Xbox Series Hex: Why Won’t Xbox’s Big Game Problem Go Away?
Phil Spencer has accomplished a lot of great things during his nine-plus years as Head of Xbox. Under his leadership, Xbox has made incredible strides in:
- Accessibility: If Xbox isn’t the industry leader in this, they are at the top of any list, both on the software side and the hardware side.
- Game preservation: Backwards compatibility was Spencer’s first major initiative when he took over the business, and it’s been such a success that it’s been normalized across the industry.
- Hardware power and reliability: The Xbox One S, One X, Series X, and Series S have all been quiet, powerful workhorses that haven’t suffered a single widespread issue, making the Xbox 360’s Red Ring of Death and Xbox One’s underpowered launch unit distant memories.
- Value proposition: Xbox Game Pass, regardless of how you slice it, has been a resounding success for gamers.
- Cloud gaming: The xCloud initiative – now a bundled feature within Xbox Game Pass Ultimate – lets you play your Xbox games from just about any device in any location.
- DEI and culture: Microsoft and its studios now have more women and people of color in leadership roles and on development teams, taking noticeable steps to normalizing diversity in an industry whose customers come from all walks of life.
Unfortunately, though, Spencer has one notable black mark on his legacy: exclusive blockbuster games. Xbox has continually disappointed over the past decade in this most important area of all. It’s not that Xbox hasn’t had anything – it isn’t a zero-sum game, after all – but this generation was supposed to be a fresh start for Microsoft; a chance to win back the Xbox 360 customers it lost to Sony and the PS4. And so much of the groundwork had already been laid: the purchasing of many new first-party studios, the gamer-first Smart Delivery feature, and the aforementioned backwards compatibility and Xbox Game Pass initiatives.
Is this Spencer’s fault? That’s difficult to say, but I’d lean towards no, because the fact of the matter is that while video games, like sports, are part of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, winning and losing in the video game business isn’t as plainly black and white as it is in sports. If your favorite team loses year after year, you trade players, sign new ones, and eventually fire the head coach/manager and/or the general manager. You can’t apply that same binary logic to Spencer, Xbox Game Studios boss Matt Booty, or anyone else in the world of games. Success is measured in a million different ways – many of which the public isn’t privy to. But it’s still fair to look to leadership and look at their track record as well as what those around them say about them.
Anecdotally, anyone I’ve ever talked to about Phil Spencer has expressed nothing but praise and admiration. So if he’s not the problem, what is? Is he surrounded by “yes men” who are afraid to ever disagree with him? Is Spencer himself too nice to ever fire anyone who’s not getting the job done? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that the buck ultimately stops with Spencer. He’s held the job longer than any of his predecessors – the people who built Xbox from the ground up into a major player in the multi-billion-dollar video game industry. And to his credit, he was a key part of that foundational success, working his way up before taking over what is now XGS in 2008. He earned his shot at the big chair, and by all accounts (including my own), he’s an incredibly nice person in addition to someone who worked his way up the ranks. And he’s got the receipts to show that he’s a hardcore gamer just like the rest of us – something that can’t be said of the heads of the other console makers.
Still, that steady flow of big blockbuster games continues to be a problem. In the Spencer Era, Lionhead shut down after an ill-fated attempt to turn Fable into a 4v1 multiplayer game, sending a pillar Xbox franchise into a decade-plus-long hibernation from which it has yet to emerge. Crackdown’s resurrection was a flop. Scalebound suffered a very public cancellation. 343 Industries has been plagued by inconsistency and inefficiency, causing (among other things) Halo Infinite to miss its launch alongside the Xbox Series X and S consoles. The Initiative is five years old and its Perfect Dark reboot is absolutely nowhere in sight (and worse, reportedly plagued by development issues). Xbox gamers have been locked out of major third-party games like Street Fighter V as well as both Final Fantasy 16 and Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Physical first-party releases for the many gamers who still purchase their games that way are few and far between.
And now comes the unexpected faceplanting of Redfall, a promising new property from Arkane, a studio with a tremendous track record up until now. It also happens to be the first Xbox-exclusive release from Bethesda since Microsoft acquired them in 2020. Redfall was already delayed nearly a year, with Spencer tweeting at the time, “These decisions are hard on teams making the games and our fans. While I fully support giving teams time to release these great games when they are ready, we hear the feedback. Delivering quality and consistency is expected, we will continue to work to better meet those expectations.”
With Phil’s own words from a year ago in mind, it makes Redfall’s launch even more disappointing. To his credit, he took “full responsibility” for Redfall’s disappointing launch this week, also admitting that IGN was lied to regarding the IGN First gameplay video we posted last month that drew a hugely negative reaction, telling Kinda Funny, “I’ll even go back to the Redfall videos on IGN showing the game running at 60fps on PC at that point, knowing the game was going to run at 30fps at launch on console. We have to be transparent about what we’re showing, that what we’re showing is representative of what our console customer – our most committed customer to our brand, financially committed – what they’re gonna see, what they’re gonna play, and that transparency just has to get better.”
Redfall may just be one game, and as such isn’t really what my frustration or any other Xbox owner’s frustration is about. For many Xbox gamers, it’s the latest nick in a death by a thousand cuts. It exhausted any last bit of patience and goodwill they had remaining, which now puts an incredible burden on Starfield. Fairly or not – and it’s definitely not fair to Todd Howard and the Bethesda Game Studios development team, but it is what it is – everything is now riding on Starfield. And by that I mean, any chance Xbox has to rehabilitate its sticky “Xbox has no blockbuster exclusive games” reputation. If Starfield falters or disappoints in any way come September 6 – in short, if it isn’t a 10/10 video game that defines what the platform can accomplish – then it may be that consumer confidence ends up being permanently lost. Worse, perhaps, is the likely downstream effect of Redfall’s straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back stumble: it may understandably rattle any Xbox gamer’s faith in Starfield – or any big Xbox games – being able to stick its desperately needed landing in the first place, which will only add more pressure to a studio whose incredible open worlds aren’t exactly known for their lack of bugs, especially at launch.
Why do these mistakes keep happening to Xbox, but not to Sony or Nintendo? Is talent an issue? Seemingly not – the revolving door at 343 Industries aside, there have been few high-profile departures at Xbox studios new or old. Only The Coalition’s Rod Fergusson, who left to take over the Diablo franchise at Blizzard in 2020, and Shinji Mikami, who recently exited from Tango Gameworks, come to mind.
Is it resources? Again, by all accounts the answer is no. Double Fine was given plenty of extra time (and thus money) to help Psychonauts 2, once a crowdfunded game on a shoestring budget, reach its full fantastic potential. 343 had who knows how many tens of millions more dollars poured into it when Microsoft (wisely) decided not to try and force it onto store shelves alongside the Xbox Series X in November of 2020. Rare was given the time and long leash to turn Sea of Thieves from the bare-bones concept it launched as into a fully fleshed-out live-service game with millions of players. Bethesda Game Studios was given an extra 10 months of development time on Starfield after Todd Howard had confidently called his release-date shot of 11/11/22 a full 18 months early. The fact is, Microsoft is a trillion-dollar company that should not and apparently is not pinching pennies with its projects.
But speaking of money, is it complacency? Are studios taking their foot off the gas after getting their big Microsoft payday? Playground was acquired by Microsoft in 2018 and then raised its own high bar again with Forza Horizon 5, taking home IGN’s Game of the Year award for 2021 in the process. More recently, Tango’s literal-surprise hit Hi-Fi Rush does not seem like the work of a team that’s simply going through the motions.
Could it be timing? Is the timeline associated with making great games just so misaligned with expectations that the only way to ship something to satisfy increasingly frustrated fans is to rush these games out? Perhaps Xbox leadership saw Redfall’s likely outcome early on and chose to cut bait so the talented team at Arkane Austin could sooner move on to a new project and get a fresh start. Maybe they felt like they simply had to get something out there as soon as possible, given the ever-increasing pressure from fans to deliver some kind of big first-party exclusive.
In the end, it’s probably not Spencer’s head that should be on the chopping block. Or any single person’s, for that matter. Instead, the collective Xbox team must do better. Because the bottom line is that Xbox fans – customers who’ve spent many hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the Xbox ecosystem and been nothing but patient – are tired of being told, “The great games are coming!” year after year. And they deserve better than what the Xbox Series generation has delivered so far.
Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s executive editor of previews and host of both IGN’s weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked, as well as our monthly(-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He’s a North Jersey guy, so it’s “Taylor ham,” not “pork roll.” Debate it with him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan.
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