Interview with Alexey Pajitnov | Allcorrect Games

Interview with Alexey Pajitnov

Denis Khamin, the co-founder of Allcorrect, is writing a book about the history of the gaming industry. One of his first interviewees for the material preparation was Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of the legendary game “Tetris.” With Denis’ permission, we are publishing excerpts from the interview.

The Burden of Tetris and Working at the Research Institute

Denis Khamin: Alexey, good day. You are probably one of the most well-known game developers from the post-Soviet space in general. “Tetris” has been called the most popular game many times. Do you feel the weight of its popularity because you created such a famous game?
Alexey Pajitnov: Yes, of course, I do feel it. But I have gotten used to it because the game has been around for almost 40 years. It quickly became very popular, so you could say I hit the big time many years ago. And then it became somewhat routine. I gave many interviews and presented various awards for “Tetris” competitions. I have received quite a bit of fan mail from “Tetris” enthusiasts asking for autographs. They send all sorts of cartridges, photos, and cards for me to sign. That’s my burden.

D.K.: Does “Tetris” have its own history?
A.P.: “Tetris” originated from a puzzle called “Pentomino.” It looks like a square box of either 5×12 or 6×10, containing all possible pentominoes. A pentomino is a shape made up of five squares. They can be neatly fitted together in various ways, forming letters like Z, X, and so on. At the time when I started creating similar games on the computer, I had an idea: to create a two-player game based on this set.

D.K.: What were you doing at the Computing Center during the creation of “Tetris”?
A.P.: I worked in the laboratory of technical cybernetics at the Computing Center of the Academy of Sciences.

It mainly focused on microprocessors and microprocessor systems. More precisely, in the sector of automatic speech recognition. We were developing a speech feature extraction device that was connected to the BESM-6 computer: we could input speech fragments into the BESM-6 memory and record them on tapes, then recognize them using various methods. Now, it probably sounds funny, but at that time, it seemed like science fiction.

Rights to Tetris

D.K.: Tell us about how “Tetris” made its way onto the global stage.
A.P.: The game’s first publisher was a British man of Hungarian descent named Robert Stein. He saw it at the SZKI institute, as he later recounted. It was something like a Computing Center that dealt with computer issues in Budapest. Stein would come there and see what software they had—buying some, publishing others. He saw “Tetris” there, and he liked it.

We entered into a formal contract with Stein. He probably interpreted it as full agreement to the license and began publishing “Tetris.”

At that time, neither individuals nor legal entities could have contact with foreign organizations. Only specifically organized agencies dealt with such contracts. The Ministry of Foreign Trade had several agencies that bought and sold various items abroad. I visited all of them during those few months while I was dealing with this. I was rejected by Licensintorg, I never made it to RFTA, and elsewhere they asked me not to bother them. No one managed to talk to me, as they were all too busy. But I did encounter a rather nice young guy at ELORG, who took an enthusiastic interest in my “Tetris.” I felt relieved because the matter was in the hands of someone from ELORG and started writing new games and focusing on other things.

After a while, it turned out that “Tetris” had already been published, and I received minor reproaches about sending an incorrect telex. I told them that I responded the best I could, and they could see for themselves. They explained to me that what I wrote was correct, but it wasn’t right for an inexperienced person to communicate, as my response was interpreted as a green light for publication, even though they hadn’t received it yet.

In the end, this whole business mess had already brewed, and in late ’88, this version of “Tetris” was released on all PCs in America and Europe.

In ’88, “Tetris” took the top spots in all computer game competitions. The game was released on dozens of home computers—Sinclair, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari, etc. Mirrorsoft published it everywhere. Spectrum HoloByte made a very good version for PC. And since the game, as you know, is highly addictive, it quickly became popular.

But we didn’t grant rights for the console. The initial contract only covered computers, devices with a monitor and a keyboard. Consoles had a TV and a joystick, so they were not included in the list.

At that time, the rights management process was not well established, so Stein sold this version to someone else. It was eventually published, and when my friend Hank Rogers came here for the rights to Game Boy and brought the published “Tetris” cartridge for Nintendo, they said to him, “Hey, we didn’t give anyone these rights.” In reality, it was fortunate that he happened to be there because we had just resolved that issue. He proved to be quite solid, serious, and honest in business, which allowed us to secure a very good contract for handheld machines—the platforms to which Game Boy belonged. That’s why the release of Game Boy became a significant event in the history of computer games.

Hank Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov.

Emigration and Business in the USA

D.K.: Tell us about how you moved to the USA. Nowadays, stories like yours are somewhat common in the IT world, but back then, I imagine it was quite unusual.
A.P.: At some point, I realized that working on speech recognition was a dead-end, a wrong choice from the beginning. What really appealed to me was the excellent access I had to the BESM-6 computer. I tried to find an activity that somehow aligned with my gaming interests and had a legitimate aspect to it.

That’s when the idea struck me that games are not entirely technical products, and if they have any connection to a field of science, it’s most likely psychology.

I went to psychologists, to the psychology department, to acquaintances of my father who were also psychologists, and I said, “Guys, I’m a good programmer, I have computer access. Maybe I can do something for you? Are there any methodologies or anything you’re interested in? How can we develop psychology with the help of computers?”

Naturally, everyone was interested in this. I ended up with two or three business connections, and we ultimately computerized their methodologies. I put a lot of effort into it, and I gained popularity within the computer psychology community. That’s how I met my future business partner, Vladimir Pokhilko. It turned out that both of us were invited to create games, and we cooperated quite successfully a couple of times. We enjoyed working together, and he became my more or less permanent gaming partner.

Vladimir persistently convinced me to move. We left the USSR in January ’91. During our absence, the country ceased to exist—we didn’t even have a chance to look back. Technically, we had nowhere to return, but the country that issued our passports and sent us to work was no longer there. We didn’t think about returning because there were plenty of opportunities—after all, that’s why we came. Later, we received our green cards and settled down.

D.K.: So, you started your business with Vladimir Pokhilko and engaged in game development in the USA.
A.P.: We not only developed games but also technologies for games. Our first project wasn’t exactly a game; it was called “El Fish”—an electronic aquarium with fish. Maxis published it on PC and later on other devices. Creating a visually pleasing aquarium on the screen was a challenging task at that time. The fish even reproduced, and you could crossbreed them. It was an interesting project.

D.K.: Did you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Did you enjoy doing it?
A.P.: To be honest, not really. It was gratifying to realize that I could do it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I felt a sense of pride when I managed to create something new on the computer. However, when I succeeded in making business deals, I didn’t experience much satisfaction. That’s why I never considered myself a serious businessman. Of course, I could organize something if necessary. After all, I spent a year and a half as the president of a company, and it didn’t go bankrupt during that time. I understand what business is and how it works. But honestly, I don’t enjoy doing it and don’t want to.

The Number of Games Developed by Alexey Pajitnov

D.K.: I tried to count how many games you’ve developed, but I couldn’t. Partly because there are quite a few of them, and partly because there are many variations of “Tetris.” Whether they are separate games or part of one family is unclear. So, how many games have you developed?
A.P.: I don’t know how to approach that either. It’s even harder for me to count because I love them all. Both those that were widely published and those that had limited releases or were created by chance. For example, did I develop the game “Knight’s Tour” or not? It’s a game with chess pieces, a real one, and it’s one of my favorites. Joint venture “Dialog” bought it from me in ’87. They gave me a computer with an 80-megabyte hard drive—I was happy because I finally had my own computer. Then this game was published once, you won’t believe it, on a disk for Nintendo.

For a while, Famicom had a small-scale system on a disk. The disk had one spiral track. It was almost like a magnetic tape but on a disk.
The released game was called “Knight Move,” which was my “Knight’s Tour.” Then, with my approval, it was published and reissued by Spectrum HoloByte, but it didn’t turn out well that time. They got overly engrossed in 3D graphics and excessive details, which made the game lag. As a result, it didn’t sell at all. So, one of my favorite games wasn’t properly published. How should I feel about it? Is it a game I designed or not?

D.K.: Of course, it is. I was actually going to ask about your favorite game, and you’ve already told us.
A.P.: This is one of my favorites. Actually, it’s an early game. I made it shortly after “Tetris,” around ’86 or ’87. At that time, I created about five games. Most of them were included in “Microsoft Entertainment Pack: The Puzzle Collection” for MS-DOS. I’m very proud of that. It’s a bit old-fashioned by today’s standards, with a somewhat cumbersome interface, but it’s a good collection of 10 honest and highly original puzzle games. Six of them were mine, and the other four were created by someone else.

In that collection, there’s a game called “Muddled Casino.” It was my very first game ever—a puzzle game.

I came up with it even before “Tetris” for the Electronika 60. Then the guys ported it to PC, significantly improving it while keeping the original idea. Although it’s a bit heavy, I have warm feelings toward it because it was the first thing I created.

Favorite Games of Alexey Pajitnov

D.K.: I actually wanted to ask about mobile games. Nowadays, it’s the dominant segment in terms of revenue and audience. After all, every player has a smartphone… How do you feel about them?
A.P.: I couldn’t care less about the platform; I love games. If they are good on a particular platform, then that’s the platform to go for. If they are better on another platform, then we choose that one.

D.K.: Do you have any favorite mobile games?
A.P.: Of course, there are games that I regularly play on my smartphone, but I can’t remember their names at all. In one of them, for example, you have to match three elements in a row on the board. It’s a typical game, but for some reason, it hooked me. I’ve been playing it for about seven or eight years, 15–20 minutes every day.

Recently, I got absolutely hooked. One game absorbed me and still holds me captive. It’s been almost a month, and I don’t know how to break free from it. It’s called “Art of War: Legions,” a game about soldiers. You have to assemble a 7×7 army composed of 49 squads or platoons—I don’t know what to call them. Each unit has its own specific characteristics. The developers successfully combined the passion for collecting with certain strategic aspects and items. What else do I play? I regularly play “Tetris,” constantly. And sometimes, my friends and I create small puzzles and release them on the App Store. There are three of us, and occasionally, we invite someone else. We don’t promote ourselves much; I simply help my friends, and I enjoy it.

Best Games

D.K.: What is the best computer game for you, regardless of genre?
A.P.: I’m a puzzler; I love puzzles, and every two months or so, I browse the App Store searching for something that will captivate me. Although honestly, browsing through it is disappointing because the offerings there are quite primitive, and there aren’t many interesting ones.

There was “Monument Valley”—a very beautiful puzzle game, black and white. Also, a pretty decent game called “Empires and Puzzles.”

I’ve been playing it every morning in small doses for seven years and have already reached the highest levels possible. However, I don’t have particularly warm feelings toward it; it’s more of a habit.

Another one is “The Witness”—a collection of puzzles combined with a 3D exploration. You walk through a meticulously designed space and encounter puzzle screens that you need to solve. The puzzles range from very simple to extremely challenging.

D.K.: If you don’t mind sharing, what level did you reach in “Warcraft”?
A.P.: I wasn’t among the top 100 players, of course, but I probably achieved everything a normal person could in “Warcraft.” I got into it, and then I made friends who played together. But “Warcraft” also interested me as a designer, so unlike regular players, I took a broad approach. I studied players and characters and tried to explore all the quests for each specialization in the game. I played not just to win but also to not miss anything.

One Piece of Advice from a Regular Guy

D.K.: We’re gradually approaching the end. I hope our interview will be read by game developers. Do you have any advice for them?
A.P.: I’m just an ordinary guy, not a genius, guru, or da Vinci, someone who has stumbled many times. I’ve experienced many failures and made both bad and good games, successful and unsuccessful ones. I hate giving advice, especially in a creative field like game development.

So, I can only give one piece of advice: listen to yourself.

The best and most important things can be accomplished when you don’t try to make something better than others, but instead, aim to create something that you can’t tear yourself away from. That approach shapes a serious developer.


Allcorrect is a game content studio that helps game developers free their time from routine processes to focus on key tasks. Our expertise includes professional game localizations, creating juicy 2D and 3D graphics, localization testing, believable voice-overs, and narrative design.


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