different cycle of life and they have a different outlook. They are perhaps very popular but for a much shorter lifespan. Interest will naturally drop. But this is fine and natural. A puzzle game, if it is good, has a much longer lifespan.
On the other hand character and story don't usually reach a very wide audience because the story is only going to appeal to a certain number of people. I was surprised when I did Pandora's Box. We came up with a very interesting story for Pandora's Box but I realised that people playing these types of games don't really want story. A story is only ever going to appeal to a certain percentage of the population.
The industry is now celebrating the fact that games have become mass-market and can appeal to anyone, but surely Tetris did this all those years ago?
Pajitnov: That's because it is abstract. It doesn't have any good ideas story-wise but it doesn't have negative aspects either. That is why. Also you can't really die in a game like this, just go back to the beginning.
You've been receiving royalties for Tetris since 1996; does this money allow you to be more creative and independent?
Pajitnov: Exactly! I am very happy that I can be more independent now.
Do you think Tetris is the most creative game you've ever made?
Pajitnov: That depends what you mean by creative. Tetris is the most popular game I've ever designed. But then Tetris was just a block of my life. I was lucky to come up with that. I am also very proud of the work I did with Pandora's Box. I feel I came up with a new genre there. I tired to move it forward. I also feel Hexic is a good design, so I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Tetris has inspired some interesting tributes. What's the strangest you have seen?
Pajitnov: Some students made a Tetris game on the side of a building as part of an art project. That was amazing.
Didn't one Japanese fan glue his Tetris cartridge in his GameBoy?
Pajitnov: Ah, yes, that was a public event in Japan. I was asked to attend and sign autographs. A guy came to me and asked me to sign his Tetris cartridge for GameBoy. Then he glued it into his GameBoy in front of me. Remember a GameBoy was expensive back then. He's probably still got it now.
Why did you decide to move from Russia to the USA?
Pajitnov: I feel I needed to know better my country and practically all my countrymen were in United States.
Was it difficult adjusting in the early days?
Pajitnov: I was in a better position than many of my compatriots that move to the USA. It was a little bit easier for me although my English was very bad and I didn't understand the lifestyle.
What things were challenging with the culture?
Pajitnov: Well, first of all there was never any bureaucracy at home. In the States there were lots of letters, lots of things to work out. That was the big differences. Tax for instance was never something I had to deal with in Russia. There was tax in Russia but it was always withdrawn at your place of work. It was much simpler.
Do you play games yourself?
Pajitnov: I got very much hooked on World of Warcraft. I spent a lot of time on that. The experience itself was great. I'd never played those MMOs before. I tried multiplayer RTS but never anything on this scale. I want to know use this kind of game in my own designs. Some of its parts were very interesting.
Is there anything in the games industry that annoys you?
Pajitnov: Not really. Every industry should serve the customer. I'm very much against games that try to educate the customer. You know, designers should make the games the customer wants. Also, if people don't like a certain game they should not play it.
What's a great thing about the industry?
Pajitnov: I like that it is much more suitable for people than say other activities. It keeps you active and it fires the imagination.
Is Hexic something you'd want to expand on?
Pajitnov: I designed Hexic because the guys who made Bejewelled did a bad job. It made me angry so I thought I would do a better job and made Bejewelled how it should have been made. With Hexic 2 the two-player mode is just great. The original game was very good and I was proud of it but this new version is excellent. So far Hexic 2 is doing good and maybe I would return to it later if I felt I had a new idea or direction for it.