Microsoft made a rare move last week when it put Phil Spencer — a gamer, a gamemaker, and a game leader — in charge of its Xbox business. That was the way that the Xbox division began almost 15 years ago, and that’s the way it should be.
Spencer has been at Microsoft for 26 years, starting as a programming intern. He helped make games such as Fable and Rise of Nations. He loves titles like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, one of the top indie hits from last year. He has gaming in his blood, like Ed Fries, the original head of Microsoft’s game business and the man who brought Spencer into Microsoft’s game division. I would argue that this is one case where it makes sense to put a gamer in charge of the whole thing and that, in many leadership decisions, you won’t go wrong if you do.
Of course, I can’t argue that you should put a gamer with no business experience in charge of a big business. And there have been plenty such folk who have stepped up to lead game companies and failed miserably. But given a pool of candidates who have business backgrounds and the number of gamers who are reaching leadership age, I would expect that the gamer would make the right choices when it comes to the intersection of creativity, business, and technology.
As you can see in the video below, Microsoft started selling Spencer as the man who will be the keeper of the flame at Xbox. And that warms my heart. Microsoft wants gamers to feel warm and fuzzy about its leadership at a time when the Xbox One, the console that Microsoft launched in November, is in second place compared to the less expensive Sony PlayStation 4.
Many times in the past, I’ve seen companies choose someone other than the chief gamer to be in charge. And the consequences of doing that can be pretty bad for gamers. Those leaders will think about other things first. Like profits. Or mainstream branding. Or marketing a platform. To me, it never made sense to put the bean counters in charge of something that was part entertainment, part business, and part art.
Fries left Microsoft in 2004. He wasn’t able to call the shots. He wanted to expand, but his bosses wanted the Xbox division to be profitable, and they ordered up a bunch of cutbacks. Rather than execute the layoffs across the game studios, Fries resigned. Microsoft didn’t have gamers in charge when it went forward with shipments of flawed Xbox 360s in 2005, and it paid a heavy price for that strategy in the eyes of gamers.
Sony is winning now in part because it trusted the game team. Kaz Hirai, the former head of PlayStation, is now CEO. Andrew House, the former marketing chief of PlayStation, is running Sony’s game division, Sony Computer Entertainment. And Mark Cerny, a longtime developer behind big franchises like Crash Bandicoot and the more recent Knack, was the chief architect of the PlayStation 4. This team, which until recently also included Sony’s North American game boss Jack Tretton, learned some tough lessons from the failure of the PlayStation 3, devised a comeback plan with the PS4, and has executed on it so far.
Hirai may or may not be able to save Sony. But the PS4 is riding high, and I don’t think that it will be the business that brings Sony down. Last year, Electronic Arts turned to Andrew Wilson, a former game studio head, to be its CEO. We’re still waiting to see if Wilson can turn around the ship. But things are looking reasonably good.
Above: Nintendo chief executive Satoru Iwata.
Of course, my call for game leaders sort of falls apart when you look at Nintendo. Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created Mario, is in charge of making games. And Satoru Iwata, a former game developer, is the president. But Nintendo’s Wii U is a dud, and gamers have grown tired of the same old fare. I have to say that I’m intrigued at Iwata’s attempt to shift Nintendo toward health-related games. He’s trying to shake things up, and he did it before with the Wii, which was a huge success with more than 100 million units sold. His plan is good, but he really needs a greater sense of urgency to right the ship. So I’m not ready to concede that my faith in gamer leadership is wrong.
As I look around the industry, I see gamers coming of age. They have spent their lives playing games, making games, and moving up the corporate ladder. Like Spencer, who put in his time at Microsoft and rose through the ranks, they’re ready. They are CEO material. Even the biggest game companies can be led by people who have grown up as gamers. Look at people like Ilkka Paananen, the CEO of Supercell, a gamer who has built a mobile gaming giant with just two titles and $892 million in revenue in 2013. There are plenty of others like him.
If you’re going to try to beat the companies that are led by gamers in the game business, you better come up with your own crop of game leaders. That’s because a game leader has to be really convincing in gathering an internal team that builds out the right platform. He has to win over developers who will build a game for that company’s platform because they believe in the leader. And he has to make a case to the gamer and spell out why they should take the leap of faith and invest in a new game platform because it will be the dominant platform years from now. Building a video game business requires a lot of faith, and that faith is easier to come by if you believe in the leader.
These gamers would also be good as a new generation of leaders across our society. (Just look at the proponents of “game theory” to get a sense of why it makes sense to put gamers in charge). These gamers are competitive bastards. President Obama’s children play games, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a President who plays games? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a new generation of politicians who understand games rather than this generation represented by Leland Yee, the now disgraced California Assemblyman who faces charges of corruption and was once the scourge of the video game industry over violent game legislation? Wouldn’t we be better off if gamers were running companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft? I would wager yes.
Now there’s one requirement for these gamer leaders to do when they take charge of the game business. They have to realize that they’re not really in charge of the game business. They have to understand what the fans want, and deliver it to them. You see, the gamers are in charge. The game leaders only serve at the behest of the gamers who enjoy the games. Any leader who forgets that, gamer or not, is bound to fail.
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