Tetris from the Top: An Interview with Henk Rogers

by Jonathan Metts - April 6, 2006, 5:40 pm PDT

Our chat with Henk Rogers covers the present state and future of Tetris, as well as the fate of Faceball and the question of Yamauchi vs. Iwata.

Discuss it in Talkback!

Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov in the Soviet Union of the mid-80s, but it was Henk Rogers who negotiated the rights to bring Tetris to the rest of the world. Nearly two decades later, Rogers is still heavily involved with Tetris, managing the evolution of how Tetris is played and granting licenses to companies like Nintendo to produce their own versions. Planet GameCube recently spoke with Rogers to discuss the recent release of Tetris DS, as well as the process of revising the Tetris gameplay over time to include new mechanics and expanding multiplayer features. We also touched upon his past with Bulletproof Software, during which he oversaw the release of Faceball 2000 (one of the original first-person shooters…on Game Boy, no less) and played Go against Hiroshi Yamauchi, the legendary former president of Nintendo Co. Ltd.

Planet GameCube: I know some things about you from the book Game Over, and probably a lot of our readers do too, but I don't know as much about your newer companies, so could you explain the relationship, if any, between Blue Planet Software and The Tetris Company?

Henk Rogers: The Tetris Company is the company that licenses Tetris. In other words, legally, the license comes through The Tetris Company. But the work is being done by Blue Planet Software, which is a 50% owner of The Tetris Company.

PGC: What are The Tetris Company's primary goals when you make agreements with companies like Nintendo?

HR: We choose partners that we think can move the IP forward, in other words make Tetris a better game. So we have two kinds of licenses: ones that makes us money, and one that helps move Tetris forward, and Nintendo is one that actually does both. On the ones where the licensee is just in it for the money, we tell them what to do. We have a minimum bar that we create every year, called the Tetris Guideline, and that guideline is the minimum spec for which someone has to create Tetris. And we raise that bar every year. Part of what we do in the guideline, for example, is dictate which buttons do what. And that's so we don't have a situation where some licensee decides to make rotate and hard drop backwards. Because that's a killer thing; we want to make sure that the gas pedal is always on the right and the brake is always on the left so that players can move from platform to platform without having that kind of disaster. And it used to be that way, by the way. If you go back in time, the Sega version and the Nintendo version were completely different. So the first thing we did when we took over Tetris, was for example to create a system of rotation that could be used by players from the Sega camp and the Nintendo camp, in fact from every camp. So that's how we ended up with "super rotation" (Editor's note: this feature is often called "infinite spin" by players and in the press), just to give you an idea.

PGC: How is Alexey Pajitnov (the creator of Tetris) involved with The Tetris Company?

HR: Alexey is involved; he has the final say. Basically we have a three-member committee that decides if we're going to change the rules, and Alexei is one of the members. So when there's any change to the guideline, Alexey and I and the other person get together and we decide whether it's a go or no-go. And that's how we raise the bar, we change it little by little.

PGC: Beyond the Tetris Guidelines, how much freedom is the developer given to expand the game? Are there times when you have to say "Okay guys, this is getting a little too crazy."?

HR: Basically, we reserve the right to approve any product at the end. Licensees like to get us a prototype just to get a reaction, and if it's too dumb, or it seems like it's setting the Tetris brand or IP backwards, then we would say "sorry, can't do that". But we give people a lot of freedom. For example, in the DS version, basically Nintendo had…well they've always had that, because they're so good. We don't really have to police them that hard. So we do things like make sure we've got compatibility with the guideline, so people can migrate from mobile to the Nintendo version. But in terms of telling them, you know, "Tetris Touch, that's not a game," no, we pretty much give them freedom there.

PGC: Were there any modes in Tetris DS that Nintendo showed you and you thought "Hm, we don't want Tetris characters jumping around in a platforming game," or something like that?

HR: No, no. We let them go. I mean, Yamagami is really good. I've worked with Yamagami in the past, not only on Tetris but on Yoshi's Cookie, which is also a license I used to have, the basic game that's behind Yoshi's Cookie. And so we worked together, and this guy is one of the smartest game designers that I know. As far as puzzle games are concerned, I've got complete confidence in him. The last thing we want to do is prevent people from a good idea because we make too many rules.

PGC: What is your favorite new mode in Tetris DS, and why?

HR: I'm playing the Tower mode a lot now, without rotating the blocks, just because it's different from anything that I've played before in Tetris. So it's a different kind of game. I'm also playing Mission, I think it's Mission, where it tells you to do this, and you have so many seconds to complete that particular move. So I like that "Accomplish this, accomplish that," because it's teaching you Tetris techniques. So it's sort of challenging when it says "Clear two lines, skipping two."

PGC: So you think it teaches you to play the main game better?

HR: Well, I think it teaches you new techniques. And if people catch on…do you know what a T-spin is? No, it probably doesn't exist in this product. But what we do is look for things that people do that they feel are accomplishments. So for example, clearing four lines at once is an accomplishment. So the idea was not just to spend time playing Tetris, but to have accomplishments within the game so you can do something you can feel good about. The point is, something like "Clear two lines, skipping one" is something we can use in the future, if it turns out people like that particular move, we can use that, we can give people extra points for clearing lines like that. And so, then we'll be generating new kinds of play that are different from the old Tetris play…

PGC: But it's still rooted in the gameplay that's inherent in the original design.

HR: Yeah, it's like in tennis, if somebody all of a sudden decided to run up to the net to hit the ball instead of waiting at the baseline. That's a different way of playing, running from the baseline and guarding the net, that's a new style of play, but it's very interesting to watch people do that. So that's the kind of thing we're looking to promote to change the gameplay. And in the history of Tetris, it has always been a solitaire game, so nobody gets to watch you play, nobody gets to see your accomplishments, nobody gets to see how the best player in the world plays. But that's changing. With the advent of online play, that means you can see other people's games. So now we'll be able to broadcast the best game in the world. And who knows what the techniques will be from game to game and from player to player? You should be able to see different play styles. That's what we're working on now.

PGC: I guess in Tetris DS, even if you're playing against someone who's really good, you may not get much of a chance to see how he or she plays, because you're playing your own version at the same time. You can't really focus on what other people are doing as much.

HR: We have something in Japan called Tetris Battle, it's on mobile phones, and it's an asynchronous versus game. The way it works is that at the beginning of the game you download somebody else's recently played game, you play against that game, and then if you make it to the end of the two minutes, your game gets uploaded and somebody else gets to play that game. What we do on the server side is save everybody's best game they've ever played. So you can see the top ten games that were ever played by anybody, or you can see the top ten games of the day, or whatever it is. By doing this, we have been watching people's gameplay change over time. As people compete and get better and better, we're watching the game styles change, because we introduced something called the T-spin. The T-spin is a new move we introduced in Tetris Battle. I don't think Yamagami used it in Tetris DS, I'm not sure, but it's not one of the things in Mission. If we'd had a prototype, we would have asked him to add that, but it's a new move. Instead of the tall piece used to make a Tetris, now all of a sudden the T piece becomes important, because you have a special move you can do with the T piece that earns you extra points.

PGC: Were there any issues with Nintendo applying their game properties and characters to Tetris DS?

HR: No, there's always that freedom. When we license Tetris to somebody, we give them the freedom to add characters to the game, and we don't claim any copyright to any of those characters or anything like that. We've done a product in the past called Magical Tetris Challenge with Mickey Mouse and that was Capcom. So it's very clearly defined what's ours, what's theirs, and so on. So there's no problem there.

PGC: Given that Tetris was originally designed as a single-player game, what do you think of the introduction and evolution of multiplayer features, such as the Mario Kart-style items in Tetris DS?

HR: We have six-player Tetris in Korea, and it can be played with or without magic items. Magic items are like magic spells in Tetris Battle Gaiden, have you ever played that game?

PGC: No, sorry.

HR: It's an old Japanese version which we created in Bulletproof Software when I was still running the company there. There are seven characters, each with four magic spells, two for attack and two defensive. So you collect crystals, and when you press a button, you use magic crystals against other players. And it's interesting, you know. Tetris purists will say "That's bullshit, that's not Tetris." But they don't have to use the magic effects, and other people do like it. So I don't want to say that somebody can't do that kind of thing, and I don't think it has a detrimental effect. As long as we're not taking something away from people, I think it's okay.

PGC: As long as it's optional?

HR: Yeah, as long as it's optional.

PGC: Well, on that note, you know, over the past few games like Tetris Worlds, Tetris DS, to some extent Tetris DX on Game Boy Color, you have some new features that weren't in the original game like Hold, Ghost, several preview builds, the infinite spin. Why are some of these features optional and some are not, when none of them were in the original game?

HR: Well, if we believe, for example super rotation, if in order for people worldwide to play in the Tetris Olympics (Editor's note: a dream of Pajitnov's), that we have to create something that is standardized among the newer versions, then we include that. But I think the next generation, the way I'm looking at the Tetris machine, we call it the "Tetreon", the way I look at the Tetreon is it's kind of like a vehicle. So some things have to be standardized, like the brake and the gas pedal, but some things can be optional, like power windows and power brakes. So the Hold piece, by the way, is an essential part of square Tetris, or The New Tetris on N64, so because you need four of the same piece to make one of those squares, you really need way to store the pieces for the time being, because it's really hard to manage the pieces without that particular ability. So that's when it was created, and we've kind of kept it there. Part of the reasoning in keeping it there is anything which helps the beginner player get into the game by making it a little easier, you know it can be ignored, you don’t have to use the Hold piece. So we couldn't think of a negative for it, so we decided to put it there. I mean, people can always use it or not.

PGC: Some people are citing the super rotation as a negative, because it destroys the anxiety of the timed modes, because you can delay the next piece coming down as long as you want to.

HR: Yeah, the whole thing with timed mode, that's just the thing. Because of the advent of mobile phones, and not only that but I think the play in general, people want to have more action in less time. So rather than play the way Tetris used to be played, where you start off slow and work your way up to level 15, in the space of maybe seven minutes, we put you into the high speed section from the beginning and give you two minutes of intense Tetris play. Now in that two minutes, if you make one small mistake by having a piece locked down, basically that's a game ender. There's no way you're going to take that game and have it become a record game. So the problem is you get part way through the game, make one small mistake, "Aw shit, I blew it," and restart. I think that's an annoying way to play the game. So we decided it's better to give them a way to recover from that small mistake, but you're losing time. So if you sat there and rotated for, I don't know, five seconds, you've just taken five seconds out of the game that you needed to score so many points. So you won't find in the top games any gratuitous spinning going on, it just doesn't happen. It helps the beginning player who's trying to figure out what to do. It's a useless feature (for competitive play); it only helps if you're taking the time to think. The better players don't take that much time to think, that's the difference.

PGC: So then, are those features like the ones I mentioned, are those a minimum requirement for new games?

HR: Yes, those things are in the Tetris Guideline.

PGC: Is it possible we could see a stripped down version of Tetris available again, one similar to the quintessential Game Boy version?

HR: Yeah, we're designing that right now. We're designing the ability for a player to play versus mode against somebody else who's got their own machine that's built to a different spec. It's like instead of having Formula One where everybody drives the same kind of car, it's more like Le Mans where everybody gets to choose what kind of car they're going to drive. Some are going to be off the shelf, some are going to be super cars, some are going to be formula cars.

PGC: Are you talking about cross-compatibility across platforms, or are you talking about one person playing without these features against another person who's playing with them?

HR: What I'm saying is, if we're playing head to head, and you have your favorite way of playing Tetris and I have my favorite way of playing Tetris, so you'll by a Tetreon which has the feature set that you like, and I'll buy a Tetreon which has the feature set I like. And I might buy some options to adjust it, to make it play exactly the way I like. Maybe I don't like how long it takes the piece to lock down, maybe I don't like the drop speed. All those things are eventually adjustable. So I can get a Tetreon which is exactly for example the way old Game Boy Tetris was. So you could be driving your Game Boy Tetreon, I could be driving the Tetris Worlds Tetreon, and we could have a competition.

PGC: Is there a particular platform in mind for this, are you talking about mobile phones, or is this the general future of Tetris across all platforms?

HR: It's too early to tell if something is going to become general, because we don't allow something to become general until we've tested it. So it's a vision right now, and we're doing it wherever we can do online, so if Revolution comes up with an online strategy, we'll be doing it there, we'll be doing it on PS3, we'll be doing it online for PC…

PGC: And the next game on DS?

HR: And the next game on DS, sure. That's up to Yamagami, that's up to Nintendo, because they've got their own policy. I mean, Tetris DS is so good, it doesn't really need anything else at this point in time, for the next few years. I mean, it's solid play for a long time. The only complaint I have is that when I play somebody online, it's hit or miss. I could get a slow player, or a weak player. We have uneven games, and that's a problem.

PGC: Will we ever see the return of Faceball?

HR: It's definitely not gone. I bought that property, I do still own it. Faceball used to be called MIDI-Maze, and we used to play it at the Game Developers Conference. So absolutely…I've not forgotten that property, I'm just busy with Tetris. But you know, I've started Tetris Online, a new company.

PGC: And what does that company do?

HR: We're actually creating the versions of Tetris that are going to be online for all platforms. It is its own business now. You know who it's running that? I'll leave that teaser for you. (Editor's note: Tetris Online is headed by Henk Rogers and Minoru Arakawa, the former President of Nintendo of America.)

PGC: Because we know that you are an acquaintance of Mr. Yamauchi at NCL, we wanted to ask how you would contrast Satoru Iwata with his predecessor, Mr. Yamauchi?

HR: I wouldn't compare those two. How could you compare those two, come on? Yamauchi…that's like comparing…Don Corleone and…who else? I don't know. (Laughter)

PGC: So you would compare Mr. Yamauchi to Don Corleone? (Laughter)

HR: Or Darth Vader and C-3PO. (Laughter) I like Mr. Yamauchi a lot, he's like my mentor in business. I'll never be as tough as him in business, he's "the guy", he's awesome. I've got nothing for respect for him. But he's also…how do I say…?

PGC: Imposing?

HR: Yeah. I mean, if you ever disagree with him, that's it for you. I don’t know how he does it, how he keeps it up. How does he maintain the kind of creativity that the people have under him, under those conditions. He must give some people freedom and some people not. But you don’t feel any restrictions on guys like Miyamoto and Yamagami on their designs. And yet, if you publicly disagree with him, your days are numbered. (Laughter)

PGC: Okay, thank you very much!

Interview conducted by Jonathan Metts.

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