Tetris’s Long History Offers Tips for New Game Developers

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When the iconic video game Tetris turned 30 last week, Time published an interview with its developer, Alexey Pajitnov, in which he described the challenges of publishing software in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Exporting the game out of Russia required a “formal arrangement” with the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences that gave the organization the rights to the software for a full decade. “It was easier and wiser for me to allow this arrangement than to try to fight for certain personal rights that were almost non-existent during that time,” he told the magazine. In addition, a lack of Soviet computer stores meant that people had to pass along the game via floppy disk.

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Years later, Pajitnov managed to publish Tetris in the West, thanks in large part to his friend Henk Rogers, who secured deals with Nintendo and other publishers. While the story has a happy ending, given the game’s enduring popularity, it nonetheless offers some cautionary tales for game developers.

Watch Your Rights

If you want to get paid for the game you build, it’s a good idea to control (and enforce) the rights. Take a look at Nguyen Ha Dong, creator of the immensely popular Flappy Bird. After many months of staying silent as other game developers filled mobile app stores with blatant copies of his work, Nguyen finally began sending takedown notices—but not before those rivals managed to earn revenue that could have just as easily ended up in his pocket.

Pajitnov, at least in retrospect, seemed pretty concerned about his rights from the very beginning, and moved aggressively to secure what he could once the Soviet Union collapsed. While many games resemble Tetris in broad strokes, Pajitnov’s IP wasn’t blatantly degraded by other developers in the manner of Flappy Bird. (The fact that Tetris came out near the end of the 20th century, when building and distributing a clone was a much more time-intensive task, might have also helped on this front.)

Granted, Nguyen and Pajitnov are rich and famous, no matter what their decisions. But for a game developer starting out, it’s probably worth securing legal council to help you navigate through the treacherous—but also lucrative—world of rights.

Craft a Good Pitch

As related by Rogers in the Time interview, it took some work to persuade executives at Nintendo and other companies that Tetris deserved a shot. “I convinced the CEO of NOA, Minoru Arakawa, to include Tetris rather than Mario by saying to him, ‘If you want little boys to buy your machine include Mario, but if you want everyone to buy your machine, include Tetris,’” is how Rogers described his winning argument. It’s one thing to build a good game; but if you’d like to hit the big time, you’ll have to polish up on your pitching and meeting skills.

Endure

Achieving success is often a question of years, not days; even Tetris took some time to become a global phenomenon. While the ease of uploading a product to an app store and spreading the word about it online might convince more than a few developers that success or failure is timed in days, an actual payoff could be months or years away—provided the developer continues to pour resources and effort into the project. Patience in game development, as in many other things, remains a virtue.

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Image: EA

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