Xbox executives just cannot give a straight answer to questions about Tango Gameworks

Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios at Microsoft Corp., speaks during a Bloomberg interview at the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.
(Image credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Earlier this year Microsoft announced the closure of four major studios on the same day, among which number was the Tokyo-based developer Tango Gameworks. Founded in 2010 by industry legend Shinji Mikami, best-known for creating Resident Evil, the studio developed the (excellent) Evil Within games as part of an eclectic output, with its most recent release the well-received rhythm beat-em-up Hi-Fi Rush

Tango's games were generally well-liked, and indeed Xbox executive Aaron Greenberg called the launch of Hi-Fi Rush (which was announced and released on GamePass on the same day) "a breakout hit for us and our players in all key measurements and expectations [...] We couldn’t be happier with what the team at Tango Gameworks delivered with this surprise release." In that context especially the closure felt like an absolutely brutal decision, one that left peers bemoaning that making a good game that sells well "will no longer keep you safe in this industry."

For whatever reason, Tango Gameworks has become the particular focal point of these studio closures, inasmuch as it is the decision that the Xbox suits keep getting asked about. And the problem is that so far they've done little more than open mouth and insert foot. 

President of Xbox Sarah Bond was asked about the closure in May, and spent about a minute saying absolutely nothing. Then CEO of Microsoft Gaming Phil Spencer waffled on about "doing the right thing for the individuals on the team", how "it's not about my PR, it's not about Xbox PR, it's about those teams," and how "I have to make hard decisions that frankly are not decisions I love, but decisions that somebody needs to go make."

It's all so vague, even verging on avoidance, that you're wondering why there isn't a straight answer. If the rationale was as cold and ruthless as "Tango's games don't sell in the quantities we expect for a first party studio" then Microsoft would rightly come in for some criticism, but would also lay the matter to rest. Instead what Microsoft is doing now, as exemplified by today's developments, is implying some highly questionable stuff through a surfeit of word salad.

Trouble at the top

Speaking to Variety's Strictly Business podcast (and first spotted by Eurogamer), Xbox executive Matt Booty was asked about Tango's closure, and specifically whether Microsoft had looked into finding a buyer rather than shuttering it.

"I won't get into the real sort of nitty gritty details on what went into the decision, mostly out of respect for the people there, just because you know, there was a lot of work that went into delivering Hi-Fi Rush, which was a great game and you know did well for us," says Booty, and so far, so usual.

After some more verbiage about how Microsoft has to be "forward looking" when making decisions like this, Booty then steps on a bit of a rake. "There are a lot of things that go into success for a game. You know, what leadership do you have? What creative leadership do you have? Is the team the same team that shipped something successful previously?

"And we have to look at all of those things together and then ask ourselves, are we set up for success going forward? And while there may have been factors and situations that previously led to success, they may not all still be in place as you look at what you're doing going forward."

Shinji Mikami on stage.

(Image credit: Christian Peterson via Getty)

What Booty is saying here seems an unmistakable reference to the departure of Tango founder Shinji Mikami in early 2023, and puts the Xbox executive on some fairly questionable ground. Is Booty really trying to shift part of the blame for Tango's closure onto Mikami's decision to leave? Is he really saying that Tango didn't have the leadership or team to deliver another successful game? Because that seems frankly insulting.

Or is Booty just trying to give a non-answer, listing random reasons they consider, and making things worse? Answers on a postcard to Phil Spencer's office, please.

What is especially galling about Booty's remarks is that Mikami, one of the greatest directors in gaming history, had set up Tango specifically in order to train new creators and guide their projects as producer. Mikami of course directed the studio's first game, The Evil Within, but after that served as executive producer on the sequel (directed by John Johanas), on Ghostwire Tokyo (Kenji Kimura), and Hi-Fi Rush (Johanas again).

In other words Mikami hasn't been the creative lead at Tango since 2014, and they've put out three games since then. So Booty's comments about leadership and shipping something successfully in this context seem, at the very least, ill-judged and disrespectful. If nothing else it's a good example of how being nonspecific about this decision has harmed Microsoft more than just coming out with a straightforward rationale for why it happened.

So expect this to rumble on, at least until someone from Microsoft says something that draws a line under it. It's true that sometimes in cases like these, where you're talking about a lot of people losing their jobs, the best thing to do is say nothing. But Microsoft's people keep saying little things here and there that don't add up, and you wonder how on Earth it could ever be this complicated. The idea that Microsoft is money-oriented is not going to surprise anyone!

What bakes my noodle is that these people are media trained out the wazoo, experienced at dealing with the press, and have enormous PR teams dedicated to honing their messaging. The Microsoft executives must know this question is coming in every interview now, yet their answers make it seem like they're either unprepared, inarticulate, or just verbalising a shrug emoji. No-one expects these people to come out and wear a hairshirt. But it would be nice if, sometimes, they spoke to the audience like adults.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."