It’s the day after the largest document leak in Xbox’s history, and now that the important news is on the record, we can all take a step back and process the ridiculousness of the whole situation. One facet that made the debacle so delicious was the insight into Xbox’s corporate communications, from executive emails simmering with ill-concealed annoyance to internal slide decks filled with imaginary quotes from fictional, diehard Xbox fans.
Here we’ve collected a handful of email messages and slides from the Xbox leak that made us giggle, raise our eyebrows, or enact some strange combination of the two:
Wild rumors can lead to actual product discussions
Five months before the launch of the Xbox Series X/S, division chief Phil Spencer was pleased to discover that, due to a series of logistical hurdles, Yakuza: Like a Dragon would be a next-gen Xbox exclusive. He was so pleased, in fact, that he wrote in an email to other executives, “They are really doing a nice job support us, great to see. I love the rumors that we’d launch our Xbox in Japan with a Sega logo on it.” Just 16 minutes later, Spencer followed up with a pitch to actually roll out a limited-edition Sega-branded console in Japan, writing:
There is a root of an idea here. The idea that Sega could have an LE version of XSX in Japan is very interesting. They are doing good work with us on a lot of fronts and it could be something to consider, not the traditional LE but something special if they are up for it. Maybe even a Sega wrap with their IP (including JSR, PSO, Rally, Sonic etc).
The proper people were roped into the thread and it seems the conversation eventually fizzled out, but we’ll still call this a win for the rumor mill.
Valve, a Microsoft company
One of the biggest headlines to spawn from the leak was the fact that Phil Spencer really wanted to buy Nintendo at one point in 2020, calling it a potential “career moment” for himself. We already knew that Microsoft was interested in purchasing Sega and a handful of other major game studios — including ZeniMax, which it successfully acquired in 2021, and Activision-Blizzard, which is the reason we’re reading these internal messages in the first place. The leaked emails reveal additional businesses that Xbox wanted to gobble up, including Warner Bros. Interactive, Valve and TikTok.
“Our BoD has seen the full writeup on Nintendo (and Valve) and they are fully supportive on either if opportunity arises as am I,” Spencer wrote.
Warner Bros. Interactive makes a modicum of sense here, but Valve feels as out-of-reach as Nintendo in terms of a potential acquisition. Valve is a private company and it doesn’t publicly share financial data, but one of Xbox’s slides estimated its 2021 revenue total at $7 billion, about the same as Electronic Arts or Activision-Blizzard. But more than profitability, Valve has a stable position as the leading distributor of PC games via Steam, and it would be completely out-of-character for the company to entertain a buyout.
This whole email thread started because Microsoft Commercial Chief Marketing Officer Takeshi Numoto sent an email to Spencer with the subject line, “random thought.” In it, Numoto expressed confusion over internal discussions to purchase TikTok, suggesting Nintendo as a better option. Neither of these purchases happened, of course.
Mark Cerny talks too much
Sony unveiled the first details about the PlayStation 5 on March 18, 2020, and Microsoft executives discussed the specs that same day in an email chain. The initial breakdown included commentary about PS5 architect Mark Cerny’s presentation, complete with the lines, “Cerny talked at length about the move to SSDs,” and, “Cerny also spent what seemed like a disproportionate amount of time on audio innovations.” In an otherwise sterile, completely professional email, these lines might as well have been direct insults about Cerny’s lineage.
Spencer shared his summary of the PS5’s capabilities with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that same day, concluding with, “This was a good day for Xbox.”
Leave Baldur’s Gate 3 alone
Baldur’s Gate 3 is the surprise, smash-hit RPG of 2023, so it’s interesting to see how Xbox classified it in last year’s internal Game Pass projections. While some games were described as, “Huge PC nostalgia play with new title from legendary designer” (Return to Monkey Island), or, “Sequel to strong GP performer” (Wreckfest 2), Baldur’s Gate 3 was called a “second-run Stadia PC RPG.” It may have technically been true at the time, but it still feels like a personal attack, you know?
Get ’em, Jean-Emile
At one point, Xbox Partner Software Architect Jean-Emile Elien sent an email to Spencer that essentially asked, “Is the Game Pass model going to screw over developers?” Spencer argued, in vague terms at first, that it shouldn’t. The two traded emails over two days, with Elien asking for clarification on how the company will measure a game’s success, and repeating that he wasn’t trying to armchair quarterback. The bureaucratic tension builds up beautifully with each sent message. Here’s a sampling of their discussion:
Elien: “So how should studios now measure their worth to the portfolio? I know you dislike the Netflix analogy, but I am trying to understand the equivalent of ‘ending a show’ in their model.”
Spencer: “Different games perform differently, some are very high on play and therefore a higher impact on retention, others are good top of funnel for attract but don’t get much play. You need both. I’d be lying to you if I told you we had the excel sheet of the value of a game completely figured out.”
Elien: “I’d be really saddened if the reduction of an inherently creative endeavor to a single cell going red was the determinant. How about looking back on the studio closures of the past —would a product like Game Pass have changed your mind on any particular studio’s closure?”
Spencer: “I feel like the highlighted question is a preview of an opinion you have. Do you think gamepass would have saved a studio we once owned?”
Elien: “My turn to say: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t really know what goes into closing a studio: how much funding vs. personnel vs. output feeds into the decision.”
Spencer: “I don’t think we’ve ever closed a studio due to the studio’s P&L. It’s almost always been either from leadership leaving (Lionhead as an example) or team just losing it’s passion (Ensemble as an example).”
Elien: “Fair. … This is also the second time you’ve called me on a ‘question that sounds like an opinion’ which leads me to believe this happens to you a lot. I promise, if I have an opinion that is worth me sending an email, I will give it. I appreciate this forum too much to be disingenuous.”
This is your regularly scheduled reminder that Microsoft’s attempt to acquire Activision-Blizzard is actually all about King, the mobile developer behind Candy Crush. Even though “King” is often left out of the Activision-Blizzard moniker entirely, this studio consistently brings in the most money of any segment.
Here’s how Spencer put it in an email on January 28, 2020, before acquisition talks began: “Activision is unique partner given their King acquisition. Q3 revenue for King was $500M (all mobile) while Activision (Call of Duty) was $209M and Blizzard $394M (leaning PC but also includes mobile and console). Activision is really a mobile first publisher (through their $6B King acquisition).”
Just something to keep in mind as the Microsoft-Activision acquisition continues to play out in court.
Phil seems chill
One of the most adorable takeaways from the leaked Xbox emails is how approachable (and downright nerdy) Spencer seems to be. In the included messages, Spencer responds quickly and thoroughly, and he offers fun ideas for branding and software partnerships amid the corporate speak. It seems like senior-level employees feel comfortable emailing him with feedback and even questioning his goals, which says a lot about his management style.
Also, Spencer’s tone becomes noticeably more formal when he’s emailing Nadella, which is endearing and relatable. Everyone has a boss.
Go to the American Southwest?
If you need us to explain why an Xbox-branded photo of an American highway next to an “inspirational” quote attributed to African Proverb is funny, then we really don’t know why you’re here.
The Voice of the Player™
These appear to be made-up, not-real, imaginary, fictional, fake quotes extolling the virtues of the Xbox ecosystem, placed under photos of people who didn’t say these things. Also, there’s a Series X with sprouts growing out of it. Manifest it, Microsoft.
ZeniMax’s sales pitch
Microsoft’s financial year ends and begins in July, which makes this chart from 2020 even harder to digest. This is how ZeniMax presented its release calendar to Microsoft during acquisition negotiations, and it starts with Starfield coming out by summer 2021, followed by Bethesda’s Indiana Jones game by summer 2022, Doom Year Zero by summer 2023 and Elder Scrolls VI and Dishonored 3 by summer 2024. In actuality, Starfield came out this literal month, and we’ve heard very little — or nothing at all — about Indiana Jones, Elder Scrolls VI or Dishonored 3. Elder Scrolls VI likely isn’t coming out for five more years, in fact. And you thought you were bummed out by major game delays.
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