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Interview with Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers on Tetris

3:00 PM on 06.08.2009 // Ben Perlee

By far, the most exciting event for E3 wasn't seeing New Super Mario Bros. Wii. It wasn't checking out Left for Dead 2. Facebook and Twitter for Xbox Live, hands-on with the new PSP Go, rocking "The Final Countdown" on stage with Lego Rock Band and more all pale in comparison. Hell, it wasn't even that first special moment of realizing, dude, I'm at effing E3. The moment that really made my first experience at E3 incredible was an interview with one of the most influential men in the industry: Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris.

OK, so it wasn't just Pajitnov. It was actually a discussion with him and Henk Rogers, head of Blue Planet Software, which manages Tetris. More than that, the two of them share a long history and friendship, a story that is famous through the videogame industry. 

However, our discussion was not about the past. Rather these two men have a very forward-thinking vision for the Tetris series. From Tetris as a sport, to its role as a international, intercultural hit, as well as a few harsh words about a little game called Tetris Attack, Pajitnov and Rogers had a whole lot to say. Hit the jump for the interview.

I just want to let you guys know. I’m 21, and Tetris has been a part of my life since before I was born. That means it is something I cannot escape. Let’s be real, there are thousands of versions of Tetris, whether official or not. There are game shows in Japan about Tetris, there is Tetris jewelry, it’s talked about on Saturday Night Live and Tetris is a facet of our culture. What do you guys feel about that? What’s your response?

Alexey Pajitnov: Well I [laughs], I’m pretty happy, but I’ve lived with it for 25 years. I kind of forget. [laughs] It’s something to say, but I’m used to it.

Henk Rogers: I never get bored. People post things on YouTube where they do art, or they do furniture, they do all kinds of weird things and that really makes me understand how deep a part of culture Tetris really has become. Basically, I’m proud to have been a part of it. We are still working real hard to build a future of Tetris as the first virtual sport. We are sort of in a situation like baseball was in the 1920s.  We are about to have the Babe Ruth in a couple years, and that’s going to blow the lid off Tetris and that’s going to make it real interesting.

You mentioned Tetris as a virtual sport. Can you describe the process you are going through in establishing that?

HR: Well, for one, if you go back to the original Tetris, if you watch a really good player play and watch another really good player play, you are pretty much watching the same player play. There are only so many things, so many techniques you can use. So there wasn’t a whole lot of variety. In order to make it into a spectator sport, we’ve been thinking about additional things people could do and enabling them to do them. It’s basically interesting techniques people dream up, and then all we do is recognize them and reward them.

So you know, if someone invents the forward pass or draws the line so if anything you shoot outside that is a three pointer, and all of a sudden, you’ve got a fundamental change.  Now it’s no longer just the game you knew before. Now all of a sudden the dynamics has changed. So we’ve worked on a dynamic to make it more of a spectator sport.

AP: Basically, I agree that’s what our desired efforts are going, because, to observe Tetris now, it’s very interesting for people who are really good at the game, or at least play a long time. But if you want to do a sport, it should be a lot of amateur, absolutely casual people who really enjoy watching, and we are not at this point yet. We need to put much more interesting effects or some other kinds of features, which can have a kind of help the audience appreciate the experienced player. That’s the way  we need it to work before a sport version.

You mentioned adding effects to it to make it more visual so the audience can experience it.

AP: Not just visual effects, but some kind of highlighting. You know, it’s much easier to have the game with the ball, because the ball is the focus point. It’s not exactly “that and that”, so we need to somehow drive that attention of the people to the really important and interesting moments. So we don’t exactly know how to do this right yet, but we are working on it.

HR: One of the things that we are playing with is multiplayer. For example, 3v3, 5v5, 7v7. You know, where do you watch? You know, in Korea, they already have 6 player Tetris, so as a spectator, even as a player, the other play fields you should be watching. I went for the first time to a rugby match in Hong Kong, and it’s amazing how the guy with the ball, everybody is watching him. As soon as something happens to him, he passes the ball to somebody else, now nobody is watching him anymore, everybody is watching the new guy with the ball.

We are kind of thinking about doing the same kind of thing with Tetris. There is one player who is “it”, obviously, and the other players, the other team, are all attacking that one guy. If it looks like he’s going to top out, he passes off to another player. Either choose left or choose right, and he can recover, but he can pass it to somebody who has cleared his play field to the point where he is about to pound somebody on the other side. He can send a bunch of Tetrises in a row. Then you get into all of the planning, you can have offensive players, you can send the “ball” so to speak, to the offensive player, or you can send it to the defensive player who is really good at surviving, and he get’s attacked and survives. So we are working out all of the interesting aspects of taking Tetris and giving players different characteristics.

I liked how you guys mentioned Korea and its 6-player Tetris. Tetris has a really amazing story where you’ve got Russia involved, America involved, Japan involved, you’ve got Korea coming up with 6 player Tetris. There’s something incredibly international about it. What do you have it say about it?

HR: Yeah, I think that Tetris doesn’t have any cultural attached to it. It’s a pure mathematical puzzle or abstract, geometric whatever you want to call it. So we have, over the years, been very careful to not add that type of angle to it, because as soon as you add something “oh, this looks cool”, then somebody else will say “that does not look cool, I don’t like that” so we’ve kept Tetris culturally agnostic. And as a result, it has really maintained its international flavor.

When you were creating Tetris, I mean, obviously, everything took you by surprise. Did you ever thing four-year-olds in Japan and 40-year-olds in Southern California would be playing this game? I mean, my aunt who won’t play any other videogames, and my parents used to play versus mode for two hours against each other each night. Did you ever think that would happen?

AP: No, of course not. You know, the time I worked on this program, or even when I worked it for PCs, I had seen just 5 or 6 computer games and my feeling was that Tetris is one of them, not worse than them, but not so much better [laughs]. I never expected it to be that.

Well, we are here at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Tetris, and the industry has come a long way since Tetris came out. What do you feel Tetris has contributed to the games industry?

HR: I think that Tetris has kept the door open for the casual player. I don’t believe that the games industry belongs to a small group of teenagers. I think the games industry should belong to everyone, just like the movie industry. We have to make sure that we as an industry make products which  are relevant for the rest of the people. Otherwise, we’ll alienate them. We’ll be shrinking, and trapped into that small thing. The future is that everyone will be playing interactive entertainment. I really feel that’s what we are contributing for the casual player.

AP: Well, basically, I think that Tetris inspired this kind of motto, “easy to learn, hard to master”. Basically, nobody before that thought this way, and the games should really simple and understandable by everybody. So I think that’s one of the main contributions.

HR: We’re still working on the first 30 seconds. After 25 years, we are thinking that there are still people that don’t know how to play Tetris after the first 30 seconds. Well we have to simplify it for them. These are the extremely young and the extremely computer illiterate, who have never touched a computer before. We are working with people in old people’s homes, trying to figure out how do we make a game that works for them, that’s fine for them. And they’ll never have played a computer game before. That’s going to be the interesting thing. We’ve had a lot of people, especially in Japan and in this country, who are now reaching the higher ages, so…Anyway, it’s been very interesting in reaching into that market and give them something too.

You’ve mentioned casual games, it’s become this sort of weird focal point of contention amongst gamers and people who a part of that group. But Tetris came out 25 years ago, and do you see yourselves at the forefront of casual gaming? Reaching out and attracting people to this newer form of entertainment?

HR: Not necessarily the forefront, but the “broadfront”. In other words, no matter where you go, there we are. So it’s really a wide title getting wider. So in some places, that would be the forefront, cause there is some machine that doesn’t have any game on it, and it’s going to have Tetris first, because it is the obvious game. We’re everywhere. That fact that we are 25 years old, we were in the forefront 25 years ago [laughs]. We’re kinda in someplace else. Maybe we are on the forefront of virtual sports? That’s the thing we are looking to break into.

Nowadays, when people get excited about a game, there’s usually a huge team of people creating this massive experience that can be overwhelming in how grandiose it is. But Tetris was made by one man, and, how long did it take to make this game?

AP: Well, the principle part, maybe two weeks [laughs].

So do you think we’ll ever see another Tetris?

HR: I expected for there to be, throughout the entire history of Tetris, there to also come out some competition. And there have been wannabes, but we’ve always kept our eye on the ball to make sure Tetris is the number one in that space. Will there ever be another game like Tetris? It’s possible. It’s like, there’s football, and there’s basketball, and there’s baseball. That’s fine. We don’t mind it. We don’t want to be the only sport. We just want to make sure there are sports.

AP: Certainly, and I am looking for new puzzles and hoping another good great game could come. I love this game!  I want another great game to play for myself!

HR: And well, it’s good to have competition. It’s like if Tiger Woods played golf so good that nobody wanted to play with him, it would be kind of boring. But if there was a company with the best game of this year…ehhh, then you know, we are competing, you know.

You mention your competition. We can generalize that most block falling puzzle games are from Tetris. What’s it like that you created this genre, this very very popular genre that’s a focal point for people?

AP: I like most of them. They were very fun games, and I’m very glad that I’m able to wake up their creativity as designers. That’s great. It’s wonderful.

HR: It’s good to see out, like Tetris Splash.

AP: [laughs] Dr. Mario.

HR: Dr. Mario, yeah. These are all people attempting to achieve the greatness of Tetris.

Well, I want to ask you about two specific games. How do you feel about Lumines, which is a beautiful game, and how do you feel about Tetris Attack?

HR: OK, well, Tetris Attack, we’ll do the second one first, Tetris Attack. Nintendo came to me soon after we formed The Tetris Company, and we were just wrestling with what we were going to do. And so, at the time, we had the copyright, the gameplay, and the name “Tetris”, and our Russian partners, who knew nothing about nothing, and I’m not talking about Alexey, I’m talking about Electronica Technica, they wanted to make money, no matter what.  That’s it, “however you could make money, make money”. When Nintendo came to us, and said “we would like to take this Japanese game called Panel de Pon, and rename it Tetris Attack, I’m saying, “it’s not Tetris”. But my partner’s saying “but it is money!” So, uhhhh, so, we, I, reluctantly agreed. In retrospect, we should never have done that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. It dilutes the brand, it’s like naming another cartoon character Mickey Mouse just cause you need the money. It’s just a bad idea. So I wouldn’t do that again.

AP: It wasn’t a bad game.

HR: It was a good game! But the game should have had its own life, its own name.

AP: Unfortunately, it was too much corporate play …

HR: It should have had its own name. It kind of got lost in history cause it got the name Tetris, but it’s not Tetris. It could have, it should have stood up on its own two feet. That’s how I feel about games in general. Lumines, great game. I mean, it’s funny, cause the guy, his name is Mizuguchi, he’s a great friend, and Mizuguchi came to me a few years ago, before Lumines, and he said “I’ve got this great idea and I want to make Tetris on the PSP” and at the time, I was kind of stuck. I had promised the rights to Sony, we were in the middle of negotiations, and I couldn’t really give it to him. He goes “Ok, well, I’ll have to create my own game.” And that was it, man [laughs]. It’s like “dang! I should have let him have a shot at Tetris!” And now we’re in the same position again. The exact same position. We had breakfast with him this morning, and it’s like “uhh, I hate to say this, but we already have somebody licensed for this, for, PSP 2 or whatever it is.” [Sighs] It can’t be helped [both laugh].

AP: He’ll come up with another great game.

HR: Yeah, he’ll come up with another huge game.

It looks like we are about to wrap up. I just want to ask you one more quick question before we are done. What is it you guys are playing right now? What games get you excited, besides Tetris, of course?

AP: Yeah, well, I’m checking a lot of puzzles, I’m still in puzzles. Good thing I do at least three or four Sudoku each day on the computer. Well, and I play World of Warcraft.

HR: I gotta admit, I got him started.

AP: Yeah ... I did until I finally pulled out.

HR: Ooh, now he’s totally outplayed me. I have one level 55 character, and I haven’t played with him in like 2 years. He’s like, how many level 70 characters you have? Oh my gosh. So I play a game called Settlers of Catan, and Settlers of Catan I play with my family, you know, the board game. My wife and I, so we support a little organization “Settlers of Hawaii”, we challenge players from all around the world online, that kind of thing, I mean, that’s just purely fun. It’s also a game that’s unpredictable. You shuffle the piece, you put them down, it’s different every time you play. It makes things interesting.

Thank you very much for your time, both of you.

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