June 04, 2009, 4:57 PM — Tetris -- possibly the most popular casual computer game of all time -- celebrates its 25th anniversary on June 6th. Its creator, Alexey Pajitnov, looked back at the phenomenon he created at this week's E3 Expo in Los Angeles.
Practically everyone has heard of it and anyone can play it, even those with little or no gaming experience. The concept and interface are so simple that gameplay is intuitive. Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the game that makes it so addictive. In Tetris, you rotate falling geometric shapes on a rectangular playfield; completing horizontal rows of blocks makes them disappear and gives you points. It's a format that has been relentlessly duplicated and evolved over the years.
In the 1980s, Pajitnov was a mathematician specializing in AI research at a Russian university. As a hobby, he relaxed by creating games. He said that couldn't have imagined the international phenomenon it would become when he designed Tetris in 1984.
Most gamers were introduced to Tetris when it was bundled with the first Nintendo Game Boy or in the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows. Pajintov's business partner, Henk Rogers, laughingly quotes a friend who commented on Pajitnov's eventual move to the U.S.: "He went from one evil empire to another (Microsoft)."
Tetris would eventually go on to be offered on just about every major and many minor gaming platform. It's made repeated appearances on the Mac, iPhone and iPod platforms, and the Tetris Company has more plans for the future.
Imitation is the sincerest (and most lucrative) form of flattery
Tetris has also been the victim of both piracy and imitation that too often has crossed the line to outright plagiarism. From the get-go, there were significant licensing issues related to Tetris, as Intellectual Property (IP) was very hard to defend in the Soviet Union.
By 1996, Pajitnov and Rogers entered into a partnership to manage and license the game -- The Tetris Company. They now own the full rights to the game, and will vigorously defend it against interlopers who are engaged in outright Tetris-related fraud or plagiarism. If an imitator is making money that an official Tetris-licensed product should be making, or if the imitator's product comprises the brand, those are criteria for The Tetris Company to drop the hammer.
These days, however, Rogers claims a laid back approach to maintaining control over his company's intellectual property when it comes to the "little guy." Amateur game developers can breath a sigh of relief and continue to create Tetris-like games, so long as they don't dub them "Tetris."
The next 25 years
Looking forward, Rogers maintains that "Tetris is a casual game and we want it to stay that way." With so much focus right now on expanding the social characteristics of casual games, The Tetris Company is investing more effort into incorporating online and multiplayer twists into the Tetris brand. To that end, competitive online tetris and online gamematching are both in the game's future. So is The Tetris Cup, where contestants will compete to become the best Tetris player in the world.
A self-proclaimed Mac aficionado, Rogers wants to ensure that Tetris games will continue to be available on Mac platforms. Current Mac-compatible Tetris properties include Tetris Friends, an online gaming portal with social networking features focused on Tetris games and Tetris Zone, a downloadable Tetris game for Mac OS X and Windows.
As one might expect, Tetris has a huge fan community. Devotees create fansites, keep in touch through the Tetris Facebook page, and continue to mail Pajitnov adoring letters -- though at a diminished rate, he said, as people don't seem to write paper mail as much.
True to form, Pajitnov and Rogers won't be having a big party to celebrate Tetris' silver anniversary. They'll be casually celebrating together over dinner and a glass of champagne.