Top executive ditches Microsoft as Natal launch looms

San Francisco (CA) – John Schappert has ditched Microsoft’s hallowed halls for the familiar corridors of Electronic Arts. The top executive, who once managed EA’s studios and online infrastructure, will assume the role of COO immediately upon his return.  

“In the past two years, many of us have stayed in touch with John and watched him evolve as an executive,” said John Riccitiello, EA’s chief executive officer, in an internal memo to employees obtained by the Wall Street Journal. “John understands our culture – and importantly, how the EA culture has evolved to include new people, ideas, platforms and business models.”

The high-flying executive will apparently receive a $600,000 annual salary from EA, along with an option to purchase 500,000 company shares. Schappert was also awarded a $1 million sign-on bonus to replace awards he forfeited by joining EA.

Schappert’s abrupt departure from Microsoft has apparently caught analysts and investors by surprise. One can’t help but wonder if Schappert – who was responsible for doubling Xbox Live’s membership – harbors serious reservations about Project Natal.

For example, could the new platform have a negative impact on multiplayer gaming? Would users prefer to interact with advanced AI characters capable of displaying “emotion” and reacting to verbal and facial cues? Or, could the lure of Natal prompt a renewed interest in existing single-player RPG games such as Fallout 3 and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Yet, Schappert’s decision may have had little, if anything, to do with the nascent Natal. Indeed, it is almost certain that Xbox Live will evolve to support Natal-centric titles and infrastructure.