The release of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 (BG3) earlier this month has made it onto the radar of virtually everyone on the internet with even a mild interest in games and entertainment.
The game became:
- One of the most played games on Steam, beating forever juggernauts like Dota 2 and PUBG
- One of the highest-rated videogames of alltime, crossing GTA V and Red Dead Redemption,
- The highest-rated game released this year, surpassing the critically acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
- The highest-rated PC game of alltime, joining the likes of Disco Elysium and Half-Life 2
Indeed, the stars aligned to create a specific set of conditions to give birth to something special and mostly irreplicable. Let’s dive into what made BG3 roll a 20 to achieve critical and commercial success.
What is Baldur’s Gate 3?
BG3 isn’t just another turn-based RPG. The game is based on the tabletop turn-based RPG Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). The D&D IP itself is owned by Wizards of the Coast (WotC), of Magic: The Gathering fame, and has been a subsidiary of Hasbro since 1999. At its heart, D&D is about player-driven storytelling, where the game rules and components create a social playground for collective creativity and give rise to memorable, unique experiences based on player decisions.
The Baldur’s Gate IP is set in the Forgotten Realms campaign, which is one of the most popular D&D settings, including this year’s D&D film Honor Among Thieves. The D&D 5th Edition ruleset — combined with the world, lore, and characters of the Forgotten Realms — covers a lot of ground and helps make BG3 an RPG with a rich story, as well as deep progression and gameplay systems. Like in D&D, the player rolls a D20 (20-sided dice) to resolve in-game events like critical hits in battle or lock picking when exploring.
A key feature of BG3 is the robust character creator, with the option to create an entire party of four custom characters, a combination of seven preexisting origin characters, or a party made online with other players’ characters. The store page on Steam does a great job of summarizing what BG3 is — “a story-rich, party-based RPG set in the universe of Dungeons & Dragons, where your choices shape a tale of fellowship and betrayal, survival and sacrifice, and the lure of absolute power.”
As part of romancing party members, players can explore some wildly alternate explicit content, like having sex with a Druid in bear form. This was revealed during a livestream before the game’s release, when fans got their first in-depth look at what was effectively the finished game one month ahead of launch. The strong positive response to the reveal, as well as highly viral bear memes, led to sales skyrocketing on Steam.
The role of sexual content in a game’s critical or commercial success is hard to delineate. The aforementioned Top 10 games of all time list contains five titles with an 18-plus rating and similar content to the likes of Rockstar's series such as GTA and Red Dead Redemption. They all contain sexually explicit content but combined with high-quality narratives and gameplay, unlike many of the low-quality games made for titillation that populate Steam.
For BG3, explicit sexual content works in favor of broadening the audience. Older players are more likely to be fans of old-school D&D and approach BG3 with a love for its complex rules and choices. For a younger audience unfamiliar with D&D, the promise of exploring alternate explicit content and relationships is a key draw. This exploration of such content makes these romances especially popular among YA fiction fans, which in recent years has seen some crossovers with the classic D&D fandom.
Before moving on, it’s also worth noting that WotC had a controversy earlier this year surrounding the D&D Open Gaming License (OGL); you can read more about that here. In short, WotC wanted to make more money as well as have more quality control over OGL creations and came up with restrictive rules that led to an immediate community outcry. That forced WotC to backtrack almost immediately and left significant mistrust in its wake. BG3 is unaffected by the D&D licensing changes, and Larain distanced itself from the OGL controversy so as to prevent it from dampening any enthusiasm for the game.
Larian Studios’ Journey to Baldur’s Gate
Larian is the seventh developer to tackle a video game in the Baldur’s Gate series, with the most prominent having been BioWare, which developed the first rendition in 1998. Having worked on several action as well as turn-based RPGs since its founding in 1996, Larian had a keen interest in making a Baldur’s Gate sequel. The company was denied the IP by WotC in 2014, having been deemed unproven after releasing Divinity: Original Sin. However, impressed with the premarketing of Divinity: Original Sin II three years later, WotC approached Larian for BG3.
The studio tripled in size to realize the ambition of Divinity: Original Sin II, from a team of 50 on the original to 150 on the sequel. The studio’s ambitions for BG3 were even higher, and when the choice came to scale down the scope or scale up the team, Larian decided to go all in and tripled in size once again. The BG3 team has about 450 members spread across seven locations around the world. The risk of having the biggest budget and the largest team was deprioritized in favor of the team’s high aspirations for a Baldur’s Gate sequel.
Larian’s key strength combines years of working on RPG gameplay, storytelling, and mechanics with nurturing a community for support and iteration. Both Original Sin games were funded through Kickstarter, with the latter being released in early access a year before release. Larian released BG3 in early access in October 2020, for almost three years and 50% of development time, with roughly a third of the game’s content. The final release of the game is not compatible with saves from the early access period and is known to contain some bugs and issues not present in the early access version.
BG3 launched on PC through Steam and GOG and sold 5.2 million copies on Steam alone. Interestingly, the full-priced early access version sold 2.5 million copies, comprising 48% of total Steam sales so far. Since the game sells at a lower price in most regions when compared to the $60 price point in the U.S., assuming 50% sales at a lower $40 average, the game has made roughly $260 million from its 5.2 million PC sales. The high review scores and positive word-of-mouth from the community are expected to lead to a strong launch on PS5 come September 6th. This is also a strategic choice for Sony to release a well-received RPG on PS5 the same day Microsoft is releasing its hotly anticipated Starfield on Xbox.
Leaving Money on the Table is a Strategy Too
BG3 managed to become the second-most played game on Steam while retaining its audience week-over-week. Yet Larian has intentionally chosen not to dip into the popular trend of live service battle passes, loot boxes, or in-app purchases popular among other RPGs, which would, in theory, earn them greater profits. Swen Vincke, Larian’s CEO and the creative director of BG3, addressed the business model decision, saying it “would affect the type of games we want to make” and “that’s not what I want to do.”
Larian, a privately owned entity not beholden to shareholders, appeared to mean it when Vincke said, "We've never been about the money." BG3 is a testament to that philosophy, and it shows in how many big risks the studio took: a large team, a big budget, complicated rules, and turn-based mechanics that have mostly gone out of fashion in the AAA space — and without attempts to reduce risk by following industry trends like microtransactions and battle passes. Our thoughts around consumer expectations and the compromises of big-budget AAA game-making can be found in our previous newsletter here.
A studio with the genre mastery of crafting RPGs for over two decades — combined with the preexisting detailed world and robust ruleset of D&D on top of working with the help and support of a large community — released a critically acclaimed game to record-breaking commercial success. Looking back at the journey, it looks like Larian was destined for this outcome all along.
This post appeared in the Sunday, August 25th version of Naavik Digest. If you enjoyed it, please consider forwarding it or sharing the piece with your followers. Also, remember to subscribe to Naavik Digest here.
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Weekly News Roundup: Gamescom Returns, Sony Prices Its Portable & Xbox’s Parity Conundrum
By Nick Statt, Naavik Managing Editor
Gamescom Kicks Off
In the wake of E3’s cancellation this year and its uncertain future going forward, Germany’s Gamescom has stepped up as arguably one of the world's biggest and most important in-person gaming events. This year’s show began in Cologne last Tuesday, and there were plenty of big announcements throughout the week.
- The week featured plenty of new trailers, gameplay footage, and rare hands-on opportunities for some of the most anticipated upcoming releases. That included a new trailer for Alan Wake II, new roster confirmations and a brand-new game mode reveal for Mortal Kombat 1, and a whole slew of major changes to Cyberpunk 2077 arriving with Phantom Liberty and update 2.0.
- One especially neat announcement came from Ubisoft, which featured the first game trailer at a major industry event fully voiced in Arabic for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Mirage. The company also announced that an Arabic dub for the game would be available at launch.
- Starfield hype was off the charts at the show this week, with Bethesda’s Todd Howard debuting a new live-action trailer for the game and confirming some additional details like a new game plus feature. While reviewers can’t yet talk about the game in full, some early hints of it being as good as people hoped have begun to trickle out on social media.
Sony’s PlayStation Portal Arrives Later This Year
The company’s streaming-only handheld received an official name and price tag of $199.99 this past week, alongside some more concrete details about how it will work and what exactly it’s designed for. We don’t know when the device will launch, but Sony said to expect it later this year.
- Contrary to what some may think, this is not a cloud gaming device. Instead, Sony stressed that the PlayStation Portal will only stream games over Wi-Fi that you already own, and it will not work with the company’s PlayStation Now platform. That’s a bummer, but it does seem conceivable it could be updated in the future to support cloud gaming.
- So what is the Portal actually for? The handheld is basically a glorified Remote Play device equipped with a 1080p screen and a built-in controller so that you can stream downloaded games from your PS5 over Wi-Fi. The device should technically work outside the home, but Remote Play has always been finicky when streaming over longer distances instead of on the same local network.
- At $199.99, the Portal is the same price as Sony’s pricey DualSense Edge controller, but cheaper than a Nintendo Switch or Steam Deck. But lacking cloud gaming support (and inexplicably also missing Bluetooth functionality) makes this device a bit of a perplexing one, and it’s not entirely clear how many people will find much use for it unless they’re dying for a way to use their PS5 in bed or while someone else watches TV.
- Still, Sony has been building toward a cohesive hardware ecosystem for many years now, and having a dedicated portable that works best for Remote Play does make sense if the company can convince between 5% and 10% of its PS5 install base to pony up for the accessory. That would put it at about the estimated attach rate of the PSVR 2, which seems sensible for a product with a niche purpose like this, but it certainly isn’t going to compete with most other portables, almost all of which support cloud gaming.
- Xbox’s split-screen debacle. Microsoft and Larian Studios finally confirmed on Thursday that they solved the issue preventing Baldur’s Gate 3 from arriving on Xbox, and it looks like it might be the beginning of the end for the Xbox platform’s feature parity requirement that has proved a thorn in the side of developers.
Xbox’s Split-Screen Debacle
Microsoft and Larian Studios finally confirmed on Thursday that they solved the issue preventing Baldur’s Gate 3 from arriving on Xbox, and it looks like it might be the beginning of the end for the Xbox platform’s feature parity requirement that has proved a thorn in the side of developers.
- Larian hadn’t been able to confirm an Xbox release date while it struggled to create a version of its massive CPRG that could support split-screen co-op on the Xbox Series S. The solution, it turns out, is to drop split-screen support for the Series S version. If that seems like a no-brainer, it’s best to remember that Microsoft has required feature parity for Series X and Series S versions of new Xbox games.
- Larian publishing head Michael Douse said as much earlier this month. “We have no exclusivity deal that prevents us from launching on Xbox,” he said. “The issue is a technical hurdle. We cannot remove the split-screen feature because we are obliged to launch with feature parity, and so continue to try and make it work.”
- But it seems missing out on one of the biggest games of the year is worth bending the rules. Larian CEO Swev Vincke said the Xbox Series S version of Baldur’s Gate 3 won’t have split-screen co-op, but it will feature a cross-save feature to sync between Xbox and Steam versions. Presumably, if you’re dying to do split-screen co-op, you could do so on PC.
- In an interview, Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer seemed to suggest that the feature parity requirement for Xbox Series devices wasn’t as strict as the public seems to think it is. He also defended the role the Series S plays in the Xbox ecosystem, saying he “doesn’t see a world” where developers have to skip the less-powerful Xbox in the future.
- It’s unclear whether this is an exemption for Larian due to the success of Baldur’s Gate 3, or a policy change from Microsoft for all Xbox developers going forward. But as games become more technically demanding, it certainly seems in Microsoft’s best interest not to cause any more headaches than it has to.
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