Why Microsoft's Don Mattrick abandoned Xbox gig for Zynga

On Monday the gaming world was rocked by the news that Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment unit (which includes all things Xbox), was leaving the company for a position at Zynga. With the launch of the Xbox One coming in five months or so, it seemed like an unusual time for a career change.

Some gamers quickly jumped to the conclusion that Mattrick was being pushed out the door after the PR debacle that followed announcements that the Xbox One would require an Internet-based 'check in' once every 24 hours due to a new DRM system. Mattrick caught a lot of flack when he suggested that people without regular access to the Internet should stick with the Xbox 360. Public pressure against the new system grew so great that Microsoft pulled an about-face and abandoned the controversial policies.

It didn't seem a stretch to suggest that Mattrick was being used as a sacrificial lamb in this scenario, particularly since he was leaving Microsoft for Zynga, a company that most of us see as floundering.

Yesterday new info turned up in the form of a profile of Mattrick over at Fast Company. There we learned that, according to Fast Company at least, Mattrick left his position in response to an upcoming "massive" reorganization that Microsoft is about to undertake. Apparently Mattrick knew he would not have gotten a bigger role at Microsoft as a result of the reorganization and he seems to have left rather abruptly since Microsoft had no contingency plan in place; for now Ballmer is in charge of the Xbox One (and the rest of the Interactive Entertainment division).

At Zynga, Mattrick will take over the CEO position from Mark Pincus. Wall Street seemed optimistic about Mattrick as Zynga's share price rose 11% immediately after word got out about the move. We'll have to see if that holds.

If you're not a fan of Mattrick, the Fast Company profile probably won't make you one. Turns out he's doing quite well for himself, with a $27 million house, a dozen or so Ferraris and he commutes from Vancouver to Redmond in his private jet. He also sounds like he's kind of awful to work for:

"Don is a hard-ass,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. Xbox’s head of marketing, a Microsoft lifer named Yusef Mehdi, describes it: “If people don’t deliver, they’ve got to go. He doesn’t have the patience for that.” Even as a young executive at EA, Mattrick succeeded in getting the company to ship games on time “by scaring the crap out of people,” says Bing Gordon, EA’s former chief creative officer who’s now a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers."

At the same time, while I always saw Mattrick as just another suit with the stage presence of an animatronic figure (based on what I saw during Microsoft press conferences), it turns out he does have quite a history in the gaming business, having designed and sold his first game at 17 and having been in the business since. Anyway if you're at all interested in the guy, do read the Fast Company profile; it's a good read, but suffice to say I don't think Mattrick is in danger of missing any meals even if things don't go well at his new gig.

I'm curious to see what he can do to turn around Zynga, but what I really want to see is what this change will mean for the future of the Xbox One. It should make for an interesting launch window!

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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