There are very few people whose childhood was not marked by the popular video game Tetris. The creator of this popular game is the Russian scientist Alexei Payitnov.
When he designed Tetris to test a new computer in 1984, he had no idea that a simple puzzle would change his life forever.
Payitnov was a software engineer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, tasked with testing a new type of computer, the Electronics 60. To do so, he wrote a simple puzzle-based game from his childhood.
He had no doubt that the resulting game would become one of the greatest, most active and most successful of all time. It was June 6, 1984, and Tetris was becoming increasingly popular.
Pajitnov took his inspiration from pentomino, a classic board game that consists of all the different shapes that can be made by combining five squares, a total of 12, with the goal of putting them together in a wooden box like a jigsaw puzzle.
To simplify things, he demolished it to four squares and thus reduced the number of shapes from 12 to seven. He named the game Tetris, combining the Greek number “tetra,” meaning four, and tennis, his favorite sport.
Pajitnov was immediately “hooked” on the game.
“I couldn’t stop playing this prototype version because it was very contagious,” he said.
But making a video game in Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War was far from easy. Only thanks to the brilliance of its design, Tetris has transformed from a witty testing program into a global phenomenon.
Although Tetris immediately became popular with developers who have access to Electronics 60, the machine did not have graphics capabilities and less memory than today’s calculators. Pressed by demands to make a version of the game for the IBM PC, a more widespread computer with better graphics, Payitn assigned the job to Vadim Gerasimov, a 16-year-old student, on a summer job in his office, who is now an engineer at Google. Everyone in the Soviet Union who had a PC also had Tetris.
Pajitnov did not make money from the game, nor did he intend to. The ideas were owned by the state and the very concept of selling software as a product was unknown to him. People just shared Tetris by word of mouth and copied it to floppy disks.
Then Pajitnov heard speculations that the game might have crossed borders and that it was being played in other countries of the Eastern bloc. In 1986, he received a message from Robert Stein, a salesman from the London software company Andromed. Stein, who saw Tetris in Hungary, wanted to secure sales rights as a computer game in the West. He offered significant money in advance.
Pajitnov said they could reach an agreement. Stein interpreted this as a green light and immediately started producing the game. But as he prepared for the launch, a Soviet organization that oversaw the export of software and hardware told him that his rights had not been officially granted and that his launch was illegal. Eventually, Stein waived his rights, and Tetris was released as a commercial PC title in the UK and US in 1988. The misunderstanding between Payitnov and Stein showed how tricky it would be to report a video game from Soviet Russia to the West for the first time, which would lead to years of confusion and legal battles.