July 3, 2022

Arrivederci, Don Mattrick!

Parla Piu XBox…

So the head of the XBox Division, Don Mattrick, has left. To head up as CEO of Zynga, in a move that to many seems like jumping from one disaster to another.

Perhaps this is a little unfair though; because I think Don Mattrick did something pretty amazing. He turned a division that was losing money into a successful and hugely profitable arm of a company that was desperate to succeed in the games market. There’s no question that under Mattrick’s care, the XBox 360 jumped in terms of sales, and the multiple deals with advertisers and services for the Live service ensured it would remain a profitable and self-sufficient machine long after the XBox One hit the market. In most ways that matter, Don Mattrick was the quintessential new boss; his role was simply to turn around something that we all knew was haemorrhaging money from the off. The XBox 360 was being sold at a loss, and the Live service was also loss-leading even with a monthly subscription. That he achieved profitability is likely what matters most and how he will be remembered internally at Microsoft.

However, if there is one thing Don Mattrick never quite understood, it was games. And when it came to games, he seemed totally befuddled by it all.

This much is evident in the state of internal development at Microsoft Studios. A lack of inventive new IP has been more than noticeable, which delighted third parties who could more or less have free reign to do as they pleased, but compared to Sony – whose recent The Last Of Us is fast becoming one of the biggest sellers of the year, and Nintendo – who have come up with plenty of new IP of late, including Dillon’s Rolling Western, Pushmo and of course Xenoblade, Microsoft comparatively seemed very stagnant to the serious gaming crowd. Worse than that, in spite of the success, Halo 4 wasn’t quite brilliant. Fable 3, a game that much was pinned on, was charming and likeable, but hideously broken with a myriad of technical woes, engine slowdown and an overtly-simplistic interaction system. Worse, the game remains hideously broken to this day – in spite of it being free last month, most who downloaded the game having never tried it before were shocked at the state of it. Gears of War is largely the saviour, but sadly even the recent prequel seemed to pass rather under the radar. No doubt successful in its own right – but it came and went, and didn’t linger as much as its older games used to.

Whilst new studio investment is now a priority at Microsoft, it’s clear that this was one of many things that Mr. Mattrick was uneasy of. His job was to make money; new games and fresh titles seemed a little alien to him, and he never seemed too enthused by the idea of new games. But if there was one thing he did seem to delight in, it was the Kinect. Which summed up so much of his tenure.

The Kinect was a sales success. There’s no getting away from that, because it’s a numerical fact. It made a lot of money and cemented the XBox 360 in the homes of many a non-gamer. Indeed, Don Mattrick was following the same sort of path that Nintendo had trailblazed; attracting a new audience to the machine, with fitness products and dance games. It was a great idea in theory; so too was the Kinect. But in practice, neither seemed to work. The Kinect slowed down after a while and many of those who had bought one for the gimmick of the Kinect were doing largely what they had done with the Wii; putting them in the attic, or selling them off to make some new space. Sales of those games dropped somewhat each time around. The Kinect was a device of great promise, and on Windows and the PC, many interesting experimental things happened with it. There was no crossover to the 360 though; the PC crowd remained walled off, and the exciting and interesting developments that were being weaved with the device were not reflected in the way it worked on the XBox 360.

In midst all of this came a promise from Don Mattrick, perhaps the most foolish of all promises; that the Kinect would deliver “core games to core gamers”. If people were sceptical, they were proven right over the years as many games did their best to utilise the Kinect. And most of them failed; rarely, if ever, did one of these “core games” ever get above average at best, with most of them being embarrassingly bad. It transpired too that third parties who had ideas for the Kinect were actively turned away, as there was a vision for the Kinect that was not to be derailed, frustrating many a developer who wanted or indeed had something to show for it. The increasingly closed house of the Kinect was its ultimate downfall on the XBox 360. Whereas the open nature of the PC market had seen people dabble with increasingly experimental ideas. It was a stark and troubling contrast that reflected very poorly on the state of the XBox Division, a reflection that they were only interested in the big guns, not the finer details.

Indeed, this was reflective in much of the division. From obscene patching costs (which have been lifted, although it would appear not retroactively!) to preferential treatment on the Live platform, the giants of the market were lauded and sucked up to whilst the indie scene began to slowly, but surely, see itself sidelined. And at a point when the indie scene was becoming more and more important, and Nintendo and Sony are courting it like they would court a beautiful woman, Microsoft’s comparative confusion is somewhat evident. One moment they don’t want indies, the next they say “Only if you have a publisher, which could be us if you like! Right?”, missing the point of “indie” entirely.

And then of course there was the Omnishambles that was the XBox One reveal. Don Mattrick seemed far more comfortable with the XBox One largely because the main focus at the launch was not on videogames. He could look at monetisation and business in a more clear way than ever before, but ultimately this is where his short-sighted ambitions began to undo his position. For all the talk of the XBox One, the confusion that came from it was nothing short of spectacular. He was unable to answer any question, unable to confirm anything. Not because he seemed afraid of the answers; but that he genuinely seemed shocked that anyone wanted to know! He forgot that Interactive TV is a great idea, but they hadn’t done anything to cement this anywhere else than the U.S. – at first saying most TV stations in Europe didn’t want to be involved, before many of them turned around and responded that he’d never even asked them and had no idea this was in the pipeline. This was retroactively changed to “We’ll talk with them soon!”. I’m sure many of them are still waiting for their turn.

He seemed more surprised by the interest in the games market; so surprised in fact that it betrayed his disinterest on more than one occasion. Except, it was obvious that his adventurous ideas to appeal to the greedy side of publishers in the market was far too ambitious for its own good; I spoke not too long ago that many of the DRM functions were simply never going to work. Sure, the idea seemed nice. I’m sure it would have appealed to the greed of the publishers, had it not been so poorly worded or so destructive in its means. The end result was not going to mean more money; it was going to mean less, as games publishers would end up held more accountable for their products than ever before. Where a digital marketplace would offer cheaper used licenses alongside the more expensive new ones, and where ten different people from ten different households could end up sharing one game between them. It was an impossible task and made increasingly muddled as the weeks rolled by until Microsoft, confronted by Sony’s devastating little YouTube video on sharing games, and even being mocked by Nintendo of all companies – not a company in the most easy position to mock someone, but it did – did a U-Turn on every DRM choice.

Indeed, in the past ten days, you can almost feel the seismic shift inside Microsoft.

They are now looking at a more constructive Indie platform. They are allowing sharing of games as it has always been. They are reaching out to other networks and services in order to secure a TV service for all. They are investing a large amount of money into new studios in order to generate new IP. They are looking at a more valued Live service. All of this is designed to appeal to the customer; however, it will all come at a cost, and this is where Mattrick was completely out of his depth. For a man whose primary drive seemed to be profit, the whole ethos of spending all that money to get things back on schedule and attract the market must have seemed rather disconcerting. The focus had shifted in the face of widespread consumer anger, it had to shift. And you could feel the division squeezing him out, it no longer needed him and he was nothing but the chain around its neck, someone who didn’t quite get the importance or the need for what it was having to do.

Not only that, having stood on stage, awkwardly smiling and demonstrating the XBox One, Mattrick had inadvertently become the public face of the farce that was the XBox One reveal. He had become the lightning rod that all hate was being aimed at, and therefore his position was untenable and yet convenient, in that his departure would invariably allow for a new focus and he could take the toxic, dangerous XBox One fiasco so far away with him. His grinning, gurning face beside a huge green sign and an XBox One has become almost the sort of thing people use for target practice, having become one of the industries most vilified pariahs. It’s a stark shift for someone who has no natural personality on stage to suddenly be so hated and so disliked by his market. His exit was assured; as we now know.

There’s no question that Don Mattrick was going to leave the XBox division; it seemed that his position and quick shift to Zynga was being decided on for some time now. But there’s also no question that things were made much more swift and expedient in the wake of the XBox One mess. The XBox One needed a new direction, and one that Mattrick seemed incapable of assisting them with; new ideas, new face, new games.

Which is the real surprise, and why Don Mattrick’s jump from the XBox Division to Zynga seems all the more strange and alarming. A man who doesn’t quite understand games, or the gaming market, now suddenly CEO of Zynga, a games company often accused of stealing ideas? It’s not the most obvious of matches. Zynga is losing money, so no doubt Don Mattrick is the sort of chap who will help out there. But in other areas, this seems like a decision that could only end very badly. Of course, we don’t know yet. Perhaps this is what Don Mattrick needs, more intimate interaction in the gaming process. Perhaps then some day he can slip back into the fold with more experience and more understanding under his belt.

I don’t know. All I know is that when the XBox One U-Turn happened, I said that I did not expect Don Mattrick to survive. The wheels were in motion. He was on his way out. I feel slightly vindicated; and no, I don’t blame Don Mattrick at all. My grandfather had a saying; “You give a man a shovel, he’s going to start digging.” Don Mattrick was desperate to claw back the XBox One, and more and more as the division did, the hole became deeper and deeper, darker and darker. He was given the tools of his own destruction. There’s no real nice way of getting around this. He committed the perfect professional suicide; he created a reason to jettison him in much the same way John Riccitiello gave EA a reason to dump him. Both had become the public face of a bloated, over-indulgent company that was losing sight of the customer base that it needed to rely on for sales.

He was never going to survive. He pinned himself to one of the most public image meltdowns in years. Which is a surprising end for a man who obviously had the business acumen to turn around an ailing arm of Microsoft into a profitable one. It’s just given the opportunity to dictate the direction of the new machine, he demonstrated that for all the great business logic in his mind, that he was unwilling or incapable of understanding the wider gaming market, or how important it is to keep them on side.

He had learned nothing from the public PR meltdowns of Sony at the start of the PS3. And that’s the most damning thing I can say about him. He’s a brilliant business mind.

But he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, learn. And that’s going to be his downfall, wherever he ends up…


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