With the Xbox One revealed and ready to launch this fall, Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, has left the company to become CEO of social gaming company Zynga, best known for creating “FarmVille.”
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed the move on Monday to Microsoft staffers in an email, thanking Mattrick “for setting us on a path to completely redefine the entertainment industry. The strong leadership team at IEB and their teams are well positioned to deliver the next-generation entertainment console, as well as transformative entertainment experiences, long into the future.”
Mattrick joined Microsoft in 2007. He founded gamemaker Distinctive Software when he was 17, and later sold the company to EA, where he headed the publisher’s global studios and research and development, launching franchises like “The Sims,” “FIFA” and “Need for Speed.”
But Mattrick was key in making Microsoft a key player in the videogames biz (growing the Xbox 360 from 10 million to 80 million units worldwide and its Xbox Live membership from 6 million to 48 million members, since heading the division). In addition to launching and selling more than 24 million Kinect sensors, the Xbox 360 has also been the top-selling videogame console in North America for the past two years, and also pushed the company to turn the device into a set-top box for all forms of entertainment — including movies, TV shows and music, not just games.
To do that, Mattrick turned to his close ties to Hollywood through his connections with top talent like Steven Spielberg, which also helped attract execs like former CBS Television Studios president Nancy Tellem to join Xbox and head up original production. Spielberg is producing a new series based on Xbox’s popular “Halo” franchise, for example.
But now that much of the heavy lifting in developing the replacement of the Xbox 360 is complete, Mattrick is said to have been looking for a new challenge. In Zynga, Mattrick can turn to his entrepreneurial roots and prop up a once high-flying new media venture that has recently struggled to find its footing. He also had been courted by Electronic Arts, which is also looking for a new CEO.
Mattrick starts at Zynga on July 8, when he also joins the company’s board.
In a statement, Mattrick said that he believed Zynga’s “mission to connect the world through games is just getting started,” and he was impressed with the “creativity, drive and the clarity in which” Zynga founder Mark Pincus “sees the future of games and entertainment as a core consumer experience.”
Ballmer said the move to Zynga “is a great opportunity for Don, and I wish him success,” but was quick to focus on a future without Mattrick. “I’m particularly excited about how Xbox pushes forward our devices and services transformation by bringing together the best of Microsoft. The consoles are incredible all-in-one devices with built-in services that consumers love, including Bing, Xbox Live, Internet Explorer, SkyDrive and Skype. And, just as important, Xbox Games, Xbox Video, Xbox Music and SmartGlass light up Windows PCs, tablets and phones.”
Executives who reported to Mattrick will now report to Ballmer, “and will continue to drive the day-to-day business as a team, particularly focused on shipping Xbox One this holiday,” Ballmer said.
Mattrick’s departure was first reported by AllThingsD, who said Mattrick was being heavily courted by Zynga to become its new CEO as it searched for a new leader to turn around the company, which has struggled since becoming a publicly traded company in late 2011. It laid off 520 staffers last month to cut overhead, and is turning to new games to boost revenue. Active monthly players of its games are down 13% over last year. Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder has been serving as the company’s CEO.
“As I reflect on the past six years, I realize that I’ve had the greatest impact working as an entrepreneur with product teams, developing games that could entertain and connect millions,” Pincus said to employees in an email. “I’ve always said to (Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist) Bing (Gordon) and our board that if I could find someone who could do a better job as our CEO I’d do all I could to recruit and bring that person in. I’m confident that Don is that leader.”
Longtime Microsoft exec Yusuf Mehdi is expected to play a larger role at Xbox now that Mattrick has left. Mehdi began reporting to Mattrick in 2011, when he was made head of marketing of the Interactive Entertainment Business unit, which oversees the Xbox brand, and has worked closely with the exec during the Xbox One’s development.
SEE ALSO: Microsoft Unveils New Console: Xbox One
Mehdi already has been pushed more into the spotlight at Xbox, especially as Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One at its official unveiling from the Xbox campus outside Seattle in May and during the company’s press conference at the E3 videogames confab in Los Angeles in June.
Zynga’s stock already enjoyed a boost before Microsoft confirmed Mattrick’s departure, with shares trading 11% higher early Monday morning.