Opinion – Phil Spencer’s Xbox One Challenge At Microsoft

by Matthew Kato on Mar 31, 2014 at 12:10 PM

Microsoft's Xbox division has had leadership shakeups stretching back to before the Xbox One came out, but gamers have to be relatively happy now that Phil Spencer, former Microsoft Studios vice president, is the head of Xbox. Spencer says that the company needs to put games front and center, but will that happen?

Spencer's background as the head of Microsoft Studios (and his recent comments) seemingly indicates that he's aware of the value of games to a system. But what does the rest of Microsoft think? In his letter announcing the changes, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella points out that Spencer and the Xbox group will keep gaming "close to the group developing operating systems across devices." With Games for Windows Live reportedly being put out to pasture this summer it appears that Nadella is reiterating a continued close relationship between Xbox and Windows. From the RAM usage in the Xbox One to the Metro-style tiles of the system's dashboard, I don't know any gamers who want more symbiosis between the two.

Let's not forget that Spencer was a part of the team that originally envisioned the Xbox One as a system that required a constant online connection, placed restrictions on used games, saddled gamers with the Kinect, and which costs more than Sony's PS4. Microsoft – also with Spencer aboard – has made a dramatic attempt to rectify some of these issues, and it will be interesting to see what Spencer does from here on out now that he's in charge.

Will the system undergo another price drop? Will the unit be sold separately from Kinect? How much freedom under ID@Xbox do indie devs really have? Will the Xbox One get the features announced before launch (external supplemental storage, real names for friends, etc.)? Will Microsoft go after big-money software exclusives? 

If Spencer and Microsoft do indeed want to make games the emphasis, Microsoft's first-party needs to beef up its ranks. Certainly, the vast majority of third-party games will come out on the Xbox One and future Microsoft systems, but the company has allowed its first-party stable of internal studios – which Spencer was leading – to atrophy. The company retains the rights to franchises like Halo and Gears of War, but it has let the lauded studios that created those series (Bungie and Epic, respectively) walk away from first- and second-party relationships.

Compare this with how competitor Sony has nurtured long-standing relationships with first-party devs like Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, Media Molecule, and second-party studio Ready at Dawn, and you can see how owning the rights to franchises is not the same as owning the creative talent that started them and which could come up with the next big thing on your behalf. We're also still waiting for a return to form from the likes of first-party devs like Rare and Lionhead.

I don't know Phil Spencer and do not doubt that he means it when he says he's going to put gamers first. But we'll have to wait and see exactly what that means to Spencer and perhaps more importantly, to Microsoft.