When you picture a “bankable video game,” what comes to mind? That answer will probably elicit some wildly different answers depending on who you are.
As budgets have grown bigger and projects have become more financially risky, executives have struggled to turn video games into a reliable science. We’ve seen companies like Blizzard completely morph into something unrecognizable as they try to find new monetization streams. Square Enix has strayed away from its turn-based RPG roots in order to chase Sony’s more action-focused, blockbuster vision — a style that Sony itself is taking a step back from as it explores the unpredictable world of live service games.
Everyone seems to have a different idea of what makes a successful game in 2023, but I can’t imagine many studio bigwigs saw Baldur’s Gate 3’s success coming. The newly released CRPG is 2023 biggest surprise, as it has burned up the Steam charts since it got its 1.0 launch on PC early this month. It’s so successful that it’s been firmly planted in Steam’s top three most-played games since its release, fighting for the top with the likes of PC titans like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2. That momentum is already having an impact on its upcoming PS5 version as pre-orders are spiking on the platform.
It’s a hit, but one that stands in direct opposition to everything we’ve been led to believe makes money over the past decade. Baldur’s Gate 3’s success may be an anomaly that isn’t easy to replicate, but it offers some insightful lessons to anyone treating creativity like a math equation to be solved. Sometimes the only thing players are hungry for is a damn good video game — though it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Going against the grain
Though Baldur’s Gate 3 is a surprise hit to some extent, it did have a huge leg up out of the gate. For one, it’s an IP-driven project in a beloved RPG franchise. That alone gave it a sizable, built-in audience. It also got a boost thanks to its developer, Larian Studios, who had built up an incredibly strong reputation with fans after 2017’s outstanding Divinity: Original Sin 2. The 1.0 version had a head-start too, as it started its life with a successful early access launch in 2020 that allowed Larian to listen to fan feedback and build strong word of mouth. All of those circumstances make Baldur’s Gate 3 more of a variable than a constant in the world of game success stories.
Even so, the CRPG’s current popularity is staggering when you consider how much it spits in the face of modern gaming trends. While it does feature cooperative multiplayer, it’s largely a single-player experience. That alone stands in opposition to the industry’s current obsession with multiplayer. PlayStation, for instance, is beginning a harder pivot into multiplayer. During Sony’s last PlayStation Showcase stream, most first-party games featured were multiplayer-focused. This fall’s Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 may be the last of a dying breed as the company gambles on titles like Marathon and Fairgame$.
Those projects are all part of an aggressive push into the wild world of “live service” games, which is another pitfall Baldur’s Gate 3 avoids entirely. Rather than giving players an evolving world meant to keep them engaged over time, Larian launched a fully featured 100-hour RPG. That stands in stark contrast to another PC game this year, Blizzard’s Diablo 4, which has worked hard to maintain its initial player base amid a seasonal content schedule and a slew of controversial balance tweaks.
As a cherry on top, Baldur’s Gate 3 features no extra monetization to speak of. There isn’t a monthly battle pass or a slew of cosmetic items you can buy with real money. Players get what they pay for and then some here, which is becoming increasingly rare in the industry. Just this week, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick told investors that the company is aiming to monetize 100% of its mobile gaming audience, whether through microtransactions or ads. While Zelnick’s comments are focused on the mobile market, that aggressive attitude can be found in full-priced Take Two console games like Lego 2K Drive and WWE 2K23.
Even the basic structure of Baldur’s Gate 3 goes against the grain. Though it does feature some epic cutscenes, it’s not the kind of cinematic third-person action-adventure game that some studios have been chasing ever since The Last of Us. It’s a top-down RPG that goes heavy on menu management instead of “total immersion.” On top of that, it’s a turn-based game — a genre that even pioneering RPG studios are moving away from. Earlier this summer, Final Fantasy XVI fully committed to real-time action in an attempt to appeal to Western audiences. Producer Naoki Yoshida explained the pivot in clear terms during a press event Digital Trends attended earlier this year.
“Creating a Final Fantasy is such an endeavor where your development costs can go upwards of $100 million just to create one game,” Yoshida said. “To recoup that development cost, you need as many people playing your game as possible. While a lot of older fans are used to the Final Fantasy of the past, a lot of young fans grew up playing first-person shooters. Games like Grand Theft Auto where you press a button and something happens immediately … To get that group to come in and introduce them to the series, we decided to go down this road. Action was pretty much the only way to go.”
Despite that attempt to chase a broader appeal by abandoning an old-school style of play, Final Fantasy XVI has yet to meet Square Enix’s sales expectations. After a recent earnings report, which revealed the company experienced a 79% dip in profits, Square Enix president Takashi Kiryu noted that the hit still wasn’t performing as expected, blaming the numbers on the “slow adoption” of the PS5.
Baldur’s Gate 3 and Final Fantasy XVI certainly aren’t a one-to-one comparison, but Yoshida’s comments ring false when looking at their successes side by side. It’s hard to argue there isn’t a large enough appetite for a turn-based game that could justify a AAA budget when Baldur’s Gate 3 is currently smashing records.
There’s an idealist read of all this that might make players feel some vindication. After years of live service gambles, battle royale cash-ins, battle passes, and Hollywood storytelling, there’s undeniably something cathartic about the success of Baldur’s Gate 3 (its own creators are even surprised by how well it’s overperforming). It feels small and rebellious, like David taking down Goliath.
It’s important to keep some perspective though; Baldur’s Gate 3 is still very much a goliath itself. It’s a staggeringly enormous project made possible thanks to a AAA budget, hundreds of workers, two big IPs in both Baldur’s Gate and Dungeons & Dragons, and more. Before the game’s launch, game developer Xalavier Nelson Jr. preemptively urged players to keep all this in mind before taking its success as a new standard.
“In an era of megagames, Baldur’s Gate 3 is one of the largest attempted, built by a specialized group of people using mature tech specially built to make this specific game, reinforced by invaluable mass player feedback AND market validation ahead of its launch,” Nelson Jr. tweeted. “This is not a new baseline for RPGs — this is an anomaly. Trying to do the same thing in the same way, especially without the same advantages, could kill an entire GROUP of studios.”
That point should be a stern warning to any studio looking to capitalize on Baldur’s Gate 3 by chasing its audience. It’s not a sign that people are hungry for more games like this so much as it’s a testament to Larian Studios and its ability to deliver the best possible version of what it does at such a high level.
There’s still a lesson to learn here, though. While the top players in the video game industry love to chase trends engineered to maximize profits, the idea that a creative medium can be boiled down into a profitable formula is wishful thinking. A lot of modern studios wouldn’t be caught dead trying to make a game like Baldur’s Gate 3. And yet, a wildly complex, single-player-focused RPG with turn-based combat and no extra microtransactions is currently keeping pace with the undefeatable Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
It’d be laughably naïve to say that the only real secret to success is making a great game. But recent hits like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Elden Ring — another financial barn burner that was initially written off as niche — show that players are more open-minded than companies seem to think. With a strong creative vision and the resources to bring it to life, even some of the most unexpected games can open up the public’s imaginations.