Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
On a Wednesday afternoon in February 1989, the European video game designer and entrepreneur Henk Rogers stood before the doors of the Ministry of Software in Moscow, Russia. The purpose of his visit was singular: he had to secure the distribution rights for Tetris, a promising computer program created by Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov.
By some confusion over the rights, Rogers had secured a deal that would package Tetris alongside the Nintendo Game Boy in the US—a monumental event that cemented both Tetris’s and the Game Boy’s places in history—without actually obtaining the correct permissions needed to do so. With $2 million worth of units being prepped in manufacture and his in-laws’ property being used as collateral, failure was not an option for him. He simply had to succeed.
THE FIRST PIECES
By this point in time, Henk Rogers had already made a significant contribution to gaming. Likewise, he was well respected as an entrepreneur. Having moved to Japan from Hawaii in the late 1970s, he took advantage of his background in computer science and his appreciation for Dungeons & Dragons to create The Black Onyx in 1984. This was the first Japanese-language role-playing game, predating Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Inspired by American RPGs like Wizardry and Temple of Apshai, The Black Onyx was a fantasy adventure that allowed players to build a party of heroes, explore dungeons and find ancient treasures.
Referring to the game, he admits now: “I had no idea what I was doing. I had never built a game before. The only thing I’d ever done before that was homework assignments. I had this whole big plan of what I was going to do and I think I was able to fit maybe 5 percent of my plan, if that, into the game.”
Nevertheless, The Black Onyx was a huge hit for Rogers and his video game company Bullet Proof Software, in part due to his dogged persistence getting the game into the hands of Japanese video game journalists. It helped popularize the role-playing genre in Japan and became the Japanese best seller that year, in addition to picking up several awards from publications.
To build on this success he began licensing games with his company to distribute in Japan, like Igo: Kyuroban Taikyoku for the NES, which was based on the board game Go. As a publisher he made a habit of attending events and conventions to search for new and interesting games to release in Japan. This led him to the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 1988, where he first encountered the video game Tetris.
“I found myself in line for the fourth time at a machine,” he recalls. “It seemed like a simple game, but simplicity never bothered me. Simplicity, to me, is an asset. [It] worked for me. I found I was hooked on this game. I kept coming back to it.”
Rogers became determined to acquire the rights, but rather than going to Spectrum Holobyte, a sub-licensee at the time, he attempted to negotiate directly with a now-defunct company called Mirrorsoft to receive a better deal further up the chain of command. After sending a dozen faxes over a four-month period, he eventually got a response informing him that the company had moved to another location and that they had neglected to update their number. He had seemingly reached a dead end.
It was at this point that the venture capitalist Gilman Louie got in touch out of the blue. He said he had made a deal with Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte to sub-license Tetris for home consoles in Japan. After unsuccessfully pitching the game to ASCII, the largest Japanese publisher at the time, he decided to contact Rogers based on Rogers’ reputation.
Bullet Proof Software’s version of Tetris for Japanese home computers followed soon after, but Rogers had even bigger plans for the game. They revolved around Nintendo’s new portable gaming system known as the Game Boy and a potential US deal.
FITTING INTO PLACE
“I was talking to Nintendo saying, ‘Look, Tetris is the perfect game for your machine. You should pack it in,’” Rogers says. “I was in the middle of that discussion when Nintendo gets a call from Louie saying, ‘I can get you the Game Boy rights.’ Basically, I knew that nobody on that end had those rights—not Mirrorsoft, not nobody—because I had tracked down those rights by then.” In other words, he says Louie was bluffing, or was at least misinformed.
In Rusel DeMaria’s and Johnny Lee Wilson’s now out-of-print book High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, former Spectrum Holobyte president Phil Adam corroborates this claim—that Louie and Spectrum Holobyte also approached Nintendo about the Game Boy rights. This extra competition put even more pressure on Rogers to succeed, as Nintendo of America had an alternative way of acquiring the rights should he fail.
Rogers pleaded with the then president of Nintendo of America, Minoru Arakawa, to give him a chance to complete his work on bringing the title to the Game Boy. This would require him to visit Moscow and acquire the portable rights directly from Elektronorgtechnika (Elorg), the state owned organisation in charge of exporting Tetris and other Soviet software. Basically they, Elorg, were at the top of this complicated food chain, and Rogers wanted to go directly to the source. Arakawa agreed.
Jumping on a plane, Rogers headed halfway across the world to Moscow to track down the Ministry of Software and finalize the deal to bring Tetris to the Nintendo Game Boy. Spending a few fruitless days wandering around the Russian city without success, he eventually located the correct building with the help of a translator that he’d hired from his hotel.
“When she took me to the building, she told me, ‘You can’t go in,’” he recounts. “I said, ‘What do you mean I can’t go in?’ She said, ‘You don’t have an invitation. You don’t have a visa.’”
Not content with the prospect of going home and arranging an official meeting, he says he left his translator on the doorstep outside and entered the building anyway.
“It was like walking into an ant’s nest, because people don’t walk in off the street. It’s not like that. Everyone has an appointment and I was supposed to go to a window and present my credentials and I didn’t. I just talked to a random person and said, “I’d like to speak to somebody about Tetris”, and I showed him my little NES version of the game.
“This little old man came walking down the stairs a little while later and he said, ‘Who are you?’ I introduced myself, ‘I’m the publisher of this game in Japan.’ He looked at the box. He turned it over and he said, ‘We never licensed this to anyone.’
THE MISSING PIECE
“I had 200,000 cartridges in manufacture at $10 a pop. That’s $2 million cash that I’d given Nintendo. Where did I get the cash? I got the cash by using all of my in-laws’ land as collateral, so I was in some real deep kimchi,” Rogers says.
There’s a simple story behind this massive misunderstanding. The original master distribution agreement between Elorg and a British software company called Andromeda had, according to Elorg, not been honored; meaning that all subsequent sub-licensing deals, made without Elorg’s knowledge, were null and void as far as Elorg was concerned. Rogers’ solution to the problem was to arrange a meeting so that he could speak directly with the team behind the game and start negotiations at the source. The next day he returned to the Ministry. In the meeting room eight people were present, including Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris and Roger’s future business partner.
They had initially assumed that Rogers was a pirate from Japan who had illegally stolen the rights to their game. This prompted him to have to explain in detail the events of the last year and how his business worked. Both parties satisfied, negotiations began soon after the air was cleared.
However, unbeknownst to Rogers at the time, a few other businessmen had also travelled to Moscow to bid for the Tetris rights. These included the likes of Mirrorsoft’s Kevin Maxwell and Robert Stein from Andromeda, who now had to re-negotiate with Elorg if they wanted to continue distributing Tetris.
Unable to compete against these powerful figures, Rogers did something the larger companies wouldn’t: he decided to offer Elorg a percentage from the retail sales rather than the flat wholesale price that Mirrorsoft and Andromeda were offering. This would be more valuable to Elorg than in the long run, but would significantly reduce Rogers’ own cut. This trump card ultimately won him the opportunity to release the game and what happened next is history.
The game released in the US bundled with the Game Boy and became an instant classic. Today it’s one of the most recognizable video games ever made and the best-selling mobile game of all time.
Talking about the game’s success and the many, many spin-offs—including the Tetris movie announced in 2014—Rogers says: “It’s one of the two top most recognized computer game titles in the world. That’s the first thing you’ve got to do when you make a Hollywood movie is do something that people will recognize; we’re the most recognized. The first time period with Game Boy and personal computers, we sold 70 million boxed product, but since then we’ve passed over 500 million downloads on mobile phones.”
Rogers is now retired from the games industry, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to change the world in other ways. He’s currently working to end the use of carbon-based fuels, get people off-grid through the use of batteries, and bring life to other planets with the organization PISCES (Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems). These activities, coupled with his unique work ethic, earned him the honor of becoming Hawaii Business Magazine’s CEO of the year for 2015.
Yet it was his superb contributions to gaming that helped to establish him as a huge player in the world of business and tech—and really changed the world.
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