Tetris' Maker Has His "A" Game

Alexey Pajitnov fumbles in his jacket pocket and brings out a thin little box, no bigger than your typical video-game package. Inside, underneath the Russian-language instructions, lie the red plastic pieces of a Pentomino set -- shaped like a cross, the letter "L," and a stair -- each composed of five little squares. As Pajitnov shakes them out onto our lunch table, he explains that the goal of the puzzle is to assemble the pieces together into a rectangle.

"If you were to try and do it now, you might finish by the end of the day," says Pajitnov. It's just noon. Then he puts the pieces together in under two minutes, muttering all the while in a worried manner that he doesn't quite remember how to do it. "I'd just done it many times before," Pajitnov, 50, says at the end, apologetically.

These Pentomino pieces have shaped Pajitnov's life. In the 1980s they inspired this longtime fan of math problems and puzzles to create Tetris. Still one of the most popular games in the world, Tetris challenges players to fit falling Pentomino-like pieces together, leaving no spaces. Two years ago, Pajitnov designed another game in which pieces fall down: Hexic, which is now available as a free download for the Xbox 360.


  Finally, Pentomino is the catalyst for a new puzzle game, due out in late 2006, that he's developing for Russia-based WildSnake. Pajitnov thinks of game pieces as personalities. The triangle, for example, is "prickly, people don't like it," he says. "There's something magical about these shapes."

There's also something addictive about them. A few months after it was created in Russia, Tetris squeezed out from under the Iron Curtain and into the PC-filled West, where such gaming companies as Nintendo and Atari fought for licensing rights. In the end, Tetris was credited with making Nintendo's Game Boy handheld console a success.

It also took "gaming mainstream," says Simon Jeffery, president of Sega of America. "Back then, gaming was the prerogative of geeks and nerds, and, suddenly you started seeing grandmothers and children playing games. It spawned a whole new genre of gaming."


  That genre, called "casual games," is now a $205 million market that's projected to grow to $2.1 billion by 2010, according to gaming consultancy DFC Intelligence. It has attracted everyone from longtime game publishers like Sega and Electronic Arts (ERTS) to Microsoft (MSFT), where Pajitnov has worked on and off after moving from Russia to a Seattle suburb with his family in 1991.

It was Microsoft that published Hexic, making it available on the MSN Games Web site two years ago. "It's a very popular game, and its popularity will probably grow as we place it on every Xbox 360," says Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft Casual Games. "We looked for games that would transcend all geographic regions, that were easy to learn but that offered enough complexity."

The new, Xbox 360 version of Hexic, called Hexic HD, in which players rotate clusters of colorful, hexagonal tiles to create same-color groupings, offers better graphics than its MSN Games cousin. The tiles look like colorful, clear gems that glint in the light and seem to pop off the screen.


  Pajitnov is particularly proud of Hexic's "flowers," introduced in advanced levels of the game. You create a flower by positioning same-colored hexagonal pieces around a tile, in a daisy-like pattern. Each completed flower becomes a star, earning points for the player. Going one step further, players that assemble six stars into a flower earn a pearl.

"It takes a lot of guts, after you've already taught a player to rotate pieces to create clusters, to push the player to learn new skills," Pajitnov says. "I don't know of another game that offers such a change midway through. But, because of this, the game has become interesting for serious players."

More cool new features could be forthcoming. Although Pajitnov left Microsoft in August, 2004, to relax -- which, for him, means playing Russian rhyming word games and writing satire -- he has become bored and is negotiating with the Redmond giant to come back on board. That means gamers can look forward to a Hexic 2, which might include richer audio and 3-D animation.


  Indeed, gaming animation is of particular interest to Pajitnov nowadays. Back in Russia, which he visits several times a year, Pajitnov is collaborating with Lifemode Interactive to develop a facial animation technology for a new checkers game. Due out in 2006, the title will feature pawns that look like little animated round faces and wink at you as you make your moves.

Pajitnov doesn't spend much time gaming himself. He doesn't own a PlayStation console ("Shame on me," he says with a smile, not the least ashamed), and his sons are the ones playing the Xbox. His true favorites sit behind glass on the shelves of his home office: mechanical puzzles such as a Rubik's Cube and intertwined-disks teasers.

But he does spend time watching his sons compete in Halo. Observing how other people play, "you see things you don't see when you play yourself," says Pajitnov. "You see how the screen is laid out, how the visual effects are done."


  It's these observations that have allowed the designer to create some of the most addictive games in the world. Pajitnov likes to talk of his "kitchen," or the assembly of tools and rules he uses to make his games.

Some will be familiar to any game designer: Players don't like a game's appearance to change drastically in the midst of play. They also can't remember more than seven game elements at a time, which is why a typical first-person shooter offers the choice of seven weapons.

But Pajitnov's greatest secret lies, perhaps, in understanding why gamers keep on playing. "As strange as it may sound, most of my work focuses on motivation," says Pajitnov, who got sucked into game development by coming up with games for psychologists.

Hexic, for instance, rewards players for good moves rather than punishing them for mistakes. This sort of positive motivation is powerful. And Pajitnov's understanding of human psychology might, in fact, explain why 15% of the games he designs get published, while the average for designers is 5%.


  Pajitnov believes there's a lot of work still to be done to take casual games to the next level. Cell-phone games "have a long way to go," he says. "The graphics are small, many games are weak, controls are uncomfortable. There's lots of space for progress."

Online, he believes we'll see a rise of multiplayer casual games, allowing people to play against each other for 10 minutes a day, in between errands. However those platforms evolve, one thing is for sure: The Father of Tetris will continue to create games inspired by Pentomino.

Just don't call him the Father of Tetris. He doesn't even let his sons tell their friends. "I can easily get mad," he says with a broad grin.

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