A few months later, Spencer took over as head of Xbox. Whatever jubilation he felt was short-lived; a few weeks into the job, he got a call from Satya Nadella, Microsoft's new CEO. "I don't actually know a whole lot about why we're in gaming," Nadella told him.
It seemed like a good time to ask that question. Spencer was facing a lot of internal scrutiny from his own team. Many developers who had worked on the Xbox One felt let down by Microsoft's big vision; it was, as some told Spencer, not in line with "the soul" of what Xbox was. "Satya was transparent that there could be a future where gaming isn't a business that Microsoft should be in," Spencer told me. "But it's better to have it above the table than below the table, right?" Spencer tried to work out what to say to Nadella. He looked at where Xbox had failed, and how the brand could be saved--if at all. When he finally called Nadella back, it was to say this: "If we're going to stay in the gaming space, then let's make sure we're all-in. The last thing I wanted to do was run the gaming organization here as kind of an afterthought of the company and kind of half-in, half-out. Let's go fix who we are."
Many saw this as Microsoft's first act of atonement for the Xbox One snafu. The second came a year later, and it was led by Spencer. He pushed Nadella to acquire Mojang, the Swedish developer of Minecraft, for $2.5 billion--a move that gave Microsoft exclusive control over the most popular game in the world at the time. The company could have easily forced people to buy a Microsoft platform if they wanted to keep playing Minecraft. Instead, Microsoft announced the game would continue to be available on all platforms, including those of its direct competitors. It was an unprecedented move for a publisher of Microsoft's size. "One of the first calls we got after the Minecraft acquisition was from Sony saying, Are you going to pull it off PlayStation?'," Spencer said. "And I'm like, Why would I do that? People like playing it on PlayStation.'"
"Nintendo is a strong player in this industry," Spencer told me in May. "Do I wish every Switch player was also an Xbox owner? That would be awesome, but that's not going to happen. Sony is the same way. I don't think gaming is better if Xbox somehow replaces PlayStation."
At the front of the line, Spencer seemed a little distracted. "I'd love to find Hitman and Megatron after this," he said, scanning the room. Three years ago, Spencer got an Xbox Live invitation to play Destiny with a man named Keith Garlington ("Hitman"), a father of two who runs a funeral home in Arkansas. "Phil had talked a lot publicly about being a dad and not having enough time to play games, so I just sent him a message saying, Hey, I'm a dad too," Garlington told me recently. Spencer and Garlington now play together a few nights a week. They're usually joined by Amin Cooper ("Megatron"), who works construction and lives in New Jersey. The three men talk about life, work, and family as they drive around in Forza and co-op on Destiny 2 strikes. "We know each other's wives' names. We know each other's kids' names. We know what we're all doing next weekend," Spencer told me. "What other social construct would put these three random people together like this?"
In 2017, Spencer was promoted to Nadella's senior leadership team, becoming the executive vice president of gaming and reporting directly to Nadella himself. "There's no part or thing that happens at Xbox that Phil doesn't want to know about or be a part of," Matt Booty, the current head of Xbox Game Studios, told me recently. "He is always thinking about where we need to be and how to get there. He is like a chess player in that way, always planning five steps ahead. If you just trust in that, he will get you there."
The first person Spencer bumped into was Steve Singer, Nintendo America's vice president of licensing, who, upon spotting Spencer, promptly gave him the middle finger. It was all for show, of course--the two men hugged warmly and talked shop out of earshot. Even inside the booth of a direct rival, Spencer's fans weren't far off. A young volunteer in a red Nintendo shirt spotted him and jogged over to say hi; it turns out the two know each other from Xbox Live.
But perhaps his biggest investment in the future of Xbox has been in the slow but steady acquisition of a number of well-known studios, including Ninja Theory, Obsidian, and Tim Schafer's legendary Double Fine Studios. "I think people want us to do a better job with our first-party games," Spencer told me.
For his part, Schafer was initially skeptical of the acquisition. Firstly, it wasn't something that he'd been thinking about. Secondly, he was worried about potentially putting Double Fine's identity at risk. "Like, do we all change our emails to Microsoft emails and paint all the walls green?" he told me. What ultimately changed his mind was a phone call to the folks at Ninja Theory, who told him that Microsoft's insistence on letting first-party studios just keep doing what they wanted with minimal interference was true. "They said, We are still who we are. They're letting us make the kind of games we want to make.' And that was a huge thing for me. I could see how it makes sense--it makes sense not to have them convert us to making Forza DLC or something."
When the discussions became more serious, Spencer invited Schafer out for a drink during this year's DICE Awards. He laid out what the acquisition would mean for Microsoft, and what it would mean for Double Fine. "I've worked with a lot of different publishers over the years and they all have their own personalities and styles--but Phil is just a very legit individual," Schafer said. "He's made a lot of really great public statements about diversity and making games a positive force in the world, which really mesh with Double Fine's own mission. It kind of cemented that feeling that this is the right thing to do."
If he'd wanted a second opinion, Schafer might have also called 343 Industries, the veteran Microsoft studio that oversees the entirety of its Halo franchise. The studio's head, Bonnie Ross, has worked with Spencer for more than two decades. A few weeks before E3, Spencer dropped in at 343 to give Ross and her team feedback on a demo for Halo: Reach on PC.