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There are very few veterans in the videogame industry today who have been around as long as Don Mattrick. Don is pretty much responsible for launching the rise of Vancouver, Canada, as one of the world’s pre-eminent videogame development centres from 1999 to 2009. Back in the early 1980’s, he and his friend Jason Sember were a couple of gawky teenagers who created a hit arcade action title called Evolution. Don created Distinctive Software in 1983, which later would become Electronic Arts Canada in 1991. It’s accurate to say that EA Canada was the incubator that spawned other Vancouver game companies like Radical Entertainment, Barking Dog Studios, Relic Entertainment, Next Level Games, and many other small studios. Don remained at the helm of EA Canada until the fall of 2006, when he was hired by Microsoft to head up the Interactive Entertainment Division and overhaul the Xbox 360.

Today I learned that Don Mattrick left Microsoft and will take over as the new CEO of social game publisher Zynga. At first glance, it seems a bit puzzling to see the glorious Mr. Mattrick leave the Microsoft mothership to head up a failing social game company. What in the name of Master Chief would persuade him to do such a thing?

The answer: XBox One

Like all publicly traded companies, the shareholders expect Microsoft to generate a profit. When Don took over the Xbox division in early 2007, it was bleeding red ink. They were not making money off their software titles  for the then brand new Xbox 360 as expected. There is a fundamental principle in the videogame industry – software drives hardware. If you’re not providing gamers with enough must-have hit titles, your console sales will go down the tubes. When it comes to game software development, Don knows his stuff. He managed to turn the Xbox division around and grow it into a reasonably sucessful subsidiary of Microsoft’s business. But the problem with Microsoft is that at its heart, the company isn’t focused on designing and developing consumer technology products. It started as a computer software company that develops applications and system software – that’s where the majority of its profit centre comes from.

Several weeks ago at E3, Microsoft did a big launch of the XBox One – a machine that looks less like a videogame console and resembles something more like a big, black, oversized DVD player. It also has that creepy HAL 9000 style camera lens for its Kinect player.  If there’s one thing Don Mattrick loves, it’s being the centre of attention. He thrives on being the circus ringmaster. Or in this case, lead frat boy of the game geek fraternity. I’ve been to E3 five times, from 1995 to 2000. In the past 13 years since my last visit to Los Angeles, nothing has changed. It’s the same overblown, overhyped, overpromised medicine show attended by hard core adult male gamers who just want to blow stuff up and eviscerate other players in virtual space. The XBox One show featured overly confident game producer types who lacked any public speaking skills and were utterly wooden in their performances.

Watching Don and his travelling road show praise the Xbox One as the ultimate convergence in home entertainment reminded me of another great company that made the same promises. It was 1999, and the newly appointed President  of Sony Corporation, Noboyuki Idei, said that the new PlayStation Two would usher in a new era in home theatre, linking games, entertainment, and the Internet. It never happened. The embarassing thing about PS2 in Japan when it first appeared was that the Japanese were buying it as a cheap DVD player, not a game console. So here was Microsoft, 13 years later, touting the Xbox One as the convergence of home theatre, online, and television.

I was experiencing deja’ vu. Microsoft made the same mistake Sony did with the PS2. Gamers buy consoles to play games. That’s what it’s all about. A talking box that lets you wave your fingers to watch TV shows isn’t going to be a deal-breaking sales feature. It’s about the games. Period.

Microsoft announced that players had to check in online every 24 hours with their Xbox One to maintain an active connection. I raised an eyebrow. Then they announced that you wouldn’t be able to play with used games or ones provided by your  friends without the appropriate key. That’s when I felt a disturbance in the force. Microsoft was pulling a discrete NSA form of surveillance on the Xbox One gamer community to ferret out piracy. And there was one more thing – this vaunted hallelujah-talking-TV-game console would cost $499.00

Don Mattrick and Microsoft over-reached on trying to control the market for their new console. Sony was about to give them a total face-plant.

To be continued…

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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‘I sense a great disturbance in the Force’

Legend of Zelda Wind WalkerMighty Nintendo, home to the great pantheon of immortal video game characters, has been shaken to its foundations by an ancient force re-awakened. Since 2004, Nintendo enjoyed a resurgence of commercial success thanks to the creation of the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii. The company once scorned by die hard gamers saw the same worldly cynics madly scrambling to buy Super Mario Kart and Nintendogs! Nintendo re-established itself by focusing on the ‘Blue Ocean’ – the huge number of casual video game players who enjoy playing games for short periods of time, leaving the intensely competitive ‘Red Ocean’ market share of core gamers to Microsoft and Sony.

The ancient force stirred, gathered its strength, and dipped its mighty hand into the Blue Ocean, sending ripples across the world to the shores of Super Mario’s Temple.

In October, 2009, Nintendo reported that profits for the six month period from March to September decreased by 52%! Global sales of the Nintendo DS decreased 15% during that time to 11.7 million units (insert gasp here how this many sales could be a decrease – but the ways of the Gods are fickle). Software sales for the DS are expected to contract by 17% to 150 million units by the end of March, 2010 (again..insert gasp).

What force could possibly shake the foundations of Super Mario’s Temple?

Apple.

The grand technology Zen master Steve Jobs has extended his reach into the video game world with iTunes, the iPod Touch, and the iPhone. The president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, admits that Apple is having an impact on Nintendo’s fortunes, though he claims he is an Apple devotee and that there is no apparent rivalry between them.

A Short History About Apple and Video Games

When it comes to thinking about companies that create technology for playing video games, the name ‘Apple Computer’ doesn’t exactly leap into mind. It’s sort of a strange paradox because Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak on the original premise of creating “...computers for the rest of us...”. The Apple II was never designed for playing games; however, many lone programmers spent countless hours slaving away in their basements, bedrooms, and garages to create titles like Expedition Amazon, Apple Panic, Choplifter, Lode Runner, Drol, Sammy Lightfoot, Sneakers, The Dark Crystal, Time Zone, and Wavy Navy. I will never forget the thrill of playing Transylvania by Penguin Software, Prince of Persia by Broderbund, or Ultima II by Origin Software. The first personal computer game companies evolved, including Broderbund Software, Sierra Entertainment, and Electronic Arts. Founded in 1982, EA was a small company of programmer ‘auteurs’ who created famous Apple II titles like Archon, Pinball Construction Set, and Skyfox. The first computer game designer ‘celebrities’ were crowned, including Bill Budge, ‘Lord British’ Richard Garriott, Ken & Roberta Williams, Jordan Mechner, and Doug Smith.

When the Macintosh appeared in 1984, it was all about the mouse and the graphic interface. Apple focused on showcasing how Macintosh and its flickering bluish white display screen could be used for graphics and writing. In 1986, desktop publishing was the ‘killer app’ for buying a Mac. Apple wasn’t interested in games. But that didn’t stop developers from trying to wring some fun out of Macintosh. Dark Castle and Beyond Dark Castle were very popular. Most people don’t know that you could play networked games on a Macintosh in the late 1980’s using an Appleshare connection. I regularly fought my friends in long Maze Wars tournaments after work (God I hated seeing the killer eyeball come round the corner wall before my nemesis killed me!). The introduction of Hypercard in 1987 and its use of hyperlinks led to the creation of The Manhole (1988) and Cosmic Osmo (1989) by Rand and Robyn Miller, who later went on create the Myst adventure series on the PC in 1993.

One moment I’ll never forget is at the 1991 Game Developer Conference in San Jose’ California at the old Hilton Airport Courtyard Inn. Apple sent a lone company game evangelist to walk among the 200 PC and video game developers who attended. It was truly a ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ moment as the game developer crowd wasn’t exactly receptive to the evangelist’s message that Apple really cared about games. I observed it was a good thing there was plenty of food for the developers at the reception!

Steve JobsFast forward to 1997 and the second coming of Steve Jobs as he returned to Apple and launched the iMac computer. Steve rightly decided that it was important to get game developers on board to help make Macintosh ‘cool’ again to computer users. So he did something clever and enlisted the help of programming wunderkind Jon Carmack to create QUAKE for the iMac and show off the 3D graphic capabilities of Apple’s computers. It had the desired effect; game development for the Mac started to take root. While it’s true that the number of titles was nowhere near what could be found for Windows based computers, at least there was a better chance of making money developing games for the Mac. You know Apple has come a long way in computer games when Blizzard developed a Macintosh version of World of Warcraft!

Join the Doctor at ringside next time for Part Two of the ultimate Super Smash Brothers matchup: Super Mario versus Steve Jobs!

Doctor Arkanoid Doctor Arkanoid

Kim Jong ilI’m fairly sure that I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going off the rails these days. Global recession, global warming, religious radicals, Kim Jong Il, Balloon Boy, Carrie Prejean self destructing on CNN Larry King Live – and now video game developers in Vancouver and around the world are being scorched by a firestorm of layoffs.  Echoing inside Doctor Arkanoid’s massive cranium, I hear the lyrics from the famous Phil Collins song ‘Land of Confusion‘:

Ooh Superman where are you now?

When everything’s gone wrong somehow.

The men of steel, the men of power,

Are losing control by the hour’.

On November 9th, the Reuters news agency reported that Electronic Arts announced a major round of layoffs affecting 1500 staff worldwide, including 900 game developers, 500 publishing support staff, and 100 administrative staff, with the Burnaby Studio being significantly affected. This is the EA mothership’s second major round of layoffs. In January, 1200 staff were laid off, including the closing of Black Box Studios, creators of the Need for Speed series. Reuters also reported that EA recorded its 11th straight quarterly loss for the period ending in October, 2009. This news attracted the attention of CBC Radio, who invited the good Doctor to provide a diagnosis of what’s currently happening in the video game industry.

CBC Radio EA Layoffs

EA isn’t the only Vancouver video game developer to lay off staff and close studios in 2009. Most people didn’t know that the cell phone giant Nokia established a game development centre in Richmond several years ago for the NGage portable media player. Nokia folded its operations and laid off 100 staff. With the merger of Activision and Vivendi Games into Activision – Blizzard in the fall of 2008, Radical Entertainment dismantled two of its four game teams, laying off 120 people. The South Korean game company Nexon, creators of the online game Maple Story, shut down their Nexon Human Nature Studio run by Alex Garden, former co-founder of Relic Entertainment. 90 people were laid off. Walt Disney’s Propaganda Games let go of 36 staff. Backbone Entertainment was closed, Hothead Games laid off staff, Relic Entertainment let people go, and Microsoft’s game studios in Redmond, Washington released several hundred people as part of an overall staff reduction.

According to the Canada Entertainment Software Industry Report released in March, 2009, there were approximately 5,842 game developers working for 61 game companies in British Columbia. While it’s hard to say exactly how many unemployed game developers are looking for work in the Lower Mainland, the Doctor is fairly certain that between 1500 and 2000 creative, talented individuals are anxiously seeking new opportunities. In fact, I was contacted this past week by two former game development students I worked with at the Art Institute of Vancouver. Both of them were recently laid off and trying to find another position with a game company.

In Hollywood, they say you’re only as good as your last movie. In Vancouver, you’re only as good as your last profitable video game.

Take it away, Phil Collins:

Doctor Arkanoid Doctor Arkanoid

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Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum!, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anthony Gurr and Doctor Arkanoid - Revelations From the Inner Sanctum! with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.