30 years ago this weekend, during the height of the Cold War, Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov first released the code for a game he called Tetris. He chose the name through a combination of the numerical prefix tetra- (meaning four), linking to the fact that all seven Tetris pieces were composed of four segments, and his favourite sport, tennis. But what started off as a simple game has now evolved into an iconic brand, universally recognised and available for nearly every video game console and computer operating system. The overwhelmingly successful Game Boy version, launched 5 years after the game’s conception, established it as one of the most popular ever; it was crowned “Greatest Game of All Time” by Electronic Gaming Monthly‘s 100th issue. More than 170 million copies have been sold, and Computer Gaming World gave Tetris the 1989 Compute! Choice Award for Arcade Game, describing it as “by far, the most addictive game ever”. But, as such an uncomplicated game with a ludicrously transparent concept, one question is inevitable: why has Tetris been so successful and what has kept it at the top for three decades?
Whatever the reason, the game’s addictive quality and monetary potential was immediately apparent for many corporations, and by 1989, half a dozen of them claimed rights to create and distribute the Tetris software for home computers, game consoles, and handheld systems. This sparked a war of usage rights between Atari Games and Nintendo, lawsuits between them over the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Tetris lasting until 1993. In 1996, the rights to the game reverted to Pajitnov himself, who had supposedly made very little money from the game that he created, hence The Tetris Company was founded, claiming to hold copyright registrations for Tetris products in the United States. Many clones of the game have been created since by developers who do not own the rights to distribute the game, and in response The Tetris Company’s legal counsel have sent cease and desist letters to those infringing the “Tetris” trademark, trade dress, or “look and feel” copyright. This included some games sold on the Android Market. Even thirty years after its release, Tetris is still in high demand.
However, the game has not been exempt from the progression of technology. In 2013, the Tetris company signed a contract with Hasbro to make a Bop It and a Jenga themed version, most likely in an attempt to compete with the more modern forms of children’s entertainment. Similarly, Tetris DS features wireless on-line play through the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection system. In terms of game play, The New Tetris and The Next Tetris are the first official Tetris games to show multiple piece previews, arguably decreasing the difficulty, and The New Tetris also introduced the “ghost piece” (showing the player where a piece would land). Evidently, these are not particularly significant changes; “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Changing it would take away Tetris’ fundamental modesty.
Essentially, the extreme success of Tetris can be attributed to its sheer, wonderful simplicity. So much entertainment and enthralment can come from just seven different shapes in the same way that Pacman and Snake have engrossed generations. The audience is so broad; no matter what your particular preferences in terms of games, Tetris couldn’t not suit you because it didn’t suit anyone specifically, it didn’t have enough complexity to target anything less than everyone.
Simplicity is often what makes a game addictive and successful because we are incredulous as to why we can’t master it. That is the beauty of Tetris.