Don Mattrick’s mobile challenge as he takes Zynga role

New chief founded his own games company at the age of 17

Don Mattrick: experience building networks and platforms should help 'end dependence on Facebook'

Like many teenage boys, Don Mattrick was a keen video gamer growing up in Vancouver in the early 1980s. But unlike most, at the age of 17 he founded his own games company, Distinctive Software. He’s been in the games business ever since, and on Monday was appointed chief executive of Zynga, the social games company.

Mr Mattrick, 49, came of age in the era of the Commodore 64, and Distinctive went on to develop games such as Test Drive, Out Run and After Burner for the PC and Amiga. By the time he was 27, Mr Mattrick had sold his company to Electronic Arts, where he went on to work for more than 15 years.

The video games industry has gone through many transitions in Mr Mattrick’s career, from PC to console, from joystick to gesture-based controllers and from pixelated graphics to high-definition touchscreens. Most recently, as Microsoft’s president of interactive entertainment, he has ushered in the next generation of console gaming with the Xbox One, set to be released later this year.

But despite building some of the best-known franchises in gaming at EA, including The Sims and Fifa Soccer, Mr Mattrick has little direct experience of mobile devices and “casual” social games. Zynga must master mobile gaming if it is to recover growth and end its dependence on Facebook for users and distribution, after posting an 18 per cent decline in revenues in the first quarter of 2013.

“While Mr Mattrick’s relative lack of experience in mobile may be an Achilles heel, we believe his experience building networks and platforms at Microsoft should still help Zynga in pivoting away from Facebook,” says Colin Sebastian, analyst at Baird, in a note that described the executive as a “good catch”.

EA was to the PlayStation era what Zynga has been to Facebook: the dominant games publisher on the platform, with a large staff and reliant on a series of big-name brands. The Sims, an open-ended PC and console game in which players manage the daily lives of a family, was a precursor to Zynga’s Farmville and its city, restaurant and fairground-themed successors.

The two companies also have a personal connection in Bing Gordon, EA’s former chief creative officer who now sits on Zynga’s board. Mr Gordon, now a partner at venture investor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, worked alongside Mr Mattrick at EA for many years.

“He knows how to make hits and how to scale,” says one person familiar with Mr Mattrick’s appointment. Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder and outgoing chief executive who will remain as chairman and product chief, had discussed for several months handing over the role to Mr Mattrick. The two are personal friends, and Mr Mattrick – who was widely seen as the leading contender to be the next chief executive of EA – had mentioned that he wanted his next role to be a CEO.

He’s the best Zynga could have done – it’s a very courageous move but both for him and for Zynga it will be incredibly challenging

Kristian Segerstrale, EA former executive vice-president

However, in the industry’s main growth area of mobile devices, Zynga and EA alike have been outpaced by smaller app makers such as Supercell, maker of Clash of Clans, and King, creator of Candy Crush Saga. The platforms and marketing tactics that have created these new mobile megabrands are completely different to the era of PC and console gaming.

“Zynga’s big problem remains mobile,” says Kristian Segerstrale, EA’s former executive vice-president for digital and now an investor and board member at Supercell.

“The culture of creating and publishing for these devices is smaller teams, nimbler operating models and a little bit more emphasis on art and design rather than on metrics. I can’t see how Don helps fix that – he’s been at a big company running big teams for big consoles.”

Mr Segerstrale says that Zynga needed “a talent magnet and an air of respectability” after a period of losing key employees and gaining a poor reputation in the industry.

Mr Mattrick should help to restore trust, he says, thanks to his performance at Microsoft, which during his six-year tenure sold nearly 70m consoles and saw its Xbox Live gamer network grow from 6m members to 48m.

Despite – or perhaps because of – his long tenure in the industry, Mr Mattrick may not be a familiar name to the kinds of mobile developers that Zynga needs to hire.

“He’s incredibly respected,” Mr Segerstrale says. “He’s the best Zynga could have done – it’s a very courageous move but both for him and for Zynga it will be incredibly challenging.”

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