There’s no question that few games - not just videogames, but games, pure and simple - have achieved the ubiquity of Tetris, the addictive falling-block puzzle videogame created in 1984 by Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov in the bowels of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It has since gone on to sell hundreds of millions of copies and been ported to practically every computer system since.
But 27 years later, having arguably launched the portable and casual videogaming industries, the bitterly ironic question dogging Pajitnov and his business partner, videogames publisher Henk Rogers, CEO of the Tetris Company is this: Where does Tetris fit in among the modern gaming market? Especially alongside popular modern gaming sensations “Angry Birds,” and “Farmville.”
“You can play Tetris forever,” Rogers told TPM in a telephone interview. “It is one of the simplest looking games out there, and yet it is the deepest and most interesting. Most videogames are superficially very beautiful, but have no depth. Tetris is the opposite, it has the ability to capture your attention for years.”
“It’s hard to imagine any specific game today having the longevity of Tetris,” agreed Peter Brinson, a game developer and professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, “It was seminal as a casual game, a straighforward game that was developed and run on what is considered, by today’s standards, to be super-inferior technology.”
It’s not a stretch to say that the game, which Pajitnov developed on an Elektronika 60, a Soviet clone of an American PDP 11, helped launched the portable video gaming industry, as it was the first game bundled with Nintendo’s Game Boy when the device was released in 1989, going on to sell 150 million copies in the following years.
Tetris might also be the first successful example of what can be called a “casual game,” that is, a game that appeals to an audience outside of hardcore videogamers, including people of all ages and genders (although there’s an eternal dispute over whether Pac Man holds the title of the first successful causal game).
The game even helped popularize an obscure Russian folk song, “Korobeiniki,” which was used as the official Tetris theme song.
But there’s another bittersweet truth to the success of Tetris: For years, Pajitnov wasn’t able to profit from his creation because the rights to the game were long contested by the Soviet (turned Russian) government and a host of videogame companies, including Nintendo and Atari. When the rights finally reverted back to him in 1996, he and Rogers formed the Tetris Company to finally begin capitalizing on the success.
“For a period of 10 years, Alexy behaved like he had no rights,” said Rogers. “They [the Russian government] were asserting themselves even though they hadn’t done a damn thing.”
Rogers is now working furiously to expand the classic game’s reach across all modern gaming platforms, from Facebook to Microsoft’s Kinect and beyond - even in the face of stiff competition from more modern gaming sensations such as Angry Birds and Farmville.
“There are 20 million games of Tetris Battle being played on Facebook alone. But we’re going to see a peak in the number of users playing the game simultaneously in a year or so from now,” Rogers said.
Tetris Battle - a head-to-head Facebook version of the game - launched last summer and now boasts more than 5 million monthly active users and a whopping 1.3 million active daily users.
That was enough to bring Tetris Battle onto the bottom of the list of the Top 25 Facebook games by daily active users in July.
But it is still not enough to put Tetris Battle in the top 10 Facebook games by monthly users: Number 10, Bejeweled, boasts 11.7 million monthly active users, while number 1, FarmVille, boasts an astonishing 55 million monthly active users.
Of course, Facebook is just the most recent phase of Rogers’ ambitious plans to make Tetris into a 21st century hit.
He notes that Facebook’s various paid mobile phone apps have been downloaded more than 180 million times since they first launched six years ago.
That’s actually quite good, even in comparison to the runaway success of Rovio’s Angry Birds franchise, which has been downloaded a mindblowing 500 million times across all mobile platforms since it debuted in 2009.
And like Rovio, The Tetris Comapny is seeking to bring pieces of its game into the real world in the form of merchandise.
At the Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas in June, the Tetris Company debuted a blitzkrieg of all-new product lines that are set to hit in stores in the U.S. and the U.K. in time for the holiday season this year, including T-shirts, “crazy band” elastic bracelets shaped like Tetris pieces, lottery tickets, wall decorations, a Tetris board game, to name a few.
A Dutch videogame publisher living in Japan, Rogers first stumbled across Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Realizing the potential of the seemingly simple but addictive game, he managed to strike a deal with Pajitnov and the Soviets to license the game abroad, but the latter party still owned the royalties.
Meanwhile, Robert Stein, then president of British software company Andromeda, had also separately seen the game in Hungary and sold the rights to U.S. company Spectrum Holobyte and Mirrorsoft UK, which in turn sold it to Atari, launching the tangled web of licensing lawsuits that lasted nearly a decade, as Atari HQ noted.
But for Rogers, the first market was crucial: Nintendo was about to release its Game Boy handheld system into America, and Rogers convinced the company to bundle Tetris with every device, making both Game Boy and Tetris into overnight successes, as chronicled in the book “Game Over.”
The popularity of the game only accelerated from there, with every system clamoring to have its own version.
Finally, in 1996, after the rights had reverted to Pajitnov, he and Rogers formed the Tetris Company.
It would be another 10 years before The Tetris Company decided to pursue mobile phone and online gaming as a major part of its business. In 2006, Rogers launched Tetris Online, Inc., precisely for this purpose.
“Mobile wasn’t a big deal before 2005, so it’s unrealistic to think that they should have been on handsets before then,” pointed out Michael Pachter, an entertainment business analyst at Wedbush Securities, in an email to TPM.
At that time, Rogers, noted that online gaming was limited to two extremes - graphics-heavy games that cost $20 a month to play, like Everquest, or lesser quality free flash games.
“It’s free junk and amazing stuff for ridiculous amounts of money,” he told Pacific Business News. “There’s got to be a middle ground”
That said, not everyone thinks that Teris is best-equipped to seize that middle ground, especially with the rise of mobile phone gaming and social network gaming.
“Farmville’s value is that it’s very appropriate to Facebook,” Brinson noted, “It creates a persistent world for people and their friends to visit at whatever time is convenient for them, but when they leave, that world remains and changes, providing a different experience and a built-in mechanism for bringing people back. It’s difficult for Tetris to compete with that.”
Pachter puts it more bluntly: “Tetris is not that big of a deal, and comparing a simple puzzle game to what Zynga has created is lame.”
Still, Rogers isn’t worried much at all that companies such as Rovio and Zynga, which makes Farmville, have seized the momentum while he and Pajitnov were fighting a protracted legal battle and figuring out their strategy going forward.
As he puts it “I’ve watched many other games come and go. Some come along and they look like Tetris, many don’t. But only Tetris keeps going. Tetris is the ‘Happy Birthday’ song of video games. Other songs come and are popular for a while, but ‘Happy Birthday’ is one of the few that spans generations.”
And like the “Happy Birthday” song, Tetris is protected by intellectual property laws, though Rogers said The Tetris Company only occasionally enforces its trademark, usually when imitators come too close to replicating Tetris down to the mechanics, such as when they forced Google to remove 35 Tetris clones from the Android marketplace in May 2010.
But it’s Rogers upcoming plans for the Tetris brand that are really block, er, jaw-dropping:
Let’s start with the most predictable: The Tetris movie. “There have been several companies talking to us very seriously about moving ahead rapidly with a Tetris Movie,” Rogers said, declining to name them due to the nature of the discussions.
Secondly, he thinks that Tetris is well on its way to becoming the first “virtual sport,” as in something that is played on the professional level.
“In the same way that baseball started as an activity that became codified and professionalized, that’s where we’re going with Tetris,” Rogers said, saying that his company is already working on designs for team Tetris, including 7 v 7 schemes in which players would rotate in and out of a head-to-head match.
As proof that there’s a market for this type of approach, Rogers points to the success of the second annual Tetris World Championship, which recently concluded in Los Angeles on October 16, drawing several hundred competitors.
He wants to launch a native Kinect version within the next year, which would automatically sense users nearby and prompt them to begin playing. (Already, many unofficial Kinnect hacks for motion-controlled Tetris have been developed by programmers, but Rogers’ would be the first official one.)
That itself is just a stepping stone to a more outlandish goal: “The Tetrion,” a giant-screen version of Tetris that would, theoretically, be deployed to earth-like planets around the universe to search for life. When it detects the presence of what it thinks could be a life-form, it would switch on and begin to attempt to play Tetris with E.T.
Rogers has built several mock-versions of the Tetrion over the past five years at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada Desert, an experience favored by several other tech entrepreneurs, including, famously, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Rogers has attended several “Burns” over the past years, even visiting with Pajitnov. He said that Burning Man is a phenomenon that inspires his own “radical creativity.”
“At the [Burning Man] festival, you do things for other people without expecting everything in return,” Rogers said. “It’s a giving culture.”
But after having helped give Tetris to the world, Rogers and Pajitnov could be forgiven for wanting to earn a little in return.
“People profited off of [Pajitnov’s] inventions without him for decades,” Brinson said. “Every gamer owes him a debt, to say nothing of the fact that Tetris is just a great game.”
And, although it may not be as flashy as the newcomers to the casual and mobile gaming market, and though its future plans may be, at best, eccentric, Brinson said that Tetris has one thing going for it that those other games don’t have: nostalgia.
“Tetris is the perfect game to live on in T-shirts and posters and other merchandise because even if not as many people play it in years to come, it’ll live on in the consciousness of those early gamers and in the history of videogames itself,” Brinson said. “Tetris harkens back to a time when videogames were simple and when you could first take them anywhere.”