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The men who created Tetris reflect on their bromance

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Alexey Pajitnov and Hank Rogers have known each other for a long time. the man who made tetris And the man who (more or less) sold it to the world was found 34 years ago in a government office in Moscow. Later, they founded a company together to manage the rights to Pajitnov’s timeless creation. talking to me on zoom to promote new tetris The movie on Apple TV Plus — a film that makes a watchable, frothy Cold War spy thriller out of the extraordinary true story of Rogers’ early negotiations with the Soviet Union — the pair communicate sidelong glances and hold hands on shoulders , teases and corrects each other are like old comrades.

They are chalk and cheese, in some ways. Pajitnov, who still speaks with a strong Russian accent, is a thoughtful, kind science-teacher type, while Rogers is every inch the slick salesman, leaning into the camera to plot his yarn spin. But they’re also both game designers, even if neither of them specifically planned to become one. And it was thanks to this kinship that they formed an instant bond in that meeting room in 1989.

“I came in on a Thursday … I think it was a Wednesday, maybe,” says Rogers, who has a habit of referring to long-distance events as if they happened last week. He was in Moscow, uninvited and unannounced, to try to secure the rights to be taken tetris, for which he was (or believed he was) the licensed publisher in Japan. Nintendo let him in on a little secret: It was preparing the Game Boy for release, and Rogers knew it. tetris It would be the perfect game for this. But the rights were a mess, and the Russian communist state held all the cards. (This part of the story is told fairly accurately in the film, although it indulges in wild fabrications elsewhere, Pajitnov and Rogers say it stays true to the spirit of their adventure.)

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“There were eight people sitting on the other side of the table, and they were giving me the third degree: Who am I, and what was I doing? And Alexey was one of them,” Rogers recalls. “Initially, it was hostile… I think what they were trying to do was they were trying to figure out what my angle was. You know, my story was very likely to be the story. was less

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Rogers may have actually cut an impossible figure: He had a Dutch passport, an American accent, and lived in Japan with his Japanese wife. He moved there after attending the University of Hawaii, where he “majored in computer science and worked on Dungeons & Dragons.” He drew on this experience to write and publish black onyxWhich he swears was the first role-playing video game in Japan when it was released in 1984.

“My father used to be in the gems business; I worked for them for six years,” says Rogers. “So the first 100 people that made it to the end of the game, I sent them a real black onyx. That was marketing then, you know!

When Nintendo blew up the Japanese computing and gaming scene in the 1980s with the Famicom/NES, Rogers took his word to the office of the company’s fearsome president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. In the film, he is portrayed sneaking up to pitch tetris To the great man, but in fact he had bonded with Yamauchi long before over a mutual love of the traditional Japanese board game Go. Rogers pitched a Famicom port of a British Go video game to Yamauchi via fax and was at his office two days later.

“Yamauchi tells me, ‘I can’t give you a programmer.’ I said, ‘I don’t need a programmer,'” Rogers recalls. “‘I need’ — this meeting went by so quickly, I couldn’t believe it — ‘I need money.’ And he said, ‘How much?’ And I thought of the biggest number I could think of: $300,000. I just pulled a number out of the hat. And he reached across the table and shook my hand and said, ‘Deal.'”

An elderly Japanese man and a young mustachioed Western man put on glasses in the office while a younger Japanese man with a mullet watches

Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa) and Hank Rogers (Taron Egerton) seal the deal tetris movie.
Image: Apple

From then on, Rogers would make sure that whenever he met Yamauchi, it was the last meeting of the day so they could play Go together. Yamauchi lacked Go partners (in Japan it was then regarded as “monk activity, ritual material,” Pajitnov notes), and Rogers fed Nintendo’s abusive patriarch with gossip about the industry. Yamauchi was intimidated within Nintendo, and appreciated Rogers’ outside perspective.

“He fired the president of Nintendo Europe for disagreeing with him. It was like that. Bam! You know, Iron Fist,” Rogers says. “If you have everyone kissing your ass, it’s hard to figure out what’s really going on. I was just out. I didn’t like, I bent over deeper than I did everyone else.” Bowed down. I treated him as an equal. And I don’t think many people could or would do that.

So, sitting down at that table in Moscow, Rogers really had some serious support. It wasn’t necessarily immediately clear to the Russian negotiators. But, in front of him, Pajitnov immediately got a good feeling about this strangely confident foreigner.

“I see another kind of courageous man with a very long black moustache,” Pajitnov says. “And basically, we found that eventually, the right person came to rights tetris, At least, that was my understanding. Firstly, he was very professional in terms of business, his understanding of the industry. And secondly, he was a game designer! He was my first colleague in the world! Because at that time such a profession did not exist in Russia. I was alone.

Pajitnov, a puzzle enthusiast, wrote tetris While working as a researcher at the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The game quickly spread through Russia and around the world, but Pajitnov knew he would surely fail if he tried to claim ownership of it. Instead, he chose to play longer. He thought that if he helped ensure that the game was handled well, he would be able to capitalize on it in the long run.

“As soon as I realized that this is a good game and I have a kind of obligation to try to publish it, I realized that if I ask for money, I will definitely lose,” says Pajitnov. “Because in the Soviet Union, no such thing as intellectual property existed at that time. Because the game was developed on state-owned hardware and so on, that would be the end of it.”

“So basically, I decided I would do whatever it took to make a really good publication of the game. So I gave the rights to the game to Computer Center, and then I got everyone on my side. ”

A red haired young man with a beard plays with tetromino puzzle pieces at his desk next to an old time computer

Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov tetris,
Image: Apple

Playing the party game meant that could ensure a bright future for Pajitnov tetris – and, finally, himself.

“I realized that this is not my last game. I was very sure that I can make up for my [the] using future promotions tetris, And it was a very correct decision strategically,” Pajitnov says with satisfaction. “So I never complain about it.”

Rogers Butts, eager to share another example of his friend’s strategic smarts: “There was something very interesting that he did initially: He submitted his game to a computer game contest. And so by submitting, and on By having the copyright notice, everyone knew it was his game. And he won second prize,

tetrisThe commercial success may not have had an immediate financial impact for Pajitnov, but it nevertheless turned his life “upside down,” he says. “Because instead of being a programmer and a mathematician like I should have been, I became a game designer. It’s a whole different kind of outlook and approach to life. I had to make a tool, make a tool, make a tool Had to make a tool, make a tool, make money, make a tool, go to office, and so on. And now I am able to give happiness and joy straight from the screen.”

“That’s deep, that’s deep, man! Share the joy!” enthuses Rogers, who shows glimpses of the good airport life every now and then.

Without personal financial interest in the deal, but negotiating on behalf of his game (or “my baby,” as he calls it), Pajitnov ended up at the table from Rogers. They were at the offices of ELORG, a Soviet state monopoly on the import and export of computer hardware and software. (in search of its unity tetris The Wrights, Rogers and Pajitnov’s Tetris company would eventually buy what was left of ELORG after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

Rogers may have been primarily a hustle businessman, but he could program, and he knew game design. The film dramatizes a scene with the pair hooked on Pajitnov’s computer, coming up with improvisations for tetris, That never happened, but that doesn’t mean Rogers didn’t make hugely influential design contributions to the game. It was Rogers who, in his early Japanese computer and console versions, tetris, introduced the ability to stack and clear four lines at once. It has become an integral part of the core tetris design; It’s key to scoring strategy and maintaining player interest in the early to late stages, and it’s a vital component of the game’s deep, lizard-brain satisfaction.

Despite their very different backgrounds and characters, Pajitnov knew he had found a kindred spirit immediately. “I immediately feel like we connected. And then I have so many things to discuss with my colleague! I have about a dozen titles to show. And so we became really fast friends after that.” Went.

Taron Egerton as Hank Rogers and Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov smile as they work at a computer in the movie Tetris

Taron Egerton as Hank Rogers and Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov tetris,
Image: Apple

The rest, as they say, is history. Things hardly went smoothly, whether you believe the film’s bizarre spy-thriller version of events, or the more sober (but still thrilling) account in David Sheff’s book. Game over or BBC documentary Tetris: From Russia With Love, But the course was set that would see Rogers and Pajitnov as the primary patrons – and beneficiaries – of tetris brand.

“We’ve done a great job maintaining the brand,” Pajitnov says. He points to the establishment of a core design for the company tetris This should be the basis of every licensed version, while Rogers keenly notes that any improvements or new features outside developers bring to the game automatically become part of The Tetris Company’s intellectual property. Rogers says that he tells every licensee that they “have to beat all the other versions.” tetris What has come out so far… Your version should be better.’

It seems to be working. Pajitnov notes recent successes tetris effect (an “absolutely wonderful game”) and tetris 99 (“My favorite… It’s a gift for my baby”). And he still raves about the ultimate two-player competitive version. tetris Is out there, waiting to be discovered. “I expected something deeper [terms of a] The two-player version,” he says. “There are a lot of them, a lot of variations, but I kind of get the feeling we’re not there yet.”

tetris Nearly 40 years old now, and it has dominated decades of these men’s lives. Don’t they get bored of it?

“Do you ever get tired of the duck that laid the golden eggs?” Rogers nods incredulously. “are you kidding with me?”

“I’m with him on this,” laughs Pajitnov. These two men have very different backgrounds, but they both come from the time of video games – and from a unique position – when there are no rules for success. And there were no standards. You shot for the moon and took everything you could on your way back down.

Rogers has the last word, and he is unrepeatable. “Feed the goose!”

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