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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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Wall Street is being occupied, the glaciers are melting, and Justin Bieber is releasing a Christmas album. I’d say it’s long overdue for a new issue of Power Up!

Earlier this year, London Bridge was literally falling down. Many places in the old town were falling down and burning because of the riots . Not only that, the media establishment and Parliament were fanning the flames with the news about Rupert Murdoch and News of the World hacking into the phones of famous and not so famous people. You know videogames are part of the mainstream culture when they’re being used for political commentary.

 

Meanwhile, Sesame Street continued its long time domination of the videogame industry with this secretly recorded tape showing legendary game designer Tim Schaefer desperately trying to pitch Sesame Street’s hungriest venture capitalist on his latest idea.

Cookie Monster would make an excellent videogame critic. Here’s how you’d know if you have a surefire hit on your hands.

Doctor Arkanoid

Sergeant PepperIf there’s one thing I’m grateful for in my life, it’s that my parents had a huge record collection when I was a child in the 1960’s. I was raised in a home where music was always played. One of my earliest memories is dancing wildly to Collette Renard singing a song from the comedy Irma La Douce when  I was three years old. My mother said I spun around and around and around. I was introduced to folk music from Bob Dylan, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. My parents’ collection included the controversial musical Hair. At eight years old, I knew the lyrics to Age of Aquarius by heart. But if I had to name a group that was the soundtrack for my childhood, it would be the Fab Four from Liverpool – George, John, Paul, and Ringo.

There are so many Beatles songs I can associate with my childhood. I remember hearing ‘I’ll Follow the Sun‘ when I was five years old. ‘All You Need is Love’ as we drove along a highway in rural Ontario on a rainy day when I was eight. ‘Yellow Submarine‘ buying vanilla chocolate chip ice cream at Britannia Bay in Ottawa on a hot summer afternoon when I was nine. I also remember my mother refusing to let me see the animated movie ‘Yellow Submarine‘. In retrospect, maybe she was right. The imagery of that film was really psychadelic. Or maybe she feared I’d turn into a flower child like some of my babysitters 🙂 My most favourite memory is hearing ‘Maxwell’s Hammer‘ on my grandfather’s enormous sound system at Glen Lake in Langford, BC, when I was ten. When I turned twelve, the songs that marked the passage into my turbulent teenage years were ‘Hey Jude‘ and ‘Let it Be‘.

Even though the band long since dissolved, and George and John departed this world for the ethereal Strawberry Fields, the music of the Beatles still endures decades later. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise and enthusiasm when it was announced at this year’s 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) that The Beatles: Rockband for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii, will make its global debut on September 9, 2009 – the same day as the re-release of all their albums.

This idea for this game was originally championed by George Harrison’s son Dhani. It was presented to Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono –  the majority shareholders of Apple Corps. It was developed by Harmonix in collaboration with Apple Corps. The game follows the history of the Fab Four – you actually choose which Beatle you want to play. Are you the enigmatic John? The contemplative George? The cool Paul? Or the mellow Ringo? The instruments are modelled on the drums and guitars used by the Beatles. The soundtrack includes 45 original titles remastered by the engineers at the Apple Corps studios. There’s also actual in-studio dialogue from the Fab Four as well.

I have no doubts that The Beatles: Rockband is going to be incredibly successful when it makes its worldwide debut on September 9. There was a huge reaction to it at E3, especially when Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr showed up to give their blessing. I couldn’t help but find it amusing to see the mostly 20 something audience wildly cheering for a group who played before most of them were even born! <Insert snide comment about these gosh darned kids today and their music> 🙂

On another note, it strikes me that a new cultural threshold is being crossed when a video game becomes a platform to acquaint and re-acquaint people with such a global influence as the history, music, and visual style of the Beatles. It’s almost a ‘karma’ sort of thing that the son of a Beatle would bring forward this idea and help to make it happen. Somewhere George Harrison must be smiling.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Here comes Peter Cottontail, hoppin’ down the Power Up trail!

ToddlersHow young is too young for children to start playing video games? Take a look at some interesting stories from Citizen Gamer that deal with this controversial question. What do you think?

Speaking of kids and computers, there’s a news story from Kentucky about $300,000 USD in federal funding to develop a computer game that teaches middle school and high school students about protecting themselves from online predators.

Here’s a story that emphasizes why it’s important for parents to scrutinize what kind of video games they buy for their children. A mother bought a new Playstation Portable console for her six year old son at a Wal-Mart in Manatee, Florida. The little boy turned it on and discovered all kinds of pornographic images concealed in the PSP memory card. You can view the news report here.

There’s plenty of crude, offensive language to be found in online game chat. Microsoft’s XBox Live Channel recently came under fire from American gay and lesbian activists for its policies on this matter.

Should there be a ‘sin tax’ on video games because some of them are considered violent? In Europe and the United States, the issue is starting to receive more attention than in past years. Here’s a story from the Hartford Examiner in Connecticut.

It might surprise you to know that there are several billion people in the world who don’t play video games because they can’t afford them! But a San Diego based company called Zeebo is hoping to change that with their development of a low cost video game console that can be sold in countries like Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other emerging markets.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

NASA Computer Kids Image

NASA Computer Kids Image

Time to celebrate the first weekend of spring with another installment of ‘Power Up!’.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is developing a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) called Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond. The game is being developed by Virtual Heroes in North Carolina and uses the Unreal Tournament 3 software engine. Players will be able to create astronaut characters that take part in missions using real NASA space technologies.

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Fifth Estate Top GunLast weekend, the popular CBC television program The Fifth Estate, aired an episode called ‘Top Gun’, which dealt with the death of Brandon Crisp; a 15 year old boy who ran away from home after getting into an argument with his parents about the amount of time and effort he spent playing the XBox360 title Call of Duty 4. Brandon fell out of a tree and crushed his chest upon impact.

The program interviewed the parents, a behavioural counsellor, Brandon’s friends, professional video game players from Major League Gaming, and a spokeswoman for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in Canada. I reviewed the episode three times and decided to write a letter to CBC television.

Here is what I wrote:

The Fifth Estate is well known for shining a spotlight on important issues that Canadians need to know about. However, I feel the level of investigation and research for this episode was shallow, resulting in a program that made Brandon’s family appear to be victims of the video game industry. Important questions were not asked of both parties, and you didn’t provide constructive information for viewers so they could educate themselves.


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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.