While Sony and Nintendo undoubtedly had better years than Xbox, led by Phil Spencer, put in some work that will pay off in the long term.
It’s undeniable that Sony had the best year by far this year. They did. It’s also undeniable that Nintendo managed to have their 20 million gambit come dangerously close to fruition (and maybe all the way—we’ll know next year). However, for my money, the most important figure in the console industry this year was Phil Spencer.
This is not because this was a particularly great year for Xbox. It wasn’t. While the console did better this year than last year, thanks to the launch of the Xbox One X, it was still consistently lagging behind the PS4 and Switch. It wasn’t because it did much better on the games front this year than the last year. Though multiplatform games play best on Xbox One X, on the exclusives front the One was a severe letdown, with Sea of Thieves disappointing, State of Decay 2 disappointing, and Crackdown 3 getting delayed again. Only Forza Horizon 4 managed to be great, and while it was great, it was also the fourth Forza Horizon game, and the eleventh(!) Forza game overall, so the luster is starting to come off a bit.
Instead, Spencer gets this credit because, while recognizing the current weaknesses of the Xbox, he went above and beyond to repair the damage done to the brand, and position Xbox for a better stab at the market in the future. Make no mistake, 2018 was not the best year for the Xbox—but going forward, it may come to be viewed as the most historically significant one, all because of Spencer.
For instance, this was the year that Spencer finally put his money where his mouth is, and delivered on his promise for compelling services. And how did he do that? By turning Game Pass into a prime delivery method for Microsoft’s game. Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that they will release every single one of their first party games on Game Pass day and date—meaning effectively you don’t need to buy them, you just need a Game Pass subscription. The move sent ripple waves across the Xbox ecosystem, and many third party games, such as Ashen and Below, are now also jumping on board the Game Pass day and date release bandwagon. With over 200 games available on it off the bat, Game Pass is unbeatable value in the console market right now.
Spencer upped the ante on fan communication as well. Over the past few years, there has been a general complaint that Microsoft simply cedes the battle for mindshare to Sony and Nintendo—while those two companies show up at E3, and have stage shows and year long Direct presentations respectively, Microsoft just has E3, and not much else.
This year, Spencer decided to tackle that issue head on: he brought back Inside Xbox as a monthly show to act as an update on the immediate updates for the Xbox platform, its services, and games; and he brought back X0, the annual stage show convention Microsoft used to host, but dropped midway through the Xbox 360 era.
The naming of those shows wasn’t an accident either—though they scant resemble the originals, they are both meant to evoke a sense of loyalty and nostalgia from the Xbox fan base, and evoking nostalgia was also something Spencer went all in on this year, especially with the revival of the iconic “Jump In” ad campaign that marked the early Xbox 360 days.
But for all of these achievements, none of this would matter if Spencer was still not willing to put his money where his mouth is on the all important subject of games. See, he has stated before multiple times that games are important, and something Microsoft needs to invest in, but nothing meaningful has come of that. We have seen Microsoft invest in all sorts of services and initiatives before multiple times without actually focusing on the central aspect of running a games platform, the games, to fall for the act again: what use is all of this other stuff if there are no promising games on Xbox?
Spencer heard the criticism, and addressed it. This year, Microsoft purchased six new studios, and set one brand new one up. These studios include fan favourite action game maestros Ninja Theory; the makers of Forza Horizon Playground Games; the makers of State of Decay Undead labs; the makers of We Happy Few, Compulsion Games; and the brand new studio in Santa Monica that they set up, The Initiative.
The best thing is, each of those studios gets to be independent, with minimal interference from Microsoft. None of these studios gets mandates to push microtransactions or the like into their games. Each of these studios gets to work on major single player games to try and compel people who aren’t convinced by the usual cycle of Halo, Gears of War, and Forza to look into picking up an Xbox.
The problem with Xbox lacking meaningful exclusives isn’t solved entirely yet. Microsoft has purchased studios, but it will be years before they turn out games, and until then, all we have to look forward on the horizon is more Halo, more Gears, and Crackdown 3, hopefully. But Spencer has recognized an actual weakness with Xbox, and, like so many other weaknesses he identified, actively worked to address it. That alone deserves mad credit and plaudits.
By the time we see the fruit bear for all these things Spencer has done, it will be many years from now. The Xbox One and One X will be old news, and their successor, apparently codenamed Scarlett, will be on the market. Scarlett will be what benefits from the seeds being sown right now.
But all of that future potential success that Xbox may have years down the line, it was this year where the groundwork was done. In a year where we had so many other accomplishments across the industry, it was Phil Spencer and the work he did, which will have the most long term repurcussions. Crowning him as the “gaming personality of the year” doesn’t seem to be a half bad notion when put that way.