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The relationship that launched the Tetris phenomenon

Developer Alexey Pajitnov, and Henk Rogers, the man who made Tetris a global phenomenon, share lessons learned, their hopes for the future, and even game design advice.

Kris Graft, Contributor

February 5, 2015

4 Min Read

For such a worldwide video game phenomenon, Tetris, like many things that are so incredibly influential, had humble beginnings.

At the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, the two men whose relationship shaped the success of Tetris sat down in a casual Q&A of one another.

Alexey Pajitnov, who created Tetris in 1984, said his background was in computer engineering, but it was game design that really engaged him. "In my spare time, I tried to put some games together for the computer, and Tetris was one of them," he said.

But it wasn't Pajitnov that made the game the mainstream commercial success that it is. It was his business partner, and now friend, Henk Rogers who secured the rights to the game on game consoles.

Henk first saw Tetris in 1988 at CES. "When I first saw Tetris, it looked simple." But he kept coming back to the Tetris stand on the show floor. "I was hooked. There was something about it." So the negotiations started.

Pajitnov recalled his initial encounter with the young, entrepreneurial Rogers. "When I first saw you … I saw a young guy who was really scared or whatever," said Pajitnov. "So I didn't think something serious was coming!"

But when Rogers started talking about the game's design and his passion for it, Pajitnov knew this was the real deal. "We started liking each other right away, having been surrounded by all these bureaucrats," he laughed.

Rogers said the negotiating process between himself, Pajitnov's people in Russia, and Nintendo in Japan required an amount of heavy-handedness, as well as some bluffing.

"I had to pretend to Nintendo that the Russians … were not going to accept [the terms]," he said. Rogers slipped in a few of his own requirements. After apologizing to the millions of people who've played Tetris on Game Boy, he said, "I forced them to put my copyright display up [on the screen] for four seconds. If you didn't press a button, it'd stay up for 8 seconds. I made [that requirement] up!"

"I pretended to be a bit bigger than I really was when talking to Nintendo and the Russians," he laughed.

Although the deal involved big corporations and lots of legal work, at the center of the deal, there was always the strong partnership between Pajitnov and Rogers. "The most important relationship is the one between Alexey and I," he said. "He's the one who made the game, and I was the one to help make money from it."

It sounds like a simple relationship, because it is. Their partnership is built on trust; a look in the eye and a firm handshake. "I don't know where the [video game] business is today, how it works, but it sure worked for us," Rogers said.

If the two didn't have control of the Tetris property, and it just bounced around from company to company, the game would probably have died, reckoned Pajitnov.

"I feel the fact that we own the intellectual property and protect it strongly really gives the game life and inspiration, that's for sure," he said.

Advice for game designers

Pajitnov also had some advice for game designers: "In order to achieve a really great goal, and really come up with a good game … you need to really fall in love with what you do. If you don't have this feeling, you'll make an [okay] game, but it'll never be a legendary game. Fall in love with what you do, that's my advice."

Rogers, who is also known for creating Japan's first turn-based RPG, The Black Onyx, said people should be wary of naysayers. "Don't listen to other people, first of all, because other people aren't walking your life, they're not standing in your shoes. If it was easy … everybody would be doing it … To be a true artist, you need to be doing something that hasn't been done before.

"[Put your own experiences] into a game and do something original," he said. "Don't back down … the originality, the creativity, is what will make you stand out in the end."

As for the future of Tetris? Rogers has big dreams about that. "I think Tetris is going to become a sport," he said. "Maybe someday it'll be an Olympic sport."

To that, Pajitnov expressed his big smile, and knocked on the wood floor of the stage.

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