In a startling move Monday, Zynga announced that Don Mattrick would be named as the company’s new Chief Executive Offer. Mattrick might be familiar to many in the gaming world, especially with his face attached to the unveil of Microsoft’s Xbox One console. The timing of the announcement was unusual to say the least and signs are that not even Microsoft was aware of his pending departure. They are, after all, in the midst of a console launch and losing your President of Interactive Business would blindside any company given the timing.
The Xbox One launch has already gone through an avalanche of scrutiny and criticism, much with Mattrick’s smug grin posing next to an illuminated console. When Microsoft confirmed their now-defunct restrictions on used and shared games and their mandatory online check-in, gamers associated Mattrick more than any other Microsoft figure with the decision. He was the same man who suggested that those that wish to freely lend games or play without an internet connection should just stick with their aging Xbox 360 systems, a statement that caught the wrath of the already slighted gaming community.
Even I will admit that my initial reaction to Mattrick’s departure from Microsoft to Zynga was more about him escaping the negative associations with a failed technological strategy and absolutely bumbling public relations. Even still, moving to Zynga, a struggling social-gaming company seemed like the natural progression for somebody who has been recently revered as a corporate scumbag. After all, a company like Zynga is obviously less concerned about creating meaningful gaming experience and focused upon how they can bleed their audiences’ wallets dry through micro-transactions.
But then I did a little reading on Mattrick. Turns out, he was one of us. A gamer at heart, who struck gold when he co-designed the original Test Drive at the age of 17. Test Drive would go down in history as the first driving game to put players behind the wheel versus staring at the back of a car. Mattrick would parlay that early success into a leadership role within Electronic Arts where he is credited as a driving force in the creation of Need for Speed and The Sims. Rumor has it that his youth driving fast cars and running from the police led to Need for Speed and it was his idea to make the people the focus of The Sims, rather than just a neighborhood builder.
He led the Xbox team into an era where they dominated the U.S. market and saw the potential in the motion sensing Kinect. He elbowed with bigwig celebrities in director/producer Steven Spielberg, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former CBS president Nancy Tellum. Partnerships that would result in exclusive NFL coverage, television deals and a Spielberg produced Halo series.
When reading of Mattrick’s personality, he was regarded as a visionary, goal-oriented straight shooter. Mattrick had no interest in being told how things couldn’t get done, only in how to get results. His desire to push his teams for greatness resulted in unprecedented prosperity for Microsoft’s Xbox brand, a trait that Zynga clearly had in mind when they recruited him.
So when I look back at the Xbox One’s stumble out of the gates and I see Mattrick standing right alongside, I wonder if the writing was on the wall for him. He had provided the framework for the Xbox One, in his vision, to become a success. But when Microsoft reversed its stance on the Xbox One’s restrictions, Mattrick was amongst the first to publicly apologize.
Maybe for Mattrick, he had no interest in building the Xbox One brand under less visionary circumstances. He already stated that he thought backwards compatibility prevented progress and clearly had no interest in doing things the old way. He probably saw the Xbox One as a new direction for consoles, marrying entertainment with gaming, an evolution in how games were licensed to consumers, new potential in cloud based gaming. All things that the consumer populace was not ready for, because by reverting to the old way software licenses are handled, the Xbox One would lose much of what would make it different. Maybe too different for Mattrick.