Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere, Berlin is now one city, but 25 years later, the Soviet-designed Tetris remains one of the most popular and ubiquitous video games ever created. It has sold over 125 million copies, been released for nearly every video-game platform of the past two decades and even been played on the side of a skyscraper. Yet creator Alexey Pajitnov almost never saw a ruble for his creation.
While studying at the Soviet Union's Academy of Science in 1984, the 29-year-old Pajitnov designed a bare-bones version of the game in his free time for the Elektronika 60, a Soviet terminal computer. The original version, launched on June 6, 1984, was only 10 levels long because that was all the Elektronika's memory could handle. Inspired by the classic riddles and puzzles Pajitnov loved as a child, the game was so addictive he couldn't even stop playing long enough to finish programming it. "The program wasn't complicated," he told the Guardian. "There was no scoring, no levels. But I started playing and I couldn't stop." The game became known as Tetris, a combination of the Greek prefix tetra and Pajitnov's favorite sport, tennis. (See the top ten E3 2009 Announcements.)
The premise is simple: as variously shaped groups of four blocks fall down the screen (trivia answer: they're called "tetrominoes"), a player must fit them together like a jigsaw. When a horizontal line is completed, it disappears, freeing up more space to play the game. Once the stacked blocks reach the top of the screen you're toast. But there's something about the formula that sets a hook deep in our psyche; players have even reported seeing the falling blocks in their sleep. "I believe there is some basic psychological pleasure sensor that Tetris has found that other [games]don't," said Henk Rogers, the Dutch video-game designer who secured the console and handheld licensing rights for Nintendo in 1989, in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "The balance is so good, it feels like you can always go a little more."
That same year Nintendo bundled a copy of Tetris with every unit of their latest platform, the Game Boy (FROM RUSSIA WITH FUN! read the game's original packaging). The handheld game system and its variations sold more than 118 million units; Tetris, generally believed to have played a large role in the pioneering portable's success, sold a staggering 35 million units for the Game Boy alone. But despite his creation's record-breaking popularity, Pajitnov continued to receive his normal salary while the Kremlin claimed millions in royalties.
Pajitnov moved to the U.S. in 1991 and finally began earning money from his creation after the rights reverted back to him in 1996. He and Rogers, who had befriended Pajitnov on his trips to Russia, formed the straightforwardly titled Tetris Company to manage and license the Tetris brand, an entity that now spans more than 50 countries. The company maintains the "Tetris guidelines"a set of basic standards to which all officially branded games must adhere. These rules stipulate everything from the colors of the blocks to a mandatory inclusion of the game's now famous theme song, the Russian folk tune "Korobeiniki." Tetris is now ubiquitous: it's the best selling cell-phone game and one of the top 10 iPhone apps of all time, and has even inspired wacky Japanese game shows. In 2007, video-game website IGN named it the second best game of all time, behind only Super Mario Bros. saying, "It's the puzzle game. Not a puzzle game, THE puzzle game."
Pajitnov continues to design games todayhis similarly colorful puzzler Hexic was packaged with Microsoft's Xbox 360 Premium Bundle at the console's launch. But Tetris remains his magnum opus. As prices for video-game development run into the tens of millions of dollars, Tetris' simple formula still beats them all. "It's awesome when you look at the industry and everyone spending millions on graphics and music and more and here we are with Tetris just kicking ass," Rogers told the AFP. "It is an enviable position."