Electronic Arts‘ chief creative officer William “Bing” Gordon announced today he is leaving the video game company he joined in 1982 to become a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He will start at his new post in June with a focus on start-ups in consumer technologies. During the past decade, Gordon has served as chief creative officer at EA and he will continue in an advisory role at EA as Chief Creative Officer Emeritus. Gordon joined the company as one of the earliest employees working for founder Trip Hawkins and he is the last of the original employees who were pictured in EA’s first magazine ad with the caption, “Can a computer game make you cry?” (Hawkins founded EA so his team could make games that were as emotionally involved and rich in storytelling as movies.) We spoke with Gordon this afternoon about why he made the move. For more coverage, see N’gai Croal’s Level Up blog.
VB: Bing, how long were you thinking about making this move?
BG: Probably in the 1980s but I never did it. My wife used to work extensively with Kleiner on recruiting. I would see the people she was talking to. My sense was always that I loved the big thinking and teamwork of the Kleiner guys. I noticed that they didn’t have a distinctive competence in consumer. It crossed my mind periodically. But I was on a mission. Mission accomplished.
VB: What did you feel you accomplished to allow you to make this move?
BG: It was seeing John Riccitiello take over as CEO last year and Frank Gibeau, a long-term protege, becoming president of one of the studios. There are a new generation of cool people coming in. It looks like the company is in good hands for the next five years. I got to see that transition. I don’t feel like I am putting my EA legacy at risk by leaving right now. A couple of years ago it felt it- would have been at risk. I feel like I have 10 or 15 more years to go. If I want to try something new, now is the time. I’m kind of ambitious about trying something new. It arose all at once. The sense that EA is in good hands settled in over time.
VB: Did the reorganization of the executive team last year have anything to do with the decision to leave? EA reorganized into four decentralized groups and your role seemed like a very centralized job.
BG: In the last year, we expanded my job and covered what I did with more people. That group will persist as a central group reporting into the CEO. It’s like the equivalent of a CTO’s organization. That creative office has expanded. I like the new organization structure a lot. It’s a perfect org structure to develop and nurture intellectual property. EA from its beginning has always had this culture of decentralized ownership and authority. You get stuff done. This is a perfect organization structure. It is great for making the transition from packaged goods to the Internet. I remember when Larry Probst (first EA’s sales chief, then its CEO) came into EA in the early 1980s. I sat next to him as he talked to 25 people over three days on why they all thought it was a bad idea for EA to create a direct sales force. Probst said he would do it anyway. He thought everybody else was wrong. To see ea publishing and heading into that, we had a strategy to reinvent publishing for 2010. He did that back in 1984 or 1985.
VB: Are you excited about any particular start-up opportunities, like opportunities in games?
BG: What I’m excited about now is stuff that doesn’t fit in EA’s business definition. I am really excited about Facebook. The iPhone. Apple’s Leopard operating system and iTunes. I’m really excited about Amazon web services. (Gordon serves on the board of Amazon.com). I’m really excited about widget product design. The APIs for the Internet. Google mash-ups. Semantic search. Cloud computing. I’m really excited about the way high school and college students think about media these days.
VB: Are you sad you will be leaving the day-to-day contact with the gaming industry behind?
BG: Yes, on two fronts. The ones that are most bitter are games I’ve been part of along the way. Like “Spore,” “Warhammer Online,” “DeadSpace.” Even “Spore for iPhone.” We have cool new stuff in development. I tried to make a mark on those titles. And the launch parties are always fun to go to. You have a different experience behind the wall than outside of it. On the other hand, I’ll be able to experience games from a fresh perspective. The cost of being in the games business is that you lose that “aha” feeling when a new game comes out if you worked on it. I’m going to miss being around for the completion of games I care about. I’m enmeshed very deeply in business details with people I have affection for. With my CCO Emeritus title, it will be normal to give EA people advice.
VB: What is still on EA’s “to do list.”
BG: Right now it is to “get” the Internet. Keep making one or two meaningful IPs per year. EA has to figure out how to launch games as properties the way the movie business does. Spore is a good example of that. There is a longer term issue related to taking this spectacular asset, a big video game, and getting the most out of it. And there is something else. How to be the best place in the world for 23-year-olds who want to make video games to get on the fast track? Internet. Young people. More leverage from spectacular franchises.
VB: So this has nothing to do with the fact that Grand Theft Auto IV is coming out tonight?
BG: You hit the nail on the head. With this transition, I am now going to have enough time to play Grand Theft Auto IV without using vacation time. I would love to be able to see the algorithms for the development tools for running the open world in GTA. I think I know how it works. Sooner or later someone will publish the guts. Most game developers don’t give away design tools because it’s not as crisp as what you’ve imagined.
VB: What are your best memories of EA?
BG: As a parent, history begins anew at the birth of your first child. All memories pre-child are kind of a blur. I remember the first time we were doing EA Kids. My daughter Chloe came on campus to focus test Scooter’s Magic Castle and Story Painting. I was never so proud of how she could sit and play for an hour while four adults looked over her shoulder and she described in detail what they were doing wrong.
I remembered how we had a 20th-anniversary celebration and Jeff Brown brought up on stage two EA employees who were born after the start of the company. For me, it’s about the work. Walking through the halls and seeing the packages of games that I’ve forgotten about. I remember when EA acquired Distinctive Software. I met Don Mattrick (who now runs Microsoft’s game business). I told Trip Hawkins that Don was the next version of him. Mattrick was bored and ready to check out. He was driving me to the airport. He told me he had recruited all 40 people to Distinctive Software. He asked me to help him make sure that we could make EA a great place for them to work. We were doing it wrong. He was afraid we would fritter away everyone’s careers. I tried to redouble my own efforts and am proud that EA Canada now has more than 1,000 employees. It was once headed for a train wreck. The best moment for me was when my two daughters fell in love with being on the EA campus.
VB: Are you the last one left from the class of 1982 for EA?
BG: Yes, I’m the last one. But we do have the son of one of the original guys now working at EA.