Interview: Tetris - The Making of an Icon
We interview two game prodigies, Alexey Pajitnov & Henk Rogers, whose fasninating story behind Tetris goes right to the top of NCL - with plenty of twists along the way.
Kikizo: What was the story with Tengen Tetris then?
Rogers: Ah yes, that is an interesting story as well. One month after I got the handheld rights to Tetris, I was back in Moscow to lock up the console rights for Nintendo. Atari Games (Tengen's parent company) had sub-licensed questionable rights to Tetris from Mirrorsoft and Nintendo argued that the license was invalid and Nintendo could prove it because Nintendo had the worldwide console rights at that point. This however was part of a larger battle for Nintendo because Tengen was going to produce games for the NES. By showing that Tengen didn't own a valid license for Tetris and infringed directly upon Nintendo's licenses, Nintendo was able to force them to stop selling the game and give them a big blow.
Rogers: No, not really, because Tengen a few years later actually became an official Nintendo licensee, so their demise wasn't Nintendo's fault.
Kikizo: And during the early '90s then you brought the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, and his friend Vladimir Pokhilko to the US?
Rogers: Yes, after the fall of the Iron Curtain that became a lot easier and I felt I owed them because Tetris was making my company a lot of money.
Kikizo: They started a company called AnimaTek. Were you involved with that?
Rogers: I wanted to help them out because I had made all that money with Tetris and Alexey wasn't getting anything from the game he created because it was all in the hands of ELORG, at the Russian Ministry of Software. So I said to Alexey, "Let me give you money. Tell me how much you need and you can have it."
Kikizo: So how much did he ask?
Rogers: None. He kept saying, "No, no. If you give me money I will go to jail." Coming fresh from Russia he really thought that taking money just like that would be akin to theft and he could go to jail for it.
Kikizo: Then what happened?
Rogers: Well, I asked them if they had a dream they would love to see fulfilled and if I could help make that dream a reality, and they told me about a project they had been dreaming of, so I became a financial backer for them so they could chase that dream and make it a reality. That project was called El-Fish. It was sort of an interactive fish tank that played onscreen when the computer was idle.
Kikizo: What happened when the rights for Tetris reverted back to its original creator?
Rogers: Well, when that was about to happen Alexey came to me and said the rights to the game were supposed to revert to him, but the Russian Ministry of Software would contest it because they argued that the games rights under Soviet Russia were property of the government and Alexey had no rights on the game.
Kikizo: How did that get solved?
Rogers: I talked with the Russians and basically made a deal that would be beneficial to all.
Kikizo: Can you give details?
Rogers: Basically I argued that nobody wins in a protracted lawsuit. I told them that such proceedings could take years and would be bad for everyone because during that time nobody would be making any money off Tetris. I suggested we start a separate company dealing with all things Tetris and we would be equal partners in that. That convinced them and we went ahead.
Kikizo: And that company is The Tetris Company?
Rogers: Yeah. We started it in '96 and have been taking care of all the Tetris licenses and deals with that. We set out the rules of the game the licensees have to keep in order to keep the game Tetris, etc.
Kikizo: And then you started a cellphone games company?
Rogers: That was in 2001. I did that for about four years until I sold it along with the cellphone Tetris rights to a company called Jamdat [itself bought by Electronic Arts not much later].
Kikizo: And what have you been up to since then?
Rogers: Officially I am retired. In my case however retirement means I still head Blue Planet Software, working three days a week. And I started three new companies.
Rogers: Sure thing. First we have Tetris Online which we hope to launch soon. That one I actually started with Minoru Arakawa, the ex-president of Nintendo of America, who we talked about earlier. We are good friends and he lives here in Hawaii as well. Currently the plan is to launch it in the US and Japan first.
Kikizo: It's good to see you get along with Arakawa as well as Yamauchi. And the second company?
Rogers: The second company I started is called Blue Lava Technologies. it's the name of my old cellphone games company that I sold to Jamdat. I got the rights to the name back so I used that. It's a company for picture management software. I have so many pictures that managing them became a big problem, so I hired someone to classify all my pictures and make databases based on years, or who is in the pictures, etc. It made me think, though, because if i have this problem surely a lot of people have the same problem; people who don't have the means to hire someone to do that for them. So we started the company to make software that automates that process and allows the user to show the pictures on almost anything that has a screen. We hope to finish and release the software by the end of the year.
Rogers: The last company is called Avatar Reality. I assume you are familiar with Second Life.
Kikizo: Yeah, I think it is horrible.
Rogers: Exactly. Game-elements-wise and graphically speaking it really can be improved. That is because in its inception not that many people from the games industry were involved. What we want to do is make a virtual world on Mars but designed from the ground up to take advantage of the latest technologies and with the involvement of game designers so the world has a lot more to do in it than in Second Life. A place that is fun to be in and always has something for the user to do.
Kikizo: Final question, the girl you chased to Japan, did you get her?
Rogers: [Laughs] Yeah I did, her name is Akemi. We got married and have four children.
Kikizo: That's a great way to end this interview, thank you very much for your time.