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After 25 years, Tetris has sold 125 million copies

Twenty five years ago, a 29-year-old Russian mathematician loosed Tetris upon the world. Now the game has sold more than 125 million copies — an astounding average of 5 million per year. Now the two men who are responsible for turning it into a worldwide phenomenon are trying to take it to even higher sales through online tournaments and matches.

Tetris is the seminal computer game — where you manipulate falling blocks to match colors — that shows us all what is possible when you trust in imagination and don’t give up on a business, no matter how crazy it seems. In fact, the origins of Tetris are so unlikely that it’s amazing it overcame the odds and was published. Available in more than 50 countries, it is a rare game that transcends culture or language.

Alexey Pajitnov began working on the game in June, 1984, while working at the then-Soviet-run Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science in Moscow. He worked on artificial intelligence problems such as getting computers to recognize speech.

In his spare time, Pajitov loved to create puzzles. He set out to create one on an ancient Russian computer dubbed the Elektronika 60, which was a knock off of Western personal computers. Pajitnov said in an interview that he was inspired by a Russian paper game where you put words together on shapes that fit together. He created a program that helped move around blocks on a computer. But instead of making the paper game, he became “charmed” with the idea of doing a real-time, or live action game, where you fit the blocks together under a time deadline.

Pajitnov (right) completed the game and shared it with his colleagues. They became addicted to it, and they passed it around for free. The game was only 10 levels long because that was all the computer memory could handle at the time. Then one of Pajitnov’s colleagues, Vadim Gerasimov, and Pajitnov translated the game to run on an IBM PC.

“It spread around the world immediately,” Pajitnov said. “It was like a forest fire.”

The game appeared one day in Hungary and a British game agent, Robert Stein, discovered it. He traveled to the computer center to get the rights for his company, Andromeda. In 1988, Spectrum Holobyte, a military simulation company run by Gilman Louie (now a venture capitalist at Alsop Louie Partners), published the game in the U.S.

At that point, Henk Rogers (below), a shrewd businessman, came on the scene. Born in Amsterdam and the son of a traveling jewelry executive, Rogers had settled in Hawaii. He saw the game at a Consumer Electronics Show and played it obsessively, spending the whole day trying to beat Louie’s high score. He licensed the rights for the Japanese market from Louie, or so he thought. Louie later told Rogers that he found out he didn’t have the rights. Then Rogers licensed the rights from Tengen, a subsidiary of Atari, which he thought had the rights.

More than a year after he launched some of the games in Japan, Rogers traveled to Moscow and discovered that Andromeda, which was sub-licensing the rights to Spectrum Holobyte and Mirrorsoft in Europe, hadn’t finalized its agreements. It was a “holy crap” moment, Rogers said in an interview.

So Rogers cut his own licensing deal and got the right to make the game for Japanese computers and video game platforms. He licensed the game to Nintendo, which made the game for its Nintendo GameBoy. The game sold more than 40 million copies and put Nintendo on the road to dominating handheld games, which it still does today. Meanwhile, Rogers became friends with Pajitnov and vowed to restore his own rights. Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln, executives of Nintendo of America, accompanied Rogers to Moscow to secure the rights to the console version of Tetris.

Pajitnov had granted the rights to the game to the computer center for a decade. During that time, he lost out on many millions of dollars in royalties. But the computer center didn’t consider that the rights would still be valuable after that time. The rights reverted to Pajitnov, and in the meantime Rogers and Nintendo fended off a variety of lawsuits — including one with Tengen and another that made Tetris games on keychains — and consolidated control of the worldwide rights for Tetris.

Pajitnov emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1991 and teamed up with Rogers to create a game company. Pajitnov went on to create games like Electronic Fish, published by Maxis in 1993. They struggled. In 1996, he joined Microsoft to make computer puzzle games.

That same year, the original license agreement where Pajitnov had given his rights up to the computer center expired. The rights reverted back to Pajitnov, and Rogers formed a new company to reap the royalties. Pajitnov finally became rich from his share of those royalties.

Pajitnov created a series of puzzle games dubbed Pandora’s box, and a game dubbed Hexic, a downloadable that has become extremely popular on the Xbox 360 game console. Pajitnov left Microsoft in 2004 and says he enjoys himself now and isn’t involved in many serious game projects. He has received a variety of lifetime honors from the video game industry.

Today, Pajitnov, 54, says, “I don’t consider myself a guru. I’m just a regular game designer. I was very lucky to come up with a good game. I don’t have a serious message, except to say I really appreciate all original work.”

Rogers was always the business guy and still is. Pajitnov said he never wanted to start his own game studio because he disliked business matters. Today, he says he is “too lazy” to start one.

Now the game is available on more than 30 platforms. Rogers’ company, Blue Planet Software in Honolulu, manages the rights to the game. And Pajitnov now gets a share of the profits. Rogers and Pajitnov say they are not resting on their laurels and have plans to extend the game in a variety of ways.

Jamdat licensed the mobile rights to Tetris for 15 years, and then Electronic Arts bought the company in 2005. Tetris now accounts for 10 percent of all games sold on mobile phones, Rogers said. Worlwide, 70 million mobile phone versions of Tetris have been sold. Rogers has about 10 people tracking the licensed products and creating new versions of the game.

In March, Rogers, Pajitnov and former Nintendo of America chief Minoru Arakawa announced the launch of Tetris Friends Online Games, a web portal for Tetris in North America. A million games a day are played on the site now. Next year, Rogers plans to launch the Tetris Cup, a virtual sports event to identify the best Tetris players.

Tetris debuted in July 2008 on the iPhone and remains one of the top 10 iPhone apps. It was the highest selling iPhone app in the first quarter. Full told, 17 companies have licenses to make thousands of different versions of Tetris games. Rogers says he isn’t burned out on Tetris after all this time and still spends his free time designing new versions of Tetris. Meanwhile, in 2007, he started the Blue Planet Foundation as a charity focused on environmental concerns.

On each Tetris anniversary, Pajitnov and Rogers make it a point to gather for Russian cognac.

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