How Tetris broke out of the Soviet Union
On a cold February day in the 1970s, 15-year-old Alexey Pajitnov leaped over a pile of snow in Moscow. As he landed, his leg hit the pavement with “a sickening crack.”
Soviet doctors put him in a full leg cast, requiring two to three months of in-home convalescence. To help him cope with boredom, a friend brought him books of math puzzles.
It was the moment that would change his life, as detailed by Dan Ackerman’s new book, “The Tetris Effect.”
Pajitnov became addicted to the puzzles and eventually sought out other brain teasers. He developed a special fondness for pentomino puzzles — geometric jigsaw challenges that require players to join pieces made up of five squares into a set area.
At 17, he became “spellbound” upon seeing his first computer. After graduating from the prestigious Moscow Institute of Aviation, Pajitnov took a research job in the computing department of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Eventually, he was supplied an Electronica 60, a computer that was a decade out of date and “incapable of displaying anything beyond the letters, numbers and symbols of his computer keyboard.”
At the time, Pajitnov was “vaguely aware of the growing phenomenon of video games, a major cultural force in the West and Japan.” While Soviet censors tried to keep them out of citizens’ hands, games like Pac-Man and Q*bert slipped through. In the early 1980s, one of Pajitnov’s programmer friends became obsessed with Pac-Man and tried to reverse-engineer the game, “reprogramming it from scratch and writing a new, nearly identical version just to figure out the programmatic thinking behind it.”
This inspired Pajitnov to try to recreate the experience of pentomino puzzles on his computer. Pajitnov produced the first version of the game in six days. He used four-segment pieces instead of five, calling the seven different shapes they could form tetrominoes.
This version laid out the basic concept, but lacked sizzle. With the help of several others, he made modifications — limiting game play to just a narrow sliver in the center of the screen and making the bottom row disappear as it filled up. Music and color were added as well.
With his figures called tetrominoes and the back and forth between game and player reminding Pajitnov of tennis, he named his invention Tetris.
Pajitnov couldn’t profit from Tetris, as the Russian Academy had signed him to a 10-year deal granting them ownership of the game. But the creator wanted the world to see his work. He handed out free copies to other programmers and computer enthusiasts and anyone he could find who had access to a computer (which wasn’t many people in 1980s Russia), and the game went viral. By 1986, nearly everyone in the USSR who had access to a personal computer had played Tetris.
Around this time, a Hungarian-born British computer salesman named Robert Stein was looking for new products to distribute.
During a visit to Hungary’s Institute of Computer Science, he noticed programmers huddling around a terminal — waiting, it turned out, for their chance to play Tetris.
Stein took a turn on the machine himself and got it immediately. He also learned that not only were programmers playing the game, but they were adapting it for other formats, including Apple and Commodore computers.
Clearly, this was a product with sales potential. Stein contacted Pajitnov, offering a generous 75 percent sales royalty (after expenses). Pajitnov’s superiors, seeing the potential for a serious cash infusion into the Soviet Union, proceeded to take a greater role in the negotiations, edging Pajitnov toward the sidelines.
The game was unveiled in the US in early 1988 to glowing reviews and instantly became the Soviet Union’s greatest commercial export.
The rights to Tetris were, by now, officially controlled by a Soviet government agency called ELORG (short for Electronorgtechnica) — “an arm of the Soviet Ministry of Trade charged with . . . protecting and licensing rights for computer software and other technology created under the government’s umbrella” — and its vice chairman, Nikolai Belikov.
The game was unveiled in the US in early 1988 to glowing reviews and instantly became the Soviet Union’s greatest commercial export. Over the course of the next few years, Stein and Belikov would be joined by many interested players in a convoluted quest for a piece of the valuable rights.
One of these players was Henk Rogers, a software designer and entrepreneur who’d had success with an original game called The Black Onyx. Rogers was one of the many who saw dollar signs in Tetris and hoped for a piece of the action. He eventually paired with Nintendo to represent their interests (with a piece for himself) in the negotiations.
In 1989, Rogers and Pajitov met at the Russian Academy, and the two computer geeks clicked over their love of programming and game creation. As they moved to Pajitov’s Moscow apartment for some vodka, “both men could sense they were now part of an unspoken alliance, although it was not yet clear against whom and for what purpose,” Ackerman writes.
By 1995, the Soviet Union had dissolved, and Russia was open for business. That same year, Pajitnov’s decade-long deal with ELORG expired, and Rogers offered to form a new company with him “to own and administer the rights to the game, finally giving Tetris’ creator a share of the game’s financial success.”
It was an offer Pajitnov couldn’t refuse — and didn’t regret. To date, Tetris has sold over 170 million physical copies and 425 million mobile phone and tablet downloads, generating nearly $1 billion in sales.
Today, the boy who broke his ankle on a snowbank is 60 and living with his wife and two sons in Bellevue, Wash. After working for Microsoft on and off for years, Pajitnov now develops games independently as well as serving as Tetris’ brand ambassador.
Although the book doesn’t reveal what he is personally worth, it’s clear that all his time spent toiling away in obscurity was worth it.
“Alexey Pajitnov is perhaps the most famous game designer in the world, yet he’s always been good-natured and philosophical about being denied the profits from his game,” Rogers said in 1996. “After 10 years of being left out of Tetris licensing deals arranged by a government that no longer exists, modest Alexey is finally getting his due.”
Tetris: From Russia with Love
Initially Tetris only worked on the Elektronika 60, a computer produced in the Soviet Union. That's exactly where it would've stayed, if it hadn't been for the opening up of the Iron Curtain around the same time. Tetris traveled to the West, and after Nintendo published a Game Boy and console version in 1989, it became massive. Since then more than 70 million handheld and console copies have been sold, and since 2005 more than 100 million copies have been sold for the mobile phone. Tetris: From Russia with Love explores the story of this popular game, and places it within the mind-boggling context of the Cold War Era.
The movie starts at 19.30. English spoken, no subtitles. An all-inclusive ticket (entrance to the Arcade exhibition before 19.00, and to the movie) sets you back €7,50. A ticket to just the movie (after 19.00) is €5,-. Location: Mediamatic Bank, Vijzelstraat 68 Amsterdam. The documentary lasts approximately 60 minutes. Check the Arcade event page for more Arcade related events.
This screening is part of Mediamatic's latest exhibition, Arcade: an expanding collection of old and new games and installations. Arcade is open until March 27th, 2011. On weekdays between 13.00 and 19.00 and on the weekend from 13.00 to 18.00. Exhibition space meets arcade. Come play with us.
The Retro Gamer: Tetris, From Russia With Love
In 1984, behind the Iron Curtain and deep within the Soviet Artificial Intelligence research divisions, a young programmer mined gold from a simple text-based computer system. Alexey Pajitnov was a programmer, mathematician, and puzzle solver who was trying to make a reproduction of a favorite childhood puzzle game for his work computer. Comprised of small wood blocks inside a fitted tray, the puzzles were called pentominoes– distinct mathematical shapes that locked together, fitting L’s around squares and Z’s to form large rectangles.
Pajitnov would peck away on his outdated Electronica 60 eventually forming a simpler tetrominoes-based puzzle roughly half the size of his beloved childhood games. After a few rounds, Pajitnov realized his game was terribly repetitive, so he sought a way to make it more interesting. He found the game to be more exciting when he narrowed the playing field by having the pieces fall “in” instead of pulling from the edge like a standard puzzle. Unfortunately, with such limited computing power, the program dragged as the field became full. Pajitnov had the game wipe a line section as it filled to save memory on later levels. The result would take the world by storm over the next 8 years as one of the longest sustaining game franchises in history. It would also hold the record for most physical copies of a game sold for decades until finally being unseated by the phenomena known as Minecraft.
Tetris is one of the rare examples of an early home PC title beating the arcade to the punch. Since Pajitnov developed the game on Russian state-owned computers, the USSR owned the publishing rights of the initial title and creative rights to its ports. Licensing agreements spinning out of Turkish software developers and running through the UK via Spectrum Holobyte created a tangled web of licensing, but Atari finally acquired what they thought were arcade rights in 1989. With dozens of illegal ports already running along and an active trade dispute between Nintendo and Tengaen (Mirrorsoft developer’s Japanese arm), Atari worked on porting Nintendo’s inferior Famicom for arcades. Tetris has long been a game of countless iterations, and Atari worked to include some of the better features from other developers. Namely, side-by-side vs play and a Russian victory dance for completed screens– features found in the original Turkish port of the game.
Evoking imagery and music of the country that birthed it, Tetris and its sordid licensing history echo the tumultuous political waves within the USSR. Lawsuits raged on the outside while the game’s creator, Pajitnov, never saw a penny from his creation. That is until he immigrated from Russia in 1991 and formed The Tetris Company in 1999.
Tetris is best known for being packaged with the Game Boy, Nintendo’s blockbuster handheld console, but later it could be found on everything from graphing calculators to lab oscilloscopes. Simple and easy to learn, Tetris for arcade finds its niche in VS mode– a frantic score and time grab with a focus on outrunning your opponent and being efficient with block placement. Later levels increased the difficulty by adding random blocks to the playfield in up to 20-second intervals.
It’s time to test those early Gameboy skills and match your mettle with a friend. Step up to Atari’s classic iteration and give it a try. Bop along to the classic Russian tunes, vibrant colors, and flashback to a time of Regan, Gorbachev, and the felling of the Berlin wall. Dancing Cossacks and all!
Jeremy Smith’s passion for old technology started in his teens rebuilding old computers. Today, he is the Game Operator and proud co-owner of Reboot Retrocade and Bar, 566 Cherry Street in Downtown Macon.
The Bizarre History of 'Tetris'
Its graphics are simple, and its rules are straightforward: rotate fast-dropping puzzle pieces on your computer screen to fit together and create solid lines — which then disappear. Repeat ad infinitum.
"Tetris," the hugely popular and addictive game that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s, continues to engage and captivate players today. Unlike the majority of products developed during the early boom years of video game design, "Tetris" was a no-frills outlier: no fancy images, no memorable characters and no narrative.
But while the game may be uncomplicated, the story of how it came to dominate the gaming industry and bewitch millions of people around the world is quite the opposite. The tale is rife with handshake deals, game industry rivalries, and tense negotiations between Western executives and Soviet officials during the last decade of the Cold War, when relations between the USSR and countries in the West were anything but friendly. [7 Weird Facts About Tetris]
In a new nonfiction graphic novel titled "Tetris: The Games People Play" (First Second, Oct. 2016), writer and illustrator Box Brown fits together the puzzle pieces that describe the explosive gaming-world takeover of "Tetris," uncovering the unique historical circumstances in world politics and the nascent gaming industry that made the "Tetris" story so unique.
"Tetris" — "tetra" plus "tennis"
It all began with a puzzle-loving software engineer named Alexey Pajitnov, who created "Tetris" in 1984 while working for the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a research and development center in Moscow created by the government.
Pajitnov didn't intend to make money from his creation; he designed the game "for fun," Brown told Live Science.
"He was doing this just to see if he could do it," Brown said.
Pajitnov was inspired by a puzzle game called "pentominoes," in which different wooden shapes made of five equal squares are assembled in a box. Brown wrote that Pajitnov imagined the shapes falling from above into a glass, with players controlling the shapes and guiding them into place. Pajitnov adapted the shapes to four squares each and programmed the game in his spare time, dubbing it "Tetris." The name combined the Latin word "tetra" — the numerical prefix "four," for the four squares of each puzzle piece — and "tennis," Pajitnov's favorite game.
And when he shared the game with his co-workers, they started playing it — and kept playing it and playing it. These early players copied and shared "Tetris" on floppy disks, and the game quickly spread across Moscow, Brown wrote. When Pajitnov sent a copy to a colleague in Hungary, it ended up on display in a software exhibit at the Hungarian Institute of Technology, where it came to the attention of Robert Stein, owner of Andromeda Software Ltd., who was visiting the exhibit from the United Kingdom. [The Top 5 Benefits of Play]
"Tetris" intrigued Stein. He tracked down Pajitnov in Moscow, but ultimately the game's fate lay in the hands of a new Soviet agency, Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg), created to oversee foreign distribution of Soviet-made software. Elorg licensed the game to Stein, who then licensed it to distributors in the U.S. and the U.K. — Spectrum HoloByte and Mirrorsoft Ltd — The New York Times reported in 1988. According to the Times, "Tetris" was the first software created in the Soviet Union to be sold in America.
Gaming the system
Stein's agreement with Elorg covered "Tetris" licensing only for personal computers, not coin-operated machines or handheld devices. But Stein told U.K. distributor Mirrorsoft that these rights would soon be in hand, and Mirrorsoft proceeded to ink licensing deals with game companies Atari and Sega in Japan for arcade kiosks and home-gaming consoles.
BulletProof Software's Henk Rogers also had his eye on brokering "Tetris" deals in Japan, and secured rights for "Tetris" distribution on computers and consoles for Nintendo, through the U.S. distributor, Spectrum HoloByte.
However, the legal owner of "Tetris," the Soviet agency Elorg, knew nothing of these deals, Brown wrote. The only contract the agency had signed was the deal with Stein covering computer rights, and nothing else.
The penny dropped when Rogers met with Elorg officials in Moscow about licensing "Tetris" for handheld devices — Nintendo had just created the Game Boy — and showed them a "Tetris" cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment system (NES). The Soviets were outraged, but Rogers convinced them that if those rights were, in fact, up for grabs, licensing them to Nintendo — for both handheld and console devices — would be highly profitable.
Elorg agreed that Rogers could secure the handheld rights for Nintendo, with console and coin-operated kiosk rights added later, amid angry protests from Atari over the threat to their own versions of "Tetris." A prolonged legal battle between the two rival game companies followed, but was eventually resolved in favor of Nintendo; that company quickly solidified "Tetris'" hold on eager consumers across America by including a copy with every Game Boy that Nintendo sold.
For the love of puzzles
A lot of money changed hands during these deals, but Pajitnov, the game's creator, was not part of the negotiations and saw no profits at all, missing out on approximately $40 million, SFGate reported in 1998.
However, Pajitnov and Rogers had become friends, and with Rogers' help, Pajitnov emigrated to America in 1991 and devoted himself to creating games, first for his own game-design company and later for Microsoft. And in 1996, when Elorg was dissolving, Rogers went back to Moscow for a final round of "Tetris" negotiations — to return ownership of the game to the man who invented it.
In Brown's book, the unusual story of "Tetris" is interwoven with an exploration of gaming: why people do it, how it changes them and how it brings people together. Pajitnov himself began this journey simply because he loved games and puzzles and wanted to share them with the world. And in the process, Brown told Live Science, "Tetris" took on a life of its own.
"To me, this is the universal thing that happens with all art and artists," Brown said. "You make something for people, and it becomes popular. Once it goes out into the world, it can be redefined by other people and become something else entirely. This is what happened to 'Tetris.' In an extreme way, I think of it as a lens to view that theme in all art and commerce."
Original article on Live Science.
Tetris: The Soviet 'mind game' that took over the world
Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN
Read more unknown and curious design origin stories here.
Like many of history's greatest ideas, Tetris came about quite unintentionally.
Alexey Pajitnov was a software engineer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, tasked with testing a new type of computer, the Electronika 60. To do so, he wrote a simple game based on a puzzle from his childhood. It would help assess how powerful the computer was -- and provide a bit of fun.
Little did he know that the resulting game would go on to become one of the greatest, most addictive and most successful of all time.
It was June 6, 1984, and Tetris had just started its journey from behind the Iron Curtain.
The original version of Tetris.
Tetris is a puzzle game in which geometric shapes called "tetrominoes" fall down onto a playing field, and the player has to arrange them to form gapless lines. Pajitnov took inspiration from pentomino, a classic puzzle game consisting of all the different shapes that can be made by combining five squares -- 12 in total -- with the goal of arranging them in a wooden box like a jigsaw puzzle.
To simplify things, he knocked that down to four squares, thus reducing the number of shapes from 12 to seven. He called the game Tetris, combining the Greek numeral "tetra" (meaning four) and tennis, his favorite sport.
Pajitnov himself was immediately hooked. "I couldn't stop myself from playing this prototype version, because it was very addictive to put the shapes together," he said on the phone from Seattle, where he now lives.
Tetris was inspired by pentomino, a classic board game. Credit: Shutterstock
But creating a video game in Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War was far from easy. It was only through the sheer brilliance of its design that Tetris was transformed from a quirky test program into a worldwide phenomenon.
Word of mouth
Although Tetris became immediately popular among programmers with access to an Electronika 60, the machine had no graphical capabilities -- and less memory than today's calculators. Pressed with requests to create a version of the game for the IBM PC, a more widespread computer with better graphics, Pajitnov assigned the job to Vadim Gerasimov, a 16-year-old student on a summer job at his office (today an engineer at Google). The game spread quickly. "It was like a wood fire. Everyone in the Soviet Union who had a PC had Tetris on it," said Pajitnov.
Pajitnov wasn't making any money off the game, nor did he intend to. Ideas were owned by the state and the very concept of selling software as a product was unfamiliar to him. People were just sharing Tetris through word of mouth and by copying it onto floppy disks.
Then, Pajitnov heard rumors that the game might have crossed borders and was being played in other Eastern bloc countries. In 1986, he got a message via telex -- a forerunner of the fax machine -- from Robert Stein, a salesman for a Hungary-based software company called Andromeda. Stein, who had seen Tetris in Hungary, wanted to secure the rights to sell it as a computer game in the West. He offered significant money in advance.
"My English was really bad at that time, so I put together some kind of positive answer, saying we were very glad to receive the proposal and that some agreement could be made," said Pajitnov. He knew that doing business directly with a Western firm could have landed him in jail, even before making any money, so he started investigating how he could sell the rights to Tetris through the state.
Stein, however, interpreted his response as a green light and immediately started producing the game. But as he was preparing to launch, he received another telex from Elorg -- short for Electronorgtechnica, the Soviet organization that oversaw software and hardware exports. It said that the rights had not been officially granted and that his launch was illegal.
Eventually, Stein cleared the rights, and Tetris was released as a commercial PC title in the UK and the US in 1988. The game played up its Soviet origins through Kremlin-themed illustrations and Cyrillic characters. But the misunderstanding between Pajitnov and Stein showed how tricky it would be to export a video game from Soviet Russia to the West for the first time -- an issue that led to years of confusion and legal battles, and is even rumored to have landed on the desk of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Pajitnov and his son with the UK and US PC versions of Tetris in 1989. Credit: Wojtek Laski/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Game Boy
Tetris was selling well on computers, but the big money in the games sector was being made elsewhere: consoles. Henk Rogers, a Dutch video game developer and businessman living in Japan, was the first to realize that Tetris was a perfect match for the Game Boy, a new handheld system released by Nintendo in Japan in early 1989. The console was about to launch in North America and Europe too, and Rogers set out to convince the company to bundle a copy of the game in the box, a common practice outside of Japan.
"I made a handshake deal with Minoru Arakawa, the founder of Nintendo of America, to have Nintendo include Tetris in every Game Boy," said Rogers in a phone interview. "He said, 'Why should I include Tetris? I have Mario.' And I said, 'If you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, then include Mario. But if you want everyone to buy your Game Boy, then you should include Tetris.'"
Rogers set out to obtain the necessary permissions, and soon realized what a challenge that would be. He had already published a version of Tetris in Japan, for the popular Nintendo Famicom home system, only to discover that there were half a dozen companies all claiming to own the rights to the game. "So I got on a plane and went to Moscow on a tourist visa to track down the source of the rights, Elorg -- and talk my way into it," he said.
Once in Moscow, Rogers made little progress until he hired an interpreter, who swiftly took him to Elorg.
"She knew immediately where everything was, so that was fishy. They're not supposed to talk to foreigners, and I wasn't supposed to talk to the Russians, let alone people inside the government. So I broke all kinds of rules by being there. They interrogated me for two hours. I thought they were trying to figure out whether they were gonna send me to Siberia or not," he said.
But among the officials in the room was Alexey Pajitnov, who immediately took a liking to Rogers. "Alexey was the only guy in the room who actually knew anything about games," Rogers recalled. "I explained how business worked, and we became friends. A week later, I left Moscow with a signed agreement for Tetris on the Game Boy."
Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov in Moscow's Red Square.
The Game Boy version of Tetris sold 35 million units and helped the console become one of the most successful of all time. It is still considered by many -- Pajitnov included -- to be the best version of Tetris, and it created an unprecedented synergy between hardware and software, epitomizing the gaming mantra "easy to learn, hard to master."
Despite the game's success, Pajitnov was still not making any money from it. "There was a lot of legal trouble, and when the question of ownership and the original source of the game came up, I decided that I wanted everything to go smoothly and I granted the rights to the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for 10 years," he said.
The legal trouble culminated in a skirmish between Nintendo and Atari over the home console rights for Tetris. A judge ruled in Nintendo's favor in late 1989, dealing a lethal blow to Atari, which had already produced hundreds of thousands of now useless copies of its version of the game, under the tagline "Tetris: The Soviet Mind Game." Nintendo took a different approach, opting for the slogan "From Russia with fun."
Pajitnov left Moscow for Seattle in 1991, with the help of his friend Henk Rogers. And when his deal over the rights expired in 1995, he finally started receiving royalties for the game. "And they've been fine so far," he said.
Pajitnov and Rogers in 2018.
In 1996, Pajitnov and Rogers founded the Tetris Company, to handle licensing for Tetris and its spinoffs. In 2005, the Tetris Company bought Elorg -- which after the fall of the Soviet Union had transformed from a state-owned company into a private one -- gaining total control of all Tetris rights worldwide. The company has even standardized and trademarked the names and colors of every Tetris piece -- officially called Tetriminos, rather than the generic tetrominoes, although they have many unofficial nicknames.
Tetris has been the subject of several scientific studies. One found that playing the game can be effective in fighting off cravings for food and even drugs, while another noted an increase in the thickness of some parts of the brain in people who had played regularly. Playing Tetris for prolonged periods of time can lead to players dreaming to about the falling pieces or interpreting real-world objects as tetrominoes and mentally re-arranging them -- a phenomenon known as "the Tetris Effect."
To date, Tetris has been released on over 65 platforms, a world record, with more than half a billion downloads on mobile devices, according to the Tetris Company. Pajitnov has personally worked on over 100 variants of the game.
The latest, released in early 2019 to coincide with the game's 35th anniversary, is an online multiplayer version called "Tetris 99," which can be played by up to 99 players simultaneously. Since 2010, an eSports tournament based on the 1989 Nintendo Entertainment System version of Tetris has seen the world's best players gather in Portland, Oregon. Some of the matches, which can surpass 30 minutes in length, have garnered over 10 million views on YouTube.
"It hasn't lost any of its play value and nothing has come to replace Tetris," said Henk Rogers, explaining the game's enduring popularity.
"It's like 'Happy Birthday.' There have been lots of songs that come and go, but 'Happy Birthday' is it still always sung in the same way. Tetris has become the 'Happy Birthday' of computer games."
After some time, they themselves opened. We drove a few meters and stopped at several other cars. Before us was a three-story mansion. Around a beautiful deciduous forest. Since the time was already late, it was difficult to see anything else.
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Your soul, Ilyich, you are not thinking about that. She was a child, the stress must have traumatized her. Come on, remember how Lera felt, come on. LET'S GO.