The Story of the Game of Games: Tetris

Must have some membership in Tetris Anonymous Dependents. If there is, I would enter. I can’t get close to the game or I can’t stop. I’m so addicted that I celebrated the trailer for the movie Tetris, which Apple will release at the end of March. Starring Taron Egerton (of whom I’m a fan), the film retells the incredible story of how the game was created and won the world. The perfect game, as they call it. And is.

Tetris has a simple basis for forming a puzzle. The pieces fall from the top to the ground, and what you need to do is control the fit of these pieces – turning, pushing to the side – until you form complete lines or perfect boxes, which disappear and everything starts again faster until the speed it’s so big and you… lose. Basically, even if you advance incredibly, the probability of creating new unfinished work increases. This triggers a motivation to try again and again and when you least expect it, hours have passed.

Experts – including psychologists – tried to find the reason for the rapid addiction caused by Tetris, with many studies and defined a phenomenon that became known as the “Tetris effect”. “Tetris creates a world where the action is faster than thought – and that’s part of the key to why it’s so absorbing. Unlike much of life, Tetris makes an immediate connection between our perception of how we can solve a problem and the means to begin acting on it,” wrote Tom Stafford in a 2012 article investigating the Psychology of Tetris.

The game – considered one of the first video games – was created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, a software engineer from the former Soviet Union. He was working on a test in a program he was developing and used the concept of the pentomino game, a puzzle where all can be arranged by matching five squares until he manages to arrange the 12 pieces without spaces inside the box. In the case of Alexey’s program, he reduced it to four squares in seven shapes instead of 12. As he liked tennis, the engineer named the software Tetris, a combination of the number 4 in Greek (tetra) and tennis. Amazing, isn’t it? Of course, already with the prototype he himself got hooked.

Well, the film will show how – in the midst of the Cold War – Tetris left the Soviet bloc for the capitalist world. The story is genuinely amazing.

After creating the program, Russian engineers with access to an Electronika 60 also enjoyed the game, which became popular with them even without graphic resources and low memory. The chance for the upgrade came when Alexey won a mission to adapt his game to a more advanced computer, the IBM PC, which had better graphics. To help him, he called a 16-year-old student, Vadim Gerasimov (today one of Google’s engineers). It was an immediate fever. Soon every Russian with access to a computer had Tetris running on them.

In a communist regime, unsurprisingly, despite the great success, there was no financial return for its creator. Because all ideas and rights belonged to the State. Even Alexey Pajitnov had not even imagined that he had a “product” in his hands or the concept of “piracy” existed. Those who liked Tetris copied the game onto floppy disks and shared it, including in other Iron Curtain countries. In Hungary, which was a bit more open to Western culture, a salesman for Andromeda (a software company), Robert Stein, got to know the game. That was back in 1986. Robert saw the potential right away and wanted the rights to sell. He sent a telex (at the time, before fax, it was SMS or WhatsApp at the time) to Alexey, who didn’t even speak English.

The offer itself – which was lucrative and guaranteed Alexey a significant advance – could mean the engineer’s arrest if it wasn’t made transparently. He began to see how he could make the deal through the State, but Robert, excited, misinterpreted that the response was already positive and started producing the game. When he was about to launch the product, he received a reply from the Soviet organization that supervised software and hardware exports, denying the rights. That is, Robert Stein an unbelievable legal and diplomatic imbroglio that took years to resolve. In 1988, when Tetris was released for the PC in both the UK and the US, the drama was still at its height, even involving Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (as he appears in the film).

With its addictive DNA, unsurprisingly Tetris has also been successful in the west, selling heavily on computers. But look how incredible, already in those days it was noticed that the greatest value in the games sector was in another area: in consoles, not in programs or computers. Whoever saw the millionaire potential of the Soviet game in this scenario was a Dutch video game developer, Henk Rogers. Henk, who lived in Japan and was familiar with the Game Boy, a portable game console from Nintendo, released in 1989. The system would be released in the US and Europe and Tetris was perfect for it. He needed to convince the company’s founder, Minoru Arakawa, who already had the rights to Super Mario. Your argument? Mario was for kids, Tetris? For all.

By this time, the fight for rights was already a war and Henk had to go to the Soviet Union in person, with a tourist visa, to see if he could elucidate how to guarantee rights definitively. Of course, it was like Tetris pieces falling from the sky, the feeling was that I would never win. Today it’s hard to remember, but in the Cold War, there was a frightening distrust of any contact between the Soviets and Russians, which was worse if it involved the Government. Henk was interrogated and feared for his life. Your luck? Among the officers was none other than Alexey Pajitnov himself. Alexey and Henk understood each other immediately. In a tense week, the happy ending came. A contract has been signed for Tetris on the Game Boy. History began to be written.

On the Game Boy alone, it is estimated that Tetris sold more than 35 million units, being one of those responsible for the success of the console that became one of the most successful of all time. But Alexey still wasn’t getting paid for his creation, thanks to pending legal issues and partly because he had ceded the rights to the Computing Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for 10 years. At that point, Atari entered the dispute over the Game Boy, and only in 1989 did Nintendo win the lawsuit.

In 1991, Alexey managed to leave Moscow and went to live in Seattle, with the help of Henk. It was only in 1995 that the engineer regained the rights to his creation and began to receive royalties. Together, they founded the Tetris company, only managing to regain full control of the game in 2005, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today Tetris is on over 65 platforms, has sold 202 million copies – approximately 70 million physical units and 132 million paid mobile game downloads, and is one of the most popular games in the world.

The film opens at the end of March. I’m already excited!


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