Microsoft snapping up Vancouver’s BigPark

Microsoft Corp. announced today (May 7) that it intends to acquire Vancouver video game developer BigPark.

BigPark was created by game veterans Erik Kiss (chief technology officer), Hanno Lemke (CEO), and Wil Mozell (studio president) in 2007. The trio had previously worked together at Electronic Arts. Kiss and Lemke go back as far as Distinctive Software, which was founded in 1982 by Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, and was arguably the first game developer in Canada. (For more, read “Vancouver’s video game family tree”.)

Mattrick, who ran EA for a number of years, is now a senior vice president at Microsoft in charge of the interactive entertainment business. Before he took that job, he agreed to be BigPark’s chairman.

When I interviewed Don Mattrick in early August last year, he confessed to being quite excited about BigPark. “Hanno, Wil, and Erik running an organization of under a thousand people is like bringing a gun to a rock fight,” he told me over coffee. “I was flattered that they’d come to me and ask me to be involved. I said, ”˜Look, I don’t know if I want to be the day-to-day operating leader for a small business, but if I was ever going to pick a business to be engaged with it would be you guys and if you’ll have me as chairman and recognize that I’m also going to do something else, that would be great.’”

In a phone interview with Lemke this afternoon, he explained that BigPark has only been working with Microsoft for about the past year, and that his group has been working with Phil Spencer, Microsoft Game Studios general manager. In a release, Spencer said that he looked forward to showcasing BigPark’s first product at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles this June. It is a game for the Xbox 360 that has Xbox Live/online components.

The deal with Microsoft, said Lemke, gives BigPark access to distribution, technology, and capital that will better enable the boutique developer to do its thing.

In an interview last October, Lemke talked about what it was like to run Black Box for EA, and how it was important to keep the independent studio vibe despite the fact that it was part of a 1,200-employee company. Lemke, who found himself intrigued by the way the online business was exploding, left EA to consider what opportunities there might be in that space, and in particular products that could affect how consumers interact with each other and interact with devices. “It fascinated me,” he said in a boardroom at BigPark’s offices at UBC.

“What I see is the opportunity for us is melding a more accessible, fun, social experience into something that people interact with....There are pockets of markets that are underserved and people who want an accessible experiences that has depth to it and is well crafted with high production values and really immerses you in the experience. That’s where we think we’ve got a lot to offer.”

Lemke said the BigPark game that will be announced next month is not a title that was part of the developers first efforts, but is an opportunity that came up last year. It does, however, belong on the same field as the other products that BigPark is working on.

Most important, though, is that Lemke said the title he and BigPark will be showing off in L.A. is something we’ve never seen before.

I can hardly wait.