While Tetris is one of the simplest electronic games known to mankind, its story, from its inception to conquering the globe as one of the best-known gaming titles in history, is rather a complex one. Its tale is replete with handshake deals, rivals in the industry, several back-and-forth negotiations between Western executives and Soviet officials (this was at the end of the Cold War) when the relations between these two countries were anything but friendly.
In this article, we have explored the brief but rich history of Tetris and how it came to sweep the world and enchant millions of players from the 80s and still today. Its history can be summarized as:
- The Idea
- The Inspiration
- The First Round – Sharing
- The Second Round – Spreading
- The Third Round – Foul Play
- Culmination and Resolution
- Back to the Creator
Despite the numerous hurdles on its journey, Tetris was destined for success and fame, and nothing could stand in its path for long. Its simple structure, accessibility, and replay value have made it a well-known and widely-liked game of several generations. Its creation was a labor of love, its influence cared not for borders or politics, and its influence spanned the globe for decades. Here is how it all happened.
1. The Idea
Tetris features plain graphics, straightforward rules, and an almost infinite replay value.
The object of the game is simple: stack blocks of various shapes and sizes as they drop from the top of the screen. The goal is to stack them in such a way as to connect them in as many horizontal lines as possible so that they disappear and clear space for longer, higher-scoring gameplay. It requires players to do this for as long as possible and prevent stacks from getting too big. If the stacks pile up for long enough and reach the top of the screen, the game is over. And all of this came from humble beginnings, which brings us to the story…
The story of Tetris began in 1984 when Alexey Pajitnov, a puzzle-loving software engineer, came up with the idea while working for the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences – a research and development center in Moscow established and operated by the Soviet government.
Pajitnov created the game for fun with no intention to profit off of it. He just wanted to see if he could do it. Surely he did, and thus Tetris was born as one of the most unique games of its generation in that it had no fancy images, memorable characters, or even narrative, all of which were common and popular game elements at the time.
2. The Inspiration
Pajitnov claimed he was inspired to create Tetris by another puzzle game known by the name of “pentominoes’ which requires the player to assemble wooden blocks of different shapes into a box. Pajitnov enjoyed this game and claimed he often imagined these blocks falling into the box from above as the player’s hand guides them into place. The wooden blocks in ‘pantomimes’ consisted of five equal cubes each.
Pajitnov took the guiding principle of “pentominoes” and wrote the program to transfer it to a screen. He re-created the blocks into shapes consisting of four equal squares and named it ‘Tetris.’
The name Tetris is derived from the Latin word ‘tetra’, meaning four, combined with the word ‘tennis’, which was Pajitnov’s favorite game.
3. The First Round – Sharing
Once the first iteration of Tetris had been completed, Pajitnov shared it with his coworkers and discovered that they were rapidly immersed in it. They were so enchanted by the game that they started copying the program to numerous floppy disks that they gave out to people they wanted to share the game with, and so Tetris spread around Moscow.
However, not quite everyone was thrilled by Tetris at this stage. Namely, Pajitnov’s boss was highly displeased by the emotional turmoil the game had put him through, so he went on to destroy all floppy disks that contained Tetris he could find. This did little to stop the game or derail Pajitnov, who, not long after, sent a copy to his colleague in Hungary, where it quickly ended up on display in a software exhibit at the Hungarian Institute of Technology.
In that software exhibit, Robert Stein (owner of Andromeda Software Limited), who was visiting the exhibit from the UK, was introduced to the game.
4. The Second Round – Spreading
Stein was intrigued by the game enough to track down its creator in Moscow but was displeased to find that Tetris was now in the hands of Elektronorgtechnica – ELORG. This was a Soviet government agency whose sole purpose was to oversee the foreign distribution of locally-produced software, Tetris included. Fortunately, the ELORG agreed to license Tetris to Stein, who then licensed it to other distributors in the UK and the US – namely, HoloByte and Mirrorsoft Limited.
The event was even reported on by the New York Times, which claimed Tetris to be the first Soviet-created software to be sold in the United States.
5. The Third Round – Foul Play
The initial license that ELORG issued to Stein only covered personal computers and wouldn’t allow Tetris to be installed onto coin-operated machines or handheld devices. Despite that, Stein assured the UK-based distributor Mirrorsoft that these rights would soon be in their hands as well, and the company proceeded to draft licensing deals with two other game companies – Atari and Sega. These two were based in Japan, and the contracts drafted would allow them to install Tetris onto arcade kiosks and home-gaming consoles.
Henk Rogers of BulletProof Software also had his eye on brokering ‘Tetris’ deals in Japan and secured rights for the game’s distribution on computers and consoles for Nintendo through Spectrum HoloByte, a US-based game distributor.
6. Culmination and Resolution
However, ELORG, who was still the sole legal owner of the game, had nothing to do with these arrangements. The only contract they had signed at the time was their agreement with Stein that only covered computer rights and nothing else. They only found out what happened when their officials met up with Rogers in Moscow for the purpose of striking an agreement on licensing Tetris for handheld devices – Nintendo had just created the Game Boy at this time – and Rogers revealed a Tetris cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES).
Initially, this sparked outrage, but Rogers succeeded at convincing them that those rights were still on the table and should they choose to grab ahold of them, they would prove highly profitable. The ELORG agreed to allow Rogers to secure the handheld rights for Nintendo, with console and coin-operated machine rights to follow, despite the fierce protests from Atari over the threat to their version of the game.
What followed was a prolonged legal battle between two rival game companies, which was eventually resolved in favor of Nintendo. Nintendo was quick to take a huge advantage out of it by solidifying its hold on eager consumers across the United States by including a copy of the game with every Game Boy they Sold.
7. Back to the Creator
Large sums of money changed hands throughout all of this, but Pajitnov, the creator of the game, was never part of any of these negotiations and saw no profits at all, losing approximately forty million USD. Fortunately, Pajitnov’s story does not end there. He and Rogers became friends, and Rogers helped Pajitnov emigrate to the States in 1991.
In the US, Pajitnov devoted himself to making games. Initially, he created his own company but later on, he moved on to Microsoft, where he continued creating games. By 1996, as the Cold War reminiscences were slowly subsiding, Rogers went back to Moscow to attend the final round of Tetris negotiations with the intent to return the ownership of the game to the man who created it in the first place.
Games are a curious thing. They have been a part of our history for almost as long as we’ve had a history. Still, we usually tend to downplay their influence as a marginal activity, a quirky hobby, or a non-productive pastime. We tend to overlook how interwoven they are with our history, culture, and civilization. We are surprised that a simple and ‘small’ game of Tetris can have such a significant impact on the world in a socioeconomic sense.
It all starts to make a little more sense when we remember that we are but apes with the somewhat larger prefrontal cortex and, Cold War or not, we really like stacking things together. Pajitnov created Tetris simply because he enjoyed games and puzzles and wanted to share them with the world. But as it often happens with great ideas, Tetris outgrew its creator and began a life of its own. It often happens that once something grows popular enough, regardless of its origin or individual claims on it, it belongs to the world.