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GDC Canada: Microsoft's Mattrick Talks Distinctive Days, Pioneer Spirit

GDC Canada: Microsoft's Mattrick Talks Distinctive Days, Pioneer Spirit Exclusive

May 12, 2009 | By Chris Remo




"Canada kicks ass when it comes to making video games."

So began Victor Lucas of media outlet The Electric Playground at the kickoff of the inaugural Game Developers Conference Canada, taking place this week in Vancouver. Lucas introduced conference-opener Don Mattrick, Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Business head... by grilling him on E3 rumors.

Lucas jokingly pressed Mattrick on motion control ("No comment"), Metal Gear Solid 4 on Xbox 360 ("No comment"), and the hypothetical Xbox 720 ("No comment"), before interviewing him about his personal game development history.

Canadian game pioneer Mattrick, who formed Distinctive Software in 1982 and created Test Drive with Accolade as an independent studio, recalled being told early in his career, "That industry will never exist. You need to do something legitimate. Go to law school."

"The first two and a half or three years, we were building products as Distinctive Software and going to University at the same time," he said. "Two and a half years in, we had approximately 15 or 20 people doing that." At the age of 19 or 20, he decided to stop going to school, and acquired his partner's equity in the company.

Asked about the Vancouver scene at the time, Mattrick replied, "People looked at Vancouver as a place that had great natural resources, but those natural resources were rocks, trees, and water; they weren't people. I still remember having a receivable note from a small company called Nintendo, and the local bank said, 'This is worth nothing.'"

Prior to the Electronic Arts acquisition, Distinctive was courted by other firms: "We had been approached in the late 80s to be acquired -- I guess I can say it now -- by Konami, by Accolade, and by Broderbund."

When Distinctive first started working with Electronic Arts, which acquired the firm in 1991, Mattrick said the publisher had no internal development: "EA at that time was 200 people -- distribution, and they had a production model."

Many of the decisions that Mattrick and his associates made in the 80s and early 90s within Distinctive and then afterward, when it was ultimately acquired by EA, ended up strongly shaping the nature of video game development, particularly in the context of the modern studio model.

"There were a lot of things we learned on the fly," he said. "One great thing about starting a business early on with no qualifications or experience is that you're probably going to make a mistake, and if you're in a leadership role, your job's pretty simple: fess up, and fix it."

On the Canadian development industry, Mattrick said that while the government has done a good job encouraging game development, the country has an issue with private funding. "You need to have capital, and you need to have strong people particularly from the university pipeline," he said. "In Canada, I think our biggest deficiency is [the lack of] a strong venture capital community."

Still, that shouldn't be a block to Canadian entrepreneurs, he added: "While the venture capital community isn't as strong as it maybe will be in the future, people have succeeded. They've built businesses."

On getting into the industry, he said, "There's not one path to success in our industry. The think I always encourage people to do is to find the best possible team you can work with...Our art form is a team-based art form at its core. A great team of people makes it fun, and really is what determines whether you're going to make something that's a hit."

Lucas suggested that with all the available alternative distribution models, we might be in the "independent film era" of video games. "I think we've always been in that era, actually," Mattrick replied. "The people who work in our industry are pretty high-spirited, passionate people. Sometimes it's easier to create a hit in a large-scale studio, and sometimes...it's easier to do it as a small independent group. I think that theme of independence is part of our industry, and I can't imagine that ever changing."

Still, the exec, who now oversees the Xbox 360 and Games For Windows business at Microsoft, acknowledged that "consumers groove on" big-budget hits, and "it's increasingly difficult to create those blockbusters in a garage."

Towards the end of the address at the conference, co-organized by Gamasutra parent company Think Services in association with local firm Reboot Communications, Lucas asked about BigPark, the studio founded by former Mattrick colleagues that Microsoft will soon own, and which Mattrick part-owns.

"BigPark is a company I got involved with after I retired from EA," said Mattrick. "I knew that in my ideal scenario I'd be chairman of that business. Along the way, the products and ideas that the team at BigPark was working on kind of overlapped with some of the Microsoft aspirations, and Hanno was able to put together a deal with some of the principals from Microsoft. Of course I had to put myself on the periphery and excuse myself."

And will the studio stick to Xbox 360 and PC development only? The exec answered, "Making content for Sony and Nintendo didn't seem like a great strategy, so we're going to stick with moving the Microsoft agenda forwards."


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