When it launched in 2013, the Xbox One’s initial promise of a full home entertainment experience proved difficult for Microsoft to deliver in full, due to a string of poor decisions on their part. Microsoft’s efforts to dominate home media were undercut by the misguided desire to deprioritize video game development, the continued integration of Kinect, and the Xbox One’s high price tag compared to Sony’s PlayStation 4. In falling short of their lofty ambitions, Microsoft faced an uncertain future where only confident leadership could keep the Xbox brand relevant and stable.
It’s fortunate for Xbox, then, that their owners decided to find such a leader to right the proverbial ship. In March 2014, Microsoft appointed Phil Spencer as the head of Xbox, as part of an effort to convince potential customers and existing players alike that Xbox consoles were the best place for gaming. That choice to task Spencer with guiding the Xbox division has proven wiser with each passing day, given how Xbox is now in a competitive position and continues to strive for greater strength.
Not long after becoming head of the division, Spencer began setting the tone for how Xbox would produce and market its hardware going forward. Two months after Spencer accepted the position, it was announced that a version of the Xbox One would be released without the Kinect. Many feel that this was a result of Spencer and company recognizing that the Xbox One would struggle to sell if it continued to be paired with the Kinect. With that move, Xbox under Spencer would establish itself as willing to pivot its console design to meet the demands of their audience.
Xbox continued this trend of making hardware that catered to the fanbase by improving upon the core design of the Xbox One itself. They opted to release the Xbox One S, a cleaner and slimmer variant of the One that eschewed the original model’s bulky VCR-esque appearance. Their success in developing the Xbox One S was only the beginning, as Spencer had ambitions towards greater advances in console design.
Towards the end of the Xbox One generation, Phil Spencer wanted to make a console more powerful than the current Xbox One and closer to the experience of gaming on a PC. This came to fruition as Project Scorpio, a hardware upgrade focused on harnessing incredible processing power in order to deliver the best graphics and frame rates on consoles. Project Scorpio would be released as the Xbox One X, which impressed people with its superior technical capabilities compared to the basic Xbox One and gave Microsoft their cheaper alternative to PC gaming.
Spencer continued his commitment to creating powerful machines with the announcement of Xbox’s next-gen console, the Xbox Series X. With this new system, Xbox players would get to experience 4K resolution, higher frame rates, and ray tracing on both new titles and certain older releases. The Series X did not represent the end of Spencer’s plans for drawing people to Xbox consoles, however.
Beyond being committed to making Xbox the best place to play games, Spencer wanted Xbox to be the place where everybody plays games. So it was that Microsoft announced the creation of the Xbox Series S, a less powerful digital-only alternative to the Series X. The Series S would allow people to play next-gen games at a lower price point than with other new consoles, ensuring anyone from hardcore gamers to newcomers could partake in Xbox’s catalogue. In seeking to reach out to as many consumers as possible, Spencer managed to make the Xbox ecosystem welcoming to everyone.
One of the major complaints about the Xbox brand for the past several years has been the company’s lack of enticing games releasing over the course of their consoles’ lifetimes. The situation isn’t helped by Xbox competing against PlayStation, who produce several outstanding exclusives each year. When a company lacks the catalogue to even match their rivals, having the most powerful consoles on the market just isn’t enough of a selling point to compensate.
Recognizing the limited franchises at Xbox’s disposal compared to the competition, Phil Spencer set about closing the gap with a string of key acquisitions. Starting in 2018, Spencer made it known to the video game community that Xbox was serious about bringing the best exclusive games to their platform. To back up his promise, Spencer announced the purchase of four video game developers: Ninja Theory, Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, and Playground Games. Having more developers under the Xbox umbrella was a sign that great games were coming for Xbox, but Spencer was not yet finished.
Over the course of the next year, Xbox sought to further bolster their in-house game development efforts by adding more studios to their corporate family. The company drew widespread media attention when they purchased inXile Entertainment, Obsidian Entertainment, and Double Fine Productions. In addition, Phil Spencer announced the creation of a new studio called The Initiative, which would focus on AAA properties and is working on a Perfect Dark revival.
Even with these studios to Xbox’s name, Spencer sought to reinforce that Xbox was the brand of bold and confident decision making. This would help explain why, in a move that shocked the gaming industry, Microsoft purchased Bethesda Softworks in September 2020. It became impossible to deny that Xbox had grown aggressive in its pursuits, embodying Spencer’s drive to deliver compelling games by any means necessary.
That same drive can also manifest as a genuine belief in making the best game possible; Spencer has shown a willingness to put the quality of a game over the need to meet deadlines. For example, Xbox made the decision to delay Halo Infinite after a mixed reception to its gameplay showcase in 2020. When questioned, Spencer himself stated that, despite Infinite being planned as a launch title, it would be better to give the development team time to improve the game and guarantee a high standard of quality. Sacrificing the timeliness of a release window for the sake of better art is the sign of a leader who appreciates their creative medium of choice.
Game Pass and Ecosystem
During the Xbox One era, Phil Spencer introduced Xbox Play Anywhere as a way of appealing to gamers on computers and consoles. This feature applied to Xbox-exclusive games, allowing players to own both the PC and Xbox copy of the same game while only paying the price for one. For as well as this went over with folks, though, Play Anywhere went beyond creating a relationship between the two platforms – it set the stage for the Xbox ecosystem to take shape.
The next key development for Xbox came with Game Pass’ growing appeal. Though Xbox Game Pass was introduced in 2017 to the Xbox Insider community, it made its biggest impact in 2018 when it was revealed that all first party Xbox games would come to the service the day that they launch. Game Pass was now beginning its journey to become the best deal in video games and proving itself a must-have for Xbox owners.
Xbox opted to capitalize on the newfound success of Game Pass by making it available on different devices. To reinforce the PC and Xbox relationship started with Play Anywhere, Game Pass was introduced for the PC community in 2019 through Game Pass Ultimate. Xbox would later allow Game Pass to be accessible on mobile device via their dedicated app. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s apparent that Xbox investing so much in the cross-platform presence of Game Pass is reflective of how far their priorities have shifted since prior to Spencer’s arrival.
Game Pass is vital to Spencer’s vision for the future of Xbox, representing a move away from the business model of yore. Many recognize that Xbox’s hardware sales are not as impressive as those of PlayStation, but the real money for Xbox isn’t in a strict focus on consoles. Phil Spencer has instead made Game Pass the centerpiece of Xbox’s business strategy, marketing it as a valuable service and allowing it to grow beyond Xbox hardware. However far the reach of Game Pass stretches, there is no doubt that Spencer intends to parlay the service’s gains into greater victories for Xbox.