#197: Mock the weak
A downcast Phil Spencer paints a bleak picture of Xbox's future.
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Phil Spencer was back in the spotlight yesterday, appearing on Kinda Funny’s Xcast show (nope, me neither) to talk over last week’s CMA ruling, this week’s Redfall disaster, and where Xbox goes from here. It has been rapturously well received in certain quarters for its candour, and sure, Spencer deserves credit for coming out and taking his lumps, acknowledging the mistakes made around Redfall in particular, and being far more open about his and his division’s failings than we have come to expect from a senior executive in the game industry. But if his goal was to put the Xbox community’s minds at ease, I’m not sure it worked. I ended the interview more worried about the current and future state of Xbox than I was before I sat down.
Our focus today is a topic that is particularly close to Hit Points’ heart, and its wallet: the shadowy game-consulting operation it runs when it is not shushing the children, walking the dog or writing a modestly popular newsletter. Earlier today I spoke to Eurogamer a bit about this; if you’ve read that already, forgive me for repeating myself a little. It happens once you get to my age.
“We do mock reviews for every game we launch,” Spencer said, “and [Redfall] is double digits lower than where we thought we would be. That’s one of the disappointing things: we would never strive to launch a game we thought was going to review in the low 60s — it’s not part of our goals.”
For the uninitiated, mock reviews are a way for game companies to get a sense of how the press is going to respond to a new game before release. Former journalists and other media types play through an in-progress build of the game, write a review in the style of an outlet of their choice, then forecast that outlet’s eventual review score and a likely overall Metascore. If mock reviews are being conducted shortly before a game’s launch, as appears to have been the case with Redfall, they can help a developer or publisher set expectations internally for how the game is going to go over when the review embargo lifts. If they’re being done earlier — which, in a perfect world, all of them would be — they can help identify pain points for the development team to focus on addressing in a project’s final stretch, in the hope of bumping up the eventual Metascore by a percentage point or 12.
Hit Points writes a lot of mock reviews, and is quite good at them, I think. (My lovely clients seem to agree.) In my career as a journalist I reviewed over 300 games for the most respected and feared outlet in the industry. I know my onions, I reckon, not only in terms of what Edge is likely to make of a given game but of how the wider media, and then the target audience, will respond to it as well. Good game consulting is not just about knowing what makes a game good or bad, though of course that’s vitally important. It’s about understanding industry trends and consumer behaviour patterns: knowing what players and press are excited about, resistant to, or furious at the mere sight of.
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While a mock reviewer will likely overlook bugs and minor technical and performance issues — assuming in good faith that the game is still being worked on — those are not the reason Redfall has reviewed so poorly. Its empty world, rudimentary AI, clumsy storytelling and live-service trappings would have been as obvious in a mock-review build a couple of months ago as they are in the game that launched this week, and all of them would naturally impact on score projections. With all that in mind I am stunned that any mock reviewer worth their salt would pin Redfall’s likely Metascore in the mid-to-upper 70s, as Spencer seems to be implying. (I also believe a platform holder should not be satisfied with such a projection — particularly when said platform holder is currently languishing in third place — and that any Metascore starting with a 7 should set alarm bells ringing, but that’s another conversation.)
So, if we take Spencer at face value, the first thing to say is: buddy, your mock reviewers have let you down. They have failed at the first hurdle — of being able to accurately identify a game’s strengths and weaknesses, to understand the broader industry landscape, and to not be afraid to be the bearer of bad news — and so you should use some different folks next time. I can recommend you half a dozen, and I promise only one of them is me. (I’m the best though, obviously.)
The thing is, I can’t take Phil at his word here. It just doesn’t stack up. His suggestion is that the Xbox division, and particularly its management team, had no reason to dispute what the mock reviews were telling them. How is that possible? I have written dozens of mock reviews since I left Edge a few years ago, and I don’t think I’ve ever told a client something they didn’t already know. Most of the time I’m there to confirm suspicions, break deadlocks, or help overworked PRs prove to their bosses that they are not, in fact, about to release a Metacritic 95. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the Xbox division is set up in such a way that it has no insight into the state and quality of its firstparty games, though it would certainly explain a lot.
While Spencer hits a lot of the right notes in this interview, I find his tone worryingly fatalistic. He downplays Microsoft’s prospects constantly, making the striking claim that great games won’t transform Xbox’s fortunes (“There is no world where Starfield's an 11/10 and people start selling their PS5. It's not gonna happen” — gosh, we could spend a whole Hit Points on that) and acting as if bad review scores are somehow beyond his and Microsoft’s control. He makes a joke about being overpaid, and another one about being fired. At several points I wondered what was really being gained from all this self-flagellating, and whether he should have just told Arkane to put out the standard launch-debacle Twitter apology and leave it there.
Perhaps this is simply force of habit; after all, Microsoft has spent the past 12 months casting itself as a plucky young upstart, lagging badly behind the competition, to try and get Acquisition Blizzard over the line. What worries me is that Phil has been in character for so long that he’s starting to believe it’s true. Microsoft has the finances, the talent and the infrastructure to not just compete, but to dominate. If Spencer doesn’t think he can do it, perhaps it’s time he passed the reins to someone who can.
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