SM: What kind of revenue did it generate for you?
HR: On the Nintendo we sold at 4,800 yen and we sold 2 million copies.
SM: Now that you have been in the gaming business for so many years, how do design a game that has the additive properties like Tetris’?
HR: I can tell you how I think it should be done. In general, people stumble on them. They have game testers who play all the games, and they fill out forms saying what they like. You look at those reports and add them up. That is how it is done in general.
Now that we have total control of Tetris, we spend a lot of time and energy watching people play. It is harder and harder to find beginner players. What we want to do is find out what makes people want to play or stop wanting to play a game. You can just ask them that and adjust the game to eliminate the barriers. That is especially true of the online space. You can create a game and put it out there and tweak it by listening to users.
SM: What was going on with Tetris in the rest of the world? It seems as though it must have been a very large franchise.
HR: Actually, at that moment in time it was not. It was one product in a sea of flight simulators for Spectrum Holobyte. Tetris was not that high up on their list because it had not been that popular in Europe or the United States. I am not sure what the reason was. Tetris is a product that takes time. You release it and you will have a core group of puzzle gamers who will buy it. They then turn on people around them. If you are an ordinary consumer, you do not know this game so you would not just go out and buy it. You will have had to have played it somewhere and gotten hooked somehow.
SM: You were very successful with Tetris in Japan, but Tetris was not successful in Europe or the United States. What happened next?
HR: It was 1988 when Nintendo came out with their Game Boy machine in Japan. I thought Tetris would be the perfect game for Game Boy. I nosed around and nobody had the rights to that. The rights were still with the Russians in Moscow. In February of 1989, I got on a plane to Moscow to track down the Ministry of Software. It was still a communist country and was a strange place. When I finally found the ministry they told me that they had never given out the rights to the console.
That could have been a big disaster for me. I had 100,000 cartridges in Japan being manufactured, getting ready to go to market. That was being done at a cost of $2 million, which was all the money I had plus my in-laws’ properties. I got Nintendo their Game Boy rights, so that was a win. I then asked Nintendo if they could help me with console rights. To my surprise they jumped at the chance to help.
I found out what was going on later. Atari Games was the first company that tried to make cartridges without buying them from Nintendo. In Japan Nintendo controlled distributions. The only way that you could make a Nintendo cartridge was to buy them from Nintendo. In the US you can’t have a monopoly on manufacturing something. Nintendo put a little encryption chip in the games which meant you would have to break their patent, trademark, and copyright in order to make a game.
Atari Games said they had a way to get around all of that copy protection. They were going to make their own cartridges without buying them from Nintendo. Of course Nintendo took Atari to court, but it was going to take time which meant Atari games would have already had their product in the market. The first product that Atari was going to publish on the Nintendo machine was Tetris. When I called Nintendo asking for help to get the console rights, it was a way for them to stop Atari from releasing their first product.