The hypnotic building-block game Tetris made its debut on June 6, 1984, and the story of its creation is surprisingly filled with Cold War intrigue.
Creator Alexey Pajitnov—a programmer working for the Soviet government—developed the game in his free time on the Elektronika 60. Inspired by a board game called Pentominos, which had five-block pieces, Pajitnov developed an electronic version with four-block pieces. He called it “Tetris”—a portmanteau of tetra, the Greek work for the number four, and tennis, his favorite sport. Patjinov gave his friends copies of the game on floppy disks, and soon Tetris fans could be found all across Moscow.
Battle over distribution rights
One copy made its way to Hungary and ended up in the hands of Robert Stein, the UK owner of Andromeda Software Ltd. He recognized the addictive potential of Tetris and traveled to the Soviet Union to obtain distribution rights. A new Soviet government agency, Elorg, had been created to handle the distribution of Soviet-developed software, and Elorg licensed the game for personal computers to Stein. In turn, Stein licensed the software to Spectrum HoloByte and Mirrorsoft Ltds. Mirrorsoft also began working with Atari and Sega to develop Tetris for gaming consoles, even though Stein’s agreement with Elorg only covered PCs.
But Stein wasn’t alone in recognizing Tetris’ allure. Henk Rogers of BulletProof Software wanted the Japanese rights—specifically, the Japanese rights for handheld devices—and, he, too, traveled to the USSR to secure a deal with Elorg for those rights … for Nintendo. Eventually, Nintendo won the prolonged legal battle and included a copy of Tetris with every Game Boy, which is probably how you first encountered Tetris.
Missing from all of this activity was Pajitnov, who wasn’t getting rich off of his invention. The good news is that Rogers and Pajitnov eventually became friends, and as Elorg went the way of the Soviet Union, they were able to secure licensing rights. Together, they formed the Tetris Company and now control all licensing and rights to the game.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.