Xbox to Zynga: The Anatomy of a Bad Decision

July 2, 2013
in Category: Blog
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I have never owned an Xbox, nor a good piñata mallet for that matter. Save for a scant handful of moments, I’ve never considered either to be a worthwhile purchase. I’ve gotten to use both and I’ll admit to enjoying them (they’re equally good at removing the heads of flamboyant animals) but I invested my time and money in better ventures: the Playstation 3 and systematically alienating my friends and loved ones to avoid party invitations, respectively.

I don’t play enough video games to call myself a ‘fanboy’ but I’ll confess to being swept up in the recent fervor of Microsoft-bashing after E3 last month. A system that quashed player’s ownership rights, required daily server check-ins, and was always listening to you? I wasn’t a fan. And to hear that it would cost $100 more than the PS4? — well that tasted just as sweet and floral as a tall glass of sweetened flower juice. [Sure, they’ve announced they’re reversing course but…damage done.]

Doesn't Don Mattrick just look darling?

Click to embiggen.

Don Mattrick, reporting for duty.

But I didn’t worry about the balance of power between the major console developers being toppled. Sony was in a similar position with the PS3, over budget and behind schedule. It may never have had the necessary momentum to overtake the Xbox 360 but it remained a worthy competitor nipping at Microsoft’s heels like a dog with a foot fetish.

So can the Xbox One make the same comeback? Sure, people will buy anything. Look at Nintendo’s Wii U (the best place to look at one — stores, where all the consoles remain). P.T. Barnum said that there’s a sucker born every minute, and fortunately Nintendo skews young. Point being that as long as the Xbox has rational and experienced leadership at its helm, it will trudge stubbornly onwards.

Too bad the Xbox Head has just left to join Zynga.

Until Monday, Don Mattrick was Microsoft’s President of Interactive Entertainment. Now he’s going to be the CEO of Zynga, makers of Farmville among other more forgettable titles. And why is he taking this position? I guess Blackberry wasn’t hiring.

I do like to poke fun, and my first instinct when sitting down to write this was to mock the Zynga I remember from my days working in social gaming at GameGround. First they were the unstoppable juggernaut we couldn’t hope to compete with, then they became too stagnant and dependent on [dwindling] desktop Facebook engagement and imploded. While it’s always tempting to peg them as a lost cause and retire to smug self-satisfaction, they are correct when they say they have a lot of room for growth. Partially it’s because they’ve fired so many of their employees, but despite what you may think when you hear the name ‘Zynga’, now really is a great time to be in social gaming.

Mobile sales are still climbing and Zynga’s only real mistakes were over-reliance on the Facebook platform and having a bat-shit crazy, game-stealing CEO. It seems like they’ll fix the first problem by emulating King.com’s joining of Facebook and mobile games. Pincus will be stepping down to take the role of Chief Product Officer, however he’ll remain as Chairman of the Board of Directors and that does not make me comfortable.

So what does this mean for the Xbox One? While there’s probably plenty of money to be made off of Zynga, abandoning a major gaming institution before launch, after a particularly damning PR catastrophe, doesn’t lend confidence for a successful product roll-out. Nor does it give much support to Microsoft’s previous notion that it understood the “future of gaming”. I think we’ll know for sure if we see any other Xbox higher-ups following Mattrick’s lead and abandoning ship.

UPDATE: My friend Aaron astutely notes that Mattrick was likely going to be fired following the incredibly poor handling of PR surrounding the Xbox One, if he hadn’t been fired already. He floated an unsubstantiated rumor that Mattrick went on vacation following E3 and simply never came back.

Do you think casual, social games are the real future of gaming? Is Don Mattrick hedging his bets on the coming role of consoles in a smartphone society? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
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