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The Story of Tetris: Henk Rogers (Part 2)

Posted on Thursday, Sep 17th 2009

SM: Can you summarize the game for me?

HR: The name was The Black Onyx. The objective of the game was to reach the end and become a very powerful warrior. During the game if you attacked people or monsters weaker than you, your karma would drop. The only way to get your karma back up was by talking to people. If you were one of the first 100 people to reach the end of the game as a very powerful warrior with perfect karma, then I sent you a real black onyx.

Magazines would ask me how much a black onyx was worth. I would tell them that it was worth four weeks of play time. The secret sauce is that I made the black onyx for $2.

SM: The story of the game is a charming one. I keep noticing that the story has really degenerated. To have a good engaging book, film or game, the story is an important piece of the equation. What is your perspective?

HR: Of course I agree with you. It depends on the game of course, because a game like Tetris is a puzzle game. If you are going to attempt a role-playing game, it is essentially an interactive story. If it has a dumb story behind it, then it is like going to a movie with a dumb story behind it. There are a lot of movies in which the special effects are the important thing. You watch it once and that’s it.

SM: When you put The Black Onyx out did you see reasonable success?

HR: Not exactly. SoftBank went back on their word and only ordered 200 words. There was no demand in Japan for role-playing games. They had no idea how to do it. It was January and we had already passed Christmas, and we only had enough money to last two more months. In January I visited every computer game magazine and taught them how to play my game.

The magazines at that time used to go visit the publishers because publishers felt that they were so important. To me it seemed that the magazines were the important piece so I went to them. I didn’t speak Japanese, either, so I had to take an interpreter.

Every single magazine got hooked on my game. They started writing about it so two months later, in March, we got great stories in every single computer magazine in Japan. In April we got huge orders. It was like that for the rest of the year. From that point on we were in business.

SM: Was your friend who had given you some money still in partnership with you?

HR: My friend was from Bangkok. He was actually Burmese-Chinese. He wanted to help me with the business side, but he never showed up. He sent me the seed money, which lasted until we became profitable.

SM: The Black Onyx became successful. Did you then produce other titles in parallel?

HR: In 1984 it was the number one game in Japan, and it was number 2 in 1985. We had a two-year reign during which we were invincible. I wrote the second game, a sequel called The Fire Crystal. Programming, especially back then, was a day and night thing. I would do a ‘program – eat – sleep’ routine for months at a time. At that time I had three children, and I never got to see my wife and kids.

I realized that I could not do that for the rest of my life. I then hired programmers while I started traveling around the world looking for games that were successful in other places that I could bring to Japan. I figured I could do four games a year if they came from other places and I had programmers for them. That became my new business model. One of the games that I found was Tetris.

This segment is part 2 in the series : The Story of Tetris: Henk Rogers
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