When it comes to game development in Vancouver, it all starts with Don Mattrick.
In 1982, Mattrick was just a teenage programmer in a Vancouver suburb dabbling in game design with his friend Jeff Sember. He couldn’t have known he was beginning a career that would bring him to the top spot of the world’s biggest entertainment software publisher. He’d never have guessed that he would go on to hold an absurdly long title like “Senior Vice President of the Interactive Entertainment Business in the Entertainment and Devices Division” of Microsoft, or hang out with Steven Spielberg on stage at E3, debuting a movement recognition device that could alter the way people interact with technology. And on a more local level, it’s unlikely he foresaw how those early programming sessions would form the basis for a city-wide industry that would turn Vancouver into one of the world’s foremost game-development centers and his colleagues into the people responsible for some of gaming’s greatest hits.
You can play a game of “One Degree of Don Mattrick” and end up with a list of Vancouver’s key game developers. Mattrick and Sember’s company, Distinctive Software, became EA Canada, home of most of EA’s sports franchises and the Need for Speed series, among many other titles. Ex-Distinctive employees founded Radical Entertainment, Relic Entertainment, Black Box Games, Gas Powered Games and Backbone Entertainment. Companies formed in the past few years like BigPark, Hothead Games and United Front Games can trace their roots back more than 20 years to Distinctive.
The seed was planted 27 years ago when Mattrick and Sember released Evolution. It was an arcade-style game for various computer systems in which each of the game’s six levels represented a different rung on the evolutionary ladder, from amoeba to beaver (How can you tell it was made in Canada, eh?) to laser-gun-toting human. Mattrick was just 17, but he and Sember got their game into the hands of Tarrnie Williams, the owner of a local enterprise software company called Sydney Development Corp. Initially reluctant, Williams agreed to publish the game after witnessing his 10-year-old son’s enjoyment of the demo copy. (Just to prove how interrelated Vancouver’s development scene is, that kid was Tarrnie Williams, Jr., who is now the General Manager of Relic after producing hits like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and Company of Heroes, plus the Medal of Honor series and NBA Live franchise while working at EA.)
What started out as a side-project for Mattrick while he attended university soon became a full-time job. Though his elders advised him to give up on videogames and pursue a career in law instead, Mattrick stuck with his passion. He and Sember turned Evolution‘s success into a long list of high-profile titles during the 1980s and early 1990s like Hardball II, Power at Sea, 4-D Boxing and a number of licensed games including The Simpsons: Bart’s House of Weirdness, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Manhattan Missions and Top Gun: Danger Zone. In particular, the small studio found a niche in racing games like Test Drive, its sequel The Duel, Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge and Stunts.
By 1991, Distinctive boasted an annual revenue of more than $5 million and a staff of 77. It worked with publishers like Accolade, Konami and Brøderbund until another publisher came along with an offer Mattrick couldn’t refuse. Electronic Arts, at the time a California-based production and distribution company of about 200 employees with no real internal development capabilities, paid Mattrick $11 million in cash and shares for Distinctive, which then became EA Canada. Its current office in Burnaby, a Vancouver suburb, now employs more than 1,000 people, making it EA’s largest studio.
Mattrick’s leadership helped EA Canada become the dominant developer of sports and racing games in the 1990s. The studio produced the NBA Live, NHL, Triple Play, SSX, MVP Baseball, Fight Night and FIFA Soccer franchises and created the Need for Speed series in 1994, which went on to become one of the highest grossing Canadian-born intellectual properties ever. Mattrick served as producer for many of these titles, climbing the corporate ladder to eventually become President of EA’s worldwide studios.
During Mattrick’s tenure, former Distinctive Software employees filled other important positions at EA Canada. Dave Warfield started as a game tester at Distinctive before becoming the Lead Designer for EA’s NHL series for 11 years, working alongside Distinctive programmers Jay MacDonald and Victoria Wong. Hanno Lemke was a designer and programmer with Distinctive since 1987’s Power at Sea and went on to produce many of the NHL titles, plus 11 Need for Speed games. Allan Johanson programmed Distinctive’s Accolade Comics and was lead programmer for most of the NBA Live titles, produced by other Distinctive alumni Wil Mozell and Stanley Chow, who also produced the Street series of NBA and FIFA games and Def Jam Vendetta. The list goes on longer than a Hideo Kojima cut scene.
But not all of the growth in Vancouver’s game development scene happened under EA Canada’s roof. When Mattrick sold Distinctive in 1991, employees Rory Armes and Ian Wilkinson took the opportunity to start their own studio, Radical Entertainment. Armes later returned to EA Canada in 1998, producing games like NHL 2000 and NBA Street and eventually becoming the studio’s General Manager. Meanwhile, Wilkinson presided over Radical’s rise from small-time NES developer to major studio, pumping out games featuring the Simpsons, Crash Bandicoot, the Hulk and Scarface. Earlier this year, Wilkinson left Radical to become the new president and CEO of three-year-old Vancouver start-up Hothead Games (of Penny Arcade Adventures fame).
Other Distinctive-cum-EA Canada employees also left the company to forge their own studios. Brad Gour, one of Test Drive‘s designers, co-founded Black Box Games after working on the original Need for Speed at EA. (Black Box was, ironically, later bought by EA.) Chris Taylor, a designer and programmer that worked on Distinctive’s Hardball II, The Duel and 4-D Boxing and EA’s Triple Play ’96, left the studio to start Gas Powered Games, developer of the Dungeon Siege and Supreme Commander games. And Alex Garden, a game tester that started working for Distinctive when he was 15 years old, went on to co-found Relic Entertainment (of Homeworld and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War fame) with a group of ex-EA and ex-Radical employees.
At this year’s E3, you could find more evidence of Distinctive’s lasting influence with the announcements of two ambitious racing games from a pair of brand new studios. BigPark, co-founded by Mattrick, Lemke, Mozell and Erik Kiss – all of whom are Distinctive alumni – showed off Joy Ride, a downloadable, highly customizable multiplayer racer for Xbox 360 that uses the system’s Xbox Live avatars. And on the PS3 side, United Front Games’ Mod Nation Racers introduces LittleBigPlanet-style content creation to a kart racing setting. United Front boasts founding members from EA, Radical, Black Box, Rockstar Vancouver, Propaganda Games, Next Level Games and Action Pants Inc., each of which can trace their lineage back to Distinctive.
Mattrick, for his part, was center stage for the introduction of Project Natal at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. Once a 17-year-old programmer with a dream, he’s now helping Microsoft run its Xbox 360, Xbox Live and Games for Windows services. His delivery of this major announcement proves he now ranks as one of the most powerful people in the videogame industry.
Back in Vancouver, Distinctive Software’s impact on the city’s development community is still felt today. In a strange synchronicity, the number of people working in Vancouver’s game industry is approximately 3,500 – the same number as the amount of money Mattrick’s father paid to buy his son the computer he used to program Evolution. No one could have known how many lives would be affected by that purchase and everything that followed from it, but a whole city’s worth of game developers are thankful.
Chris LaVigne lived in Vancouver for 11 years. He’s sorry about the whole Nickelback thing. Our bad.