In a bit of big news today, Zynga has hired Microsoft’s president of its Interactive Entertainment division, Don Mattrick, as its new chief executive officer. For those not in the know, the Interactive Entertainment division controls the entire Xbox business, meaning Mattrick was man signing off anything Xbox-related, including the Xbox One’s previously-excessive DRM. It’s an interesting move, but even more surprising is there’s probably not a gamer that will shed a tear for his departure.
Don Mattrick was a horrible face for the Xbox brand. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is even worse. Why does Microsoft have trouble choosing a good face?
A company’s “face” is the avatar to which enthusiasts attribute all of a company’s decisions, good or bad. These companies are publishers and developers representing the ideas and effort of hundreds of people, but it’s easier for us to identify with a single person. That’s not a gamer-specific thing, it’s part of why we have managers, executives, and politicians. They’re an anchor for our collective speculation, rage, and praise.
In the game industry, you can see it at work in nearly every level, but it becomes readily apparent in superstar game developers. Deus Ex came from an idea that Warren Spector had, but the final game was the result of a team. Nearly everything creative at Obsidian Entertainment is attributed to Chris Avellone. Epic Games had Cliff Bleszinski, but Mark Rein is equally known as the face of Unreal Engine. Ken Levine is definitely the face of Bioshock Infinite developer Irrational Games. Final Fantasy XIV fans have thrown their love behind the new face of A Realm Reborn, Naoki Yoshida, also known affectionately as Yoshi-P.
Sony has had a few faces on the PlayStation side of the house. Former Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Ken Kutaragi and current Sony Corporation CEO Kazuo Hirai both entered fandom due to comments made during the reveals of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable. Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida is well-loved for his prolific Twitter account and PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny is the new king for PlayStation fans on the internet.
Nintendo has three strong faces: Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, designer Shigeru Miyamoto, and Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. Iwata comes across as genuine and his former time as a programmer at Kirby developer HAL Laboratory gives him credibility as a game creator. One of Nintendo’s recent successes have been the Nintendo Direct and Iwata Asks features, with Iwata as the star. Miyamoto is the man behind (that’s one of those cliche phrases you see with frequently when talking about faces) Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong. And while Reggie comes across as manufactured, he’s charismatic and powerful on stage.
In contrast, Microsoft has Mattrick, Ballmer, and senior vice president Yusuf Mehdi as a recent addition. Mattrick seems lost on stage and his recent comments about people without solid internet connections needing to buy an Xbox 360 didn’t win him any fans. Ballmer feels more like the Emperor than someone you'd want to be around, and Mehdi’s time at the Xbox One reveal has marked him as the “TV” guy, which doesn’t play well with gamers. Xbox Live's Major Nelson is supposed to be the company's bridge to gamers, but many enthusiasts treat him as little more than a mouthpiece. All told, a Microsoft presentation feels like your dad trying poorly to tell you about the new technology he found that's three years out-of-date.
Microsoft hasn’t always been so deficient in this area. At one point, the company was home to J. Allard, who was notably reinvented from pudgy nerd to metro leader somewhere in-between the launch of the Xbox and the reveal of the Xbox 360. Allard always presented himself as a creative within Microsoft, which doesn’t speak well to the company's culture as a whole. Windows 8 boss Steven Sinofsky also came across as a man with confidence in his vision, even if Windows users don’t currently like that vision. Both gentlemen have exited the company: Allard left in 2010, while Sinofsky departed just before the launch of Windows 8 last year.
A good face can help a company. Iwata is sympathetic, and some of that sympathy is transferred to Nintendo and its business decisions. If you believe wholeheartedly in a great face, then you’re likely to believe in the work surrounding them: fans’ love of former Clover Studio developers Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya are part of what has kept Platinum Games on the map. Well-placed comments by a great face can also turn gamers towards a company’s cause.
It’s a shame, because Microsoft is absolutely the company that needs an awesome face. Its messaging is currently dire, public opinion is still siding against the Xbox One, and its chief rival is coming up aces with wonderfully troll-ish (and personable) videos like this:
Microsoft has an image problem and a good face could fix the problem. The company needs to get someone out there who at least fakes creative and charismatic well. It’d be better if they could actually get someone creative and charismatic, but beggars can’t be choosers.