Soundbite: Henk Rogers on randomness and dilemmas in Tetris



A screenshot of Tetris for the Nintendo Game Boy

For the 35th anniversary of Tetris' original Russian version, I pulled out this clip from my interview with Henk Rogers — co-founder of The Tetris Company and the dude who got Tetris handheld and console publishing rights back in the 1980s (and also creator of what was arguably the first JRPG, The Black Onyx).

Listen for Henk's memories about the strategy inherent in the game's scoring system and the story of how they fixed a bias in the Game Boy version's random number generator.

The interview was originally conducted for my Polygon feature on the Game Boy's (and Pokémon's) introduction in the West.

(Also, Game Boy Tetris turns 30 next week, so happy birthday to that version too!)


Transcript


I wanted to post a special bonus soundbite thing to say a very happy birthday to one of my favourite games, which turns 35 today — or at least it's today as I record this. On June 6th, 1984, Tetris made its entry into the world.

It didn't make much of a splash around the globe, on this first day, but it was a quick hit among Russian Electronika 60 computer users. And before long it found its way into nearly every computer system and game console in the world.

A few months ago I spoke to the man most responsible for the game's global introduction, Henk Rogers, as part of a Polygon feature on the Game Boy's introduction in the West, some 30 years ago, and what you're about to hear is some leftover material from that interview where Henk explains, first, how Tetris evolved from Alexey Pajitnov's original design, whereby you'd get points based on how high a piece was when you dropped it, to the scoring system we know today, and second, how Game Boy Tetris decided what pieces to give you.

So happy birthday, Tetris. And here's to another 35 years of sorting endlessly falling blocks.

Henk Rogers: So if you drop it from the top of the screen, you've got like 20 points. If it went down one and then you dropped it, you got 19, and so forth, so if you dropped it halfway down the screen it's 10 points. So that's how you gain points — it's how quickly you can drop the piece, and wow, that's an interesting thing. But in the beginning of the game, it's pretty boring when you have an empty playfield and empty matrix, and you're trying to play. It's very slow. So so I came up with single double, triple, Tetris to get players something to do during the slow beginning rounds. But then also, you know, you'd be — so the, the original playfield is 10 wide and 20 high.

If you make the pipe on the side so that you can make the Tetris, now you're nine wide and 20 high. That nine wide means that you have a dilemma, more of a dilemma than you do — if you think about it, there are seven pieces. If the play field was 13 wide, then you could just stack each play piece on itself and there would never be a dilemma about where to put a piece. It's six pieces that are too wide and the I piece, which is one wide, so it's 13. if you had 13 columns, it's not a game. The less columns you make it, the more stressful it becomes because you have to figure out where to put the pieces. And so when you go from 10 to nine, as a choice, as a player, you're actually going to a more difficult game than if it's 10 wide. And leaving the pipe on the side just makes the game a little bit more difficult for the player. And therefore more interesting.

I remember I flew to Hawaii for some reason and I was talking to the agent at a hotel where I was renting a car, and somehow we started talking about Tetris and he said, 'yeah, it watches me.' It's like, 'it doesn't give me the I when I need the I.' I said, 'no, it's completely random.' 'No! It's not. It's watching me. It knows when I need an I. It doesn't give me the I.' Well actually, I worked on the random number generator, so I know that it's totally random. And in fact it was Friday when the Nintendo came to me with the master and we first got to play it and I called Nintendo.

I said, there's something wrong with the random number generator. And I had my guys testing count the pieces, each piece, and sure enough, one of the — I don't know, S or Z, whatever, was coming out twice as much as the other pieces. It's not random. You know, they never had a game where a random number was necessary. You know, like if you have Mario, if there's a random number that's not actually working, then that's just the way the game's balanced. It doesn't matter. But in Tetris it mattered. And so I lied to Nintendo; I said the Russians will never approve this, as if we were getting approvals from the Russians (laughs), which we weren't. And they sent somebody over on Saturday to my office in Yokohama and we worked on the random number generator.

I actually gave them ideas to reprogram the random number generator. And what we did is we spread out the anomaly to all the pieces. So the first time a random number would be plus zero, the second time a random number we'd plus one, and plus two and plus three. And so it would cycle through all the pieces. So that peak didn't just stick with one piece. It was spread out over all of the pieces. And that's what we went with, and they mastered up on Monday. So that was — yeah, so I know definitely that the pieces are random.


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The Life & Times of Video Games

A documentary and narrative-style podcast about video games and the video game industry — as they were in the past — and how they came to be the way they are today.