News that Don Mattrick is leaving Microsoft as president of the company's Interactive Entertainment unit to run Zynga was a shock when it broke on Monday—to Microsoft, in particular. Just days before the company planned to announce a massive reorganization and months before the release of Xbox One, there was no contingency plan for Mattrick's departure—a sign that almost no one had a clue. For now, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will be overseeing the division. Though it is believed that eventually Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios may take over for Mattrick, considering his strong Microsoft DNA (he started there as an intern in 1988); the fact that he's a life-long gamer; and is extremely well-liked within the organization. (For other keepers of the console, see the gallery to the right.)
Sources say Mattrick's exit was spurred by the reorg and the fact that he would not be getting a bigger role at Microsoft—he would have overseen a newly created hardware division. At Zynga, Mattrick will reunite with Zynga board member Bing Gordon, his old boss at EA, where the expectation is that Mattrick will apply his tough business sense and visionary streak to turn the ailing company around. At the very least, his hire is a sign that Zynga is serious about reversing its fortunes. Shares of the company rose 11% on Monday to $3.04.
So who, exactly, is Zynga getting?
Mattrick loves games. He designed one with a friend at the age of 17 and sold it for a million bucks. Even now, as a 49-year-old executive, he becomes visibly excited as he sees them come to life. As his colleague Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios, says, "If you want to see the man light up, walk him into a development studio."
When he was a teenager growing up in a suburb outside of Vancouver, he was turned down for a job at retail PC chain ComputerLand. So he started showing up at the store, working for, learning about software, and studying what clicked with shoppers. "It was really interesting to watch people walk by and see what they wanted and actually touched," Mattrick says.
At Distinctive Software, the company he started in the 1980s, those insights helped inspire Test Drive, the industry’s first driving game in which the player’s point of view is from behind the wheel of a car. (Later, his stories about running from the cops after they caught him speeding through the streets of Vancouver as a youngster led to the hit Need for Speed.) At EA, Mattrick was the force behind The Sims, which was initially designed as an architecture tool that let players build houses, until Mattrick argued that the people inside the houses should be the focus. He also pushed to personalize sports games such as Madden NFL and FIFA Soccer. "Now you could not only be ‘in’ the game, like a TV broadcast, but you could be the hero," says Paul Lee, who has worked with Mattrick since his mid-1980s gaming startup.
At Microsoft, Mattrick transformed the Xbox from a money-draining enterprise into the top-selling gaming console, whose appeal extends well beyond the dudes-living-in-their-mom’s-basement demographic. He has added entertainment services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and YouTube, and championed the magic of the Kinect motion-controller system, all of it positioning the Xbox as a product for the whole family. "What Don understands that nobody else at the executive level at Microsoft does is how to paint a vision," says Evan Hirsch, an industry consultant and visiting scholar at Carnegie Mellon who worked with Mattrick at both EA and Microsoft.
Mattrick's the one who discovered a motion-control technology that had been kicking around the company but going nowhere. "We started playing around with it," recalls Marc Whitten, the Xbox’s chief product officer, "and we got these cool demos. Don would say, ‘Did you see how everyone came out of the room smiling? What if we made it happen?’" When the Kinect launched in the fall of 2010, it became the fastest-selling consumer-electronics gadget of all time—a fact Microsoft loves to trumpet—selling 10 million units in just over four months.
His latest creation, The Xbox One, offers a personalized program screen, as well as the ability to let users Skype with friends while watching TV and get live stats from their fantasy football team during NFL broadcasts. Users can switch seamlessly between gaming and web surfing, and in perhaps the purest expression of this marriage of gaming, tech, and entertainment pop, Mattrick’s pal Spielberg has signed on to produce a TV series based on the Halo video-game franchise, exclusively for the Xbox One.
Mattrick has a lot of famous pals, and he isn’t shy about dropping names. He told me how, while an executive at Electronic Arts, "Steven would just drop by and we’d play games," as in Spielberg, the most commercially successful film director of all time. He loves to talk about being on a board at USC’s film school alongside Spielberg and George Lucas. During one of our interviews, he asks me if I like hockey and mentions that he’s going to a game with "my friend Wayne," as in Gretzky, another all-time great.
He’s the one who closed Xbox’s seminal Netflix deal and hired Nancy Tellem, the longtime president of the CBS network, to produce original shows for the Xbox. As in Spielberg’s Halo one.
In one of his first meetings at Microsoft, Mattrick walked up to a whiteboard and wrote: "$100 million." He then announced, "That’s how much we’re gonna make this year." As the team’s skepticism bubbled up—after all, the division had previously been projected to lose $500 million that year—Mattrick said, "If you can convince me that my math or logic is wrong, I will listen. If you can’t, then this is what we’re signing up for."
"Don has this really ambitious vision," says Hanno Lemke, the general manager of Microsoft Studios in Vancouver, who watched Mattrick develop the pioneering game Test Drive as a young man. "Then he’s just relentless, dogged about pushing people beyond their comfort zones."
"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 E3 last month, when Mattrick was asked about the always-on issue related to the Xbox One, he glibly responded that people who didn’t have an Internet connection could content themselves with playing video games on the eight-year-old Xbox 360. Gaming nerds were outraged anew, as epitomized by the TechCrunch blog, which dubbed Mattrick the Marie Antoinette of gaming—Let them play Xbox 360!—and called Microsoft, and by extension Mattrick, an "asshole." Days later, he apologized. The Xbox One would be revamped to work Internet-free.
Mattrick loves spectacle—he wears rainbow-stripe Paul Smith socks and once hired Cirque du Soleil to kick off a Microsoft event—but he can be painfully introverted, one of many contradictions that make the man. He’s an amiable Canadian and yet an autocratic boss; a company man and yet one who’s unafraid to speak his mind to his superiors; a division head who lives like a Saudi prince and jets to work; and a press-averse guy who likes to name-drop his celebrity friends.
Mattrick is married to a Canadian Telecom heiress and earned $21 million from EA stock options alone. His home, the largest in British Columbia, is worth an estimated $28 million. Among its amenities is a 10-car garage, which Mattrick, who bought his first Ferrari before he turned 20 with some of the proceeds from his first game sale, has filled. When I ask him exactly how many cars he owns, he just smiles. "A dozen?" I ask. "Ish," he replies, acknowledging his taste for not only Ferraris but also Lamborghinis and Lotuses. Mattrick only reinforces this reputation of being "not present enough," in the words of one former Microsoft executive, by preferring to work at home in Vancouver, where Microsoft has a gaming studio. He commutes to Redmond, when he has to be there, in a private jet.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.