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The Man Who Won Tetris

September 10, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

As the man who licensed Alexey Pajitnov's timeless puzzle game Tetris for console game systems -- as told in historical chronicles that read more like espionage adventures than typical rights negotiations -- Henk Rogers has little explicit need to keep busy.

But he's done just that. In addition to heading up The Tetris Company, Blue Planet Software, and Tetris Online -- which license and develop various aspects of the Tetris franchise -- he is the founder of Avatar Reality, which is developing the virtual world platform Blue Mars, and the founder of the Blue Planet Foundation, which aims to reduce the world's reliance on fossil fuels starting in Hawaii.

Rogers is also the creator of the early computer roleplaying game The Black Onyx, which he released in 1984 through his own Bullet Proof Software while living in Japan.

Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and Western RPGs like Wizardry, the game was one of the first RPGs ever released in Japan -- and Rogers may be returning to the franchise soon.

Gamasutra sat down with the veteran entrepreneur and developer for an extensive discussion about his past, present, and future, his many experiences both in and out of the game industry, as well as his ambitious goals, which include no less than eradicating war -- with the help of Tetris.

This year saw the 25th anniversary of Tetris. How does that feel, as someone who was there pretty much from the beginning?

Henk Rogers: It's kind of a vindication. When I first got into Tetris, a lot of my colleagues in other companies were saying, "Eh, Tetris is a retro game. It's no big deal" -- and this is in 1988.

We had big companies turn it down, and I went after it. Whatever I could do to get my hands on more rights of Tetris, I have always done. So, it's good to be right for a change. [laughs]

Have any of those rights issues played out anything like they did in Moscow?

HR: I don't think anybody in the industry has had rights negotiations play out anything like that. [laughs]

I had already licensed Tetris for PC and for Nintendo in Japan in 1988, so I was already publishing Tetris when I figured Tetris [would be] the perfect game for Game Boy. I negotiated with Mr. [Minoru] Arakawa [then president of Nintendo of America], and he said, "Go for it." And I went for it. I went to Moscow in February of 1989 and then tracked down the Ministry of Software.

It was like being in an adventure game. Nobody told me where I was supposed to go, whom I was supposed to meet. In fact, I was uninvited as a tourist going into the Soviet Union at that time. I'm not supposed to speak to anybody. But I did anyway. It was really like an adventure game.

You're still involved with Mr. Arakawa, right?

HR: Oh, yeah. To a big extent. The big thing that we're working on right now is to make Tetris Online as popular as Tetris on mobile. Tetris on mobile was 10 percent of all games sold on mobile phones in this country last year. With Tetris Online, we're just getting started.

I have a partnership with Mr. Arakawa. And Alexey is also one of the investors in this new company. He's the president. He runs everything. I'm the chairman.

What's it like still working with Alexey after all this time? You've always been the more self-promoting one, it seems. He's less interested in that.

HR: Yeah. He's very laid back. He likes the fact that he created the game, but he doesn't want to be a rock star. So, that's fine. We kind of manage.

I do a lot of stuff with Alexey. He comes to Hawaii three or four times a year. I meet him in other places. We don't do anything significant to Tetris without discussing it with him first.

We have a team. I have a team of people in Blue Planet Software. We do brand management. And we also look for ways to improve the game. We do R&D. And sometimes we create new versions of Tetris.

Basically, when we create a new version of Tetris, it's just to give a sample to all of our licensees, saying, "Okay, where this is where you could go." If the licensees are making unbelievable products, it's, "Go for it." But every once in a while, we come out of the closet and make another game.

What is the distinction between Blue Planet and The Tetris Company? How does it all work?

HR: If you go back to 1996, Alexey asked me to help him assert his rights. And the leftovers of ELORG -- that's the original agent for Tetris out of the Soviet Union -- had the copyright and trademark registrations all over the world.

They said, "We got it." Alexey said, "I got it."

So, I helped him. After about a year of negotiation, we finally decided to work together. I created a company called Blue Planet Software. The other side was ELORG, and we were 50/50 owners of The Tetris Company. Alexey was on the Blue Planet Side, my side.

Fast forward 10 years to 2005. I found the money to buy out ELORG. Alexey and I created a new company called Tetris Holding, and I put in all the trademark registrations that I bought from ELORG, and Alexey put his rights into Tetris Holding. We're partners in Tetris Holding. The Tetris Company is owned by 50 percent Tetris Holding, and 50 percent Blue Planet.

All of the licenses come from The Tetris Company, so I sign on behalf of the Tetris Company. All the work gets done at Blue Planet Software, because that's historically where all the work has been done.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Sjors Jansen
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Nice interview, it's good to see some idealism driven thinking once in a while.

Malcolm Crum
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The last line in this interview is awesome. I also enjoyed his four missions in life. What a guy.

Mariano Cerrutti
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This man is open and has some very interesting thoughts, vast life experience also.

Sounds a bit out of scope though, at least when it comes to mars and stuff. Can't imagine low cost space bus for the average guy. "A ticket to Mars and a soda please."

Jeffrey Fleming
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It’s good to see leading game industry figures advocating for space exploration. People like Henk Rogers, Richard Garriott, John Carmack, and Will Wright are bringing much needed attention to the subject. It seems that the game industry, with its dual nature that values both science and dreams, is particularly well suited as a bellwether for space development.

For many people outer space is a very abstract idea but we can now expand our individual perception of environment to include planets beyond our own. Mars is a real place with a landscape and history, and it is not nearly so far away as one might think. Take a look at these pictures to see what Henk is talking about.

Jeffrey Fleming
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Jan Friedrich
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Very interesting article. The Blue Mars idea is nice, too but has been done a few times before. Most notably in Kozue Amano's Aria series. I'd like to see his take on it, likely very different. Getting some more insight into the characters behind the Tetris company, the ideas behind it and the idea of applying games for the better of the world is always a nice thing.

Saul Gonzalez
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This is the first time I've read about "black belts" in Go. I know both Go and martial arts use the -kyu and -dan ranking systems, but it still feels out of place.

Oliver Snyders
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Henk Rogers sounds like someone from the future - I'm optimistic and enthusiastic at the worst of times, but he takes it several levels higher than I thought was possible - I wonder if living on 'the big island' has anything to do with that?

I don't know what I think about his comment regarding Elon Musk, though: "But if he was in South Africa, he would not have been able to do a tenth of what he's doing now."

As a resident of South Africa, I would like to believe he's wrong, but, in the end, I kinda know he's right ;(

kevin williams
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kevin williams
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Thank you for a great interview as always - however it dose beg more questions.

I am concerned that Rogers view of Tetris history is slightly self serving. His whole involvement with the Andromenda - Novatrade / Mirrorsoft situation a factor in the confusion that is the current Tetris issue.

With SEGA Japan about to launch their own new Tetris release is a factor in the confusion that surrounds this license - if only Roger could be more honest, and avoid the 'tipexing' of history (anyone say 'Hatris'?).

Seems with a number of anniversary's , some of the older executives of the consumer games industry are going in for some 'white-washing' of their past decisions, hoping memories are short!

Carl Chavez
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Kevin, would you please elaborate? You make a bunch of vague references to things. What is he being dishonest about? As far as I understand, Henk Rogers was the only person involved in the Tetris licensing fiasco to have actually talked to the people who had firm legal standing regarding the license (ELORG and Pajitnov), while Andromeda, Mirrorsoft, Spectrum Holobyte, and Atari were entangled in shady agreements through other parties. And what does Sega have to do with all of it?

Maurício Gomes
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Maybe Kevin is talking about how Roger controls Tetris with a iron grip and does not allow even you to use "classic" rules for example without his permission (you must use the rules that he want, including one that allow you for example to make a piece float forever, and a randomizer that was mathematically proven to be impossible to continue the game forever, SEGA made some arcade machine with a new randomizer, and the SEGA and Roger got some quite strangement...)

Maurício Gomes
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Mind you, that is what I heard, I cannot say that this is true or not or something like that.

Kevin Reese
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Amazing how enduring and perennially popular one particular simple and solid game design idea can be .