Xbox Has a Leadership Problem
I think it is fair to say, Xbox has a problem. We can all see it and we all want it resolved, well all of us except the hardcore fanboys anyway. But I don’t think the problem is as obvious or as straightforward as it may seem. Constant delays and the lack of new exclusives for long periods are symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. There is something in the corporation that is causing these issues, a root from which the problems grow. No, I firmly believe that Xbox has a leadership problem, but it isn’t Phil Spencer or even Sataya Nadella, it is a much harder position to identify and treat.
That position is the “middle” man for lack of a better term. The people that sit between the big wigs and the studios, that is where the problem is. CEOs confirm strategic direction and business goals, it is up to the next level down in the corporate structure to provide guidance and tools to the rest of the organisation so they can reach those goals. This simple structure is big corporation basics, but I am fairly confident that this is where Xbox is falling down. This isn’t happening because of incompetence either, but a well-meaning and commendable policy that Microsoft has been rightly applauded for.
That policy is their “hands-off” policy with regard to studios. It has been well documented and supported that Microsoft is very good at letting studios do their thing, create the games they want and run things the way that suits them. I love the idea and the intent behind this. For too many years we have seen our favourite studios gobbled up and forced to churn out games that tow the company line (*cough* EA *cough*.) So with Microsoft basically letting these developers bring their ideas to life in their own way while providing things like financial stability and marketing support, it was easy to get behind the idea. After all, you don’t buy Double Fine to work on a military shooter or inXile to create a sports game, you want them part of your organisation because of what they already do well and hope that your support can take those games to the next level.
Where this idea falls down however is the assumption that each of the studios has good leadership and direction in place to begin with. That these studios are able to take this freedom and wealth of resources and utilise them in an effective manner. This is sadly not the case, as has clearly been shown through the massive amount of delays and lack of content in recent times. Sure the hands-off approach can work with someone like Double Fine because they have that leader. Tim Schafer has been there and done everything in the industry and knows that building and running a studio is more than just having a crew of talented devs and specialists at hand. I also feel like inXile is in the same boat. Once again, Brian Fargo is someone who knows the drill, and knows how to lead and guide, so as a result they still meet expectations.
But leadership is often an undefinable, untrainable quality. It is an elusive trait that often doesn’t present itself until needed or is absent from the people in charge. This is not a slight on anyone running these studios at all, every single studio under the Microsoft banner is as talented as hell and has the potential to make amazing experiences. Where I think Microsoft has let them down is that they haven’t provided the guidance and leadership to these particular studios that they need. They need people in management positions that can guide and mould, that can take these talented folks and help the focus that talent, get them to the finish line, find efficiencies in processes and get the most out of their developers all the while maintaining a healthy working environment and encouraging creativity. It is a tough spot to fill, no doubt, but to be successful that is what is needed.
I think this is one of the key differences between Playstation and Xbox. As far as the big guys go, If I owned a giant publisher I would probably want Phil Spencer in charge over Jim Ryan, but it is that next level down that Sony has all the right people in all the right places. They have the people that can guide the talented teams under their banner, they have the people that can bring all the moving parts of a studio together to create wonder and joy. This, more than studio acquisitions, hardware differences or consumer policies is why Sony feels like such a well-oiled machine while it often feels like Xbox is left scrambling.
So the problem then is Microsoft very likely needs to alter its hands-off policy. They need to somehow implement a way to give these studios the leadership they need, the person or people that can get all the wheels turning in the right direction. Xbox has a responsibility to these studios that find themselves under the corporate banner to provide a guide that can do all of this without compromising the studio’s independence, without forcing them down a particular route. I can’t help but feel that games like Halo Infinite would be in a much better position had the appropriate leadership been there since day one, that the reported problems at The Initiative (though that, according to reports, has seemingly since been sorted) would be non-existent if Xbox had been more hands-on instead of letting them do their own thing.
This holds especially true if the Activision/Blizzard deal goes ahead. This is a giant company with thousands of employees who haven’t had a good leader at the highest level for as long as I can remember. They are a group of amazingly talented developers that have been chewed up by the corporate line for such a long time that they are in desperate need of a guiding hand, a soft touch that can provide freedoms they haven’t ever had, but still, point them towards the finish line. Should this deal go ahead Microsoft just has to get this right, there is no room for failure here. If they are going to spend 69 billion dollars on buying these studios then they have a moral imperative to give them everything they need to flourish and that starts with good leaders.
Xbox has come a very long way since the darkest days of Don Mattrick’s misguided leadership. Phil Spencer has proven to be both shrewd and likeable. He has an approachable everyman quality that resonates with the gaming public and he seems like he genuinely wants the best for all. But, as the big boss, he has to accept his share of the blame, he has to realise that he has missed a trick. In his, and by extension Xbox’s, desire to let studios be free, they may have created a problem that is going to haunt them for some time. It is easy to say that, due to the timing of both their studio acquisitions and the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic and lockdowns hit Xbox extra hard, that other publishers were better positioned to weather the effects of a society-changing virus as they were more established. That is, quite frankly true, Xbox got hammered more than most, but at the same time the effect of that hammering would have been significantly less had they had the right people in the right places to guide the teams through this tough time.
I think that Xbox, as a whole, is doing some great things. I love the variety of projects on the way, there is seemingly a game coming for everyone. I love the accessibility and cloud initiatives that are bringing gaming to more people. I love what Gamepass brings to the table, especially in the context of putting a spotlight on smaller titles. Finally, I love that all the studios that Xbox has brought under their banner feel like they aren’t being interfered with and that they are still able to make the games they want to make. What I don’t love is constantly being let down by delays and lack of releases and that will continue to happen if they don’t get the right leaders in the right places. Xbox has a leadership problem and until it can solve that, it will forever struggle for the consistency of releases that is expected from its players. If they can get it right though, if they can find that magic balance between hands-off and corporate interference, well the only way is up for the big black box under your TV.