Back in 1984, Henk Rogers hunted down Alexey Pajitnov behind the Iron Curtain. He made the trek to Moscow to meet a man who had created a fascinating puzzle game called Tetris. Rogers signed the rights to the game and licensed it Nintendo. By 1989, people had purchased more than 35 million copies.
Tetris is now sold on more than 50 platforms, and the mobile platform has become the biggest of all for Tetris. Paid downloads have now exceeded 425 million on phones and tablets to date.
Rogers recently handed over the reins of Blue Planet Software, which owns the rights to Tetris and is sole agent for the Tetris brand, to his daughter, Maya Rogers. She plans on making a lot of noise about Tetris in its big 30th anniversary year. One of the first celebrations was the airing of the world’s largest Tetris game on a 29-story building in Philadelphia. Her father, decked out in a Tetris-inspired white suit, made the rounds at the Electronic Entertainment Expo video game tradeshow last week in Los Angeles. Accompanying him was Pajitnov himself, who has moved to the U.S. and gets his share of royalties.
I talked with Maya Rogers, who previously worked at Sony Computer Entertainment America and Blue Startups, at E3. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: What was it like growing up with Tetris?
Maya Rogers: It was a cool experience growing up around Tetris and video games in general. I grew up in Japan until I was in the sixth grade. We’d have the latest games, all the new consoles. When we emigrated to the U.S., we still had games a year before they came out. I’d have random friends come and knock on the door – “Hey, can we play video games?” It was always so much fun, being around games. There was a lot of competition in the house.
GamesBeat: Did you ever think it was going to become a job at some point?
Rogers: Growing up, I think my dad groomed me to be the person I am today. It always felt like this was a family business, that one day I would be involved. I have three other siblings, but I was the oldest. I was the one who was closest, maybe, to my dad and to the business.
My mom said, “Go get some experience. Go work for big companies.” So I did that. It wasn’t as if all of a sudden I wanted to get into the video game industry, but I met someone at Sony. It was through my dad at E3, actually, at a Sony party. Then boom, next thing you know I was working at Sony. I went from the automotive business to the video game industry. Now I feel like one of the older ones out here.
GamesBeat: Did you have an idea that you wanted to follow in your dad’s footsteps at some point and take over for him? Did you actually start talking about that at some point?
Rogers: After being in the industry for a little bit, that thought was always there. But it was never something where my dad said, “I want you to take over the company one day.” I think I stepped up and said, “I want to get involved.” He didn’t ever want to force me to do something I didn’t want to do. It was a mutual thing. When I said I was ready to come back to Hawaii and get involved in the business, he said, “Great. Come by.”
I’ve been involved in Tetris probably eight years now? We had the changeover this January, when I became CEO.
GamesBeat: You have this 30th anniversary of Tetris. You’ve been planning a lot of activities around that, I take it?
Rogers: Yeah. We had a great kickoff, as you know, at the Philly event. We did the 29-story Tetris on the side of a building. That was huge. It was such great coverage for us.
With all of our licensees, they’re doing something special for the anniversary as well. For Tetris Blitz, EA did a variant, a kind of retro Tetris game. The game turns into a bluish-greenish screen and you can play there. Facebook is doing a 30th anniversary variant. Ubisoft is doing something special with Tetris Ultimate. They’re coming out this summer to celebrate in a big way.
GamesBeat: EA’s been at it for something like 10 years now?
Rogers: I think we have six more years in the relationship, yeah.
GamesBeat: It did change on the PlayStation, though, right? From EA to Ubisoft.
Rogers: Yeah. Typically, our license deals last a few years. With EA it’s a bit longer. Whenever a new console comes out or that contract expires, we look at different licensees.
GamesBeat: Is it good to get fresh thinking into the games?
Rogers: It is. We’ve always iterated and thought of new ways to keep Tetris fresh and alive, but still stay true to the game. That’s one of the reasons why it’s lasted so long. We didn’t want to just be done with the old-school game and never get better.
GamesBeat: You’ve probably seen everything come through. What were some of the weirdest Tetris game ideas?
Rogers: We always say we’re a universal game. We’re never going to do any sex or violence or anything like that. So we might not see everything that comes through. We deal with licensees like Ubisoft and EA, and they’re not going to do games that are inappropriate. But I’ve seen some infringements out there that are probably something we’d never do.
Of course we’ve done things like 3D Tetris. For the player, it’s hard to imagine something in 3D, so it hasn’t worked so well. I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of people being able to play from a vertical viewpoint. The main thing for us is that we always stick to the original game. We always give them the original game, the marathon game. We put in other variants, and if it sticks, it sticks. If it doesn’t, next time around we do something else.
GamesBeat: What are the numbers again, as far as how wide it’s been downloaded?
Rogers: For mobile we’ve had more than 425 million downloads, which doesn’t include freemium. For Game Boy, we sold more than 35 million units. The console games combined have been something like 70 million to date. Obviously it’s all over the world. We’ve been on more than 50 platforms.
GamesBeat: What sort of business opportunity does that give you? You have this steady stream of revenue that most other game companies can’t have.
Rogers: For us, having this global brand is what’s kept us alive. In the future, we want to go beyond gaming. We’ve started doing that with a bit of merchandise here and there. We see Tetris as a lifestyle. Every time you’re doing something around the house or driving or walking around, you see Tetris blocks on the walls or something. I want to embrace that idea. We have fans around the world on social media who love Tetris. We want to go beyond gaming – go into stuff like making more Tetris fashion items, stuff that isn’t so obviously gaming-related — but also always keep the games alive.
We’re doing this theme called “We All Fit Together” this year. It speaks to the game and how blocks fit together there, but it also speaks to how the game is universal. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak. Everyone loves Tetris. It’s accessible to everyone. And it’s not just Tetris. Tetris is part of that overarching global theme.
GamesBeat: What advice is Henk giving you at this point? Is he pulling back from his old role?
Rogers: It’s funny. When it’s convenient for him, he says, “Oh, I’m retired, it’s up to you.” But of course, when it comes to anything related to game design, he has everything to say about it. I still have him on staff as my chief game designer. That’s what he does best. He gets to pick and choose where he wants to get involved.
GamesBeat: Is he still thinking of new ideas for making Tetris more of a cultural phenomenon?
Rogers: Always. We still work on prototypes, how to take different elements of Tetris and improve them. A lot of our improvements that we make to the game, our licensees pick those up and add them as well. We’re working on stuff like Zen Tetris – relaxing and playing Tetris. We’re also working on a kids’ Tetris concept.
We’ve done stuff like that in the past, but we think there’s a huge market of younger kids that would love to play Tetris. They just haven’t been exposed to it. My five-year-old niece loves the game. She plays it all the time. But she hasn’t figured out yet that you’re supposed to clear lines. She stacks stuff up to the very top, and then she’s like, “Yes!” But she loves the game. Something about the geometric shapes and the colors, it’s such a universal thing. We want to do something that will speak to her and the rest of that audience.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you compete with some other games? I can’t think of any particularly successful Tetris knockoffs, but there are Bejeweled and games like that, Candy Crush, games that are somewhat similar.
Rogers: I love playing all of those games. For us, we own the IP. Match-three games, nobody owns that, so that’s a big differentiation for us. Tetris is always going to be Tetris. We’re going to protect it. We’ve done a good job of enforcing that. In that way, we are different.
For some of the match-three games, maybe the smartphone is the right device. When the Game Boy came out, Tetris was the right game for that device. We’re always iterating on how to make Tetris fit the next platform. But we’re not worried that some other game is going to have the same long-term success that Tetris has had.
GamesBeat: Do you still have many ties to Nintendo?
Rogers: We do. Minoru Arakawa runs Tetris Online, our licensee that makes the Facebook game. Henk and Mr. Arakawa are long-time friends. In that way, we have a very close relationship with Nintendo. It’s from before my time, but Henk still keeps in touch with guys from Kyoto. A lot of the Tetris Online guys are ex-Nintendo. Our PR agency is ex-Nintendo people as well. It’s all coming back, full circle.
GamesBeat: Do you think that there’s a chance for siphoning that in some way? Are you interested in going beyond any one platform?
Rogers: No, absolutely not. We’ve done the DS games – Tetris Party. Those games have done well. A lot of people love the DS games. It’s still one of their favorite games. We’re always looking to come up with new platforms and places. But we love to work with Nintendo, whether directly or through our licensees.
GamesBeat: What do you think is the biggest or most important platform now?
Rogers: Obviously, it’s mobile. That’s changed how we live. I can’t live without my phone for 5 seconds.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s iOS specifically?
Rogers: I’m an Apple user. iOS is huge. But the Android market is huge as well. If you look at Japan, it’s 80 percent of the market. Apple has competition.
GamesBeat: What else do you have planned for the anniversary?
Rogers: We have some fun things coming up. In July, one of our costume licensees in the U.K. is doing a Human Tetris event. It’s going to be at this big nightclub. They’re going to try to break some record of how many Tetris pieces are in one place. We’ll have some activities coming up at PAX. We have another event coming up in L.A. in October. The goal is, every month or two, we’ll have a Tetris activity happening around the world.
GamesBeat: Henk and Alexei are here at the show, right?
Rogers: Yeah, they’re here. I told them, “Just give me two more days, and you can go on vacation.” But this was the big one. Also, I have one more exciting thing to mention. Ubisoft is coming out with their new Just Dance, Just Dance 2015 and the Tetris song is going to be in that game. They actually demo’d it yesterday at the show, on the show floor. It’s so funny. It’s going to be in the same game as Frozen and “Happy” and Lady Gaga. The moves are pretty tricky, too, acting like a Tetris shape. That’s one way we can reach a younger audience.
GamesBeat: Passing the torch to a younger generation. That must feel good.
Rogers: Yeah. I’m of the generation that grew up with Tetris. I want to make sure that Tetris is current, that is stays fresh. There’s my crazy dad over there, by the way. He’s wearing a special hand-painted Tetris jacket. You can’t miss it.