The departure of Xbox boss Don Mattrick, headed off to become Zynga's new CEO only weeks after the unveiling of Xbox One, is another bizarre chapter in what has been the strangest and most uncomfortable period of Microsoft's existence as a console platform holder. In a few short weeks we have seen huge damage done to the laboriously elevated Xbox brand, the firm's main gaming rival elevated to undeserved sainthood during an extraordinary E3 showdown and finally a rare, humiliating and completely necessary U-turn from one of the world's biggest and most stubborn companies. Now, another unprecedented twist - the man behind a brand new console running out the door before that console even launches, even as its feature set has apparently been thrown into flux mere months before it hits retail shelves.
"Another bizarre chapter in what has been the strangest and most uncomfortable period of Microsoft's existence as a console platform holder"
This is a mess. There's no two ways about that. It may well be for the best in the end, but right now, it's a mess. Microsoft is in a tailspin - one minute Xbox is soaring above the clouds, the next, thrown around by winds of negative public opinion from all quarters, it's desperately hauling at all the controls and trying to correct its course, something that this corporate juggernaut simply isn't used to doing. As a rule, Microsoft ploughs ahead with its product strategies until either the world bends to its will or the product crashes into a mountainside. Tugging and pushing at unfamiliar controls as it tries to turn Xbox One from its course, Microsoft appears to have found the pilot ejector seat switch and thought "hey, this one is worth a shot!".
That's a fun narrative. It's the narrative that's probably going to be adopted in most quarters - the specialist gaming press and the business press alike. Mattrick's departure is going to be irrevocably pegged to the huge backlash against Xbox One - and there's some truth in that association, but not enough truth to count as actually being true. Step back for a second. Does anyone really think that a senior, superbly wealthy executive has a bad show at E3, hits the phones and organises a new CEO gig at a multi-billion dollar company to parachute himself into in the space of less than a month? As much as it's a great story to tell - Mattrick fired for Xbox One's failures, quickly lining up a new role to make it all look better to the world - it's clearly, patently not accurate.
Don Mattrick's intention to leave Microsoft (for Zynga, ultimately, but I believe that other roles were considered) has been around for months. His bosses - including, ultimately, Steve Ballmer, who may have had a direct hand in choreographing this move - will have been informed of Mattrick's plans for some time and will have been working behind the scenes to figure out a succession plan for the Xbox division. What has changed, I believe, is the timing. Mattrick probably intended to leave Microsoft after a successful Xbox One launch later this year - or perhaps, if he's in a hurry, to depart on good terms a few months after a rapturously received Xbox One unveiling and E3 showing. He's being shuffled out the door ahead of schedule, but he was always planning to leave.
Why did Mattrick decide to go? What led him to walk to the door, before being shoved out of it? Only Don Mattrick can really answer that question, but rumours abound that the uncommonly ambitious executive - and I do mean that; even in an industry where most executives nurture great personal ambition, Mattrick stands out as particularly obsessed with his own progression - was frustrated in his attempts to take on ever wider responsibilities at Microsoft. He wanted to move up to the top table there and may even have seen himself as a future CEO (the line of succession after Ballmer is far from clear, after all). Microsoft, however, showed no intention of releasing Mattrick from the confines of the Xbox project. This is all rumour and speculation, of course, but it fits Mattrick's profile to imagine that his ultimate goal at Microsoft was never simply to lead Xbox, and that being denied further progression would lead him to seek a more senior role elsewhere.
"Even in an industry where most executives nurture great personal ambition, Mattrick stands out as particularly obsessed with his own progression"
Why did Microsoft decide to hasten his departure? That's a simple PR gamble. The departure of a major public face like Mattrick in the wake of a blow-out like E3 compounds the error to some extent, but it also gives the company an opportunity to draw the line underneath its mistakes. It sends out two messages - to shareholders, it says that a sacrificial head has rolled and the company is fixing the problem; to consumers, it says that the guy doing the bad stuff is gone, and now the good guys will step in and set everything right. Similar messages, subtly different in their content and intent, yet both aimed at saying "that was then, let's focus on now". It's no mistake that Mattrick's last major public act prior to his departure was to announce the roll-back of Xbox One's hated physical game DRM policies - it will be interesting to find out some day whether that was something he did by choice, or something he was instructed to do from on high in response to deepening horror at the company in the face of anti-Xbox sentiment which effortlessly leaped from the specialist press over into the mainstream media during the course of E3.
What will happen now is an attempt to row back and regain the trust and goodwill Xbox has lost, using Mattrick's departure and the appointment of a new public face as a pivot point for the console. To some extent this will work, because some of the problem for Xbox One up until now has been around messaging and communication rather than actual content (although the content hasn't been great either). Mattrick's departure will be a useful way for Microsoft to draw a line underneath Xbox One's problems to date - and it also opens the door to the appointment of an executive who, bluntly, is a more personable public face than Mattrick. Mattrick is a well-regarded and respected businessman, but as the frontman for a console, he was never terribly successful - his conference performances, key for a console executive, were stilted and a little inhuman, never feeling in touch with the audience or the product. By comparison, the Phils, Harrison and Spencer, brought Microsoft's conference stages to life - they were credible as game enthusiasts and genuinely passionate in a way Mattrick was not. A little of that credibility and passion will go a long way for Microsoft in the coming months.
However, there's a problem with the Xbox which Mattrick's high-profile departure can't fix. Bear in mind that while issues around DRM may have ignited anti-Microsoft sentiment in recent weeks, the issues with Xbox One really started with Microsoft's decision to market the box as an all-in-one media device, trumpeting its ability to connect to cable boxes, run Skype calls and generally do lots of stuff that's got nothing to do with gaming over its capability as a gaming device. That messaging, I fear, isn't going to go away - because that messaging is a true reflection of how Microsoft as a whole views the Xbox. Microsoft, right up to Ballmer's level, is tired of sending out Trojan Horses that never actually get around to disgorging their soldiers. Xbox One is viewed at the top level within Microsoft as an open and deliberate play for living room dominance in which gaming prowess is a given rather than a true focus. Of course, within the Xbox division itself, the vast majority of people are utterly and totally committed to the gaming experience - that should not be in question - but the branding and messaging of Xbox will not be decided at that level, and even with Mattrick gone, that branding and messaging is still going to risk alienating gamers who are deeply, deeply suspicious of soi-disant game consoles that don't seem to be putting games first.
"This won't draw a line underneath the problems Xbox One has faced unless Microsoft also shows a commitment to changing its approach and its communication"
Once we get beyond the initial few days of excited chatter, I think that Mattrick's departure will probably be a net positive for Microsoft as it tries to lay the foundations for a successful Xbox One launch. I also think, incidentally, that being Zynga CEO is a role which will play to Mattrick's strengths far more than being Xbox boss ever did - it suits his perspective on the world, his undoubted abilities as an executive and his limitless ambition, and I suspect that he will actually do very well at Zynga. It's no contradiction to say that I think both Microsoft and Zynga will be better off for this change.
However, this won't draw a line underneath the problems Xbox One has faced unless Microsoft also shows a commitment to changing its approach and its communication. Everything the company says right now will be treated with suspicion by consumers - earning back trust takes more than a "we're listening" statement and the departure of a scapegoat. If Microsoft wants Xbox One to enjoy the kind of success that Xbox 360 did, it's going to have to fight like it's never fought before over the next six months - with humility, flexibility and understanding. Whoever replaces Don Mattrick is walking into the toughest job in the games business.