When Microsoft came calling, Don Mattrick was already at the top of the video game heap. And he was bored.
There’s an intensity about Mattrick, although it’s difficult to see at first. He’s a soft-spoken 47-year-old with the harmless good looks of a sitcom dad. But behind the calm, friendly demeanour he conveys in public appearances and interviews is an endless supply of weapons-grade ambition.
He’s always been that way. As an adolescent, he walked into a ComputerLand store in his hometown of Burnaby, B.C., and demanded a summer job. There were no jobs available. So he began to work for free. Two weeks later, he was hired.
“He could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo,” the store’s former manager, Wayne Galaugher, once told The Globe and Mail. “People trusted him on sight.”
In 1982, Mattrick decided nobody was making interesting games for the PC, and started his own video games company with his friend Jeff Sember. Mattrick, 17, based Distinctive Software Inc. in his parents’ home. The duo’s first game, Evolution, had players working their way up the chain of life, from a single cell to a fully formed human. The feat won the young duo a spot on Front Page Challenge.
Mattrick was on his way. In 1991, at age 27, he sold Distinctive to California-based Electronic Arts for about $10 million, mainly in stock of the new company. He joined Electronic Arts and, over the next 15 years, helped turn it from a game-development shop with a market capitalization of $185 million into a $15-billion behemoth. He ran offices in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom, eventually heading up EA’s studios worldwide.
Over the course of this work, Mattrick’s critical talent—the ability to put together teams with various skill sets—emerged. It helped him produce some of EA’s bestselling titles, including numerous sports-related games, such as the Madden NFL series, that offer unusually long-term profitability because they have a built-in fan base and can be resold every year with new team rosters and players.
More importantly, Mattrick was one of the first people in the industry to envision the socialization of gaming. One of the titles he helped manage, Ultima Online, was among the first online interactive games, a precursor to blockbuster multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft that today are among the most profitable titles in the business.
Team-building skills notwithstanding, perhaps Mattrick’s biggest asset for EA was his ability to close the deal. Most lucratively, in 2000 Mattrick led the effort to buy the worldwide video game rights for the Harry Potter franchise. His pitch, which included an expansive digital universe for the story’s characters and the potential to include concepts that players wouldn’t find in the original books, won over author J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros., and EA won the deal. By one estimate, the nine Potter games have together sold almost 40 million units.
By 2006, Mattrick was a legend in the gaming industry. He had been named Ernst & Young’s Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998. Simon Fraser University gave him an honorary doctorate. “I loved the competitive side,” he says. “I had a wonderful time at EA, but after 20 years in the gaming industry, I decided to take a year off.”
During that respite, Microsoft’s head of the entertainment and devices division, Robbie Bach, came calling.
Mattrick’s first task as head of the interactive entertainment division at his new employer was to change the balkanized company culture. He immediately began trimming the fat, and focusing his staff on a few core projects.
The seed for one of the most important projects was planted years earlier, when Mattrick had a chance conversation with a film executive. The executive told him the single biggest hurdle keeping video games from expanding in the mainstream entertainment market was controllers—they were simply too confusing for the non-gamer. By 2006, Mattrick had seen the proof. That year, Nintendo unleashed the Wii.
At first, many in the industry laughed the Wii off. Ever since the dawn of the industry in the early ’70s, video games had been a testosterone-laden domain, financed by the disposable income of males aged between 12 and 35. By the early 2000s, the industry was saturated with toys for the boys: Waste that alien, steal that car, blow stuff up.