To start at the end, as it were, before I forget everything. The theme for this week in my old telly adventures seems to have mainly been Bad Stuff Happening to Planes.*( Ransom, Secret Army & Department S )
I am so incredibly thrilled! I have seriously never, ever, been so excited about the casting of a new Doctor.
Anyone know where I can get an icon of the 13th Doctor? Surely, someone somewhere has screencapped that BBC announcement video?
Welcome to dw100
. Challenges are posted roughly once a week.
Challenge #662 is alert
- All stories must be 100 words long.
- Please place your story behind a cut if it contains spoilers for the current/next season or the new Doctor.
- You don't have to use the challenge word or phrase in your story; it's just there for inspiration.
- Please use the challenge tag 662: alert
on your entry.
If there's one thing I'll risk signing up for, even in summer, and even verging on Yuletide, it's Remix! And someone has set up a replacement for the much-lamented RemixRedux at remixrevival
and sign ups are open at AO3 from now until the 30th. If you're also into remixing, or want to be, head over there now!
This version also allows art/art remixes (and art/fic, fic/art remixes) if that would interest you more than writing. (I went for fic/fic; I love the whole thing of writing remixes and being remixed in writing.) It seems to allow origfic as well, and there will still be a Remix Madness collection, when anyone can throw their works into the ring without signing up, which is about as low pressure you can get in a writing exchange. :-)
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.)
Reading: Still Crime and Punishment. I have reached part 2. I'm finding Raskolnikov, the protagonist, somewhat irritating though, unlike Anna Karenina, I assume this is deliberate and much of the book is intended to be a study of poor decision making, its causes and effects.
Listening: I've come late to The Ood Cast, currently in a fore-shortened form as "The Ood One Out". It is a little self-satisfied, but it is interesting to hear a fan podcast where most of the participants are professionals and so mingle skits and songs with episode discussion. I don't think I shall go back and listen to the back catalog, as I have with some other podcasts, but I've been happy enough to listen along to the Oods reactions to the latest season.
Watching: B. is away again and G. and I do not currently have a watching project. So there hasn't been a lot of watching this week.
They're playing a rerun of the Star Trek TOS episode "The Naked Time," or as I call it, the "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" episode. It was one of my favorite episodes when I was a kid just for the part where the sick crewperson kept singing that over and over again. We used to go around the house singing it. (I'm sure my parents loved that.)
Anyone else have any stories about old TV and what you used to name the episodes back when you didn't know what the official names were?
In other news, Broadchurch series 3 has made it to BBC America. I watched the first episode and really liked it. But before I get too far into it, for those of you've seen it already: is it better than series 2?
Went out and picked 2 gallons of blueberries this morning, now they're freezing on trays so I can bag them up without them all sticking together into a lump later on.
While picking a young family went by me with two little kids "helping" pick (Look what I got! Look! Look what I got! Look! I got some! Look! I can pick A LOT!) and the parents going along in good humor (Yes, I see. Yes. That's a lot all right. Berries! Yes. Pick the blue ones. You have berries. I see. You picked them! Good job. Now let's pick some more. The blue ones.)
As they were paying for their berries I could hear him (he was too short to see over the bushes): "I ate a...a...GALLON of blueberries! Weigh me!" - then he climbed into their car jauntily calling out "Have a BERRY NICE DAY!" while laughing at his own joke. X-D
Happy summer fruit time everyone!
Welcome to dw100
. Challenges are posted approximately once a week.
Challenge #661 is treasure.
- All stories must be 100 words long.
- Please place your story behind a cut if it contains spoilers for the current season.
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- Please use the challenge tag 661: treasure on any story posted to this challenge.
This was our second venture into Season 7 and another impressive story.
Stretched over 7 episodes, it is another story that is much better than it has any right to be given its length - and I'm writing that so frequently that I'm beginning to wonder if Doctor Who actually works better when trying to fill 3 hours or more than when it is aiming for around 2 1/2 hours or whether it is the simple novelty of having so many episodes to fill that makes writers think more broadly. I mean it still has the basic structure of set-up - solve incidental problems - resolution but the incidental problems seem to work better as discreet chunks that are interesting in their own right.
The episodes which deal with the Silurian's attempts to start a worldwide pandemic are particularly effective, and a sequence I recall vividly from the novelisation. This is several years before Survivors but seems to be tapping into the same zeitgeist. That said, tame layman had a number of uncomplimentary things to say about quarantine procedures and one can't help feeling the whole thing hinges on several people in authority behaving very foolishly at critical moments.
Fulton Mackay's turn as the weasely Dr. Quinn is also impressive. The audience perception of him naturally progresses from the idea that he is one of the more reasonable members of the research centre hierarchy to the realisation that he is essentially ambitiously self-serving and covering this up with an air of geniality.
On the downside the idea that people are overcome by the race memory of Silurians, which is potentially powerful and atmospheric is more or less abandoned after the first couple of episodes. It is used to justify the presence of UNIT but not really pursued thereafter. I recall more being made of it in the novelisation.
Caroline John continues to make Liz an impressive companion. She demonstrates how a scientist-companion can be used as a person to whom work and responsibility can be delegated by the Doctor. I'm increasingly bemused by the idea that the powers-that-be thought she was not a success as a companion since the script doesn't seem to have any trouble with giving her stuff to do while maintaining the Doctor's overall authority.
Doctor Who would be a very different thing if it had continued down the path set out in season 7. I think you would need to be a much better analyst of media trends than I am to predict whether it could have had the longevity it has enjoyed with this more serious and adult-oriented format but, by its own lights, I would say it was a resounding success.
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.)