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Microsoft completely misjudged Baldur’s Gate 3

Xbox dubbed Larian’s hit a ‘second-run Stadia PC RPG’ before its release

Baldur’s Gate 3 green NPC Image: Larian Studios via Polygon
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Baldur’s Gate 3 exited early access for its full launch on Aug. 3 to major success — the game peaked at a whopping 875,343 concurrent players, according to SteamDB, making it one of the year’s biggest games. Even Swen Vincke, founder of developer Larian Studios, was shocked: “This was not in the books at all. This was way, way beyond what we expected,” he said, telling PC Gamer that the company had expected 100,000 players at most. More than a month past its release, Baldur’s Gate 3 still surpasses that number in concurrent players, with nearly 200,000 at the time of this writing.

To say that Baldur’s Gate 3 was underestimated would be, well, an understatement. Microsoft apparently didn’t expect much from Larian’s breakout hit, either, calling it a “second-run Stadia PC RPG” in a leaked email from May 2022 filed as part of the FTC v. Microsoft case. That email included a table with Microsoft’s assessments of upcoming games for potential inclusion in the company’s Game Pass subscription service. While other titles were rated on their “wow factor” — e.g., Star Wars Jedi: Survivor was marked at very high, while Dragon Ball: The Breakers was listed as low — Baldur’s Gate 3 was marked Hub, and last on the list. (It’s unclear whether “Hub” refers to the Xbox Insiders Hub; games like Let’s Sing ABBA and Ubisoft’s Just Dance got the same distinction.)

The email exchange begins in May 2022, when Xbox chief Phil Spencer emailed several executives, including head of Xbox Game Studios Matt Booty and Xbox vice president Sarah Bond, to discuss the fallout from Starfield being pushed back (before that delay was officially announced). The delay, plus unclear release dates for Redfall and STALKER 2, created a big gap in major games on the Xbox platform. “This is really a disaster situation for us given all we’ve invested in content across studios at our GP [Game Pass] content fund,” Spencer wrote. Spencer instructed the execs to get to work on making sure those gaps were filled.

“We set a very high bar in 2021 on quality and pacing of content which was awesome to see,” he continued. “But to come off of that year with no big exclusives launching in 2022 is a portfolio planning miss that we can’t afford. If we need to delay launches (understanding there is a financial impact of that) to create more regular beats for us we need to do that. We have to all understand that the situation we are in now is a failure of our planning and production execution.”

Spencer added that the lack of clarity on timing and dates would be “obvious to the community.”

See the list of game projections for yourself:

the first part of a table showing Microsoft’s assessment of the potential popularity of some upcoming games Image: Microsoft via FTC
the second part of a table showing Microsoft’s assessment of the potential popularity of some upcoming games Image: Microsoft via FTC

Microsoft predicted that Larian Studios would have expected roughly $5 million for the game’s inclusion on Xbox Game Pass. For comparison, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, called a potential “crown jewel,” had an expected partner ask of $300 million.

Baldur’s Gate 3 was once expected to launch on Google Stadia and Windows PC. Stadia failed spectacularly, with the cloud-based gaming console shutting down after three years.

In hindsight, Microsoft made a big oopsie; Baldur’s Gate 3 has no exclusivity tied to it, so its exclusion from the Xbox console was noticeable. In February, Larian Studios explained why Baldur’s Gate 3 didn’t have a planned Xbox release at the time. Vincke said on X — then Twitter — that Baldur’s Gate 3’s split-screen co-op didn’t work on Xbox Series S, Microsoft’s lower-priced console. Microsoft requires games to have feature parity across Xbox Series X and Series S, which held up the launch. By Aug. 24, after Baldur’s Gate 3’s major successes, Microsoft made a concession to let Baldur’s Gate 3 launch without split-screen co-op on Xbox Series S.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is now expected to arrive on Xbox later this year.

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