Tetris Creator Alexey Pajitnov Initially Received No Royalties for the Game (2024)

Tetris, one of the most popular and addictive video games in world, got its start in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A Russian computer engineer named Alexey Pajitnov threw it together while working for a state-owned research institute in the 1980s, and it quickly became a global sensation.

“The very first version, the very first prototype, I did realize that it might be a very good game because it was very addictive even in the early stage,” Pajitnov said, “but I never could have imagined anything like the history it actually had.”

Pajitnov, 67, didn’t earn a dollar—or a ruble—for his own game for the first decade after its release. Ideas like Tetris were owned by the state at the time, and it wasn’t until Pajitnov came to the United States in the 1990s that he started earning royalties for the ultra-popular game.

The story of the Tetris’ creation and the firestorm behind the battle for the game’s international licensing rights is depicted in the new film Tetris. Streaming now on Apple TV+, the movie stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, the video game entrepreneur who befriends Pajitnov (played by Nikita Efremov) and helps secure distribution rights to the game.

The Invention of Tetris

Born in 1955 in the Soviet Union, Pajitnov studied mathematics at the Moscow Aviation Institute and, in 1979, began working at the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre, an institute of the Soviet’s Russian Academy of Sciences, where he focused on speech recognition and artificial intelligence platforms.

“It was one of the very few Soviet institutes able to communicate with the rest of the world, so people occasionally sent us new hardware,” Pajitnov told The Guardian. “We’d assess how powerful it was by writing a simple program for it, which became my excuse for making games.”

His interest in mathematics and puzzles attracted Pajitnov to video games, and he was partially inspired to make Tetris from his childhood memories of playing pentominoes, a game where you create pictures using shapes. In particular, he recalled the difficulty he had putting pentominoes pieces back in the box. That led him to make the first version of Tetris on an antiquated Electronika 60 computer. It didn’t even have a graphics card, requiring him to create blocks out of keyboard characters and letters.

“I couldn’t stop playing it,” he told NPR, admitting he would sometimes pretend to be busy with work when he was really playing Tetris. He said of the game: “Magic is in it.”

“I Didn’t Make Much Money at First”

Pajitnov finished the game in 1984, though he continued improving it over the next few years. Tetris became a success, but because Pajitnov was employed by the Soviet Union, he had few options but to relinquish ownership of the game to the government and did not receive any royalties.

“There was a lot of legal trouble, and when the question of ownership and the original source of the game came up, I decided that I wanted everything to go smoothly, and I granted the rights to the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for 10 years,” Pajitnov told CNN.

Around this time, Mikhail Gorbachev launched Perestroika, a movement restructuring the Soviet economic system and allowing for market-like reforms. Tetris was one of the first pieces of software exported by the Soviet Union, selling about 40 million copies, but Pajitnov did not personally profit from it. “I didn’t make much money at first, but I was happy, because my main priority was to see people enjoying my game,” Pajitnov told The Guardian.

The Fight over Rights to Tetris

Tetris Creator Alexey Pajitnov Initially Received No Royalties for the Game (2)

Alexey Pajitnov, seen here in April 2015, has been named one of the most influential computer game developers of all time.

Pajitnov got caught up in the battle over international licensing rights for Tetris, as depicted in the new film. He was originally contacted by software distributor Robert Stein (played in the movie by Toby Jones) about obtaining the rights for the West, and Pajitnov responded expressing optimism about a possible deal.

Due to his limited English, however, Stein mistook this response as approving the deal outright, and he immediately started producing the game. This was halted when the state-owned company ELORG said the rights had not been granted and the launch was illegal, underscoring the difficulties in exporting a video game to the West around this time.

As portrayed in the film, video game designer and entrepreneur Henk Rogers was instrumental in securing distribution rights for Tetris, particularly on the Game Boy video game console that brought the game’s popularity to new levels. Several parties were vying for the rights, but Pajitnov and Rogers hit it off when they met in Russia.

“Alexey was the only guy in the room who actually knew anything about games,” Rogers told CNN. “I explained how business worked, and we became friends. A week later, I left Moscow with a signed agreement for Tetris on the Game Boy.”

Alexey Pajitnov Today

Tetris Creator Alexey Pajitnov Initially Received No Royalties for the Game (3)

Alexey Pajitnov attends the Tetris world premiere during the SXSW festival in March 2023.

With Rogers’ help, Pajitnov left Moscow for Seattle in 1991. Five years later, Pajitnov and Rogers founded the Tetris Company to handle licensing for Tetris and its spinoffs. By this time, his former deal expired, and the rights to Tetris reverted from the Russian state to Pajitnov, allowing him to finally start earning royalties for his game. “And they’ve been fine so far,” he said in 2019 about the royalties he had since earned (Pajitnov has not shared specific figures).

Pajitnov has continued working on video games since coming to the United States. He worked at Microsoft starting in 1996, where he designed puzzle games and worked on games like Yoshi’s Cookie. More recently, he designed the game Hexic HD, a popular puzzle game that came included with each xBox 360 console.

Even though his later games haven’t enjoyed the same level of success as Tetris, Pajitnov has already gone down in history as one of the most influential computer game developers of all time.

Tetris Creator Alexey Pajitnov Initially Received No Royalties for the Game (4)

Colin McEvoy

Senior News Editor, Biography.com

Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.

Tetris Creator Alexey Pajitnov Initially Received No Royalties for the Game (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Virgilio Hermann JD

Last Updated:

Views: 5921

Rating: 4 / 5 (61 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Virgilio Hermann JD

Birthday: 1997-12-21

Address: 6946 Schoen Cove, Sipesshire, MO 55944

Phone: +3763365785260

Job: Accounting Engineer

Hobby: Web surfing, Rafting, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Ghost hunting, Swimming, Amateur radio

Introduction: My name is Virgilio Hermann JD, I am a fine, gifted, beautiful, encouraging, kind, talented, zealous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.