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Baldur’s Gate 3 and Elden Ring can only exist outside the current triple-A studio system

If you keep calling for triple-A publishers to take note of the success of Baldur’s Gate 3, and Elden Ring, you’re missing the point.

Image credit: FromSoftware, Larian Studios, VG247

If you’ve been following games coverage and discourse for long enough, you’ll be quite aware of a particular cycle that we can’t seem to escape. It all begins whenever a game introduces a fresh mechanic or a revolutionary system, then, everyone calls for all future games in the same genre – or even those adjacent to it – to start either utilising it wholecloth, or fudge some version of it.

There’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with advocating for developers to learn from the success (and failure) of their peers. Doom is why we have first-person shooters today, and the Souls-like genre was not a thing before FromSoft made Demon’s Souls. It’s also why everyone hoped the Nemesis System from Monolith's Shadow of Mordor/War would make its way to a Batman game, or any game with a central cast of villains. Alas.

But what I want to bring attention to here isn’t the broad umbrella of ‘games borrowing from each other’ (that has always existed), it’s the idea that ‘triple-A publishers need to make bigger-budget takes on indie darlings’ or mid-tier critical hits.

As the triple-A scene continues to stagnate – just look at the current situation with CoD – the more interesting ideas have been increasingly coming from teams outside of the well-established studio system in the West. And it’s because of this that we have Baldur’s Gate 3, and Elden Ring – not in spite of it.

Elden Ring being the best-selling (non-CoD) game of 2023 sure turned the heads of triple-A executives. And I’m certain they’re already analysing the indisputable success of Baldur’s Gate 3. But you don’t actually want Ubisoft’s Elden Ring, and you really, really don’t want a CRPG with Ultimate Team trappings.

Baldur’s Gate 3 took six years to make. It was mostly funded by its maker, Larian Studios, and launched in Early Access in 2020 to a modest (but not earth-shattering) success. There was really no indication that it was going to be one of the year’s biggest games when it came out of Early Access this year. Even Larian was taken aback by its meteoric rise on the Steam charts. None of these are circumstances that a triple-A publisher would be able to put up with. A game, any game, being given six years of development is something only reserved for the works of Rockstar or Naughty Dog. The studios that release most of the big games today take about half as long to put out something new, and the games are almost always broken at launch because they were already internally delayed way past what their publishers were comfortable with. And those are focus-tested, broadly accessible games designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, not classic RPGs that follow the rulesets of Dungeons & Dragons.

Elden Ring came late to the open world party, but it's the only game that justifies its use.

To the EAs, Activisions, and Ubisofts of the world, Baldur’s Gate 3 looks like an anomaly. Elden Ring is a different story, but it shares a few similar circumstances: it came out of a lengthy development period, and it challenged its maker, FromSoftware, in ways the studio had never been challenged before.

It’s an open-world game, sure, but it’s one that’s totally fine with players missing out on most of that landmass. Both Baldur’s Gate 3, and Elden Ring relish in the unexpected. They trade on surprising the player and trusting in them enough to allow them to be the author of their own experience.

For that sense of discovery, that is often lauded, to exist, these games require a hands-off approach. That is the polar opposite of how a more traditional triple-A game would go about doing things. Imagine trying to explain to Ubisoft or EA executives that a lot of the highly-paid work that went into designing every inch of a game’s open world may never be seen by players. The suits would laugh you out of the room.

I would love to play the FromSoftware or Larian version of this. | Image credit: Respawn Entertainment

Triple-A publishing houses exist in a capitalist system that is designed to always come away with the worst conclusions (assuming they lead to more efficient profit-making). The more the process of making money is streamlined, and predictable, the better. Publishers need their games to have these built-in guarantees that ensure a return on their investment will be made, even if those are not really guarantees.

Just like movie executives use trailer reactions, and internal testing as metrics to help make their decisions, so too do games executives. Would anyone care about a new IP from the makers of Mass Effect, and Dragon Age? Hard to say, so we may as well bake in some sort of extraneous money maker that acts as a buffer, in case we need to monetise the unexpectedly small audience more than we should.

It’s futile to ask the people making those decisions to “learn” from the success of Elden Ring, or Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s only if/when other CRPGs, and niche action-RPGs, start selling similar numbers that the C-suite executives are going to notice. Or care. And even then, they’ll try to copy the most surface-level characteristics of those games without really understanding what made them work.

I hope the most important lesson that Larian’s peers learn from the Baldur’s Gate 3 phenomena is that players are willing to spend good money on a game that is finished, at launch, and that is not over-encumbered with microtransactions. For everything else, just let Larian have its moment. Because it sure as hell earned it.

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