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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Spin for Tetris Creator: Royalties

NEW YORK -- The father of Tetris, who invented the world's most popular computer game in the obscurity of communist Russia, can finally start cashing in on his brainchild.


Alexei Pazhitnov, now living in the United States, had to wait a decade to regain licensing rights to his creation, originally held by the Soviet state.


"The original publishing of Tetris was not [on] my behalf, but [on] behalf of my institute in Russia. So basically all the money went there," Pazhitnov says without the slightest trace of bitterness.


"I provided them the rights for just 10 years, and this year the 10 years expired -- so now the rights are ... coming back to me," he explains, starting to chuckle.


Will that bring Pazhitnov a belated fortune? "Hopefully, hopefully," he says, still chuckling.


Thanks to his easy laugh and almost frightening mental quickness, Pazhitnov's still-thick Russian accent doesn't muddy his message.


He stumbled onto Tetris while working in the Soviet Academy of Science computer center, its birth coming during a break from brain-draining projects such as digital speech recognition and artificial intelligence programs.


"Besides many other serious jobs, I loved to make small puzzles on the computers. I am known for this," Pazhitnov says, understating his fame within cyberspace circles.


While trying to translate a difficult board puzzle game to the crude, low-tech computers used then in Russia, Pazhitnov got a fresh idea.


"I saw how funny the shapes I was working with looked -- kind of rotating -- and the idea of a real-time puzzle game came to my head," he said by telephone from his home office in suburban Seattle. "And then I just programmed it very quickly."


The rest is history.


Pazhitnov's colleagues tried the seemingly simple game and were hooked instantly. Simple to play but difficult to master, its rapid spread beyond the Iron Curtain was inevitable. Before long, major international game companies were fighting over it.


Nintendo's battle with Sega over publishing rights developed from cutthroat negotiating campaigns in Russia to a courtroom struggle between the corporate giants for control of the global computer game market. Nintendo eventually won the tug-of-war and made Tetris the flagship title for its hand-held Game Boy system.


More than 40 million copies of Tetris have been sold, but Pazhitnov never got a ruble. As his reward, he was given a new computer.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pazhitnov moved to the United States and has earned a comfortable living in the ever-changing computer game industry.


Pazhitnov continues his alliance with Henk Rogers, a major player in the original race for control of Tetris. They created The Tetris Co., and a second company, Blue Planet, to handle licensing issues and develop new versions of the game. Licensing rights could remain lucrative for a long time, but not without some complications; Pazhitnov is glad to let Rogers worry about such matters. He's happiest being left alone to create new games.


A game player's player, Pazhitnov sees them as instructive metaphors for life -- not just entertaining diversions.


"Games teach people about themselves like nothing else -- things you might never be noticing outside the game, like how you think," he says.