Alexey Pajitnov and Henk Rogers have known each other a long time. The man who created Tetris and the man who (more or less) sold it to the world met 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 over Zoom to promote the new Tetris movie on Apple TV Plus — a film which concocts a watchable, frothy Cold War spy thriller out of the extraordinary true story of Rogers’ initial negotiations with the Soviet Union — the pair communicate with sideways glances and hands placed on shoulders, teasing and correcting each other like the old comrades they are.
They’re chalk and cheese, in some ways. Pajitnov, who still speaks with a strong Russian accent, is a thoughtful, kindly science-teacher type, while Rogers is every inch the slick salesman, leaning into the camera conspiratorially to spin his yarns. But they are both game designers, too, even if neither of them particularly planned to be. And it was thanks to this kinship that they formed an instantaneous bond in that meeting room in 1989.
“I came in on Thursday… I think it was Wednesday, maybe,” says Rogers, who has a habit of referring to long-distant events as if they happened last week. He was in Moscow, uninvited and unannounced, to try to secure the handheld rights to Tetris, for which he was (or believed he was) the licensed publisher in Japan. Nintendo had let him in on a little secret: It was preparing the Game Boy for release, and Rogers knew that Tetris would be the perfect game for it. But the rights were in a mess, and the Russian communist state held all the cards. (This part of the story is quite accurately told in the movie; although it indulges in wild fabrications elsewhere, Pajitnov and Rogers say it’s true to the spirit of their adventure.)
“There were, like, eight guys sitting on the other side of the table, and they were giving me the third degree: Who the hell am I, and what was I doing? And Alexey was one of them,” Rogers remembers. “In the beginning, it was hostile… I think what they were trying to do is, they were trying to figure out what my angle was. You know, my story was too unlikely for it to be a story.”
Rogers must have cut an unlikely figure indeed: He had a Dutch passport, an American accent, and lived in Japan with his Japanese wife. He had moved there after attending the University of Hawaii, where he “majored in computer science and minored in Dungeons & Dragons.” He leaned on this experience to write and publish The Black Onyx, which he swears was the first role-playing video game in Japan on its release in 1984.
“My dad used to be in the gem business; I worked for him for six years,” Rogers says. “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 with the Famicom/NES in the 1980s, Rogers talked his way into the office of the company’s fearsome president, Hiroshi Yamauchi. In the movie, he’s portrayed sneaking in to pitch Tetris to the great man, but in reality he had bonded with Yamauchi earlier 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 in his office two days later.
“Yamauchi says to me, ‘I can’t give you any programmers.’ I said, ‘I don’t need programmers,’” Rogers recalls. “‘I need’ — this meeting went so fast, 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.’”
From then on, Rogers would ensure that whenever he met Yamauchi, it would be the last meeting of the day, so they could play Go together. Yamauchi was starved of Go partners (in Japan it was regarded then as a “monk activity, ritual stuff,” Pajitnov notes), and Rogers would feed Nintendo’s inscrutable patriarch with gossip about the industry. Yamauchi was feared within Nintendo, and he appreciated Rogers’ unvarnished outside perspective.
“He fired the president of Nintendo Europe for disagreeing with him. It was just like that. Bam! You know, iron fist,” Rogers says. “If you’ve got everybody else kissing your ass, then it’s hard to find out what’s really going on. I was just outside. I didn’t, like, bow deeper to him than I bowed to everybody else. I treated him like an equal. And I don’t think many people could do that or would do that.”
So, sitting down at that table in Moscow, Rogers actually had some serious backing. That wasn’t necessarily immediately apparent to the Russian negotiators. But, across from him, Pajitnov immediately had a good feeling about this strangely confident foreigner.
“I see another kind of adventurer, with a very long black mustache,” Pajitnov says. “And basically, we discovered that finally, the right person had come for the rights of Tetris. At least, that was my understanding. First of all, he was very professional business-wise, his understanding of the industry. And secondly, he was a game designer! He was my first colleague in the world! Because in Russia, such a profession did not exist at that point. I was the only one.”
Pajitnov, a puzzle enthusiast, had written Tetris while working as a researcher at the Computer Center of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The game quickly spread around Russia and the world, but Pajitnov knew that he was certain to fail if he tried to claim ownership of it. Instead, he cannily chose to play the long game. He thought that if he helped ensure the game was well handled, he would be able to cash in 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 seek money, I will lose for sure,” Pajitnov says. “Because in the Soviet Union, no such stuff as intellectual property existed at that time. Because the game was developed on state-owned hardware and so on, it will be the end of it.
“So basically, I made the decision that I will do whatever is needed to have a very nice publishing of the game. That’s why I granted the rights for this game to the Computer Center, and then I got everybody on my side.”
Playing the Party game meant Pajitnov could ensure a bright future for Tetris — and, ultimately, himself.
“I realized that it’s not my last game. I was pretty sure that I could compensate myself in [the] future using the publicity of Tetris. And that was a strategically very right decision,” Pajitnov says, with satisfaction. “So I never complain about it.”
Rogers butts in, eager to share another example of his friend’s tactical smarts: “There was something very interesting that he did early on: He submitted his game to a computer game contest. And so by submitting it, and having a copyright notice on it, everybody knew that it was his game. And he won second prize.”
Tetris’ commercial success may not have had an immediate financial impact for Pajitnov, but it still turned his life “upside down,” he says. “Because instead of being a programmer and mathematician as I was supposed to be, I became a game designer. It’s a totally different kind of attitude and approach to life. I was supposed to make a tool, to make a tool, to make a tool, to make a tool, to make money, to make a tool, to go to the office, and so on. And now I was able to deliver pleasure and happiness directly from the screen.”
“That’s profound, that’s profound, man! Deliver happiness!” enthuses Rogers, who exudes the vibes of the Hawaiian good life at all times.
That was how Pajitnov ended up across the table from Rogers, without a personal financial interest in the deal, but negotiating on behalf of his game (or “my baby,” as he calls it). They were in the offices of ELORG, a Soviet state monopoly on the import and export of computer hardware and software. (In its quest to unify the Tetris rights, Rogers and Pajitnov’s Tetris Company would ultimately buy what remained of ELORG after the fall of the Soviet Union.)
Rogers may have predominantly been a businessman on the hustle, but he could program, and he knew game design. The film dramatizes a scene with the pair hunched over Pajitnov’s computer, coming up with improvements for Tetris. That never happened, but that’s not to say Rogers didn’t make hugely impactful design contributions to the game. It was Rogers who, in his early Japanese computer and console versions of Tetris, had introduced the ability to stack and clear up to four lines at once. This has become an integral part of the core Tetris design; it’s key to scoring strategy and to holding the player’s interest in the slow early stages, and it forms 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 straight away. “I immediately feel that we are connected. And then I have lots of stuff to discuss with my colleague! I have about a dozen titles to show off. And so we became friends really fast after that.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Things hardly went smoothly, whether you believe the film’s outlandish spy-thriller version of events, or the more sober (but still thrilling) accounts in David Sheff’s book Game Over or the BBC documentary Tetris: From Russia With Love. But the course was set that would see Rogers and Pajitnov team up as the primary custodians — and beneficiaries — of the Tetris brand.
“We did a very good job to maintain the brand,” says Pajitnov. He points to the company’s establishment of a core design for Tetris that must be the basis of every licensed version, while Rogers eagerly 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 he tells every licensee that they have to “beat all the other versions of Tetris that have come out so far… Your version has to be better.”
It seems to be working. Pajitnov notes recent successes with Tetris Effect (an “absolutely great game”) and Tetris 99 (“My favorite… That’s a gift to my baby”). And he still thinks the ultimate two-player competitive version of Tetris is out there, waiting to be discovered. “I do expect to have something much deeper in [terms of a] two-player version,” he says. “There are lots of them, lots of variations, but I kind of have the feeling that we are not there yet.”
Tetris is almost 40 years old now, and it has dominated decades of these men’s lives. Don’t they get bored of it?
“Would you ever get bored with the goose that lays the golden eggs?” exclaims Rogers incredulously. “Are you kidding me?”
“I’m with him on this,” says Pajitnov, with a chuckle. These two men have very different backgrounds, but they both come from a time in video games — and from one unique situation — when there were no rules and no standards for success. You shot for the moon and took what you could grab on the way back down.
Rogers has the final word, and he’s unapologetic. “Feed the goose!”