When GamesIndustry.biz broke the news of Phil Harrison's departure from Microsoft last month, speculation was rife over where he was heading. With a CV as impressive as Harrison's, almost any vacancy in the industry seemed up for grabs - would he be returning to investment, or was he going for the hat-trick with a job at Nintendo?
In fact, Harrison hasn't joined anybody, dispensing with the need to update his CV by founding his own company instead: Alloy Platform Industries (a name which Harrison says is "deliberately meaningless"), a start up dealing with the bleeding edge of consumer tech, including some as-yet unannounced innovations from his former employer.
"I'll give you a bit of context," Harrison told GamesIndustry.biz last Friday. "Before joining Microsoft, as you know, I was investing in companies like Gaikai and Supercell, and it's really seeing the way those companies not only court the next technology wave, but help define it as well, that I'm inspired by. But I'm investing and investigating some new technology spaces, which if we are lucky and smart, will hopefully be catching that next wave.
"I've been planning for a little over a year, in full consultation and collaboration with Microsoft, specifically with Phil Spencer"
"We're in stealth mode at the moment, we'll stay in stealth mode for a while. It's very exciting, and something I've been planning for a little over a year, in full consultation and collaboration with Microsoft, specifically with Phil Spencer. I'm taking a plunge into the start-up pool."
That collaboration catches me off-guard. For all the amicability of Microsoft's official confirmation of Harrison leaving, I wouldn't have thought that a partnership was on the cards. I'm intrigued to know more, but those cards are very close to Harrison's chest for now.
"I wouldn't comment on that," he says when I ask what form the collaboration will take. "Alloy has licensed some technology from Microsoft which will form the basis of our initial investigations and explorations. But I'm not going to say any more than that. It's unannounced technology that nobody outside of Microsoft knows about."
Which is interesting, especially given that a project as high-concept and forward-looking as HoloLens is already public knowledge. Harrison isn't the sort of man you can wheedle information out of, so there seems little point in trying to second guess the specifics, but it strikes me that Microsoft is a big company, doing lots of things. Is this tech even game related?
"That's a good question," he says with a short laugh. "We're definitely in the same neighbourhood, probably on the same street, but probably not the next door house, if that makes any sense. But clearly related. You know, the things that interest me and stimulate me are how technology and entertainment and people intersect. Think of those as three circles with a Venn diagram with an intersection in the middle.
"Alloy has licensed some technology from Microsoft which will form the basis of our initial investigations and explorations"
"The technology changes that are happening in the world right now are just incredibly exciting. The rate of change, the acceleration of change is just insane, whether it's the ubiquity of mobile devices, increasingly powerful yet connected to the internet everywhere, this kind of ambient computing intelligence that you get from a cloud everywhere you are in the world coupled with some interesting new technology developments in low-power, low-cost hardware. Those are spaces I'm very interested in, and those will be the areas of exploration for our company.
"This is not specific to what Alloy is doing, but the largest at-scale consumer market in tech right now is games. That's what most people do with their phones, what most people do with their iPads. So the business models, the volume, the scale, and therefore the cold hard cash, is coming from games and certainly entertainment-related activities. So I think that's quite natural."
Given that there seems to be something of an entente cordiale between Harrison and Microsoft, I ask him about Lift London, the incubator studio he was instrumental in founding which was confirmed to be folding into Microsoft's multimedia Soho Productions on the day the news of Harrison's departure broke. Were the two events linked?
"I know you've written about this in the past and the timing of that is completely unrelated to my new venture," says Harrison, emphatically. "I made the decision to combine Lift and Soho last year, but for various reasons that took a while to get put into practice because of schedules of projects and what people were working on. But I'll let Microsoft talk about plans for Lift in the future, other than to say that they are working on things that are absolutely front and centre to the future of Microsoft, and I think they're going to be doing some unbelievably important work and strategic work. So they're in great hands with great leadership and some incredible talent. I don't think you should have any concerns for them whatsoever.
"the highlight of my last three years at Microsoft was being able to work alongside and lead Rare and Lionhead"
"One thing I would want to say, just talking about Lift but more broadly across the studios in the UK...For me the highlight of my last three years at Microsoft was being able to work alongside and lead Rare and Lionhead, and obviously we talked about Lift and Soho. Having a chance to work with those kind of crown jewels of game development is a pretty amazing opportunity. So I have a huge amount of respect and excitement for what Lionhead and Rare are doing next. And obviously Lionhead's new project is well understood and well known. What Rare is doing next is still under wraps, but it's pretty exciting stuff, certainly something that would be a career highlight for me to have had a small hand on the tiller, so to speak, during the creation of what Rare is doing next."
Harrison's two best-known jobs might have been for Japanese and American companies, but, as is clear from the way he talks about Rare and Lionhead, Europe and the UK have always been at the heart of what he's done. Those connections and influence in London were further cemented by his time with David Gardner and David Lau-Kee at London Venture partners. Will he be staying on home turf to launch Alloy Platform Industries?
"Well it's kind of a global village these days, isn't it? Initially, yes. London is my home. The UK is home. And perhaps more importantly than anything, it's access to talent. And you know I've been a firm believer and champion of European and certainly British technology and game development talent, and that will continue to be the case. I think there's extraordinary talent here that will certainly be a very fertile ground for us to recruit from.
"I've been a firm believer and champion of European and certainly British technology and game development talent, and that will continue to be the case"
"I can't remember who said this, but we're a nation of tinkerers. Wasn't that the quote? I mean, yes. We could spend a lot of time talking about what this means for employment prospects, but also what we as an industry in partnership with government and education have to do, what we absolutely have to do, to continue to inspire the next wave of talent to think about games development technology, invention, as a legitimate career choice throughout school, starting early. And ironically, or maybe not ironically, things like Minecraft are just the most amazing booster to that, because it just allows everybody to be a creator."
We're wrapping up, but there's one last thing I can't resist asking. Another of Harrison's friends, Don Mattrick, has recently found himself with some free time, following his departure from Zynga. Should he expect a call from Alloy Platform Industries at any point soon?
"I haven't spoken to Don since the news," says Harrison. "I've been extremely busy, plus I was on holiday, but I certainly wish Don all the best. He's a great leader and a great talent for our industry, and I'm sure he will continue to play an important part in the future. I haven't spoken to him, but I'm sure we will catch up very soon. I don't think you need to worry about his ability to pay the mortgage."