Little Coloured Blocks
The strange political history of Tetris
Tetris was an incredibly popular game, released in the 1980s and is still played today. The premise is simple - as different-shaped puzzle pieces fall from the top of the screen, your task is to rotate them. When they approach the bottom, you must fit them into place to create solid lines, which disappear once they fill the width of the screen. Then rinse, and repeat.
Tetris had a no-frills aesthetic, and unusually for the time, there was no real storyline, characters, or excellent images. But in terms of design, Tetris was incredibly influential - and to this day it remains an iconic, addictive games title. It’s a funky, retro piece of art to many people who are still fans in these modern times. Its legacy is everywhere, too - the simple premise can be found in hundreds - if not thousands - of smartphone games on the market right now. However, while most people will instantly understand you when you start discussing Tetris, few people know the gripping story behind it. It’s a tale of deception, backroom deals, huge games industry rivalries and the last decade of the Cold War.
Like McDonalds and Coca Cola, Tetris played its role in opening up relations between Cold War adversaries and opening up the new world order - a big deal for a simple game. Created by Russian software engineer Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris began life in 1984. Pajitnov worked in a government research and development centre in Moscow, and a traditional game known as pentominoes inspired him. The name was devised as a combination of the Latin word ‘tetra’ and the designer’s favourite sport, ‘tennis.’ When he finished the development process, he shared it with friends, who played it - and played it some more.
Eventually, word started to spread throughout Moscow about this simple but highly addictive game and after Pajitnov sent a copy of Tetris to a friend and colleague in Hungary, it ended up as a software exhibit in the Hungarian Institute of Technology. It was here that the story starts to take off.
Visiting the exhibition was a man called Robert Stein, who was the owner of Andromeda Software, a UK games company. Stein was incredibly intrigued and eventually hunted Pajitnov down in Moscow to try and make a case for distributing Tetris elsewhere. However, by this stage, the game had been commandeered by Elorg, a new Soviet agency that was set up to oversee the foreign distribution of Russian-created software, so it was Elorg that Stein struck a deal with.
Elorg licensed the Tetris title to Stein in 1988 and the Andromeda owner licensed it to distribution companies in the UK and the US. However, there was a problem. Tetris had only been licensed for use on personal computers, and the UK-based Mirrorsoft distributor was promised rights to sell the game via coin-op or handheld consoles. Mirrorsoft then proceeded to offer rights deals to all kinds of distribution companies worldwide, including Atari, Sega and Nintendo - without the knowledge of Elorg.
Despite the more open era of Gorbochev's Glasnost, the Soviets were furious when they found out after a meeting with Henk Rogers from BulletProof Software, the man who was intent on brokering deals in Japan. Rogers managed to convince them that if they licensed to Nintendo, the game would explode - there would be a lot of profit involved. According to reports, the gains were huge - yet the original developer, Alexey Pajitnov, did not get a penny. Had he negotiated the deals himself, he may have secured around $40 million by 1998.
There is a happy end to the story, however. Rogers arranged for Pajitnov to emigrate to the States. The Russian started his own games company and ended up working for Microsoft. Eventually, he was able to lay claim to the ownership of Tetris when Rogers returned to Moscow as the Elorg group was dissolving. And Tetris, the first Soviet game to be sold in the US, is still as iconic a game now as it was back then.