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It’s too late for Xbox to control the narrative after studio closures

The latest round of Xbox studio closures has further revealed Microsoft’s inability to be proactive and responsive in its communication.

Xbox Game Studios closures communication: a brown haired boy with a cat on his shoulder, next to the Xbox logo

Microsoft is a lumbering giant. The multi-trillion dollar publisher yesterday announced… Sorry, that’s not right… Yesterday it was announced by the press that Xbox Game Studios would be closing three of its recently acquired studios: Arkane Austin, Alpha Dog Games, and Tango Gameworks, with another, Roundhouse Games, being absorbed into ZeniMax Online Studios. Aside from it being yet another horrible industry day in a seemingly never-ending string of horrible industry days, the fact that the gaming goliath didn’t even reveal its own hand is yet another example of its poor communication towards Xbox players.

As of the time of writing, it’s been 24 hours since IGN reported that Xbox is set to go through another devastating round of layoffs. Although there’s much to say about post-acquisition reorganization and reprioritizing what’s important under a new banner, Microsoft isn’t the one saying it – at least, not publicly. That’s because the only way we collectively knew about the major shakeup was via an internal email sent by Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty.

While most normal businesses can simply handle these sorts of things in-house without much fanfare, Microsoft is anything but normal. With a market cap of over $3 trillion, it is the most valuable company in the world – a titan among titans. And with the whole world watching its every move, it can’t simply send out a company-wide email detailing redundancies and studio closures without expecting it to be in the hands of journalists within roughly 30 seconds. By the 30-minute mark, it’s all over the internet, and at that point, the company already has a PR nightmare on its hands as people clamor for answers as to why it’s shutting down the creators of some of the best Xbox games.

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Then, by the 60-minute mark, social media has already drawn its battle lines, as the affected devs begin to speak up about their experiences with no response from Microsoft in sight. At this point, regardless of what the reasoning may be from a business perspective beyond ‘we want to make more money,’ nobody gives a shit. The outcry from seeing another cohort of ridiculously talented people seemingly tossed aside is even more deafening than the corporate silence.

Last year, Microsoft’s VP of games marketing Aaron Greenberg said that Tango Gameworks’ Hi-Fi Rush “was a breakout hit for us and our players in all key measurements and expectations,” and that XGS “couldn’t be happier” with what the team delivered. In light of Tango’s closure, that year-old message has now taken on a more insidious meaning – if even Tango isn’t safe, who is?

This is the exact sort of thing Microsoft needed to instantly address. Though I don’t know if there have been reassurances internally, I can’t imagine how the Ninja Theory team must be feeling right now knowing that, even if the imminent Hellblade 2 pops off, reviews well, and scoops awards like Hi-Fi Rush did, the UK-based dev could still face the axe. A company of this magnitude can’t expect a matter of this gravity to idly cruise through the news cycle, no matter how inconvenient it is to address. Microsoft needs to realize this, and be proactive and clear in its communications – not just with the public, but with its own teams.

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This is also now the second time this year that Microsoft has been left playing catchup. For over a month between the new year and February’s eventual business update, reports of every Xbox exclusive under the sun setting up shop on PS5 ran amok, leading to more than just a few disgruntled players.

As soon as the rumor mill started to churn at full pelt, with insiders (some more reputable than others) getting in on the action, Xbox should’ve been ready to instill calm, control the narrative, and retain confidence – the fact it took so long tells me it’s either naive or sluggish, and now we’re seeing a similar situation unfold again. If it’s the former, it’s time to wake up, if it’s the latter, then I have to wonder how many layers of corporate chaff it has to go through to get its messaging out.

If it’s an issue of speed, then Microsoft needs to learn to be more flexible – especially in the gaming space. Though it may think itself too large to bother itself with the opinions of players and press alike, it will eventually experience a rude awakening when its bottom line is affected – just look at how the internet rallied against Sony over the recent Helldivers 2 fiasco. The Xbox message “when everyone plays, we all win” espouses interconnectedness, yet in this moment it feels a million miles away from that.

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