Opinion: Phil Spencer Takes Responsibility Yet Misses the Point

It’s safe to say that Microsoft and Xbox Studios haven’t had the best week. From the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) blocking the Activision Blizzard deal, to the disastrous launch of Arkane Austin’s much anticipated first-person shooter, Redfall; many Xbox fans are looking with impassioned fury at Phil Spencer for answers. And answers he gave.

The head of Xbox Studios came on an episode of Kinda Funny’s Xcast wherein host Mike Howard alongside Parris Lilly and Gary Whitta spoke with Spencer for roughly 45 minutes, asking him about all that’s been happening with Xbox this past week. Credit must be given to Howard and his Xcast co-hosts as they did not shy away from the tough questions; from asking about how Redfall – a high budget AAA game by Arkane Studios, makers of Deathloop and the Dishonored series – could release in such a state and if their teams were expecting such low review scores, to what the expectations should be for Xbox in 2023 and beyond.

But for as great as the questions were by the Kinda Funny crew, what is more commendable is the fact that Phil Spencer even showed up to do the interview. As Kinda Funny co-founder and former IGN editor, Greg Miller, would go on to say in yesterday’s Games Daily, it is very common for developers – executives in particular, though he refrained from mentioning names – to cancel an interview if something with their company went awry in the days leading up to the interview. So kudos to Phil Spencer for not only committing to do the episode, but to speak with transparency and with a genuine sense of disappointment in himself for the way Redfall was handled—instead of deflecting blame to Arkane Studios, for whom he still spoke highly of.

Kinda Funny Xcast
Phil Spencer appeared on Kinda Funny Xcast’s 137th episode.

With that said, there was a moment near the end of the podcast where Spencer said some things that had me shaking my head. When asked if he still felt that the company was giving enough attention and love to the console compared to its PC endeavours, Spencer answered, “Our vision is that everybody who’s on [the Xbox] console has to feel like they have a great experience and are a first class citizen.” He would go on to elaborate on what the vision for the Xbox console is and then, after a pause and acknowledging that what he is about to say might “disrupt” many listeners, he says, “…it’s just not true that if we go off and make great games all of a sudden you’re going to see console shares shift.” Concluding by saying that 90% of people that walk in to a retail store are already attached to a platform, alluding to an idea that these same people wouldn’t switch to a different platform just for the library of games.

It’s here where I had to take a pause of my own and allow my furiously furrowed eyebrows to ease. It is appalling – if not outright laughable – that even after a decade of gamers taking to the internet and writing, speaking, and meme-ing endlessly about the lack of quality first party titles on Xbox, that the head of the company who seemingly presents himself to be incredibly connected with the community, still remains firm on the idea that the actual games are not what increases sales and market share. Hate to break it to you Phil, but they do; and the history of the very company you lead proves it.

PlayStation 3 (left) Xbox 360 (right)
The PlayStation 3 might have finished with higher numbers, but good games catapulted Xbox 360 popularity.

The Xbox 360 sold a very respectable 85.73 million copies according to VGChartz. A good bulk of that number came in the first three years between 2006-2009 alongside an incredible lineup of exclusives including Halo 3, Gears of War 1 & 2, Forza, Mass Effect (before the series would go multi-platform), and Saints Row. Ask any gamer about that generation of video games and they’ll tell you that the 360 was the clear winner amongst its competitors. A console made by a company that had only made one console prior. A console that one wouldn’t consider of having a loyal fan-base, and yet nearly outsold its behemoth of a competitor in Sony.

Yes, Sony’s Playstation 3 would go on to sell more than Microsoft’s console with VGChartz listing its sales at 87.4 million, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The launch of the PS3 was far from good, with it costing a whopping $700 in 2007 money, having a bulky design, and an unimpressive launch lineup. Xbox took most of the shine in those first couple years, but Sony learned and quickly made adjustments. Coming out with a far nicer slim version, slashing its price, and most importantly: having new and exciting exclusives. Uncharted 2, Infamous, The Last of Us, God of War 3, Ni No Kuni, Metal Gear Solid 4–it was a barrage of high quality games between 2009 and 2012. And what did Xbox have between those years? Less of the same, and Kinect, leading to considerable drops in year-over-year sales.

I understand that times have changed, and that services and ongoing experiences are also part of the gaming marketplace now. We no longer live in a time where every generation is, as Spencer puts it, “a clean-slate.” However, Sony and Nintendo have built a slew of legacy IPs that they continue to support and create new titles for, while also creating new IPs—which I’m sure they hope to have rollover in the generations to come. Horizon Zero Dawn was a bonafide system seller for the PS4, and Splatoon 3 was the fastest selling game in Japan for a time and was the reason many wanted the Switch. These are not games for consoles from many generations past, these are recent titles on relatively recent hardware, whose current successors are continuing building their library of quality first-party titles. At the end of the day, the conversation will always come down to the games. 360 owners were willing to look past the consoles hardware issues (to an extent) because they cared enough about Halo and Gears. I’ve been complaining for years that the Switch is an underpowered console that’s limiting developers, but can’t wait to play Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom at 30fps and 720p. I was always unimpressed by the UI of the PS4 and could never stand the DualShock 4 controller, but God of War is one of the greatest games I’ve played in the past decade.

Redfall crew
A defeatist attitude from Xbox is not the lesson to take away from Redfall.

Nobody talks about the streaming quality of HBO, they talk about Succession. Nobody talks about the number of devices you can watch Netflix on, they talk about Stranger Things. I bring up Netflix purposefully as it was yesterday that I saw a commenter on a Redfall video review compare the streaming service to Xbox’ very own Game Pass, saying that the library of content wasn’t dissimilar as the service was bringing in a bunch of “junk,” and having only a handful of worthy titles, most which being exclusives. Now, I personally don’t take such a harsh stance against Game Pass as the service has been, and continues to be, well worth it for me. And yes, one comment is not representative of the community at large, but the fact that it even exists is something to note. For the longest time Game Pass has been heralded as “the greatest deal in gaming,” but that deal will slowly but surely begin to lose value if the content begins to wane – and content is and always will be king.

You don’t spend billions upon billions of dollars on acquiring game developers to only bolster your service infrastructure; you do it because of the games they will potentially bring to your platform. At one point the dominos of heavy-hitting exclusives need to line up for Xbox Studios to put the narrative that the console “has no games” to bed. They’ve spent too much money and have too many talented developers under their wing for it not to; I just hope Phil Spencer can get behind that idea as well.  

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1 month ago

Phil knows everything you stated in your post. He made the comment he did because he couldn’t say anything that might be used against Microsoft trying to acquire ActivisionBlizzard.

29 days ago
Reply to  Shockley

Anything like “Cloud gaming is the future” then being shocked when the acquisition was blocked because of cloud gaming’s future LoL