Tetris creator on game’s longevity and new Apple TV+ film

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Andrea Bautista

Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov says the J is his favorite shape in the game. Credit: Shutterstock.

Nearly 40 years ago, Tetris, the simple puzzle game about fitting shapes together, hooked the world. It’s still one of the most successful video games of all time, racking up more than half a billion downloads on mobile devices. But the story of how it became a global phenomenon is just as captivating as the game itself. 

In 1984, Alexey Pajitnov, a software engineer in the Soviet Union, created Tetris as a fun side project. By word of mouth, the game started to spread, first to other Soviet bloc countries, then beyond the Iron Curtain to the West. The story is now the subject of a new Apple TV+ movie starring Taron Egerton. 

In 1988, Tetris was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Henk Rogers, whose main job was to publish games in Japan at the time, found himself in line to play it for the fourth time and realized he was hooked. 

“It looked like a really simple game. … But it's the deepest game in existence,” Rogers tells KCRW. 

Rogers traveled to the Soviet Union to acquire licensing rights for Tetris, where despite visa difficulties, he eventually met Pajitnov.  

“I am about to walk in the door. And my interpreter says, ‘You can't go in there.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, I can't go in there?’ ‘You're on a tourist visa. You can't go in. You're not allowed to speak to anyone.’ And I said, ‘Well, I didn't come all this way to stand in front of the door and go back to Tokyo to get a visa. I'm going in.’”

At first, Pajitnov was suspicious of the businessman, but soon realized he had met a fellow game designer, which gave them an instant solid bond. 

Rogers recalls that eight Russians spent hours interrogating him about his identity.

“I didn't know who the hell they were. But Alexey came to me at the end of the meeting and said, ‘Let's get together afterwards,’ which I was surprised that he was able to do that. … He was breaking the law by inviting me to meet him outside of this setting. … It was Perestroika and Glasnost, so … the Soviet Union is supposed to be changing their ways at this point,” Rogers explains. 

By the next year, Rogers secured the handheld rights to Tetris, allowing it to be ported to Nintendo’s Game Boy. More than 30 million copies were eventually sold. 

Tetris President Henk Rogers initially secured the game’s handheld rights. Credit: Shutterstock. 

Pajitnov credits his friendship with Rogers as a reason why Tetris has endured for so many decades. He tells KCRW, “I do strongly believe that my game is a very good game, but there is nothing really exceptional. But because we really put serious efforts in maintaining brand for such a long time, the game still alive and that millions of people still enjoy it. Our friendship is key important for that.”

Rogers adds, “Sometimes people call me Mr. Tetris. And I say, ‘No, I'm not Mr. Tetris. That's Alexey. I'm Dr. Tetris because I kept Tetris alive all these years.”

Pajitnov says it’s a mystery why people keep playing, but points out important components in the game. “It's geometry … and that's the same for everybody. Then everybody marks that the game has a constructive spirit, rather than destroy. So the player [has] a feeling that he creates something on the screen, put some order into the chaos of falling blocks.”

Rogers also emphasizes that unlike other games — such as Super Mario where you can memorize gameplay and program a computer to follow a pattern to win — Tetris is different each time and challenges players. 

“Tetris is all about making decisions. So every time you press a button, you've made a decision,” he says. “And these decisions in the beginning, they happen fairly slowly, but then they go faster and faster. So your brain is actually making decisions. The rest of your life is sitting down, and all of a sudden you're running mentally. And that is, I think, a pleasure center.” 




Michell Eloy