Chris Higgins

Portland-Based Author of "The Blogger Abides"
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Posts Tagged with ‘The Magazine’

Adam Rosko (Captain Kirk) is buried by Tribbles

2013 has been a year of professional changes for me, and the most satisfying has been publishing five feature articles in The Magazine. The Magazine is in the final days of crowdfunding a hardcover book (plus ebook version) featuring 25 articles from its first year, and I’m asking for you to back the project. This means a lot to me. Here’s why:

1. The Magazine Is Good for Writers

I’m a working writer. I write articles, I get paid for them, I pay the mortgage with that money. The Magazine has extremely reasonable and writer-friendly contract terms. The typical contract you sign as a writer is like, “MegaGlobalCorp owns your ass, and you’ll be lucky to receive $0.50 for your work. You promise to give back the $0.50 if MegaGlobalCorp ever gets angry. Do not taunt MegaGlobalCorp.”

The contract offered by The Magazine is a shining model of reason, simplicity, and fairness. I’d summarize it: “You own your ass. The Magazine would like to pay you well to run a product of said ass on a limited basis. Oh, and we pay photographers and illustrators too.” It’s like signing a contract with a puppy, using a unicorn horn as a pen. An actual for-profit publication runs like this. That matters, folks.

Oh yeah, and despite not having any contractual obligation to do so, The Magazine will pay writers, photographers, and illustrators to re-run our work in this book. Why? Because The Magazine is good to its contributors and recognizes that we’re all in this together.

2. The Magazine Is Good for Readers

You can read The Magazine on your Kindle (I do!). Or on their website (also mobile-optimized). Or your iPad, using a beautiful native app. Or your iPhone. It costs TWO BUCKS to access EVERY BACK ISSUE EVER for a month (or $20 a year). It’s published every two weeks. Every issue includes a free article in case you don’t subscribe. There are no advertisements. Show me another magazine of this quality with this level of generosity to its readers. (By the way, the Kickstarter offers discounted $15/year subscriptions…you should get one. I hear they make great gifts, too.)

Oh yeah, and you can download all the back issues in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (other e-reader) formats and keep them forever, even if you cancel your subscription. And Glenn Fleishman, the editor, even tells people this on Twitter — it’s not a sneaky thing, it’s just how this magazine works. To quote the Bluth family, “COME ON!”

3. I Write for The Magazine a Lot

I ran the numbers in May to figure out who writes for The Magazine. I ran them again in August, just before a few more of my articles were published. I have put serious effort into becoming a frequent contributor, and I want that to count. I’ve already been paid well for my efforts, and recognized by readers (that’s especially nice — thanks, y’all), but I have an interest in the ongoing health of this publication. I want to keep writing for it, and I want more people to say, “Oh yeah, I love The Magazine!” When I began writing for mental_floss in 2006, I got blank stares when I mentioned the name. Now, I get a ton of “Oh yeah, I love mental_floss!” That only happens when the publication puts out great stuff consistently, and readers pay for it.

Long story short: the more The Magazine succeeds, the more my early choice to bet on this horse pays off (metaphorically, anyway).

4. The Magazine is an Honest Experiment

When Marco Arment started this thing, he dubbed it an experiment, and Glenn Fleishman (its longtime editor and now also owner) has continued that tradition. Glenn has branched out into running some Magazine work on Medium, and I wrote a little item on The Unipiper for that. There’s a podcast in the works. Now Glenn is dipping his toe into print. While I have no inside information, I suspect that if The Magazine succeeds with this first book, we can expect future annual books as well.

I would be very pleased if someday The Magazine had a regularly-scheduled print component (even if it’s quarterly — in fact, perhaps it’d be best as a quarterly), so it can reach people who prefer to read on paper. But because this is an experiment, we’ll just have to see what happens. If people decide that print is worth it, great. If they don’t, that’s a bummer, but it’s an important data point.

5. The Magazine Would Never Publish a Listicle Like This

In my book about writing, I decry the listicle format as the dumbening of online writing. For professional reasons, I am often called upon to write lists, and have made my peace with that. But you know what? The Magazine is not dumb. It does not run dumb lists. It does not stoop to click-bait headlines. It does not have ads. Let us celebrate a thing that is not dumb.

In Summary

The Magazine is a wonderful publication. You can read all about the Kickstarter campaign, and I urge you to chip in. As I write this, there are still some “early bird” $30 print book/ebook combo packs available. The campaign is in its final three days, and still needs your support — the dollar goal has not yet been achieved. If you support me as a writer, please buy this book.

A photo of the author reading a Kindle Paperwhite.

Back in May, I looked at who was writing for The Magazine. At the time, the data collection was labor-intensive (The Magazine didn’t have author pages yet), and I was trying to figure out who was returning to this publication to write again.

So why did I care? Mainly because I wanted to be near the top of that list, and I was. But since that analysis in May, things have changed quite a bit.

Top Contributors (By Number of Articles)

As of August 20, 2013:

  1. Lex Friedman, 6
  2. Alison Hallett, 4
  3. Chris Stokel-Walker, 4
  4. Glenn Fleishman, 3
  5. Chris Higgins, 3
  6. Eli Sanders, 3 (in one issue)
  7. Jason Snell, 2
  8. Daniel Rutter, 2
  9. Marco Arment, 2
  10. Dan Moren, 2
  11. John Moltz, 2
  12. Serenity Caldwell, 2
  13. Mark Harris, 2
  14. Chris Breen, 2
  15. Marco Tabini, 2
  16. Mark Siegal, 2
  17. Erin McKean, 2
  18. Gabe Bullard, 2
  19. Brittany Shoot, 2
  20. Nancy Gohring, 2
  21. Joe Ray, 2

A note on ordering in the above: I ordered first by number of articles, then by seniority (the latter defined as who appeared first in The Magazine). I also don’t include any of Glenn’s Editor’s Notes or the introductory essay. If you want the raw data, contact me.

What’s New?

If I compare this to the old list, here’s what jumps out:

  1. Lex Friedman is still on top. In May he had 5 stories, now he has 6. He’s beatable. He’s slowing down. Still, his performance is impressive.
  2. I’m way down the list. This is most interesting to me, obviously, but I went from #2 to #5 mainly because…
  3. Alison Hallett & Chris Stokel-Walker are killing it. Alison appeared on the previous list, but Chris did not. While I was out watering the garden, they were writing the words.
  4. The list is much longer. Previous there were 12 writers who had contributed two or more stories. Now the list has swelled to 21. The total number of writers who have contributed any stories is 86 (!) and we still see issues penned wholly by first-time contributors.

What Now?

I intend to keep climbing the ladder (stay tuned for next week’s issue). I may be the only person keeping track, but I feel that I’m in good company on that (growing) list above. We’re closing in on the one-year anniversary of The Magazine — it’ll be interesting to see where things sit at that point.

It’s also important to emphasize that, like I said above, there are a lot of first-timers showing up in the overall author list — the ratio of one-time contributors to repeat contributors is roughly 4:1. This means that you should pitch a story idea without fear that if you’re not established you won’t have a place. The Magazine is still very young, and there’s a tremendous opportunity here to connect with an audience — while retaining valuable rights to your work.

Oh yeah, and there’s a Portland, Oregon meetup on September 18th. I’ll be there, along with my new nemesis colleague Alison Hallett and lots of other writers and designers. Come to there! Drink the drinks!

Photo: iPad showing The Magazine app, resting on a wooden bench

In its fifteenth issue, The Magazine ran my piece Second Wind, which happened to be my third for the publication. But who’s counting? I am. And why? Because Lex Friedman must be stopped.

Yes, dear readers, Lex has taken control of our reading minds from deep within his moon base New Jersey office. He has contributed articles to one-third of The Magazine’s issues. At this rate, I project that his super laser writing will supplant all other forms of human communication by early 2014.

I’m Coming for You, Lex…

I’m currently at a cabin without reliable access to the internet. But that doesn’t stop me from my mission: to find out who writes for The Magazine, and how much. Using a tin can attached to a mobile hotspot, I went through the extant issues and made a little spreadsheet (96k ZIP) of who wrote what and when. Results are below. (Also, please feel free to use the data to do your own analysis — for instance, you could figure out the gender balance in later issues, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

Top Contributors (By Number of Articles)

As of May 3, 2013:

  1. Lex Friedman, 5
  2. Chris Higgins, 3
  3. Eli Sanders, 3 (in one issue)
  4. Jason Snell, 2
  5. Marco Arment, 2
  6. Daniel Rutter, 2
  7. Dan Moren, 2
  8. Glenn Fleishman, 2
  9. Serenity Caldwell, 2
  10. Alison Hallett, 2
  11. Chris Breen, 2
  12. Mark Siegal, 2

A note on ordering in the above: I ordered first by number of articles, then by seniority (the latter defined as who appeared first in The Magazine).

In my analysis I didn’t include Marco’s introductory essay (the preface to the publication as a whole), as it doesn’t appear as an article on the website’s table of contents for any issue. If you include that, he’s a three-time contributor. Glenn’s Editor’s Notes have also been excluded, as they appear in four issues (looks like an every-issue item now) and are not “articles” per se.

The Early Crew

The first issue featured an impressive lineup: Guy English, Jason Snell, Alex Payne, and Michael Lopp (aka Rands) plus the aforementioned intro piece by Marco Arment. Only Snell went on to contribute again. It’s in the second issue that we see the rise of Friedman; that second issue includes contributions from John Siracusa, Gina Trapani, Lex Friedman, Daniel Rutter, Alex Knight, and Marco Arment. Of that second-issue crew, Lex, Brad, and Marco all returned. That pattern of repeat contributions holds up in later issues.

Rinse, Repeat

After Issue 2, almost every issue of The Magazine includes at least one repeat contributor. The exceptions are Issue 7 (where my first article appeared) and Issue 13 (with its epic 3-part piece by Eli Sanders). Of the 59 total contributors, 12 are repeat contributors.

Why does this matter? It means that a strong percentage of those who write for The Magazine are coming back and pitching again. This is significant. As a longtime freelancer, I’ve written for plenty of publications just once. A willingness to return to The Magazine indicates some mixture of enthusiasm for its format, editorial practices (read: Glenn), business, and the ease of pitching. I can tell you firsthand that The Magazine is the fastest-paying gig I’ve ever encountered — a check arrived two days after publication in the most recent case. This is insanely fast by “publishing industry” standards (where getting a check a 4-6 weeks “ish” after publication is nice if you can get it). This indicates a well-run business (or at least one that is well-funded enough to be generous with its cash flow), which is frankly a huge factor in whether writers return to the well.

The other big factor that likely encourages repeat contributors is the liberal terms of the contract. Here’s an oversimplified version: contributors may resell or otherwise reuse the work they first publish in The Magazine after about a month. This is a big deal (and unusual in magazine journalism), because it means contributors have more business opportunities for their work down the line. Want to sell a movie option on your piece? No problem, you own those rights. Want to anthologize your work and sell it on your own? Cool, go for it. Want to give it away for free on your website? Also cool. Want to expand it into a longer-form piece and sell that? Great! The emergence of interesting business models here is a huge reason why I think of The Magazine first when I pitch a story these days. I want long-term ownership of my work, and this is a rare publishing venue with a combination of good pay, a great contract, and fantastic editorial practices. What’s not to love?

Pitch On

By the time I return from my superfortress coast cabin, another issue will be out and another writer may join the ranks of the 3-time contributors’ list. It’s also possible that Lex will hit 6, in which case I’ll have to deploy peacekeeping forces.

Regardless, this is a fascinating time for The Magazine: it is still young enough that new contributors can enter the field and quickly become part of the repeat contributors’ list. But it’s mature enough that we know what it is, and we can observe some encouraging trends. Pitch on, fellow writers.

View of Manzanita beach, Oregon

It has been an eventful six weeks for me, having published my first book, published a feature article in The Magazine, quit my day job, and still avoided starving to death. I thought I’d share some thoughts on how this is going, in case other writers wonder, “Hey, what’s it like to launch your first book?” or “So what happens after you publish a story in The Magazine?”

The Book

My fiancée Rochelle and I spent Christmas and the following week at the Oregon coast. Being a workaholic, I took this opportunity to complete The Blogger Abides, which entailed reading through it several times, fixing tons of typos (I still failed to catch many of them), and finishing up Kindle formatting issues I’d been sitting on for several months. I submitted the book to Amazon on December 30, 2012 assuming it would take 48 hours to publish — hoping to launch the book on January 1, 2013. And of course, it just insta-published a few hours after submission. Oh well. I had a glass of port and bought myself a copy, then enjoyed an extended stay in the hot tub.

When the book launched, a series of unexpected things happened:

  1. I had no idea what to do anymore. While I’d been writing the book, there was always something concrete and book-related on my to-do list. Once I pushed the button to publish, I was in this new world where I could choose either to “market” the book (yuck) or just sit there and do nothing. Or write a new book. What to do? This was supremely uncomfortable, and was completely unexpected. There was no “yay” moment upon publication (aside from the aforementioned port and hot tub). It was simply the beginning of a new, uncomfortable phase in which my daily sense of success would be measured by sales rather than, you know, “writing.”
  2. I got depressed. Related to the first point, I felt genuinely blue. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Part of it was probably that my awesome vacation was also ending, but the other part was that I had assumed publishing the book would mean something for me emotionally — would change something within me. And really, like most things I’ve published, it didn’t give me much of a feeling of accomplishment. After a few days I got back to normal, but this blue period was truly unexpected. One lesson I’ve learned as a blogger is that negative feedback stings; positive feedback is modestly helpful; and no feedback is deadly. In those first days with the book, I had a little positive feedback from friends and family (who can trust them to be impartial?), but no feedback from anybody else. It was only when I got positive reviews from unknown people that I started to think, hey, this book might actually be useful. That is when the “yay” moments began.
  3. I learned about ebook marketing. I don’t think of myself as a marketing guy. But let me tell you, as soon as I had a book to market, I had to become one. So writing guest blogs, getting reviews, and moving units became part of my daily routine. I’m still new to this mode, and it still feels odd, but that’s because I’ve never had to market my own work before — it has always been in some publication, so that stuff was handled for me. I’ve been writing forever; I’ve been marketing for six weeks. It still feels icky. (Incidentally, the book makes a great gift!)

I set a modest sales goal: 100 units in the first month. For a four-dollar book, this seemed very achievable. I topped that goal in the first week. By the end of the first month, I’d more than doubled it. I’ll be speaking next month in California about the book and re-engaging with the marketing side of things, so perhaps I’ll see even more sales then.

Authorial side-note: although The Blogger Abides is the first book I’ve published, I have actually written six or seven full-length books, depending on how you count — mostly fiction, and several for money. So while I have completed book-length work before, including finishing edits with big fancy editors and all that, something always intervened to kill the book between completion and the ability for people to buy it. Not this time.

The Magazine

In a surprising coincidence, The Magazine ran my feature story on competitive Tetris players on January 3, just a few days after the book launched. It was the first (and I daresay lead) article in Issue 7. I knew that The Magazine was a big deal, but I didn’t know just how big. Within hours, I was overwhelmed with the flood of new Twitter followers and readers writing in to say how much they enjoyed it. I was also pleased that the subjects of the profile finally got to read the piece and liked it too.

But here’s the thing: running that feature story in The Magazine was a far bigger deal than publishing my own book. I didn’t expect that. But so far, it has paid me more money, earned me more goodwill and attention, and generally increased my profile far, far more than the book. The book is just another thing I did, but this Tetris article? Apparently to many readers, this is pure gold. (And let’s be clear, I’m very proud of the article, it was hard work, and the editorial touch Glenn Fleishman brought to the writing made it sing.) But that article was a few months of occasional work plus some research when I felt like it, not the eighteen-ish months of hard labor I put into the book.

Nerdy side-note: I’m not sure what The Magazine’s readership is. Because I had so much extra material for the Tetris story, I added a “Special Features” link at the end of my article. Readers could optionally visit that page for videos and stuff. Although I didn’t plan it this way, tracking visitors to that page gives me a rough sense not of readership, but perhaps of ultra-engaged readership of my particular article (and how this readership changes over time). I’m not ready to share that breakdown now, but let’s just say I think The Magazine has more readers than I expected. (I had to put WP-SuperCache in “Lock Down” mode.)

Because The Magazine is very cool, they allowed me (like all their authors) to republish my article after a one-month exclusive in their app. So I ran it on my blog on February 3, 2013. (Glenn even exported the final marked-up version and emailed it to me — something no other editor has done.) In the ensuing two-week-ish period, more than 25,000 people have read that article on my site. This is astounding, and it validates my decision to run it on my site.

I had run through a bunch of scenarios during that month about how to squeeze yet more money out of this article, but also expose it to more readers — I had thought about selling it as a Kindle ebook for a dollar, with extra text and photos; thought about pitching it to Wired as an expanded story; thought about all kinds of ways to try to get more money. But it’s not really about the money. At the end of the day, my readers were saying: let me read it, online, for free, pretty please. So I figured that was the easiest path and it would make the most people genuinely happy. I already made plenty of money on it, and if a few of those web readers picked up my book, good for me, right?

The “free on my website” strategy has worked out extremely well. I suspect that if I had tried to sell this as a $0.99 Kindle ebook, I would’ve sold fifty units and had a bunch of angry reviews complaining that it was “only” four thousand words and a few photos. If I’d pitched it to some other magazine, it’d still be in development (or the pitch might not have landed). As it is now, people are calling this the first must-read blog post of the year, a completely fascinating read, and even using lines from it in a poem. Not bad. And yeah, some Tetris article readers have bought my book too.

So, future contributors to The Magazine — it’s up to you what you do with your work after its initial run, but this approach worked for me. It meant the piece reached lots more readers, I actually made a little more money (in the form of book sales), and a few extremely classy readers even bought me stuff on my Amazon wish list as a thank-you. That is absurdly nice.

The Former Day Job

When I launched my book, I still had a thirty-hour-a-week day job. I was hedging my bets (well, paying my mortgage) by working in tech with a group of friends I’ve known and worked with for over a decade. I left that job, with hugs all around, on the last day of January. I’m still doing some tech consulting (partly to close loose ends with those friends — projects don’t end cleanly on month boundaries), but this frees me up to spend most of my days working on actual writing and reporting. At the same time, a few big leads jumped up and bit me on the nose. So I’ve been chasing down those leads. Stay tuned, everybody.

Oh Yeah, the Book

I’m preparing a second edition, fixing some awful typos, restoring emdashes (they are endashes in the current version), and putting out a print-on-demand version. That should be complete by March, in time for me to speak to the good students of UC Davis about all this stuff. If you’re in the area, come and see me — it’s free.

Playing to Lose

3 February, 2013
How competitive Tetris players approach an unwinnable game

This article was first published in The Magazine, Issue 7.

Competitors in the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship warm up before their Round of 16 matches.

Competitors in the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship warm up before their Round of 16 matches. Photo © 2012 Chris Higgins.

“Three, two, one, GO!” I yell, and Ben Mullen and Bo Steil are off, playing a game of Tetris on their NES consoles almost faster than I can follow. I have to stay focused, as I’m refereeing the match at the 2012 Classic Tetris World Championship as a volunteer. My own history with Tetris involves flop sweat and throwing the controller in frustration; now my task is to observe pairs of Tetris players as they zip through the game. It takes all of my concentration to monitor the action — and I’m not even playing.1

Dual ironies compete. Mullen and Steil are tight friends in the competitive Tetris community, although I didn’t know that as I watched them last September. They also rank among the top NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Tetris players in the world. Mullen chooses to begin play on level 18, the highest allowable starting point.2 At “GO!” the pair press START on their NES game controllers — which are nearly as old as they are3 — while a crowd looks on, clustered behind a line of blue masking tape on the concrete floor of the Oregon Convention Center.

Neither competitor can actually win. NES Tetris cannot be defeated, even in a so-called “max-out” game, in which the top possible score of 999,999 points is achieved. Every game ends with a player topping out and losing.4 Yet the best possible loss is exactly what these men seek, though each hope to win the Championship first.

Mullen, a 30-year-old college advisor from Minnesota, takes the first game with 308,237 points.5 Steil tops out at 253,539 points, and the thrift-store CRT television connected to his NES shows an end-game animation. I put on my best referee voice: “Good game, guys!” Neither man smiles. They hardly look at each other.

Steil wins the second game, forcing a third game as a tiebreaker. In that final game, Mullen tops out, and his frustration is obvious. He runs his hands through his shaggy brown hair and frowns, fiddling with his controller as Steil quietly slams tetrominoes into place.6 Steil keeps an eye on the score box, and drops his controller the instant he beats Mullen’s score.

I record the results, pass them to the head referee, and Steil crosses the blue-taped line as a quarterfinalist. He is eliminated early in the next round.

999,999

Mullen’s loss stings. He was the number three seed in a field of 50, and this is his third year failing to win the Championship. Victory for Mullen always seems just out of reach. As he says in the documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, “The one trick to training [at] Tetris is to be always almost dead.”

Mullen’s gameplay reflects his philosophy, with his stack of tetrominoes often showing gaps and rising dangerously high, only to be knocked down in the nick of time. After decades of gameplay7, he has come within seconds of a perfect, 999,999-point max-out game nine times8, but perennially scores short just one “tetris” of a perfect score. (In one painfully memorable instance, he topped out at 996,500 points.)9

Mullen and his wife, Mary, return to Minnesota after the loss on September 30. But Mullen doesn’t quit. At home he plays what he calls “Rage Tetris,” inspired by frustration.10 Exactly one week after his Championship loss, Mullen posts a photo on Facebook: It shows the NES Tetris high score screen, revealing that BEN M has achieved 999,999 points.

This is only the seventh time anyone in the world has achieved this feat11, and it earns him the #2 global rank, just behind Matt Buco.12 Competitor-slash-friend Buco jokes, “Fake…you are only allowed within 1 tetris [of winning]. Nice job Ben!” To celebrate the max out, Mary gave Ben a bottle of Crown Royal and two cans of Pepsi Max.13

Ben Mullen watches as his friend and competitor Matt Buco is eliminated from Championship play.

Ben Mullen watches as his friend and competitor Matt Buco is eliminated from Championship play. Photo © 2012 Chris Higgins.

Blue Tape

Bo Steil spends his days in a 3M factory making the same blue masking tape that separated him from the crowd at the Tetris Championship. Each spool is a model of orderly precision. Steil, 31, says that Tetris is always on his mind, though he claims that his day job indicates a certain lack of ambition. “I’m the guy that everyone meets and says, ‘What the heck are you wasting your time working here for?’”

It’s clear that Steil has at least one abiding ambition: Tetris mastery. Steil quit college two classes short of a bachelor’s degree, and his high school career was mixed, as he didn’t bother to do homework. “In algebra, I’d actually sit and play Tetris on my TI-83 calculator during the majority of class. I was the #1 calculator Tetris player in the school.” He currently ranks #13 in the world, and plays every evening in an attempt to max out.

Steil’s quest for Tetris supremacy started more than a decade ago. He began taking Tetris seriously in 2000, and his goal was to clear as many lines as possible.14 He set a personal record of 292 lines in 2001 (though he didn’t verify the record with Twin Galaxies, the de facto video game high score arbiters) and signed his own Tetris cartridge in victory. He then hung up his controller.

In 2008, Steil saw the documentary King of Kong and decided to check with Twin Galaxies to see if his unofficial lines record had been broken. He discovered that Ben Mullen had bested him, putting up a record of 296 lines. Discouraged, Steil didn’t attempt to beat Mullen’s record.15

But then in May 2012, Steil went to an Ecstasy of Order screening in Minneapolis. Mullen was there to introduce the movie and to host a mini-tournament beforehand. Steil met Mullen for the first time when they played a match together, which was Steil’s first game of Tetris since about 2001. Steil was shocked by Mullen’s ability to play smoothly on the high levels, and Mullen won that game. But Steil proceeded to beat all the other entrants, earning him free tickets to the show.

The men became friends after discovering they lived an hour’s drive apart and that they had independently sought the same Tetris lines record for more than a decade. Just four months after that first meeting, Steil had upped his game enough to eliminate Mullen in Championship play.

Steil often starts his Tetris training sessions around 1 a.m. He continues until as late as 5 a.m., then sleeps before it’s time to work in the blue tape factory. He is driven, and his rise to Tetris prominence has come fast, although it’s a lonely game. “It is a battle with yourself. That’s who you play with over and over,” he told me. It’s rare that he has the opportunity to interact with other players in person.

The Lonely Tetris Masters

NES Tetris is a one-player game, and its masters are willing to put in long hours, typically for years, playing the game in solitude. Steil said, “The overwhelming time is spent by yourself, alone in the dark, game after game, minute after minute, hour after hour.” Steil likes to play with a second TV on, while Mullen prefers music.16

Despite — or perhaps because of — the intrinsically solitary nature of their game, Tetris masters have formed a community online. All the top players are Facebook friends, and many have become friends in daily life. This leads to friends constantly both competing against and encouraging each other.

Steil explains that “any time someone passes you in score, you are happy for them and ticked at the same time. That’s usually when I play the worst, when I’m playing like I need to get a score.” He says his games go much better if he just sits back and lets them come. Steil’s friendship with Mullen is textured by competition and their shared quest to max out, which each had hoped to achieve before the other. After Mullen maxed out, Steil recalls his friend told him that “he was happy to get it out of the way. Now he can truly cheer me on.”

This is the core of competitive Tetris: a group of friends who all want to win, but feel bad about beating each other. Steil told me he didn’t want to play Mullen at the Championship (and indeed I had no idea the players knew each other at the time), but the luck of the draw pitted him against his closest friend in the community. The fact that Steil was eliminated in the quarterfinals (making him #8 in the Championship overall) was bittersweet: Steil had arrived as a serious player, but he got there by beating his friend.

Minor Successes and Monumental Failures

When Steil achieved his current high score of 889,131 points (and 222 lines) in October of 2012, it felt like a loss. Despite being Steil’s best game to date, it represented a failure to reach the perfection of a max out. When he posted the score on Facebook for his Tetris friends to see, he wrote, “Another new high score, but what a choke job at 222 [lines]. Each new high score is a minor success as well as a monumental failure.”

This attitude pervades competitive Tetris, and it highlights the perverse aspect that the best game is still a loss.17 Faced with this harsh reality, NES Tetris players have devised ways to compete (the Championship), milestones to achieve (max outs and high numbers of lines per game), and ways to measure performance (max outs achieved starting at higher levels are more difficult due to the game’s speed). Fundamentally, however, players compete against themselves and lose every time.18

After Mullen maxed out, I asked him how it felt. He had four answers. “Great, because it’s so hard to do. Liberating, because now I can play for fun. Relieving, because so many great players are fighting for position all the time. Bittersweet, because the chase is now over.” It’s instructive that Mullen feels he can only now “play for fun”; he has the attitude of a professional athlete who has reached a level of mastery in a sport and can look again at what drew him to it in the first place.

Co-op Mode

After maxing out NES Tetris, Mullen turned his attention to its sibling: Tengen Tetris, an alternate version of the game that was briefly on the market in 1989 before it was the subject of a legal battle. Tengen Tetris differs from NES Tetris — it has a multiplayer mode and a co-op mode, and most importantly it reaches a stable top speed. Unlike NES Tetris, which speeds up with every level, eventually breaking most players with the brutally fast level 29 “death screen,” Tengen Tetris tops out at a comparatively leisurely pace on level 17. This, combined with a score counter that flips over and restarts19 rather than stopping at 999,999, means that Tetris masters can play indefinitely, limited only by endurance.

On November 20, 2012, Steil decided to try his hand at a Tengen Tetris marathon. Tetris legend Thor Aackerlund (winner of the 1990 Nintendo World Championships) held the world record on the game, having scored 3.5 million points during a marathon session in 2010. Steil spent over four hours playing and scored 10.4 million points, shattering Aackerlund’s record.20 He stopped only because he had to go to work.

Steil is still actively pursuing an NES Tetris max out, playing with the same steady intensity that earned him a spot in the Championship. When he’s not playing NES Tetris, he plays Tengen, and he has begun playing in co-op mode with Mullen, simultaneously dropping pieces into a single gigantic well. With Tengen Tetris, the pair can finally play together and share their victory; Mullen says they plan to set the high score record for cooperative play. Despite this newfound sense of shared accomplishment, both men intend to compete in the 2013 Championship and “win” as best they can.

This article comes with Special Features.

Update, 29 August 2013: Bo Steil maxed out NES Tetris today, after months of effort. You can watch his 999,999-point performance on YouTube.


Author’s Note

This article was originally published in The Magazine, Issue 7. It took me several months to report and write, and after its exclusive run in The Magazine, I had a choice: should I put it on my website for free, put it up for sale on Kindle/whatever, or leave it solely at The Magazine where some readers can’t access it? For lots of reasons I chose to make it free.

If you want to support my writing, you can buy my book about making a living as a writer (or borrow it if you’re a Prime member — that still kicks money to me), get me something from my wish list (if anyone does this I will be shocked), follow me on Twitter, follow me on Google+, or just drop me a line.

What’s next? More articles in The Magazine, in Mental Floss, and beyond.


Do You Know the Coders of NES Tetris?

I’m working on a followup story, and have been searching for anyone on the team that coded NES Tetris. The Tetris masters I’ve been interviewing for all this time are curious about the process behind the creation of the NES version of the game. If you know anyone who might have a lead, please contact me so this bit of video game history can be recorded.


Footnotes

1. The game of Tetris, originally developed in 1984, sports blocks of four units in various shapes descending one unit at a time inexorably from the top to the bottom of the screen. The player moves blocks left or right and rotates them around their axis to fill holes in incomplete rows at the bottom. A filled row disappears, scoring points. The game speeds up over time, varying by version. A player loses when the screen fills with incomplete rows of blocks. In most versions, there is no way to win.

2. At the CTWC, players are allowed to start games of “A-Type” Tetris, played on vintage Nintendo hardware, at any point from levels 9 to 16, or on level 18. Why not level 17? 2012 CTWC organizer Adam Cornelius tells me and the other referees that “on level 17, the colors are kind of a mauve and violet and don’t stand out against the black background enough. All the TVs are different. It could cause a big disadvantage if one player had a lower-contrast TV. And level 17 is just really ugly.”

3. The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the US in 1985; NES Tetris in 1989. Both men were born in the 1980s.

4. In Tetris, “topping out” occurs when the stack of pieces reaches the top of the screen, ending the game.

5. For comparison’s sake, my best game of Tetris ever was around 50,000 points, and that involved a lot of screaming at the TV.

6. Top NES Tetris players often bring their own controllers to competitions, like athletes carrying their own bats or musicians their instruments. Mullen brought his own, but Steil used an onsite controller, since he had bought an NES only months earlier and its two included controllers weren’t great.

7. He began playing in 1989 but says he only got “serious” about Tetris around 1999.

8. In NES Tetris, the score counter stops at 999,999. The game does not. It is only possible to score 999,999 points at very high levels (typically level 29), making it a rare achievement. Because of its insane difficulty (and perhaps because it’s well known to most players), NES Tetris is the canonical Tetris used in the Classic Tetris World Championship.

9. Scoring a “tetris” means clearing four lines at once, only achievable by dropping a long bar vertically into a slot. This grants the player a huge score boost: 1200 points times one higher than the current level’s number (1200 × (level + 1)). Mullen refers to his one-tetris-away-from-a-perfect-score games as “one-aways.” For example, on March 7, 2012, he earned a 996,500 score on level 28 — that’s just one tetris away from a max out. His Facebook comment: “I have no words.”

10. Mullen explained in an email: “The most rage I ever felt in the game was the month after Matt Buco maxed out in January 2012. The rage allowed me to play more than normal, with more anger than normal, and with better outcomes than normal.”

11. Harry Hong was the first NES Tetris player with a documented max out, recorded in 2009.

12. Mullen’s rank is reflected in a community-run leaderboard maintained by Tetris Grand Master Alex Kerr.

13. Mullen’s max-out game is on YouTube in its entirety, as are many others.

14. Tetris tracks the number of lines cleared in addition to the player’s score. Separate records are maintained for lines and points.

15. The records kept by Twin Galaxies have been offline for months during an ownership change. Promised months ago to return in November, the site’s message now says “early 2013.”

16. Mullen said he listens to “’90s music or golden oldies,” and turns the Tetris music off — though he leaves the sound effects on (which he calls “the beeps”), so he can use them for feedback. Steil watches either sports or shows he can mostly ignore; he says it’s the only way he can still watch Dexter.

17. Mullen actually sees this as a positive feature of Tetris. He writes: “I love a game that doesn’t end with a silly celebration! Tetris is made perfectly this way; you play, you lose, you go to bed. In real life, basketball courts and football fields don’t tell how great they think you are after you do something good, you just do something good and pride yourself in it.”

18. What appeals to me most about these players is their unabashed pursuit of a series of white whales. When Mullen couldn’t win the Championship, he raged his way into a max out — a goal that had eluded him for years. Steil is only half a year into his quest for the max out; it could be days, months, or years before he achieves it, but he just keeps trying. For competitive Tetris players, record-setting success arrives in an instant, after a series of defeats that stretches over staggering lengths of time.

19. The Tengen Tetris score counter flips over to 100,000 rather than the more obvious 0, which makes keeping track of scores in the millions an exercise in arithmetic. Steil writes, “An [easy] way to look at it is first flip is a million, every other one after that is +900,000.”

20. No bathroom breaks or pauses are allowed, though Tengen Tetris does periodically pause itself between levels, showing statistics and counting up points, allowing the player a roughly half-minute respite to stretch his or her thumbs. Tengen players joke that it’s only a matter of time before someone attempts a marathon record while wearing a diaper.