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The Story of Tetris Max

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It was the summer of 1992. Nirvana smelled like teen spirit, Ross Perot was running for president, and I was a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wanted to play tetris. Looking at the options then available for my Macintosh LC computer, none of them were inspiring. My friends were all addicted to a beautifully crafted Mac falling blocks game called Jewelbox, and I wondered if I could make a Macintosh tetris with the same level of polish. And so began the story of Tetris Max, a game that was to play a major role in my life for the next decade.

I had only a shaky understanding of the C language, and a weak grasp of Mac programming fundamentals. This was before the days when any programming question could be answered in seconds at stackoverflow.com, so knowledge had to be gained the hard way, reading through the five thick printed volumes of Inside Macintosh. Somehow I cobbled together a working game.

Before long, I had dozens of friends camped out in my room day and night, competing for high scores and offering feedback on dropping speed, rotation rules, key repeat behavior, and other fine points that made the difference between a so-so game and a great one. We polished the hell out of that thing, arguing over arcane details until the gameplay was dialed perfectly. Then I agonized over all the little graphics elements and sound effects, for events like dropping a piece, advancing to the next level, or getting a high score. Somehow a mooing cow found its way in there too. I became obsessed with perfecting every aspect of the game until it was buttery smooth.

For music, I chose the instrumental portion of Jesus Jones’ song Blissed. It had that ethereal quality appropriate for trance-like extended play at level 10. Over lunch one day, a few friends and I argued over what meaningless suffix would be best for the game title. Tetris Gold? Tetris Pro? Tetris Plus? How about Tetris Max? Yes, that’s it!

At the time there were dozens of tetris versions available, including the popular xtetris, and Asshole Tetris, which cheated against the player. I was aware that the game concept originated with a Russian man, but it seemed a generic idea like chess or tennis, and it didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t call it “tetris”. This came back to haunt me later.

 
Launch

In August 1992, I uploaded the first version of Tetris Max to the Info-Mac archive and America Online, which was about as advanced as Mac software distribution got at the time. I prayed that somebody would notice my submission, and… surprise! Somebody did. A lot of somebodies! I started receiving an extraordinary number of emails from all over the world, from people telling me how much they enjoyed playing Tetris Max. It was beyond the best I’d hoped for. The game was a hit!

Everyone wanted to know about their high score. How did it compare to others? What was the highest score ever achieved? People shared their stories of deep states of meditation achieved on level 10, the final level where human reflexes were just barely fast enough to keep up, where marathon length tetris sessions were possible, but where a single mistake was fatal. Others claimed the game helped them get to sleep each night, or reduced their stress levels, like a form of therapy. As for myself, I played the game so much that I began to see falling shapes in my mind whenever I closed my eyes, and would mentally rotate and drop them without any conscious thought.

EPSON MFP image

By that winter Tetris Max had become a major force in the world of Macintosh games, and the excitement level continued to grow. I was invited to appear in a book about Macintosh shareware called Mac Arcade: Don Rittner’s Top Shareware Game Picks. The book included several pages about Tetris Max, including a rather silly biography of me. When I later saw it on sale at a local bookstore, it was one of the most exciting things to yet happen in my young life. And it helped ratchet up the level of Tetris Max mania even further.

After the game had been out for a few months, I was contacted by Peter Wagner, an amateur musician and tetris fan from New Jersey. He loved Tetris Max, and offered to compose some original music for it. The song he sent me was perfect for tetris: beautiful, memorable, and almost meditative without becoming annoying when it was looped 1000 times. When I released an update to Tetris Max, I substituted in Peter’s music, and it became the iconic Tetris Max music that anyone who’s ever played the game probably still remembers today. A funny bit of trivia: Peter sent me his song on a cassette tape, which I digitized using a tape deck whose motor was too slow. So the music in the game is transposed down about a whole step from Peter’s original composition.

Through 1993, the Tetris Max train continued gathering steam. The October 1993 issue of MacUser magazine (feature article: the new Apple Newton) gave it an honorable mention in their annual shareware awards. My name was in print again, and unlike the Mac Arcade book, it was spelled right! Exciting times for a young Macintosh fan.

 
Making It Pay

By mid 1993 I had graduated from M.I.T. and was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This whole time Tetris Max had been a free game, and the only thing I asked people for was a note saying hi. Most other Macintosh games at the time were distributed as shareware, a try-before-you-buy system in which people were asked to send money to the author if they liked the program. With the popularity of Tetris Max, I heard loud arguments from my friends that I was an idiot for not using the shareware idea myself, so I decided to give it a try. In September 1993 I released a new version of the game as a $10 shareware product.

The response was weak at first. Players were under the honor system to send the shareware fee, but there was nothing really motivating them except perhaps a guilty conscience. Later I implemented a nag screen, and an A.I. player feature that was unlocked only for registered customers, both of which helped boost the number of registrations somewhat. But the total remained low.

What really made a difference was the introduction of the “Bonus Disk Set” in 1994. Recognizing that most people needed some incentive to register shareware, I gave them one in the form of a collection of alternate tetris piece graphics, sounds, and music to use with the game. Because only registered users were eligible to purchase the bonus disk set, it spurred lots of new registrations.

In those days there was no PayPal or other easy way to send small amounts of money to a stranger, so the registration system was incredibly low-tech. I rented a box at the Cambridge post office in Central Square, a few blocks from where I lived. Customers wrote paper checks and mailed them to my P.O. box. I used a cheesy XOR algorithm to generate a registration code from their name, then mailed them back a letter with the code. It was tremendously labor-intensive, and I spent hours manually typing people’s names into a database and stuffing envelopes. But low-tech or not, the system worked, and for a while I earned a very nice side income from shareware registration fees. Steve Wozniak even registered the game on behalf of his kids charity. His check was signed just “Woz”.

Receiving payments from people outside the United States was a big problem. My bank would generally not accept checks drawn on non-US banks, or if they did, the service fee was greater than the amount of the check. Other solutions like international money orders didn’t work well either. Eventually I settled on a simple solution: cash. Plain old pound notes, francs, deutschmarks, and reals, plucked from a wallet and stuffed in an envelope. I could convert these to US cash for a small fee at any bank or money changer, but in practice I kept many of them as souvenirs. Sending cash through the mail sounds like it might be a risky idea due to possible mail theft, but I never had even a single cash registration go missing.

Over time, several alternate versions of Tetris Max were developed. In 1994 my friend Yev ported the game to Windows 3.1 and released it as Bricklayer. We split the shareware income between us, but it was never very much, as Bricklayer for Windows never enjoyed anywhere near the popularity of Tetris Max for Macintosh. I also reused much of the same code to develop Columns Max in 1995, and Dr. Max in 1997. Neither game was very successful, and to be honest Columns Max was pretty bad, but I’m proud of Dr. Max. It has a great feel and cute little animations, and is lots of fun to play.

mac-arcade-pack

The most important alternate version appeared in the Mac Arcade Pak, published by MacSoft. Beginning in 1994, the game appeared (as Bricklayer) in this collection of five Macintosh games sold across the country at stores like Comp USA and Micro Center. It was low-cost budget software, and I only earned a 25 cent royalty for each one, but MacSoft sold a tremendous number of that Arcade Pak. My relationship with MacSoft’s partner Varcon Systems grew in importance as the Mac Arcade Pak took off. Once when I was buying a new monitor at Comp USA, the woman ahead of me in the checkout line was buying the Mac Arcade Pak. But when I casually mentioned that I’d written one of the games, she didn’t seem impressed. 🙂

By 1996 things were going well, and my Cambridge P.O. box was stuffed with envelopes whenever I visited. But I had a problem: I was moving to California. I could release a new version with a new address for registrations, but so many copies of the old version remained in circulation that the Cambridge box was sure to keep receiving letters for a long time to come. My solution was to hire my grad student friend Tom to check the Cambridge box for me, and forward the letters to my new address in California. Problem solved… for a while at least.

Even as the Macintosh platform lost market share, the popularity of the game was undiminished. I continued to get emails and letters from enthusiastic players around the world, and everyone still wanted to know about their high score. I finally got fed up with manual registration processing in 1997. Opening envelopes, database entry, post office runs, bounced checks… it was all too much, so I contracted with Kagi Shareware to process the registrations for me. Letters went directly to Kagi, who handled all the money, registration codes, and customer correspondence. They took a big chunk of the income in exchange for their service, but it was worth it for all the headache that it saved me.

 
The End of Things

In 1998 I received a letter from New York law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP on behalf of The Tetris Company, an organization with the sole purpose of licensing the tetris brand. The letter claimed that both Tetris Max and Columns Max infringed on the trademark, copyright, and other rights of The Tetris Company, and demanded that I immediately stop all distribution and sales of the games. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was part of a broad effort by TTC in the late 90’s to remove all freeware and shareware versions of tetris from the market.

Some aspects of these claims seemed dubious to me, as it’s subjective to what extent the “look and feel” of a software program is protected by copyright, and Columns Max was not a tetris game at all. But the “tetris” trademark infringement was more clear, and it seemed I was straight-up wrong in using that as part of the game’s name. After briefly consulting with a lawyer, who wasn’t much help, I decided I didn’t have the resources or the desire to fight. I removed Tetris Max from the internet wherever I could, instructed Kagi to stop accepting shareware registrations, and formally terminated my contract with Varcon.

But stopping Tetris Max proved easier said than done. Because there were so many copies of the game still in circulation, registrations continued to arrive at Kagi and at my old P.O. box. I had to send letters back to all those would-be-registrants, returning their checks. Kagi complained that they were spending hours doing the same thing for the registrations that reached them, yet not getting paid for their efforts, but there was nothing I could do about it. It took about two years for the tide of incoming registrations to finally taper off.

As an interesting post-script, in 2000 I became involved in another legal dispute over Tetris Max, after the game had already been discontinued for more than 18 months. Varcon received a summons to Massachusetts civil court, for a suit related to Tetris Max and the Mac Arcade Pak. It was part of a complex dispute involving derivatives of
Tetris, Missile Command, Pac Man, Dig Dug, and Asteroids. In all there were 4 or 5 companies suing, including Elorg and Hasbro, and 10 different companies being sued. There was no question of trademark infringement this time, and the entire case rested on claims of look and feel copyright violations.

Two months later, I saw a press release saying that Varcon had settled their part of the case, although it mentioned Pac Man and not Tetris. I never heard anything further about the case.

April 19, 2000. BEVERLY, Mass.–Hasbro’s video game unit Hasbro Interactive said today that it has settled a lawsuit with two companies that were accused of violating its copyright on such popular video games as “Pac-Man,” “Centipede” and “Tetris,” for an undisclosed sum.

The two companies, GT Interactive and Varcon Systems, agreed to stop selling look-alike games of titles owned or licensed by Hasbro. GT Interactive and Varcon, for example, sold games like “Mac-Man” and “Munch Man,” which Hasbro said infringed on its copyright of “Pac-Man.”

Hasbro said it would continue to pursue its suit against eGames. and smaller companies Webfoot, MVP Software and Xtreme Games.

Some people may read this story and conclude I’m a bad person for unfairly using somebody else’s idea, and to a large extent I would agree. In hindsight it would certainly have been better if I’d developed a new game concept instead of recycling an existing one. Like many projects gone awry, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s now 2015, and the Macintosh operating system looks radically different than it did in the 90’s. Tetris Max can’t even run on today’s Macs, outside of an emulator for vintage software. Yet two decades later, I still get occasional emails from fans, and they STILL want to know about their high scores. Some things never change!

Read 6 comments and join the conversation 

6 Comments so far

  1. Peter December 11th, 2015 2:15 pm

    Amazing story Steve!
    So what was the best score submitted?

  2. Steve Chamberlin December 11th, 2015 7:29 pm

    Haha, I honestly don’t remember, but I do recall watching a few games of a friend that lasted the better part of an hour.

  3. Anne March 10th, 2016 6:12 am

    i found peter robert wagner’s site, do you remember what the “alternate” music was called? i’d like to listen to it again. i had this game as a kid and would still play it if i had it, i have never played a tetris as “smooth” as this one. great story!!

  4. Samuel B May 16th, 2016 5:02 pm

    That’s a really cool story. I liked the part about the music being slower than it was supposed to be. I never played it myself but my mom loved tetris and this was the one she would play back when she had an old mac. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jane Smith September 4th, 2016 7:41 pm

    Tetris Max is absolutely the best computer game I ever played and I miss it so much :0(

  6. Amy Rottier January 8th, 2017 4:18 pm

    I loved Tetris Max. I played it at work – I know, I know… I was a young engineer at a big company and it kept me occupied. I loved the music – mine was from Blissed. Today I asked Alexa to play Jesus Jones – and suddenly I was back in my little office playing Tetris!

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