Tetris to conquer the world from Hungary

Perhaps the best-known digital game of all times, Tetris (tetris.com), which had such huge cultural impact that is only comparable to Rubik’s cube, was thirty years old on 6 June. Its first version was released in the Soviet Union in 1984. It was initially designed for a terminal machine called Elektronika 60, then it came out for PCs two years later, for Amiga and Spectrum yet another year later, and for Apple computers in 1988. The name was coined by combining the Greek numerical prefix tetra- (four) and the English word for tennis (tennis being the programmer’s favourite sport).

The inventor Alexey Pajitnov did not make big money out of the game as he did not own the rights, which belonged to his employer, the state of the Soviet Union. However, a firm called the Tetris Company was established in 1996 to manage the game in the international market, and from then on Pajitnov did receive royalties.

In the early 1980s, Pajitnov did research in artificial intelligence at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Academy was one of the few privileged institutions that was allowed to communicate with different parts of the world beyond the iron curtain, and thus it frequently received new hardware. Hardware capabilities were tested with simple programmes, this is why Pajitnov started to write games. Even as a child he enjoyed puzzle games, especially pentominoes (geometric shape made up of five squares of equal size, and hence the name for domino consisting of two squares). In June 1984, Pajitnov got the idea that pentominoes would make a wonderful basis for a computer game. However, keeping the original rules of the game would have implied that 12 pentominoes would rotate in real time, which seemed to be far too complicated. So he decided to use tertominoes, which have seven shape variations.

Initially, letters were used in the game as Elektronika 60 could only display text and no graphics. However, the screen filled up quickly, so the programmer decided to clear every completed line. Blocks were originally green in the game, but grey was used in the most widely-spread versions; eventually colours were standardised by the Tetris Company at the turn of the millennium. It took three weeks to write the first usable version, then troubleshooting and improvements would have come, but Pajitnov could not stop playing the game, and neither could the other testers. He was unsure how to publish the game, and was afraid that he would get into trouble if he did so, but the version for PCs somehow got into Hungary, where it was re-written for various platforms. And there was no stopping: western companies started to produce unlicensed versions. Andromeda, the British software firm, attempted to get in touch with the developer of the original in order to secure rights for the PC version, but they failed. By that time rights had been sold to Spectrum Holobyte. Andromeda then tried to obtain licence from programmers in Hungary.

At the same time Perestroika, the economic softening in the Soviet union, was well on its way, and Pajitnov gave the rights to the Soviet government for ten years. Tetris became one of the first software that the Soviet Union exported.

Bundled with Nintendo Game Boy, Tetris gained tremendous popularity. Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of games like Zelda and Mario, only commented that Tetris was very good as all his colleagues were playing it during lunch. This platform alone sold forty million copies.

The American game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly named Tetris in its 100th issue as the greatest game of all time, while it had second place in IGN’s “100 Greatest Video Games of All Time” in 2007. Available data reveal that over 170 million copies have been sold by January 2010: approximately 70 million copies for hardware and 100 million copies for mobile phones. Wii Sports comes in as its closest rival with a sale of 50 million units.

In March 2014, the Tetris Company announced that the game would be available for the latest hardware platforms such as Xbox One and Playstation 4 so that by the time Tetris turned thirty it would be playable on these platforms as well.