Tetris at 30: Matmi's Jeff Coghlan on how the Soviet tile-matching puzzle changed his life

By Jeff Coghlan | Managing Director

June 6, 2014 | 6 min read

Thousands of hours wasted on console games proved not to be in vain for self confessed geek Jeff Coghlan, whose childhood obsession came in handy when he set out in the world of digital marketing. Here the Matmi CEO looks back at his biggest obsession from that time – the Soviet tile-matching puzzle Tetris, which turns 30 today (6 June)– and how it changed not only his life, but the world as we know it.

I was born the same year that Atari launched Pong, a couple of years before the release of the first home console, so in gaming terms I’m getting on a bit. And not only was it my first love, but Pong was also the first game to establish the home games market – my family and I played it together and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones. But like all good things it had to end, and by the time I had turned five the fledging market had become saturated with Pong clones and crashed.Atari came to the rescue with its Space Invaders release in 1980 and console companies began to cotton on to that fact that exclusive titles could help sell more consoles. Content was, it seems, just as it is now, very much king.Like all early geeks, much of my gaming was done in arcades, but as a young child I couldn’t do this without supervision. And while I’d seen Taito’s Space Invaders in these arcades, enviously watching the die hard players who seemed to dedicate their entire waking lives to getting their three letters at the top of the high score table, as soon as I could play it at home on my Atari 2600 without an adult, my gaming addiction got stronger. I was hooked by the graphics and sound and nothing would ever be the same again.Fast forward a couple of years and Return of Jedi was in cinemas, Thriller at the top of the charts and the console market crashing once again; again down to lack of content and over saturation. I was 11 and my uncle, a professor of computing, showed me how to program on a computer made of wood with rubber keys. I was amazed at this computer thing and once again was hooked.The next year, 1984, a game called Tetris was released by a Russian called Alexey Pajitnov who worked as a computer scientist for the Russian government. My next big love, it was a game that would go on to change the world.Rolling into 1987, The Simpsons first appeared on TV, Windows 2.0 was released, Kylie Minogue hit the airwaves and my fashion sense was decidedly dodgy. It was also the year I finally got to play Tetris on an IBM PC. There was something different about this game. Simple to play, at first glance it was a puzzle based upon simple mathematical principles; stacking blocks, dropping levels and making sure it never got too high. But it was more than that – it was highly addictive and often habit-forming. Soon Tetris was attracting a new army of fans and became the world’s first majorly successful ‘app’. It was also the first game to attract an enormous female audience. The game broke down demographics and the world started to tune in.
It was released on PC and then the Commodore 64, which had much improved graphics and a 26 minute backing track (which was subsequently remixed for the rave generation), and throughout my chequered computing history (TI994a, Commodores, Spectrums, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Acorn Archimedes, IBM PC etc) was the one game that kept reappearing. When Sega jumped on the bandwagon, Tetris conquered the Japanese market, and when Nintendo released Tetris on the NES and bundled with the new handheld Gameboy system they both went ‘viral’, selling over 30m copies.It was the game that helped to launch many of the major brands we still see today, but while everybody was claiming the rights to Tetris, the original programmer Alexey Pajitnov made very little money. Nintendo successfully sued Atari (Tengen) and Sega had to pull its versions of Tetris.Finally in 1996 Pajitnov won the rights to Tetris from the Russian government. The Tetris Company was formed in the US and it quickly registered the Tetris trademarks in many countries. The lawsuits soon followed and cease and desist letters were sent to all the Tetris cloners.The next time I got to play Tetris was when it was released by EA on the first iPod in 2006. It was thereafter released on iOS in 2008 and went on to be one of the most successful mobile games on the App Store, still in the top 20 games in many countries worldwide, and Google had to pull over 30 versions from the Android Marketplace in 2010 alone, due to so many clones hitting the market.Tetris is now the most ported game in history. It has featured on more platforms than any other game, making it the most successful of all time.When I started to put together this potted history I was overwhelmed with nostalgia, but worried about disappointment when revisiting an old friend. I decided to look up an online version and soon was sucked back behind the iron curtain, wasting many hours that I should probably have spent writing this article instead. Tetris is as addictive now as it was then: a timeless classic that will win the heart of many generations to come.The reason for its major success is the same reason that modern day apps such as Angry Birds and Candy Crush have. They are all simple games to pick up and play, but challenge the user with an ever increasing difficulty. Some claim that Tetris helps train the brain, while others believe it is a metaphor of life, keeping everything balanced whilst you juggle multiple things in an increasingly difficult world. All I know is that Tetris changed my life and the world as we know it, and made packing the boot of the car whilst camping a damn sight easier.Jeff Coghlan is CEO and founder of branded entertainment specialists Matmi. Known for its games and apps, the agency works with clients including BBC, Vimto, The AA, Iron Maiden, ITV and Jim Beam.


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