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The Man Who Won Tetris

Gamasutra talks to Henk Rogers, the man who licensed Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris for console systems and runs The Tetris Company. But he's doing a lot more than just that, from online world Blue Mars to working on ecological foundations.

Chris Remo, Blogger

September 10, 2009

26 Min Read

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]

tetris_gameboy.jpgI 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.

Is Blue Planet related to Avatar Reality?

HR: No, those are separate companies.

Even though Avatar Reality's game is called Blue Mars, a virtual life game.

HR: Exactly.

Wasn't the original concept for that a terraforming thing?

HR: No, there was never... [Avatar Reality] has never made a game before.

If you go back far enough, I had a company in Japan called Bulletproof Software, which was my publishing company. That's BPS. I had looked for a nicer meaning for the BPS acronym, which was actually "bits per second," and I came up with Bulletproof Software. All it does is Tetris. It has nothing to do with Avatar Reality.

As for the terraformed Mars -- right now, when people think of Mars, they think of a red planet. So, when we say Blue Mars, people go, "Oh, you've changed the color? What has happened?"

We've terraformed it; we've made it look like Earth. With that business, what we're doing is leasing land to companies that want to build cities on Mars. Each city is like a Second Life. We're providing them with the infrastructure, how to do transactions, and the 3D world.

We have the most beautiful 3D world. We're focused on making great avatars. The core group in that company is the core group of people that made the Square movie technology.

Yeah, the team from the film The Spirits Within.

HR: Yeah. The top guy there is Kaz Hashimoto. Kaz Hashimoto was the CTO of Square going back to before they made the movie. He did the whole workflow and how to make that kind of movie. He's our genius.

How did you end up using CryEngine for that?

HR: I told them, "Look, if it exists somewhere, buy it or license it. If it doesn't exist, build it. I don't want you to build anything that's already been built somewhere else."

So that's how we're doing it: focusing on the things that are unique and new.

But you also see the idea of terraforming Mars as potentially a real-world development as well, right?

HR: Yes, eventually.

Four years ago, I had a heart attack. It woke me up, and it made me think about what I want to accomplish before I die.

I have four missions in life. My first one is to end the use of carbon-based fuel, because it's really hurting us. It's really hurting us not just environmentally but economically and politically. In every possible way, it's hurting us, so we have to get off carbon-based fuel, starting with fossil fuel, and starting in Hawaii. That's the Blue Planet Foundation.

We are already making a lot of headway in Hawaii, and as Hawaii is moving in the right direction, then we're going to go Pacific Rim, because the real problem in the future is going to be China. It's a problem right now. I mean, they're building a new coal fire plant every two weeks, for Christ's sake.

How do you address that?

HR: Well, what you do is you show them a more economic and a more viable way of doing it that's clean. And ultimately, if you're using wind energy, solar energy, or geo thermal energy -- all those forms of energy -- once you build the infrastructure, the energy is free. Whereas if you build coal or oil or whatever it is, you build the plant, and then you keep on paying. It's like building an addiction.

So, we want to get rid of all this addiction to...well, you can say foreign oil. When everybody in China starts driving a car, you're going to see the price of gasoline get jacked up to unbelievable prices.

It will work out. That's the first one. The second one is ending war. I think if the first one gets solved, the second one is a lot easier. There are a lot of places in the world that have already sort of worked out their [differences]. I would say it's a hormone imbalance of society.

tetris_nes.pngDo you mean organizations like the European Union?

HR: Yeah. They sort of got together. And look at Japan. It used to be a little country that used to fight each other, until they said, "Wait a minute. We're actually one people."

Someday, all people the world are going to wake up and say, "Hey, we're all one people."

We're doing something with Tetris that hopefully helps us move in that direction. I have a product in development now called Tetris Friends, and Tetris Friends will allow you to play with people in any other country. It's asynchronous, so you don't have to stay awake in the middle of the night to play somebody on the other side.

That's interesting, since Tetris is fundamentally a real-time game.

HR: It's a real-time game, but you can record the real-time game. Golf is a real-time game, but you can totally understand how you could record somebody playing golf, and then you could play with the record of that person's game.

A ghost score, basically.

HR: Yeah. A ghost kind of thing, exactly. It's still interactive. We still have ways of sending attacks and getting squeezed out and all that. We also have a handicapping system, which enables us to play players of different levels with each other. And we're working on a translation system, which allows people of different languages to speak to each other.

Wow. How is that working out?

HR: The idea is that we can find you a friend -- if you're a serious player, it's a good serious player to play with. Or, if you're into astronomy, then you could find someone who's into astronomy. Whatever it is that you're into, we'll find you friends that are into things that you're interested in.

But on the more interesting level, we can find you somebody who's just psychologically a good match to have as a friend. You might end up having friends on the other side of some conflict, for example. So hopefully, when conflict starts to happen, we start to connect people on both sides of the conflict, and people start talking to each other, and that's the first step towards conflict resolution.

Because right now, they're just not talking, and they're just shooting. If we can get that happening, I think we will reduce the tensions in the world.

That sounds, in spirit, similar to something Alexey has mentioned before, which is the idea of a Tetris world championship.

HR: Yes. This is the basis of the Tetris world championship. That game will find out who the best players in each area are, and then we'll have a Tetris cup.

I think Tetris is actually the first virtual sport. And how do you distinguish a game from a sport? When I was surfer from the 70s, everybody said to me I was a surf bum. In those days, there was no way to make money with surfing.

But today, [with] sponsorships, contests, money -- there's lot of money in surfing. Now it's a sport. They have high school surfing teams. It's gone from being a waste of time to being a serious thing.

So, we're going to have sponsored tournaments, and we're going to pay the winners just like golf tournaments. The top players will be going around the world playing in these contests. And it will become the first professional video game sport. That's the vision.

Then we'll have the world cup, and then we're going to work our way into the Olympics someday, hopefully.

Okay, so that's two of your four goals down.

HR: Three is to make a backup of life on Earth.


HR: Hello -- we're in an industry where you know you make a backup because something can get screwed up. And I'm not saying something will, but something could. If we have the technology to make a backup, we have the obligation to make a backup. And I think the easiest place for us to make a backup of life on Earth is on Mars.

Why is that?

HR: It's almost the same size; it's almost the same orbit. It's a little bit cooler, a little father away, a little less gravity, but it's the closest thing we have.

Venus is out of the question. And if you go farther out, there's nothing out there. So, there's the Moon, and then there's Mars. There's not enough gravity on the Moon to hold an atmosphere I think, so the closest thing, the easiest target is Mars, unless you go farther away to something we haven't found yet, but we don't have any technology that can get us there yet.

Mars would be a great place to make a back-up. And there used to be water there. You can look at it and say, "It used to be there. They just lost it somehow." So, if it means towing comets in and parking them in Mars' orbit and melting them little by little, we can do that. It's just a matter of time.

And then number four?

HR: Number four is to figure out how the universe ends. Because, you know, it could be that everything else is a waste of time. But I think that mission is more about understanding the other missions than the mission itself.

When you look at ending the use of carbon-based fuel and ending war, in the scope of the universe they're nothing. They're blips in time. They're tiny, tiny, tiny events. So, I like to think of them that way rather than huge, unattainable goals.

Just to keep everything else in perspective, those are easy. This is the tough one.

Do you have difficulties keeping perspective? When you're managing numerous companies on a day-to-day, or month-to-month, or year-to-year basis, and in another part of your brain you're thinking about things that could be happening years or even millennia from now, how do you keep those things in order?

HR: I actively divide my time. I only go to the office three days a week: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Saturday, I play golf, mostly for political reasons. And then Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I'm on the big island.

My business is in Honolulu, and on the big island, I have a little executive retreat, and I retreat. I'm building things there, and I'm thinking about things like my missions in life. I gather people on the big island. In the future, I will be gathering and doing think tanks.

We've already done a number [of those], but it's a place where you can just completely get away from it all -- there's no TV, there's none of the distractions that we normally have -- and get into thinking about my missions in life, which are arguably the important things.

You were born in the Netherlands. You have a lot of ties with both Japan and United States as well, not to mention the former USSR connection. Do you think of yourself as being a resident of the U.S. at this point, or does that not really matter?

HR: Well, I'm just a passenger on this bus. This planet has been here a long time and is going to be here a long time. Where I was born is kind of irrelevant. I was born somewhere on this planet. We can't control where we were born or our genetic background. Those are all kind of irrelevant. It's what we do in life and what we contribute to the future.

So that's where my focus is. I don't really feel like I belong in one country more than in another country. I did become an American citizen a couple years ago, only because I feel this country needs to lead the world, and we're tripping over our feet when it comes to solving the energy problem. We've got to solve it.

Historically, we've generated all the new technology and showed the rest of the world how to do it. We've got to do it again, that's our job. And I'm culturally American. I went to high school and university here. I do think like an American, and when I speak, people think I'm an American.

That's fine, but we have to take that leadership, and we have to show the rest of the world how to do it. That's the American way.

You also speak Japanese, correct?

HR: I speak Japanese.

What made you interested in Japan and led you to do so much business there?

HR: Well, my father was a Go player. That was a Japanese board game with black and white stones. That kind of made me a Go player, because my father was. He was sixth degree black belt in Go, and I'm a three degree black belt in Go.

So he was really interested in Japan. He moved the family to Japan before I went to Japan. I was going to university in Hawaii, and I finally fell in love with a Japanese girl. I chased her to Japan. It was convenient, because my family was already living there.

But that's where my interest started, and it got locked down by this Japanese girl. She's my wife, and we have four children.

Tetris is obviously one of the most sort of important games ever created, but what's also interesting is that in Japan, you created The Black Onyx, which is lesser known but probably similarly influential in a lot of ways.

HR: It was the first roleplaying game in Japan.

tetris_blackonyx.jpgI was a little naive, I didn't read or write Japanese when I got started. I went to Akihabara, and I tried to look at what was going on on what machine. I figured out NEC was going to make it at that point, and they were missing roleplaying games. And I thought, "Wow, they just haven't gotten around to it, so I will."

So I decided to make a roleplaying game. What I didn't know is that they didn't have Dungeons & Dragons in Japan. The precursor to American roleplaying games like The Temple of Apshai, Wizardry, and Ultima was Dungeons & Dragons, and you kind of have to know how to play Dungeons & Dragons before you can play those games.

As I started building it, I started realizing, "Oh my God, I have to teach people how to play roleplaying games from scratch. And I have 64K to do it in."

I had to strip a lot out of the game that I had originally envisioned, to just make it an introductory roleplaying game. But it had miniatures. You could choose your own head, and you choose your own clothes -- all in 64K. All the player graphics fit in 10K, and all the monster graphics fit in 10K. It was a real big squeeze job.

Had you played games like Ultima and Wizardry, or were you coming at it more directly from the D&D influence?

HR: I had played The Temple of Apshai. I played a little bit of Ultima. But I played more Wizardry.

Basically, I took off from Wizardry. Wizardry was wireframe 3D, but it was mostly text. The rest of it was text. You couldn't see your own character, you couldn't see most of what was going on, and so I wanted the game to be more visual so that people could understand that they were in that kind of a world.

If you go back to my college days, we played Dungeons & Dragons in Hawaii off the original three little books. All we had was a copy of the three little books in Hawaii, and we had an organization or a club. It was called ARRGH -- A-R-R-G-H, the Alternative Recreational Realities Group of Hawaii. [laughs]

So, half of us played D&D, and half of us played simulation war games. And I looked at the mix, and I said, "You know what? The D&D guys kind of look more like ordinary people. The sim guys, they kind of looked like dweebs." You know? [laughs]

So, I said, "You know, I'm going to focus on the RPG, because it will be an industry for everybody someday."

Well, that's foresight for you.

HR: There you go.

It's interesting that you mention Wizardry, because I feel Wizardry is also a series that has influential in Japan to a disproportionate degree. Why do you think games like yours and that series have resonated so much in that market? They're not even that similar to the Final Fantasy type that came later.

HR: I am not sure, because if you look at the games that came out right after... Black Onyx was the number one game in 1984, and it continued to be the number two game in 1985, so there was a two-year stretch where we were very influential. We shook the market up. But then the games that came after were mostly top-down, like Ultima.

Right, that's what I mean.

HR: The original Final Fantasy games, there were the Falcom[-developed] games, The Temple of Apshai -- these were all top-down games. They were mostly in that style.

It wasn't until much later that 3D started happening. I tried to simulate that 3D in the original Black Onyx, and it's just because I was being very clever with the text graphics. Otherwise, if I was actually gonna do painting and all that -- real 3D? No way. In 8-bit, there's no memory for all that stuff.

Yeah, and I always associate that 3D style, more with the Western games, like the Wizardrys, and where the Ultima series soon went, and all that.

HR: And looking forward, that is now World of Warcraft. That's the 3D, the totally immersive 3D.

You know, I think the core difference there is that when we play games, we are in the game. But when you're looking at the character in the Japanese game, you're controlling some character that's in the game. I think that's the core difference. It's the different between Diablo and World of Warcraft.

That's true. And those are even from the same company.

HR: Right.

Do you still have the rights to [The Black Onyx]?

HR: Oh sure.

Have you ever thought of doing anything with it?

HR: Yeah, I did. I do. I have meetings. [laughs]

Because finally, here I am. I'm totally focused on getting the platform ready, which is Blue Mars. We could totally build an immersive Black Onyx on Blue Mars.

So you're really thinking of Blue Mars as a very extensible platform.

HR: Oh yeah. You can do anything there. My inspiration for what to do on Blue Mars is Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series.

You go to some part of Mars, and it's, "Oh my god, there's a whole civilization that we didn't know about on that part of Mars." That's kind of how I look forward to populating Mars, and there will be a secret little location where all of a sudden you get there and you think, "Oh my gosh, I didn't know this was here."

I live on the big island [in Hawaii] half of the time. On the coast, there are all these lava flows that go down to the ocean. It's just barren rock. Barren rock. And when I first went there, it was barren rock right down to the ocean.

Now, all of a sudden -- boom, a resort pops up. They grind the rock up, they make golf courses. They grind it up and make little plots where people build houses. They pipe in water or they desalinate water. All of a sudden, it's like a little tropical paradise in what used to be a lunar landscape.

Blue Mars

It's terraforming. That's what's going on there. So, that whole coast went from being wasteland to being super expensive real estate now. You know, people pay $20 million for beachfront property. There's no beach, it's just rock.

It gives you an idea of what we can do, what we humans can do, when we put our minds to it. If we look at it now, it looks like a pretty barren place, but you know what? When we get through with it, it's going to be paradise. Maybe, just maybe, when we create it from scratch, maybe we'll take care of it a little better.

You're saying we might think of it more like a personal investment.

HR: Yeah. Exactly. Right now, it feels like we're just taking from the Earth. We're taking the fish out of the ocean. We're taking the fuel from underground. We're just taking, taking, taking. Whereas on Mars, we won't be able to do any of that. We'll have to create. I think that's ultimately our reason for existence: We have to create things.

How far out do you look, on an ongoing basis? How do you get there? How do we get there?

HR: You know, it's just a question of doing it. I was at a conference easily, and Elon Musk spoke. And he says, "Just do it," you know? Don't whine about it, just do it. He wants to go to Mars.

You know who Elon Musk is? Elon Musk is the guy who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. And for an encore, he built a new energy company called Solar City where he puts solar panels on your roof and sells you electricity. And then his second business is Tesla Motors.

By the way, I got my Tesla two weeks ago.


HR: Oh yeah! That sucker is awesome. It's an electric car. It is the way. We generate electricity using alternative energy sources, and we drive electric cars. How hard can it be? And guess what? I smoke any gas-powered car in Hawaii. I leave them in the dust. It's not even close. It's a joke. It looks like they're standing still. I got so much torque.

His third company is called SpaceX. This is the first private company in the United States that has launched satellites into space. Everybody else is going through NASA, and NASA is five times more expensive. [Space X's] normal rockets are being launched from Kwajalein [Atoll], because it's close to equatorial orbit.

But now they're building big ones that are going to carry astronauts to the space stations. He's got the contract for ferrying astronauts to the space station, because they're discontinuing the shuttle next year.

That's just the entrepreneurial spirit of, "I want to do this."

So you see the free market driving most of this?

HR: Oh, absolutely. And I see the American spirit. He's not American. He's like me, he's an import. He's originally from South Africa. But if he was in South Africa, he would not have been able to do a tenth of what he's doing now. The fact that he's come here, and this country and this system enables us to do all these things, it just means they're going to get done. So, yeah. I have great faith in the system.

It's nice to hear optimism.

HR: I think that, as the game business, we have visions of the future. I'm just a little bit ticked off that most of those visions are destructive. You know what I'm saying? It's so much holocaust and hell. You know, that kind of stuff. I don't think it has to be that way.

I think we can and we will make heaven in virtual reality. And that's what we're doing.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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