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Phil Spencer says he's open to bringing stores like Epic and Itch.io to Xbox consoles

 Phil Spencer giving a talk on stage, wearing a t-shirt with an 'X' on it.
Phil Spencer giving a talk on stage, wearing a t-shirt with an 'X' on it.

Historically, exclusive game releases have been a powerful weapon in the console war: Customers are more apt to buy a certain piece of hardware if that's the only way they can get the particular games they want to play. In an interview with Polygon, Xbox boss Phil Spencer said Microsoft is now leaning away from that strategy, to the point that he's even open to the idea of having digital storefronts like the Epic Games Store and Itch.io on Xbox consoles.

It was a big deal earlier this year when rumors that Microsoft was planning to bring Xbox-exclusive games to PlayStation first began to surface. It ultimately proved to be true, although only a small number of games—and none of the big ones—are currently set to make the move. But it really seemed to set the tone for the future: In a podcast confirming the Xbox-to-PlayStation pipeline, Spencer said that over the next five to 10 years, console-exclusive games "are going to be a smaller and smaller part of the games industry."

Speaking to Polygon at GDC, Spencer said the shift is aimed at helping to restore growth to the industry by making more games available to more people on more platforms—something younger gamers tend to take for granted.

"This notion that Xbox can only be this one device that plugs into a television isn’t something we see in the Gen Z research," Spencer said. "Because nothing else is like that for them. Some of them will have an iPhone, some will have an Android, but all the games and everything is the same. I can still get to TikTok on both of them, at least for now.

"All of their stuff is available wherever they want. So for Xbox, our brand pivot—as we attract and maintain relevance with a younger audience—is ‘Xbox is a place where I can find the great games I want to?'"

I'm not so sure that "everything is the same," as Spencer put it. Crossplay is a fairly common feature these days but I have an Android and my partner has an iPhone, and interoperability is not high on the list of things they do well. On the console front, Nintendo is a complete walled garden and Sony has done pretty well for itself with PlayStation exclusives too. Epic has been famously battling with Apple for years over the stringent conditions of access to its platform.

What makes more sense to me is the idea of coming at the problem from the other direction by bringing other storefronts, like EGS or Itch.io—maybe even Steam?—to Xbox consoles, an idea Spencer said he's open to. "[Consider] our history as the Windows company," he said. "Nobody would blink twice if I said, ‘Hey, when you’re using a PC, you get to decide the type of experience you have [by picking where to buy games]. There’s real value in that."

Spencer feels like he's "more a continuous part of a gaming ecosystem as a whole" when gaming on PC, he said. On consoles, though, "my gaming is kind of sharded—to use a gaming term—based on these different closed ecosystems I have to cross."

There are real practical reasons for Microsoft wanting to move away from Xbox exclusives. Spencer said that while PC and mobile gaming are growing, the console market is not, and subsidizing the cost of console production in order to boost revenues through game sales isn't necessarily viable in the long run. He may also be prompted to consider big changes like this because of waning interest in Xbox consoles: A recent GamesIndustry podcast said Xbox console sales in Europe are "flatlining," to the point that some publishers are questioning the value of supporting the console at all.

This obviously isn't something that's going to happen anytime soon, if at all. The practical considerations are massive—adapting to the needs of console certification alone would likely be a major headache, and of course the Wild West ways of Steam just would not fly as-is—and Microsoft isn't ready to run up the white flag in the console wars just yet. At the same time it confirmed that some Xbox exclusives are in fact going to PlayStation, it also committed to the future of Xbox consoles: Xbox president Sarah Bond said the company is focused on "delivering the largest technical leap you will have ever seen in a hardware generation" with its next series of consoles.