The game guru

Microsoft exec Don Mattrick may change how the world plays

The game guruIn 1982, at the age of 17, Don Mattrick created his first video game. What he couldn’t know then was that he was helping lay the foundation of Vancouver’s game industry, and taking a first step toward last week’s appearance on a stage in L.A., shoulder to shoulder with director Steven Spielberg. Mattrick, head of Microsoft’s video game division since 2007, was a featured speaker at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. And what he unveiled promises to revolutionize the way people play video games.

Code-named Project Natal, it uses sophisticated cameras and microphones to translate one’s body movements into action on the screen. No buttons to push. No wireless controller to swing around. If you can walk, jump, swing your arms and talk, you’re ready to play. But if Mattrick’s background is rooted in shoot-’em-ups and racing games, his real ambition is far grander. He’s using the company’s Xbox gaming system to lead Microsoft in a battle for control of your living room.

Rumours that Microsoft was up to something big began to circulate in mid-May, and like clockwork, critics predicted yet another letdown. Just as the company’s Zune music player has failed to put a dent in sales of Apple’s iPod, many thought Microsoft would roll out a me-too version of Nintendo’s wildly popular Wii gaming system. When the Japanese company replaced the traditional game controller with the motion-sensitive Wii control stick in 2006, it sparked a stampede to the checkout counter that its rivals could only envy. Since launching Wii, Nintendo has sold more than 50 million systems, while Microsoft, which debuted its Xbox 360 a year earlier, trails with total console sales of 30 million. (Sony’s Playstation 3, with lifetime sales of 22.7 million, is in third place.) But a test drive of the Natal technology last week at the company’s campus in Redmond, Wash., put to rest any Zune-ish concerns.

It’s hard to put into words the experience of seeing the digital manifestation of your full body come to life on a TV screen. In one test game that Microsoft showed off, a transparent character whacks balls at a wall of bricks. Whatever moves one makes, no matter how fast, forward or back, side-to-side, even twirling around, they are instantaneously replicated in the game. “Your gestures, your body and your voice become the controller input,” says Mattrick, 45, sitting in his cramped office. When, after an intense few minutes of game play, Xbox creative director Kudo Tsunoda wiped his brow, his digital counterpart looked equally exhausted. “If you’ve grown up in the world as a human being you should be able to jump in and play this,” says Tsunoda. “The only experience you should need to play our games is life.”

To some degree, Mattrick has been on the hunt for such technology for years. From the time he developed his first game—Evolution, which followed an amoeba as it worked its way up the evolutionary chain—he realized two barriers were preventing games from widespread acceptance: poor graphics and cumbersome joystick controls. Despite those hurdles, the video game industry continued to grow, and with it, so did Mattrick’s ambitions. With a schoolmate, he launched a game developer which he sold in 1991 to California-based Electronic Arts for $13 million, forming EA Canada. Today the Canadian division employs nearly 1,400 people and produces some of the most graphically intense sports games on the market. His success also attracted the attention of Spielberg, who phoned Mattrick up a decade ago and asked him to join the advisory board at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Meanwhile, Mattrick steadily rose through the ranks at EA to become head of the company’s worldwide game studios, and was widely seen as a candidate to take over as CEO one day.

Then, in 2006, he abruptly resigned. Mattrick says he wanted to spend more time with his wife and their two children, while planning his next move. In 2007, Microsoft approached him to be an adviser to its Xbox division, and after a few months he joined the company full-time as senior vice-president of its interactive entertainment business. (He still lives in Vancouver, spending about three days a week in Redmond.) The move to the tech giant, with its deep pockets and focus on raw research, was a natural fit for the entrepreneur, say friends. “It’s not that Don only loves video games, because that would put him in the category of just being a video game guy,” says Barry Guld, another Vancouver technology executive. “He really loves the game of business and with Microsoft he saw a lot of very smart people who understand what’s going on and who he could use to hone his skills.”

It didn’t take long for Mattrick to make his mark. In 2008, the Xbox division turned its first profit in seven years. The company has also dramatically increased the number of subscribers to its Xbox Live service, which gives users access to multi-player games and digital media content. Of Live’s 20 million subscribers, half opt to pay $60 a year for premium content. And last year Xbox teamed up with the Netflix video rental service to let users download thousands of movies and TV shows. “We’re trying to make the living room a magical place to do things that people have dreamed they should be able to do, but haven’t been able to until today,” he says.

This week’s announcements in L.A. only extend Microsoft’s reach into the family room. Starting this year, Xbox customers will be able to instantly watch high definition movies through an online rental store. The company will also integrate social networking sites Facebook and Twitter into its online offering, a move that analysts say is potentially huge. “Social networking was always missing something,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. “It’s an island. I go to Facebook and I’m stuck in Facebook. [Microsoft] has taken one social network and layered it on top of another social network, Xbox Live. My wife, instead of sitting at her laptop doing Facebook, would rather do it on the TV.”

Still, for now most of the focus in the industry will be on Project Natal. As Spielberg said at the E3 conference, it’s “not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about no wheel at all.” To bring it to life, Mattrick tapped researchers from all across the company, some of whom have been quietly toiling away for decades on things like motion sensor and voice recognition technology. While the device won’t be ready for market in 2009—the company is being tight-lipped about the launch date—Microsoft says it will work with all existing Xbox 360 consoles. The company is now working with developers to create games that exploit its capabilities.

Pachter, the analyst, is reserving judgment on Natal’s gaming potential until he sees more concrete examples of what developers come up with. “Its functionality was really phenomenal,” he told Maclean’s after trying it out last week. “The question is, will there be enough software to make this more than a very cool novelty, and I don’t know the answer to that.” But the analyst notes Natal will have uses far beyond the confines of video games, and that’s where he sees the biggest potential. For instance, users will be able to browse through video titles with the wave of a hand or share photos with others online simply by reaching out to their TV screens, like Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report. Natal even has facial recognition technology. By simply walking in front of the camera a player would be logged into their personalized Xbox account and then gain access to their Facebook page.

For Mattrick, this is all a far cry from the simple eight-colour game that launched his career. In fact, as he describes the possibilities offered by the new technology, Mattrick almost seems surprised at what he and his team produced. “When we interacted with it we said, ‘Oh my God, this is the Jetsons brought to today.’ ”

And what does Bill Gates, who long ago predicted the Internet would become the centrepiece of the living room, make of it all? “He thinks it’s pretty cool.”