This week, the two biggest role-playing games of the year were released in a head-to-head contest on rival console platforms. But only one of them is a console exclusive. Starfield was acquired by Microsoft along with its developer and publisher, Bethesda, in 2021, and was released on Xbox and Windows PC only. Baldur’s Gate 3 — which has already become an overnight sensation on PC, if you can say that about a game that spent three years in early access — is out now on PlayStation 5, but an Xbox version is still weeks or months away. And it could have been much longer.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s developer, Larian Studios, has no timed exclusive arrangement in place with Sony or anyone else. Initially, it would not commit to releasing the game on Xbox before 2024, if at all, because it could not get the split-screen co-op mode working sufficiently well on Xbox Series S — the lower-cost, lower-power Xbox console of this generation. As Larian explained, Microsoft requires gameplay feature parity between Xbox Series X and Series S versions of games. It also strongly prefers feature parity with the PlayStation versions of multiplatform releases, and Baldur’s Gate 3 has split-screen co-op on PS5. If Larian could not get co-op working on Series S, it wouldn’t be able to release the game on Xbox at all.
This put Microsoft in a difficult spot. Baldur’s Gate 3 was wowing critics, making huge waves on Steam, and quickly establishing itself as one of the biggest and best games of the year. To miss out on it because of a policy own-goal would be embarrassing, not to mention frustrating for Series X owners. But the company had good reasons for sticking to that policy — perhaps even high-minded ones about keeping gaming affordable.
As IGN reported, Microsoft even drafted some of its own specialist engineers to help Larian with the Series S version of Baldur’s Gate 3, but progress still wasn’t happening quickly enough. Eventually, Microsoft gaming boss Phil Spencer met with Larian’s Swen Vincke at Gamescom in August. Vincke, riding an enormous swell of popularity and acclaim for Baldur’s Gate 3, held all the cards, and Spencer made the unprecedented decision to allow the game to be released on Xbox without the co-op mode on Series S. The Xbox version is now expected before the end of the year.
This may seem a small enough concession from Microsoft to secure a hit game, but it’s highly significant. It may end up changing the whole Xbox hardware strategy — or, at the very least, weakening it.
Ever since the surprise announcement in 2020 that Microsoft would release a pair of game consoles this generation — one targeting 4K displays and fancy graphical features like ray tracing at $499, the other with fewer bells and whistles and less storage, but offering full “next-gen” compatibility for $200 less — there’s been a debate about whether the Series S would end up holding back the quality of Series X games, or indeed of all multiplatform releases in this generation. So far, there hasn’t been much evidence of this, not least because, until very recently, we’ve been in a cross-generation phase, with many titles still appearing on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Only now that games like Baldur’s Gate 3 are skipping those platforms does Series S effectively become the baseline hardware for all multiplatform releases.
The Xbox Series S has the same central processor as the Series X, but a much weaker graphics processor. As it’s designed for 1440p or lower-resolution displays, this isn’t a huge problem — it’s pushing fewer than half as many pixels as the 4K-capable Series X — although it can struggle with frame rate, too, with some games running at 30 frames per second instead of 60 fps. It also has less memory, and narrower memory bandwidth. This could well be the bottleneck for split-screen co-op in Baldur’s Gate 3, which is trying to present two viewpoints on a highly complex game simulation. (Microsoft has notably dropped split-screen modes from Halo Infinite co-op and the forthcoming Forza Motorsport.)
That’s the tech stuff. For gamers on a budget, or those who haven’t upgraded to 4K screens yet, giving up some visual quality and even frame rate for a $200 savings might seem like a fair deal. But developers are starting to get frustrated, especially those who target cutting-edge tech or who are moving on to new engines, like Unreal Engine 5. TeamKill Media, which is making a horror game called Quantum Error in UE5, says the game’s performance on Series S is currently “unacceptable.” The game has a November release date on PS5, with an Xbox version “TBA.”
The danger for Microsoft is that its concession to Larian will open the floodgates to a deluge of demands from other developers to allow them to cut back their Series S versions, or even skip the console altogether. Granted, Larian was in a unique position. As a wholly independent, self-publishing developer, it could make its own publishing decisions about Baldur’s Gate 3 — it’s not likely that a major publisher would have permitted splitting the PlayStation and Xbox release dates — yet it still had the backing of a major licensor (Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast, part of the Hasbro corporation), not to mention momentum from the game’s explosive success on PC. Few others have that combination of freedom and leverage — but that might be a moot point, since now they have precedent on their side. If major publishers or developers want to scale back their Series S releases, how can Microsoft deny them? The Series S parity policy has been broken, and Microsoft will find it tough to put the genie back in the bottle.
Speaking to Eurogamer at Gamescom — hours after meeting with Larian, but before the split-screen concession had been announced — Phil Spencer insisted that the Series S would not be left behind. “I want to make sure games are available on both [consoles], that’s our job as a platform holder and we’re committed to that with our partners,” he said. “And I think we’re gonna get there with Larian. So I’m not overly worried about that, but we’ve learned some stuff through it.” Already, Spencer’s language is shifting toward just ensuring that games are released on Series S, and away from a commitment to feature parity. “In terms of parity, I don’t think you’ve heard from us or Larian that this was about parity,” he said (somewhat inaccurately) by way of deflection. Spencer added that “there are features that ship on X today that do not ship on S, even from our own games, like ray-tracing” — essentially grouping graphical features and gameplay elements like split-screen together for the first time.
In the same interview, Spencer repeated his persuasive argument for why Microsoft created the Series S in the first place, and why all this matters. Microsoft does not expect the gradual cost savings that console manufacturers have enjoyed in previous generations to apply this time, making it hard for the company to bring in a broader audience by slashing prices as the machines age.
“The prices aren’t coming down,” Spencer said of component costs. “You’re not going to be able to start with a console that’s $500 thinking it’s gonna get to 200 bucks. That won’t happen. It’s not the way it used to be where you could take a spec and then ride it out over 10 years and ride the price points down.” He sees it as Series S’ job to fill the role that discounting used to play in growing the market, whether that be among lower-income households, developing economies, or younger players. “Having an entry-level price point for console, sub-$300, is a good thing for the industry,” he said. “I think it’s important, the Switch has been able to do that, in terms of kind of the traditional plug-into-my-television consoles. I think it’s important. So we’re committed.”
In that sense, the Xbox Series S is a sincere and worthwhile commitment for Microsoft to make that benefits both the industry and players. I have one, and I love it — both for the intention behind it, and for its clever engineering and gorgeously packaged design (apart from anything else, it’s the best-looking console on the market by a mile). Going by U.K. sales figures, the Series S could account for around half the 21 million Xbox Series consoles out there.
I understand that it makes developers’ lives more difficult, but Microsoft is right to insist on an affordable entry point to the current generation of gaming. It was probably also right to make a small concession on Baldur’s Gate 3 so that more people can enjoy that excellent game. But that concession will make it much harder for Microsoft to hold the line on Series S — and prevent the accidental creation of a new gaming underclass.