Though it was created more than 25 years ago, Tetris just keeps breaking records in the game industry. Today, the owners of the game announced that Tetris has sold more than 100 million units on mobile phones since 2005.
The games have sold for anywhere from $4.99 to $9.99 on everything from simple feature phones to the iPhone. That means it has generated anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion in retail revenues for Electronic Arts, the licensee that is making Tetris games, and Blue Planet Software, the owner of Tetris.
To mark the occasion, we spoke on the phone with the folks who are responsible for the achievement: Alexey Pajitnov, creator of Tetris; Henk Rogers, who secured the rights to publish the game and has fostered its worldwide growth; and Adam Sussman, vice president of worldwide publishing at the mobile division of Electronic Arts, which acquired the rights to make Tetris games when it bought Jamdat Mobile for $680 million in 2006.
Pajitnov said that he was surprised at the staying power of Tetris, a game that he created as a 29-year-old mathematician in 1984 while working at the then-Soviet-run Dorodnicyn Computing Centre of the Academy of Science in Moscow.
“This is an accomplishment for the entire game industry,” said Henk Rogers, chief executive of Blue Planet Software, the company that manages the exclusive licensing rights to Tetris. “The milestone we just achieved is on the level of Titanic hitting $1 billion at the box office. This is a feat that I don’t think will be equaled for many years.”
Back in June, Blue Planet announced that it had sold more than 125 million copies of Tetris on all platforms over 25 years, including 70 million on mobile phones. Doing the math, that means about 155 million copies have been sold. Most of the copies, Rogers said today, were sold on mobile phones. The game recently launched on Google’s Android Marketplace and on the new Palm platform. It is easily the No. 1 mobile game of all time.
“The mobile phone number is bigger than all of the other platforms combined,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he is still working on a multiplayer version of Tetris and he hopes that competitive Tetris will become an Olympic sport one day. Tetris was first available on mobile phones in 2001 as a result of a collaboration between Rogers and Takeshi Miyaji of Japan’s G-Mode. The game has been played nearly 100 million times. Sussman said the game is available on 64,000 phones and is available in 60 countries. Rogers said that 2009 was the biggest year of sales for Tetris on mobile phones in its history.
If you haven’t played it, 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.
“It spread around the world immediately,” Pajitnov said in June. “It was like a forest fire.”
Here’s some details that we published in June about Tetris:
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, Rogers, 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.
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. Rogers has about 10 people tracking the licensed products and creating new versions of the game.
In March 2009, 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.