Seven Years In, Phil Spencer Has Succeeded Immensely In Helping Xbox Turn Things Around

OPINION: Spencer has been at the helm for seven years now, and he's helped turn the Xbox ship around.


Xbox boss Phil Spencer is celebrating an anniversary with Xbox. It was seven years ago, on March 31, 2014, that Spencer was promoted to Head of Xbox. It was a big, dramatic change for Microsoft and Xbox, as the company faltered under the leadership of Don Mattrick and some of the policy moves that the company pushed in regards to DRM and used games.

In short, Xbox was in a tough position back then. The Xbox One launched at $500, a full $100 above the PS4, thanks in part to Kinect being bundled with every system. Microsoft did sell 1 million units of the Xbox One in its first 24 hours, but the surge at launch could not be sustained in the long-term, and the PS4 would handily outsell the Xbox One over time.

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Spencer would go on to acknowledge and own up to Microsoft's numerous shortcomings in the Xbox One era, and in particular the controversial policy decisions from the previous leadership team. Under Spencer's leadership, and due to a number of other factors, Xbox is in a great position right now. The Xbox Series X|S had a record-setting launch, while initiatives that Spencer spearheaded like Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Cloud Streaming have taken off to great success.

"Crazy to think it's been 7 years. Couldn't be more proud of the team; what they've learned and accomplished over the years. Lot's more to do, thanks for all the support and feedback from the community, I really do appreciate all the positive energy," he said on Twitter.

Looking back at the announcement from March 31, 2014 is a fun stroll down memory lane. At the time, Spencer said he was "honored to lead the team at this incredible time for Microsoft and the games industry." His blog post was titled "A New Day at Xbox."

Back in 2014, Spencer laid out a vision for where he saw Xbox heading in the future, and I think many would agree he achieved that and then some.

"Our mission is to build a world-class team, work hard to meet the high expectations of a passionate fan base, create the best games and entertainment, and drive technical innovation. As we continue forward, this renewed focus and mission will be a foundational part of how I lead the Xbox program," he said at the time.

Spencer has made dramatic moves as Head of Xbox, including spending $10 billion on acquiring Mojang/Minecraft and also ZeniMax and its subsidiary studios and franchises. Those investments could pay, or in the case of Minecraft are already paying, significant dividends for Microsoft. With ZeniMax now under the Microsoft fold, Microsoft takes ownership of franchises like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Doom, and more, and brings on eight new first-party studios to help bolster its exclusive lineup going forward. Microsoft was criticized in the past for not doing enough in terms of first-party game development and exclusives, and that argument is likely to fall apart now with all the moves Microsoft has made. Microsoft of course also acquired teams like Double Fine, Ninja Theory, Obsidian, inXile, and more, as well as starting a new studio called The Initiative that is working on a new Perfect Dark game.

Spencer also led the team in pushing a new approach to releasing Xbox games on more platforms to help broaden the playerbase. The company previously kept Xbox games on console and PC games on PC. But now, Xbox games are released everywhere, and even beyond console and PC thanks to cloud streaming for mobile devices and tablets. The executive also led the charge in pushing for cross-play, when, in 2016, he boldly announced a plan and a willingness to work with Sony and Nintendo on cross-play.

Spencer is known for his candor and free speaking, and he has on numerous occasions taken a hard line against the idea of console wars in the gaming industry. He says it serves no purpose and has a negative effect on gaming, and has consistently called for change.

Game Pass deserves a callout as well, as Spencer helped spearhead the launch of this Netflix-style subscription service that could be Microsoft's secret weapon. Xbox Game Pass could have dramatic, long-lasting implications for Xbox and beyond, and it's off to a great start with 18 million subscribers and a lot of positive buzz about how great a value it is.

Spencer is known for being humble, so he wouldn't take credit for all of Microsoft's success stories for Xbox in recent years, and he does have a big team around him that gets the job done. But he has personally led the way in his public-facing position and he sets the tone.

It hasn't been completely smooth sailing, however, as Spencer was part of the team that decided to cancel Scalebound, shut down Lionhead, and close down Microsoft's ambitious Xbox Entertainment Studios division (which, to be fair, he inherited from previous management).

The future is unwritten and uncertain, but Spencer has demonstrated again and again that he is a capable, forward-thinking leader who is committed to Xbox and growing the brand.

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