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The story of bringing Tetris to the Western world is a tale fraught with aggressive lawyers, sluggish government politics, desperate races against time, and some Finnish beer.
(For the record, there's an abbreviated version at the bottom of the page and similar info on Wikipedia.)
It began with a young man named Alexey Pajitnov, a resident of Moscow, Russia. As a young man, he excelled in mathematics (he was a finalist in a citywide mathematics competition at age 14), and he created his first computer program at 15 — a number game. Though he enjoyed the worlds that math held, he also hung out with his friends to play cards, drank vodka, and was a normal schoolboy in every sense of the word. After his university studies and graduation, he took up a job at a technical Moscow university where he worked in the field of math applications. Though he enjoyed his work, he soon discovered his passion for computers and programming. In his words, "It doesn't matter to a hacker what he is working on — it could be a game or an abstract math problem, but if a computer is involved, he is a god and can do whatever he wants in that world."
He quit his university job and was instead hired by the Computer Center at the Moscow Academy of Science. There, he spent much of his time working with an Electronica 60, working on AI and voice recognition. In his spare time, he created games and puzzles — the latter of which were a particular passion of his. To many of us, they are diversions, but to Pajtinov, they were reflections of life and metaphors for the real world. Having read about puzzles called Pentaminoes, Pajitnov bought a set from a local toy store and brought it home. As expected, taking them apart from each other is easy; getting them back together in the right way is much more difficult.
He imagined a computerized version of Pentaminoes, where instead of having to make them into a rectangle, they would be randomly generated and fall from the sky. Quick thinking would be needed as the pieces moved quicker and required fast rearrangement to fit into what was already there. Experimenting with several permutations, Pajitnov eventually settled on a simpler version, with all the seven possible combinations of four squares instead of five. From this, and a form of the Greek word for four (tetra), Pajitnov named his new creation Tetris.
With the basic game mechanics in place, and a prototype on the text-only Elektronika-60 working, Pajitnov realized that the game needed graphics if it was going to go any farther (currently, the pieces were just outlined with brackets). A young hacker named Vadim Gerasimov, who was 16 at the time, worked closely with Pajitnov for around two months to get Tetris to work on an IBM-compatible computer. By the end, the pieces lit up in bright colors, and another programmer (Dimitri Pevlovsky) added a high score table. When the bugs were squashed, Pajitnov distributed the game around the Computer Center. Friends and coworkers congratulated Pajitnov on his amazing game, and soon Tetris was spreading through Moscow's computer circles like a virus.
Eventually, Pajitnov voiced to one of his superiors that they should do something about copyrighting Tetris for release outside the U.S.S.R.. "We had no copyright laws at all. Certainly, by the spirit of our law we had no right to sell anything to anyone. We could do nothing for personal gain," according to Pajitnov. Still, it would be a large accomplishment for a program to be published outside the country. A colleague of his sent an evaluation copy of the game to the Institute of Computer Science in Busapest. Robert Stein, the man who ran the London-based software company Andromeda, was visiting at the time.
Stein mostly worked as a go-between, buying and selling software rights for several English and Hungarian companies. He noticed Tetris on a nearby computer and sat down to play it.
He found it very difficult to stop. As he said, "I was not a game player, so if I liked it, it must be a very good game." Asking around, he was told it came from the Computer Center of the Academy of Science in Moscow. Deciding to go to the source, Stein sent a cable to the Computer Center. A colleague of Pajitnov's saw the telex and showed it to him. Replying to the message was met with a series of bureaucratic stumbling blocks, and it was several weeks until Pajitnov sent back the simple reply of "Yes, we are interested. We would like to have this deal."
Stein was already building up interest in the game. Mirrorsoft decided to license it for Europe if their sister company, Spectrum Holobyte, would do the licenses for the US and Japan. Phil Adam and Gilman Louie ran said sister company. Phil sat down to play it one day at three. At seven, dinner companions had to literally unplug the machine to get him to stop playing. Louie also played and loved it. They told Stein to "put it in a red box and get the rights".
This next part is where it starts to get confusing: Stein offered the Russians 75% of whatever he got and a $10,000 advance. The Russians responded with a telex saying they were ready to transfer the copyrights, and that this deal was for the IBM-compatible versions only. Stein, taking this as a go-ahead, began production of the game. Pajitnov claims that the telex he sent was not a firm go-ahead, but more of a "sounds good".
Stein also wanted to set up a more permanent partnership between the Computer Center and himself, similar to his Hungarian deals. When he visited Moscow, the Russians had never done software licensing before, but they compensated with caution and obstinacy. Stein left Moscow without a signed contract and wondered if he should just try and license from someone else (Hungarian programmers had licensed a Commodore 64 version from the Russians). He said later that his biggest mistake was not making this happen.
Spectrum Holobyte, however, was moving along. They packed it into a slick red box and added some things to the game: war backgrounds and a small scene with Matthias Rust landing in Red Square. A boss key was also added, along with high-quality graphics and music. The game was then released to rave reviews, and one even commented on The Tetris Effect: "After a poor night watching shapes float down past my closed eyelids I had to be firm with myself and refuse to play it again for at least 48 hours. I cannot give a higher recommendation."
So, to reiterate: Stein had sold the rights to Tetris, which he didn't actually own, to several companies who were now producing and releasing the game in Europe and America, despite his continual attempts to secure the rights.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Pajitnov was told that Electronorgtechnica (henceforth referred to as Elorg), the recently-formed ministry for the import and export of hardware and software, would be taking over negotiations, since the Academy of Science was an academic institution and couldn't indulge in commerce anyway.
Eventually, a third party — basically the James K Polk of this whole story — Bulletproof Software joined the fray for the rights to the game. Its founder, Henk Rogers (an American-educated Dutchman living in Japan), saw Tetris at the 1988 CES and brought along his buddies at Nintendo to secure an actual, real contract with Elorg for the game. Why, you ask, were this tiny company and the giant Nintendo suddenly involved? Because Bulletproof was one of the first developers to sign on to develop for Nintendo's then-top secret and upcoming Game Boy system, and Rogers had convinced the higher ups at Nintendo that Tetris would be the Killer App for the Game Boy.
Meanwhile, Mirrorsoft had sold the arcade and home rights to Atari subsidiary Tengen, who pumped out a quick (and some argue, superior) NES version of Tetris just as Nintendo's first party Tetris was released. Atari and Nintendo sued each other over this, with Nintendo (who actually had a real contract) winning and Atari's version was pulled off the market. In 1989, just as predicted Tetris made the Game Boy not only popular but essential to own for any serious gamer.
There's a happy side-note to all this: during the negotiations for Nintendo, Rogers and Pajitnov became fast friends, and years later Rogers helped Pajitnov emigrate to the United States. Pajitnov was able to secure the trademark and rights to the Tetris name soon after, eventually buying the rights fully from Elorg. He and Rogers formed The Tetris Company in the late 1990s, and it continues to release Tetris games today.
Port Overdosed: Arguably the most widely-ported game in history.