The Cold War Communist History Of 'Tetris'

The history of Tetris is as chaotic as the game's most intense levels. Unlike most video games, Tetris wasn't designed to be a big hit; it started out as a passion project in Soviet Russia, and spread across the world without the creator's knowledge or consent. Tetris' history is actually fraught with criminality, as a series of back-alley deals, fraudulent contracts, and outright theft put a damper on the game's early success.

Like much of gaming history, the criminal history of Tetris is filled with ups and downs. Though Tetris was invented as a personal experiment that was meant to be shared with friends, it became a worldwide sensation as the result of one CEO's shady dealings. In the wake of the controversy, thousands of illicit copies of Tetris were recalled and destroyed, just a few months after they hit the market. Despite its rough start, Tetris eventually became the best selling video game of all time, a record that it holds to this day. 


  • Tetris Was Created By A Russian Government Employee

    Alexey Pajitnov began developing Tetris as a passion project in 1984. An employee of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov worked on designing the game in his spare time. Pajitnov was assisted in developing the game by Vladimir Pokhilko, a psychologist who was studying the use of puzzles in psychological testing. 

    Because private business was illegal under Russia's communist government, he distributed the first version of Tetris to his friends, free of charge. These friends shared it with a few others, and the game continued to circulate until it had spread all throughout Europe. Pajitnov made no money off of this success, and its unlikely that he was fully aware of how many people were enjoying his creation. 

     

  • A CEO Began Selling The Rights To 'Tetris' Without Ever Buying Them

    A CEO Began Selling The Rights To 'Tetris' Without Ever Buying Them
    Photo: Tetris / Mirrorsoft

    As Tetris spread through Europe and Asia, its simple, addictive gameplay garnered increasingly more attention. In the 1980s, the popularity of arcades was dwindling, and the public was hungry for games that they could play at home. Although intellectual property rights were often muddled in Soviet Russia, Pajitnov and Pokhilko's creation had been ported to other devices by passionate players, which attracted the attention of the software company Andromeda's president, Robert Stein.

    When Stein began to look into buying the rights to Tetris, he had some difficulty tracking down the license's owner. Since the game was created by an employee at the state-run Soviet Academy of Sciences, the distribution rights were controlled by the Russian government, through an agency known as Elektronorgtechnica (or Elorg for short). At first, Stein was allegedly not aware of Elorg, as he later said that he did not hear of the company until 1988.

    Instead, Stein approached the academy where Pajitnov worked, and offered them £100,000 in exchange for the rights to computer versions of Tetris. While Pajitnov replied that the academy would be interested in the deal, Stein never wrote them a check, and the agreement was never finalized. 

    Even though nothing was set in stone, Stein felt that the Tetris license was as good as his, and in 1986 he went ahead and sold the full distribution rights for the game to Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, which allowed him to profit off of any copies of Tetris created in America and the UK.

    Computers were relatively basic in the 1980s, so it's possible that Stein considered all gaming devices to be computers, though that does not explain why the original deal was never finalized (or paid for). A more skeptical reading of the situation suggests that Stein was merely trying to profit off of a piece of content that he had no ownership of. 

  • Fake Contracts And Deals Were Made Up To Turn A Profit On The Game

    Fake Contracts And Deals Were Made Up To Turn A Profit On The Game
    Photo: Tetris / Spectrum Holobyte

    Since Tetris was created in a communist state, the Russian government technically held the rights to the game's distribution. That didn't stop software CEO Robert Stein from selling imagined rights to the game publisher Mirrorsoft, who in turn sublicensed those nonexistent rights to Atari for distribution in the US and Japan. 

    Another game company Stein duped was Spectrum HoloByte, who sublicensed the rights to Bulletproof Software for distribution in Japan. Nintendo also bought the rights, and planned to release a portable version of the game for the original Game Boy. By 1988, all five companies believed that they had legitimately purchased the rights to Tetris, and various ports of the game were sold around the world. With so much money on the table, it's no surprise that the Soviet Union took notice and decided to intervene.

  • Russia Discovered All The Illicit 'Tetris' Games In A Meeting With Nintendo

    In February 1989, Henk Rogers aimed to produce a Game Boy version of Tetris with Nintendo. This dream led him to meet with Elektronorgtechnica (or Elorg), a government-run company in Russia that was supposedly in charge of the game's international rights.

    Because of the complicated relationship between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era, visas were only issued for very specific purposes, and Rogers had the wrong one. He traveled to the country as a tourist, rather than a businessman, which jeopardized his attempt to get the rights to the game.

    Things were further complicated when Rogers presented the Soviets with a Tetris cartridge for the NES. The Soviets were outraged to discover that home-console versions of Tetris were being sold without their knowledge, as the rights that Robert Stein had sold to Nintendo were completely fabricated. 

    By the end of the meeting, Nintendo was able to buy the legitimate rights to handheld and home console versions of the game. However, there were active attempts to sabotage the negotiation by companies such as Atari, who were months away from releasing a console version of Tetris for the NES. 

  • The Fight For The 'Tetris' License Was Long And Vicious

    Though Nintendo did eventually secure the legitimate rights to Tetris, the deal required a staggering amount of work to achieve. When the agreement was broached, Andromeda's Robert Stein and Mirrorsoft's Kevin Maxwell made a legitimate bid for the rights (rights they had already sublicensed to other companies), and engaged in some underhanded tactics to get what they wanted.

    Kevin Maxwell's father Robert (who founded Mirrorsoft) was rumored to have reached out to Mikhail Gorbochev to prevent Rogers from gaining the rights. Because Stein had sold him a fabricated license, Rogers was made to sit through an hours-long meeting with the KGB. To add to the confusion, the FBI later suggested that Robert Maxwell had been a spy for Russia.

    Despite these mishaps, Nintendo eventually came out on top in 1989, and were able to include a copy of Tetris with every Game Boy sold in America (the system was released in the US in July of that year). While Stein did eventually finalize an agreement for the rights to computer versions of Tetris, a sneaky clause added to the contract at the last minute caused him to only see a fraction of the riches he had hoped for. 

  • Stein Bought Some Rights To 'Tetris,' But They Didn't Make Him Money

    Though Andromeda's Robert Stein did eventually gain partial rights for the game, his methods were notoriously underhanded. In addition to selling the rights before he legally owned them, Stein also falsely claimed that the game was invented by Hungarian programmers, rather than than by Russia's Alexey Pajitnov.

    Eventually, Stein was able to acquire the rights for computer versions of the game, but a subtle clause prevented him from seeing the majority of Tetris's profits. While in negotiations with the Soviet Union, Stein signed a contract that defined a computer as a device that included a processor, monitor, operating system, disk drive, and keyboard.

    In the 1980s, it was hard to imagine a computer that didn't feature these facets. What's more, Stein was apparently unaware of the clause, and was most likely operating under the belief that arcade cabinets and home consoles were technically computers. Since the agreement said otherwise, Stein had no claim to the staggering amount of cash that the Game Boy version of Tetris wrought, nor did he profit off of modern versions of the game that were made for smartphones and tablets. In the end, Stein only made about $250,000 off of Tetris.