Founders Talk – Episode #7
Henk Rogers / The Tetris Company
Adam talks with Henk Rogers, Founder of The Tetris Company, Blue Planet Software and Blue Planet Foundation about the beginnings of and the evolution of Tetris, over-coming brick walls, social and mobile gaming, never giving up, changing the world, getting the planet off carbon-based fuels, ending war, creating a backup of Earth and the power of love!
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I’m here with Henk Rogers, serial entrepreneur, game designer turned entrepreneur. He is the founder of Blue Planet Software, as well as the Tetris Company, which is most known for bringing the worldwide phenomenon known as Tetris to the world. It’s by far one of the most universally played video games of all time… So I’m proud to introduce you guys to Henk Rogers. Please say hello.
So Henk you’ve had quite the journey on this road, not just so much from Tetris, but all the companies you’ve founded, and your road into philanthropy and what you’re doing now, but can you give us, for the listeners who maybe just know Tetris’ story but don’t so much know Henk’s story - can you give us an idea of your journey and where it started, and what you’ve done over the last 20 years?
Okay. I’m originally from Holland, 11 years in Holland, 8 years in New York City. I went to [01:20] Stuyvesant High School in New York City, late ’60s, early ‘70s, and that’s where I first got to touch a computer. My next stint was in Hawaii. I was here for four years, three of which I spent attending the University of Hawaii, majoring in computer science, and Dungeons and Dragons… Then I moved to Japan, 18 years in Japan. I started my first company and wrote the first role-playing game in Japan in 1983. So I was a game designer/programmer; I did pretty much everything back then.
Then I switched my role from being a programmer/game designer to being a publisher, and I used to travel the world looking for games. One of the games that I’ve found on one of my trips was a game called Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas… And I was attached to this game, I kept coming back and playing it, and I’ve been after Tetris and the rights to Tetris ever since. And so when the big opportunity came, which is 1995, basically all the rights to Tetris were reverting back to the author of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, he had asked me to help him and be his partner, and I decided to go for it, and I’ve been his partner ever since. Still am today. And we’ve formed what is called the Tetris Company.
What does this partnership with Alexey, how has that changed your life, I guess? …besides, obviously, what you’ve just said with Tetris. I mean, how has it finally changed your life?
Well, I went from, trying to design my own games to working on Tetris, because I thought that was the bigger play. And sure enough, compared to, say, another game, Tetris sort of outperforms it 10x. Now, I’ve contributed a lot to Tetris over the years in terms of game design, and that’s sort of what I do today. Even today, I’m working on improving the design and doing new things with Tetris.
Can you describe some of the first moments of you stumbling onto Tetris, where you were like “Wow, this is the best thing in the world”? What were your first thoughts about the game, and did it even occur to you that it would get you to where you are today?
No, the answer to that is no. I found it at the Consumer Electronics Show, I played it, and I thought, “Okay…” I mean, it looked really rudimentary compared to all the other games that were at the trade show, even in 1987. And I went away, and I came back, and I played it a little bit more, and I went away, and I came back a little bit more… And the fifth time I realized I was hooked on this game.
[04:09] And no other game does that to you at the Consumer Electronics Show. You’ve got to sort of make up your mind about whether a game is interesting by playing it for 10 seconds or 15 seconds… And that’s just not enough time for most games to really get the gist of the game. But in Tetris, you could get it. And I did. And so I was hooked.
At that time, I was the president of the company. The name of my company in Japan was Bulletproof Software. And I made all the decisions, ran the spreadsheets, and so I could negotiate at the Consumer Electronics Show to try to get titles, and I started that path with Tetris.
But what time did Blue Planet Software come into play to supersede your original company, Bulletproof Software?
It’s the end of ‘95. You know, I created a company to be the partner and the managing company for Tetris in 19– it’s right around new year’s of 1995-1996. So that’s when we created Blue Planet Software. And I’d always been BPS, so I liked the mnemonic of BPS, and I had a really good logo, which I didn’t use… And I thought, setting up a company in the US, I’d call it BPS, because everybody knew me as being somebody from BPS. But we tried to make it a little bit more new age. And Blue Planet Software, the concept is you start in Hawaii, and then you get a global view, you kind of back off the planet and look at the planet from above Hawaii - it’s pretty much a blue planet. So it’s a worldview starting in Hawaii.
It’s kind of funny too how your first tracks into this business world/gaming world was role-playing… And it’s not uncommon to actually look at your life and see it very much like a role-playing game. You invented games, you helped obviously mold and shape Tetris to what it is today, created companies to support it and license it… You’d gone to Russia, negotiated contracts, even from what I understand deal with the KGB at some point… Tell us a little bit about the journey of creating the companies to support Tetris and the licensing models. What were some of the earlier thoughts about truly making Tetris I guess the culture-changing game that it is today?
Well, prior to the formation of the Tetris Company, the Soviet Ministry of Software, Elektronorgtechnica had licensed Tetris to a bunch of different companies: Sega, Nintendo, Bulletproof Software, Mirrorsoft… All these different companies, and without really having a guideline as to what the product should do or how it should work. As a result, they were all different, and not compatible. I mean, there’d be fundamental differences. Like if you had a car where the brake is on the right, and the gas pedal is on the left side. Obviously, if you rented that car, a lot of people would have accidents. Well, in the case of Tetris, it made the game very hard to play for people switching platforms.
The biggest difference was in Japan, Nintendo was a huge hit with Gameboy, and I had their same user interface with the Nintendo 8-bit. But Sega had a huge hit with Tetris as a [unintelligible 00:07:18.11] and they had a completely different way of handling the way the blocks fell, and the way they locked down, and the way they rotated… They were all different. And so my first job when I formed the Tetris Company was to create a guideline. And we have a guideline today that basically everybody has to conform to, so that at least the gas pedal is on the right, the brake’s on the left, and all those things are standardized, so people can go from platform to platform and play Tetris.
So let’s talk about some of the roadblocks you might have faced, I guess, in doing this journey, creating the Tetris Company, licensing Tetris, and forming this basic game and mechanics. What are some of the biggest brick walls that you can think of, that are most notable to talk about?
[08:09] Well, the earliest, biggest brick wall was that Alexey in 1993 asked me to help him. And the Soviet government was totally going to try to rip them off. Well, it’s the leftover of the Soviet government. All these ministries became private companies. How the hell that happens? Nobody knows. But they became private companies, and then they claim rights. I mean, how did the guy who owned the oil company then get to own the oil company? Nobody knows. Well, it was that way with the software. And Alexey said they were going to claim that he didn’t have any rights. And sure enough, come 1995, Nintendo needed to renew their rights, because all contracts ended 1995. And the Russians came out and said, “You know what - Alexey has no rights. He never did. It was work for hire. It was the Soviet Union. People didn’t have any copyright rights, authorship rights.” And so everything that Alexey said was going to happen, was actually happening.
So I went to bat for Alexey, I said – I remember being in a meeting with ElOrg’s lawyers, and Nintendo’s lawyers, and it was just me, and I said, “Gentlemen, I’m probably the only one in this room not a lawyer, but I can see at some point there’s going to be a jury, and they’re gonna have to decide whether it’s the Ministry of Software of the defunct Soviet Union, or the author of the game who actually owns the rights to Tetris. I’m betting on the author.”
So from there – they were going to give us 20%, and we were going to give them 20%. We were very far apart. A year later, we came together, in fact in Moscow, and we ended up negotiating seriously, and we came up with the Tetris Company.
The deal for me was that the all of the copyright and trademark registrations in I don’t know how many countries were in the name of Electronorg Technica, which would mean that I’d have to go country by country and fight for the rights to get these trademarks, and get the copyrights back. And that was their deal with Nintendo, by the way. When they did a deal with Nintendo, they said “Nintendo has to, in their name, register the copyright and trademark in all these countries”, which they did. So I was kind of in a quarter, but we got a pretty decent deal.
So the Tetris Company at that time was a 50/50 company between Blue Planet Software, and Electronorg Technica, ElOrg, and Blue Planet Software became the exclusive agent of the Tetris Company. So we did all the work, which - I mean, those guys in Moscow, they had no idea, so they couldn’t do any of the work anyway.
What was the concern at that point? That they just want the rights to the game because they cared about it so much, or was it just a financial battle for them?
For them - these were communist all of a sudden without a communist country. And so their concept was “People don’t have these rights.” They didn’t believe that copyright or trademark belonged to people. It belonged to THE people. And all sudden - okay, so how the hell does it go from the people to being them? That’s kind of weird, you know?
So there was an ideological difference, and they thought they could walk away with it like the guy walking away with the oil company. They could walk away the whole Tetris. And I said, “No, that’s not the way it’s gonna go down.” And we fought, and negotiated, and finally came up with an agreement.
[12:02] How long did this all take? Was it a year or so, or was it a couple months?
Well, from the time of the previous conversation with all the lawyers in the room to when we actually formed the company is about - it’s almost a year. I think I made it in February at Nintendo in Redmond for that prior meeting where we walked away, and we couldn’t agree to anything. And then I ended up in Moscow in the very beginning of 1996, like right around that new year’s cusp, and we were seriously negotiating, because Nintendo was publishing without a license. They weren’t going to continue publishing because they didn’t have a license, and this was bad for Tetris all around.
And so at what point then did Blue Planet Software actually get a hold of Tetris? And when that happened, what were some of the fundamental changes that actually catapulted it into the next stages of having the gaming mechanics down, and the licensing managed? At what point did that happen for Blue Planet Software?
So it happened right at the beginning of 1996.
And what was the very first publisher, I guess, of the next version?
Well, we rolled over Nintendo. We gave them – sort of grandfathered Nintendo with their existing product. But who was the first licensee? Gosh, I can’t even remember.
How many have there been?
Probably somewhere around 50-60 licensees.
And they all created their own different versions, and part of the license agreement is that they can actually inject characters, or put their own little twist on Tetris, but the basic mechanics have to stay the same?
Yeah. So basically, we give them a guideline, and we maintain approval rights. So we approve a final product. So they send us – I mean, they can talk to us, but we don’t approve documents, or prototypes… It’s actually got to be a working game before we approve it. So basically, what we say is “Follow the guideline, add whatever you want to add to it. That’s wide open. If you want to add your characters to it, that’s fine. Those are your characters. So you can add Mickey Mouse or Mario. That’s all fine. We don’t claim those characters. All we claim is any change you make to the game that improves the game becomes part of the IP.”
The IP that you hold, or the IP that they hold?
The IP that we hold. That’s part of the basic Tetris IP that we licensed to all licensees. So basically, if Nintendo improves something about the Tetris game, not only do we get to use it, but all of our licensees get to use it. Otherwise it gets so complicated, saying “Oh, this is not invented here”, and so on and so forth. We just don’t want to have that happen. And ultimately, it’s to the benefit of all licensees, if anything that anybody invents, everybody gets to use.
And so how has the game of Tetris really changed over time? I mean, I can just sit back – I’m 31 years old, about to turn 32. The first time I played it was on the very first Nintendo platform. I can remember that. I can’t remember if I actually had a couple Gameboys or not, but I know I played it on that platform. How has it changed over time, and how has it impacted our culture?
Yeah. So if you go back to the very original Tetris, which Alexey created in the Electronica 60, which is a PDP-11 rip-off, it only counted the tetraminoes that fell into the screen. Each time one fell into the screen, you got points. And if you dropped it, like a hard drop - if you dropped it from the top of the screen, you’d get 19 points. If you dropped it from one line down, you’d get 18, 17, 16, and so on. So the higher up you dropped it you’d get more points.
[16:02] And then there was a next queue; just a single next block. And that that next block, if you turned it off, you’d get an extra five points per block. So it behooved you to keep the next block turned off. And that’s how the game was. There was no counting lines, or bonuses for clearing more lines… That’s one of the things that I invented in my first product in Japan, which was for the 8-bit Nintendo. I added single, double, triple Tetris, where you get bonus points for clearing multiple lines at the same time. And the reason I added that is because the lower levels… You know, all players had to play through the lower levels; the slower levels, I should say. And when you play through the slower level, that kind of gets boring; it doesn’t get exciting until you get to the higher level.
So I wanted to give players something to do at the lower level, and I did that by creating this new thing where you actually had to create the pipe somewhere, to make a Tetris. And when you create the pipe to make a Tetris, your play field, or the place where you can land your blocks actually goes from 10-wide to 9-wide, which gives you a little bit extra dilemma. And so it makes the game a little bit more exciting by giving you this extra thing to think about, of having to squeeze all your blocks.
What exactly is a Tetris then? Is it just completing a line?
No, a Tetris is clearing four lines at a time.
Four lines at a time. Okay. So I guess this is some of the evolution of the game, too. How many people have contributed? How have a licensees contributed to this game?
Well, if you look at at Sega and Nintendo, if you look at the way the keyboard was laid out on the PC, your right hand is on the 10 key and your left hand is on the Spacebar, and that’s where you do your hard drop. And the Rotate is actually back then is in the middle of left-right. So you’ve got left-right, you’ve got rotate. Those are three buttons on the right. On the left side you’ve got hard drop. So those are the four buttons.
What Nintendo invented - which is a great thing… I actually got my guys to try it, but my testers rejected it… And that was - when we went to the console, was to put left-right on the little cross. They had the rotate on the down, and the drop on the trigger, on the right side. And that was sort of like just backwards from the way it was on the keyboard on a PC. But what Nintendo did was they got rid of hard drop, and they made it a soft drop, and then on the right thumb you had left rotate and right rotate. So now we’ve got all of the movement buttons on the left hand, and all the rotate on the other hand, which I think that’s a much better user interface.
Yeah, I think so. It kind of equals out the playing field, you know what’s on which side and what, and which does what.
Yeah, and you get a left rotate and a right rotate. So when you’re really in a pinch, those two rotation, instead of having to make three rotations to get the T block to be a certain direction, you can just do one rotate the other direction.
If you’ve only got clockwise rotation, then you’d have to rotate three times to get to a position, instead of rotating the other direction one time. So that’s one. Sega, they had a different way – in the Nintendo game when a piece got to the bottom, as soon as it touched blocks in the playfield, which we call the matrix… As soon as it touches a block in the matrix, it locks down. So it’s like locked down as instant. But in the Sega, you could drop it, land it, and once it’s landed, you could still rotate it and move it. So this meant you could hard drop a piece, and then you could like drop it, and rotate it, and drop it… In fact, the way the game was played on the Sega machine is most of the thinking time that you have about what to do with the piece is after you drop it. And in the Nintendo game, it’s all happening while the piece is falling. So those are fundamental differences. And we we incorporate both of those ideas into the guideline. So basically, you can think while it’s falling, but you still have time once it’s landed, like 500 milliseconds before it actually locks down. That sort of gives you a chance to rotate and do something once it’s landed, so it’s not as brutal.
[20:55] Before we move on to ultimately talk about the bigger question here, which might be how did you actually pay for all this travel time, deliberation with lawyers and getting the licensing, and ultimately creating the Tetris Company, and Blue Planet Software, let’s let’s talk briefly about more or less where it’s going. I know that you guys have always been this forward-thinking duo between you and Alexey and what Tetris is. We see more and more now that games are going mobile. I mean, mobile games are like the number one seller on the Apple App Store, and all that good stuff. Where do you see the future of Tetris going? Is it just going to keep this simple, but yet complex game mechanics going on? Where do you see it going through the mobile platforms, and how is it impacting Tetris as it is right now?
Okay, so first I’d like to mention that the mobile platform has been Tetris’ greatest hit so far. We probably did around 40 million on GameBoy. But about almost a year ago we passed 100 million downloads, paid downloads on mobile phones. So that’s a huge number. That’s the biggest number of any game on mobile.
And so yes, Tetris will continue to be the best mobile game. It’s just very simple. The screen on a mobile device, by definition, is small. And the pieces of Tetris are very distinct, and easy to see on the small screen. And the gameplay doesn’t lose when you go to a small device. So Tetris is and still continues to be, after - gosh, now 20 years, the best mobile game out there.
But the future of Tetris I think is social. We’re working on a new version of Tetris where you play Tetris with your friends, and you get to meet new people through Tetris. And so rather than playing Solitaire – and the word “Solitaire”, if you listen to that word, Solitaire is like the worst thing you could do to somebody. You could send them to solitary confinement, which means that they’re by themselves, they don’t get to talk to anybody. And video games, by and large, traditionally have been people going off into their own little world and playing a video game by themselves. But being by themselves is a little bit of a torture in a way, because people need companionship. And so going forward, Tetris, and I think all video games, will become social, so that you’re in there, and you’re never alone. You’re with your friends, and they’re competing against you, or you’re on the same team, competing against other people. So I think that that is the future of gaming, and it’s certainly the future of Tetris.
Is it something that Blue Planet Software and the Tetris Company will do itself? Or will it license this out and you’ll kind of play a part in that?
So we have licensed Tetris out to the – how can I say… The online industry. We’ve got three licensees as we speak, for different territories for online. But I don’t think any of them have really successfully made the transition from Tetris being a solo game to being a social game. And so every once in a while when I think that things aren’t going according to plan, so to speak, I roll up my sleeves and I start building a new product. So that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re in the process of creating a new version of Tetris which is social.
[24:44] Was Tetris Attack part of that social? I remember in my research looking up some of the things on this conversation here that Tetris Attack came out about two years ago in ’09. Was that the social version of it, or the version that first started that?
Tetris Attack or Tetris Battle? The versions that have come out so far - and they started in Korea, because Korea is sort of like ahead of the curve. They were the first ones to do Tetris on a large scale. But if you look at Tetris the way it’s done in Korea, it’s a very adversarial way of playing the game. You and five other people get into a room, and you form teams; either three on three, two on two on two, or every one for himself, and you duke it out. And so that may be an interesting way of playing in Korea, but it’s not the way people in general play social games.
So for example, you’re not duking it out with anybody in Farmville, or any of those social games on Facebook. You’re basically showing off your accomplishments, and you’re helping your friends get ahead. And the more friends you have helping you, the better off you are. And that’s the direction that we have to go in, and that’s the direction we are going in.
I guess around the mobile gaming space, which is your favorite to play Tetris on?
On the mobile, I guess – my favorite is still the Gameboy. It’s got the best controls for the device size. If you go to mobile phones themselves, the majority, for example, what they call feature phones, pre-smartphone era - the feature phones, you’re playing on the number keys on your mobile phone, and they weren’t designed to do that. They were designed to make phone calls. And so they’re not game machine keys. And now that we’ve gone to smartphones, where you touch and slide… It’s interesting, but still, when you look at the 100% dedicated game machine, like the Gameboy, they could have made that a slide screen, but they didn’t. They still have the buttons in there as part of the form factor. So being able to play with the original buttons - maybe call me old-school, whatever, but that’s still easier for me to play, with the little cross and then the left and right rotate.
Earlier, when you mentioned the basic mechanics of Tetris, I was thinking about - I actually just bought the game on iPhone recently, and the hard drop is super-easy. I kind of like how also that you can see the image of the piece down at the bottom where it will land, but you also see it falling at the same time… But you can also grab that block and do that hard drop, like you’d mentioned before, to get those extra points from top up.
I think the platforms like that, the touchscreen, and this direct interface… Are you saying that you favorite the old-school GameBoy versus this? Or is it just because it’s a preference of you?
Well, I’m getting to be an old man. I just became a grandfather.
[28:04] Thank you. So it’s hard for me to to get my game skill up to the point on the new screen. Whereas my kids, and everybody else in the younger generation, they’re much more adept at manipulating that kind of a screen than I am. I’m just not – I didn’t grow up with it. It’s like inventing a new way of playing tennis. It’s hard for the older folks to catch up.
So at what point does Blue Lava Wireless play in this grand scheme? We’ve talked about traveling the world and battling lawyers for licenses, and defining the gaming mechanics, and the whole entire spectrum of what Tetris is today… What role does Blue Lava Wireless play in this big story?
Yeah, so Blue Lava Wireless… Around 1999, I think, a friend of mine in Japan who was starting a new publishing company came to me and he said, “My publishing company is going to be based on one product. It’s going to be Tetris. The other product that I think could make it work is Pokémon, but Nintendo’s never going to license Pokémon to me. So I need Tetris from you. And I’m willing to bet a third of the money that I raise to start this company to get the rights to Tetris.” So basically, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And by the way, everything he said came true. That company went on to become the number mobile phone game company, Tetris was their number one product, it was probably half of their sales… And with that ammunition in hand, I started looking around the US for a licensee. Okay, so who’s going to be my mobile phone licensee? And the biggest offer we got was $25,000. That was a joke compared to what I got out of Japan.
And so what I realized at that moment is that nobody in the US quite understood what was going to happen with mobile games, how big that was going to be. So I decided to do it myself. So again, I started another company called Blue Lava Wireless. We started I think in 2002, here in Hawaii. And basically, I’d moved to Hawaii because I had some line on financing… But six months into it, we were so close to profitability that we never needed the financing. So we never took any outside money. It was just my wife and I, and we built the company, and it was profitable. And when we sold it, we were still growing.
And I think that sale that you just mentioned happened around three and a half years later, for a pretty, pretty high number, too. Do you want to mention that number?
Yeah. What you read in the newspaper is $137 million. And the $137 million came from JAMDAT; 4 million of that was stock, at $16 a share. But a year later, Electronic Arts bought JAMDAT and cashed in all my stock that I was holding. So the 4 million shares was valued at $27, and so I think I made around $180 million all told. Of course, there’s other people with hands in the pockets, and so on and so forth… But it was still a good deal.
What was the early talks about with EA? How did they come to you? I haven’t been the kind of person that’s been so in-depth into games to understand EA’s history, but I’d imagine that around 2005 they were pretty popular. I mean, I played NHL98 and all the other fun games, like Madden and stuff, but they were a pretty big player. What did they come at you with? And was there any fun stories about EA in that approach?
[31:58] Well, actually it wasn’t me that they came at. It was JAMDAT. So basically – you know I’m not day-to-day at JAMDAT, so… I didn’t have the company at that point. But Electronic Arts, historically, just to give you some background - I published two of Electronic Art’s first games in Japan; that would be M.U.L.E.and Archon, in 1986-1987… ‘86, probably. So I’ve been close to EA since their beginning; they started after me. And they tried to buy me twice in Japan, so that I could become their Japan EA. And twice I said no. And both times, I should have said yes. I was an idiot back then. I didn’t know anything about selling companies. I was still trying to hang on, and trying to do everything myself. It’s like having your first baby. You watch it too carefully.
When you look back on that time, why do you say you should have said yes?
Because I would have had money. Electronic Arts after that went public, and whatever stock I got out of it would have been huge. Just like Richard Garriott made his money by selling to Electronic Arts origin. That could have been me, so to speak.
So what made you say no?
Oh, yeah. Well, the first time I said no was because the US had just gone through the Atari crash, and I was looking at the future was going to be Nintendo. And I talked to Electronic Arts about it and said “No, no, no. There’s no future in cartridges”, because of what happened in the US. I can understand why they would say that. But for me, my future of Bulletproof Software in Japan was heavily cartridge-based. And so that was the reason I said no the first time.
I was negotiating with Tripp Hawkins back then, and I talked to him about this later, and he said, “That’s probably not true. You could have convinced me to do cartridge, and so on and so on and so forth.” But anyway, I said no. I got cold feet.
What about the second time?
The second time… I forget. I just didn’t want to – I’d never worked for anybody… [laughs] And I could see that if they bought me, there would be a “You’ve got to run the company for X number of years, and report to us” and so on and so forth. And I’d never done it. I’d never reported to anybody; no board of directors, or no manager… So I was kind of afraid of ending up having to run a company that somebody else was telling me what to do. That was the second time. Again, foolish, but that’s my history.
I think the – not so much the best part of this, but I think from a planetary culture changing perspective on your story I think one of the coolest things I like about this, and really what’s come out of this, is you started the Blue Planet Foundation back there in Hawaii, where you’re at now. We talked about the funding and the sale to JAMDAT, which was ultimately taken over by EA, and you talked about how much money you made there… Has all that money been fueled into what you’re doing at Blue Planet? And can you give kind of a quick overview of what you’re doing there at Blue Planet Foundation?
Yeah. So just a quick overview… A month after I sold Blue Lava Wireless and made all that money, I had a heart attack. And I’m on the way to the – I hadn’t spent a nickel, and I’m lying in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital, and I’m saying “You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t really done what I really need to do with the money yet.” And so I’m looking at the ceiling and I’m saying to myself, “I’m going to survive this no matter what. If I have to hold my breath for 15 minutes, I will. Because I have stuff to do.” And then I got to thinking about that afterwards. Of course, I survived it. I have two stents, and it’s great, I’m back to normal. I got a chance to spend a couple of weeks thinking about what I want to do before I die. And I found my four missions in life.
[36:06] My first mission is to end the use of carbon-based fuel. And to that end, I started the Blue Planet Foundation, which is working to end the use of carbon-based fuel, starting in Hawaii, because guess what - Hawaii has all the alternative energy that it could possibly want. It has wind, it has solar, it has geothermal, it has ocean thermal energy conversion, it has - God knows; every kind of alternative energy. And we have the highest price of fossil fuel of anywhere in the world, because we have to ship it the farthest. It gets barged here, and we pay the highest electricity, the highest gasoline prices of anywhere in the country; not in the world, but in the country. So Hawaii is ripe to make the changeover from fossil fuel to alternative energy. And we might as well go all the way and say from fossil fuel to non-carbon-based alternative energy.
And so the Blue Planet Foundation is – I want to give the one-liner, I suppose… It’s a local nonprofit organization, and you said it best, committed to ending the use of fossil fuels on Earth, and starting in Hawaii because of all these resources already there, that they should be using? Why do you think it’s – I mean, some big reasons, obviously, with politics and the cost of fuel… But bigger than that, why do you feel that this is now your sole mission, or the biggest mission beyond Tetris, for you?
It’s my first mission. And the reason is because in my lifetime, we can do this thing. And it’s totally doable, just like the Industrial Revolution. If we look back on it, pre-industrial revolution and post-industrial revolution, how big of a change that made to the world… And now we mention the guy who invented steam, and so on and so forth, as being heroes in that time period. But it didn’t take that long, and it spread through the world. And that’s kind of what I’m looking to do with alternative energy. And the reasons for it is, one is we have no idea what we’re doing to the climate. I mean, you could be on one side of the political fence – by the way, this political fence only exists in this country. If you look at the rest of the countries on the planet, they’re looking at the US and say, “How can this be a political issue? It’s a scientific issue. Just go out there, measure the temperature of the ocean, and find out that it’s getting warmer, and that’s got to be bad for the way things are.” Things are going to change in ways that we don’t even know yet. But that’s just one side of it.
The second part of it, carbon dioxide goes into the ocean, and it causes acidification of the ocean. And what it’s doing is it’s making it harder and harder for marine animals that use carbon, like coral, like shellfish, to survive. And so effectively, we could be killing all of the coral by the end of this century, by continuing on the path that we’re on. That’s nuts; that’s a third of our food supply that’s sort of coral-based. It’s just gonna cause so much trouble that we haven’t even figured out yet. It’s not just about pretty fish and all that, it’s about a whole ecosystem that we’re ready here to wipe out.
But then look at fossil fuel, look at oil. Iraq, Afghanistan - all these wars and the trillions of dollars that we’re spending on these wars, killing people and having them kill us, is all to maintain our oil supply. If we didn’t need oil, those wars would not have happened. So why can’t we just get over it and move on to the next phase of mankind? Well, we don’t do that. We don’t have to.
You mentioned four points, and we got the one… What are the other three?
[40:08] My second mission is to end war. And I think they go hand in hand. If you relieve some of this tension in the world, then war becomes unnecessary. The third one is to make a backup of life on Earth. We got hit 65 million years ago by a big rock from space that wiped out the dinosaurs. A big rock from space could wipe us out next, very easily. So we need to make a backup, and I think Mars is the easiest place, and the nearest place where we can actually make a backup. So we need an effective space program, we need to go to Mars, we need to terraform Mars, we need to make Mars – like, turn it into another Earth. It’s just a matter of time.
I live on the Big Island. You watch the coastal lava rock - they’ve changed that into a tropical paradise. They just grind up the rock, make golf courses out of it. So we can do it here, we can do it there. It’s just a matter of time and engineering.
And the fourth one - I have no idea why I have this mission, but it was there, and I followed my heart, and it’s to figure out how the Universe ends. One way of looking at it is that the Universe ends next week, and maybe I don’t have to work so hard on my first three missions. But I think that if we find out the true nature of the Universe, that will be another fundamental change. Maybe it will give us boundless free energy, or some kind of – something new. I mean, when we first discovered e = mc squared, that gave us nuclear energy. I mean, that changed the world completely. And that’s sort of figuring out the Universe, how it ends, or what’s the true nature of the universe. That sort of goes hand in hand with that.
And so is it by any ironic nature that you created a game called Blue Mars?
No, absolutely not. That’s right in mission number three. So we’re creating a platform so that people can go and build things on Mars, and sort of get used to the idea of “Yeah, we can go there and do whatever we want.” And that’s sort of what I want people today to understand, and that’s, I’m sure, what people in the future will be doing.
And how old is Blue Planet Foundation?
Blue Planet Foundation is probably four years old now…
What are some of the bigger accomplishments that you’ve achieved so far on not just your four-point list, but in general in the foundation’s list?
In the foundation - yeah, so we changed like 100,000 light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent. We pretty much changed all the light bulbs on the islan of Molokai and we’re still changing them. That has a direct impact. Each light bulb that you change saves a tremendous amount of electricity, which in Hawaii translates to less burning of fossil fuel. We have passed laws… We passed a law saying that every new house that gets built in Hawaii has to have a solar hot water heater. 40% of all residential electricity for houses that don’t have solar hot water heaters goes to heating water. So if you have a solar hot water heater, that’s 40% less electricity that you need in your house.
We pass a number of electric car legislation, so that it makes it more attractive for someone to own and operate an electric car in Hawaii. We passed the first barrel tax in the nation; basically, for every barrel of oil that’s imported into Hawaii, it gets taxed $1. And that dollar goes to alternative energy projects.
[44:05] We work with the PUC, we intervene… So we’ve been working between the PUC and the electric company on a host of different things… Basically, if there’s anything going on in Hawaii that has to do with alternative energy, we’re in the middle of that conversation.
I love how this is all fueled by Tetris, really. Right? I mean, that’s where your story started. Actually, before we got on the call, you’d mentioned that you actually went to Japan chasing a woman, so I guess we should really thank love, really, ultimately, right?
You chased love and Tetris.
I chased love… Yeah, so that woman is my wife, and we have four children now.
And she also helps you do all these fun things together. So you’re really a team.
Absolutely, absolutely. She’s been there all the way. She let me basically work on my first game for nine months without having a job, and that ultimately led to my first company. So she put up with me while having three kids, and I was basically living with my in-laws while I made my first computer game. So yeah, it wouldn’t have happened without her.
So we could thank love…
There you go.
I love that. And obviously, Alexey, and Tetris, and everything that you guys have done there in that journey. The last question - I know we’ve been on the call for a bit; we’re at around 45 minutes, I asked you for a half hour, but it’s been an honor to speak with you… But the next question I have really is one I’d love to ask… What is on your radar in terms of super-secretness? Is there anything going on in the next horizon of Blue Planet Foundation, Tetris, the Tetris Company, anything whatsoever that’s like super-secret, you haven’t told anybody that you can announce here on the show today.
Gosh… You should have asked me that before, I could have prepared for something. I have up my sleeve in Blue Mars a new way of making role-playing games. I call it the Adventure Engine. Let’s put it this way - it will enable ordinary people, like people who write stories, or who want to be role-playing game level designers or so on, to easily make their own role-playing game inside of Blue Mars. So that will open up the world of game design, or interactive fiction design, to a lot of people who are sort of being corralled into groups like World of Warcraft, big teams, so they’ll be able to do it on their own, pretty much like the way people make stuff for the App Store. So App Store meets role-playing games. That’s my – it’s called the Adventure Engine.
And ultimately, Blue Mars is helping you hit point number three, which is to replicate life here on Earth and move to Mars, or at least give us a backup.
Yeah. We’re in a software business. You make backups. Hello?!
It should be obvious, yeah. I mean, I love how this idea, though, is that – I think this Blue Mars idea, and the gaming, and obviously that super-secret that you’ve just mentioned just now is huge, because what you’re really doing is you’re opening on a large scale people’s minds to being able to provide life, or create life, or enable life on Mars.
I think you’ve mentioned Tetris’ next level is social gaming, and obviously, you’re taking the idea of taking us to Mars to a social spectrum with Blue Mars, and you’re even opening it up bigger with this… What was it called, again? What is the engine? The Adventure Engine?
Yeah. That’s very cool. Well, Henk, it was more than an honor to speak with you. I mean, I’m sitting here just thinking, I just had a 45-minute conversation with someone who changed the world in a massive way, and will continue to change the world a massive way… And it’s been an honor to have you on the show today, and I thank you so much. Before we go, is there any way you can mention a few links, or Twitter, Facebook, something like that, so people can get involved or learn more about Blue Planet Foundation, and what you’re doing with Tetris, and how you’re changing the world? Is there anything you want to mention?
Yes, please go to BluePlanetFoundation.org and find out what we’re doing. We’re doing it in Hawaii because we’re in Hawaii, and we believe that we need to clean our own room before we ask other people to clean up their rooms. But we’ll be coming to your part of the world and ask you to help clean your part of the world as well.
Okay. Again, Henk, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. I really, really appreciate you taking the time to be here.
You’re welcome. Nice to talk to you, Adam.
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