How far can the ‘economics of crowdfunding’ go?: The comparative case of <Starfield> and <Baldur’s Gate 3>
24. 2. 10.
You can see the Korean version of this article at this URL:
If we were to choose two of the most talked-about RPG games in 2023, many would agree to pick <Starfield> (Bethesda Game Studios, 2023) and <Baldur’s Gate 3> (Larian Studios, 2023). It appears that gamers generally favor <Baldur’s Gate 3> over <Starfield> due to disappointing elements in its game design, despite it still managing to achieve good sales records thanks to the developers’ publicity. The game seems to have demonstrated the limitations of the so-called Bethesda-style RPG games, whereas <Baldur’s Gate 3> was praised for its rich interactivity and engaging role-playing elements. Some claim that this Belgium-made game has made a new mark in the RPG genre, listing it as one of the most critically acclaimed RPGs of 2023 alongside The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Nintendo, 2023).
However, this article is not going to address the games themselves but rather the economic discourse of the gaming industry surrounding the production of these titles. First, the high-budget AAA games industry that sustains itself through the 'conventional (form of) capital'. Second, the contrasting mid- to low-budget games based on 'crowdfunding economics' (e.g., Kickstarter and Early Access). Looking at various gaming communities on the internet, it appears that many Korean gamers are actively comparing <Baldur’s Gate 3> with other AAA games, including <Starfield>, while labeling them as if they were developed in a similar game production process. To be more specific, while gamers praise <Baldur’s Gate 3> for its creativity and rich details, they also, in contrast, criticize <Starfield> and other AAA games for lacking something despite being developed in a similar environment. The criticism is about the negligence of craftsmanship of AAA game developers – such as those in <Starfield> – for not being able to deliver richly crafted games despite having a similar amount of resources.
One could argue that such criticism is coming from gamers' expectations for good quality games and the failure of anticipation that the game they've highly expected 'could have been better'. And I'm not completely against that argument. Instead, what I would argue is the binary labeling and comparing of these two game titles that is far from reality. Aside from the fact that both <Starfield> and <Baldur’s Gate 3> belong to the similar game genre and received wide public attention upon their release, the two games only have marginal similarities when it comes to how they were developed. Their game design elements are also vastly different, and you cannot just do a direct 1:1 comparison with each other. While <Starfield> is a mass-produced product built with an efficient and stable production direction backed by large investment capitals, <Baldur’s Gate 3> is closer to a craft product targeting a much niche target audience grounded from crowd-sourced funding.
Of course, I'm not here to discuss the superiority or inferiority between manufactured mass-products and crafted products. What is a more important factor here to discuss is the possible impact that crowdfunding economy, backed by a niche target audience, has on the games that we get to play. <Starfield> can be regarded as a typical AAA game with a strong tendency to create a massive product with concentrated large-scale capital investment. In a number of interviews, Todd Howard, the director of Bethesda Game Studio, highlighted <Starfield> as their well-established studio’s first new IP in 25 years. The studio's mass-scale promotions worldwide, including game trailers and demo showcases in various game shows, clearly demonstrated the massive scale of Microsoft’s capital resources. It also showed what product value <Starfield> has to Bethesda Game Studio, Zenimax Media, and Microsoft, which clearly would have excited the investors on Wall Street.
At the same time, the <Starfield> developer was extremely cautious about disclosing its information throughout the production process. We can speculate this from Todd Howard's interview at the Develop: Brighton conference 2020, in which he mentioned that the team "(would) like to do it as much as possible when we can really be able to show it – to show what the final product looks like and feels like, closer to the release" instead of stringing the gamers' "fatigue of wanting something." To put this another way, this demonstrates <Starfield>'s closed production environment with lesser public feedback. And this is not just <Starfield>'s story: as we may all know, the majority of AAA games do not disclose their development process to the public, and the process of receiving feedback is limited to internal QA or public trials and demos, keeping its exclusiveness and prestigiousness from its fans. This further engages the gamers closer to the game’s release date, amplifying their curiosity and expectations of the game – to the point they will gladly open up their wallet and purchase the game.
On the other hand, such AAA game’s one-sided strategy also imposes its own risk; to gamers’ misled expectations to disappointment. Gamers’ critical comments towards <Starfield> followed by the game’s release indicate that Bethesda’s internal predictions (perhaps their developers, or executives and shareholders) did not align with their target audiences’ expectations. The game just did not meet people’s expectations towards a well-made game combining space exploration filled with rich and detailed in-game interactive elements – on how they expect Bethesda Game Studio's own unique and long-established RPG design style.
Instead, Bethesda appears to have taken more of a simplistic approach with fewer rich and detailed in-game elements as a payback for going big. Perhaps creating a fully immersive virtual space world was impossible in their AAA game production system. We can see this from one of the game’s primary and yet controversial features of space exploration, where the developers have made a vast scale of fully functioning virtual space but with procedural generation of planetary terrain and simplification of spaceship take-off and landing processes, which resulted in limiting the player’s ability to actually explore and do things in the in-game world. Unfortunately, what could have been a valid strategy from the company’s standpoint was not the game design direction that Bethesda’s long-time fans have hoped for. This gap between expectations versus the delivered product, amplified by the company’s recent business strategy, backfired into gamer’s satire and ridiculed remarks towards the game and its developers.
<Starfield> is not Bethesda Game Studio's first and only failure. The company has once received strong criticism when they initially released <Fallout 76> (Bethesda Game Studios, 2018) without being able to deliver its promised immersive open-world game experience. It had underperforming online gaming systems that failed to synergize with the existing Bethesda Game Studio’s unique RPG style, which was clearly a mismanagement of its business strategy. Sure, <Starfield> has better quality than <Fallout 76> as the studio was able to spend more time in production, which allowed developers to put a significant amount of effort into launching the game. But nevertheless, the case of <Starfield> exposes how a one-sided and efficiency-hungry AAA game production pipeline can further solidify the gap between gamers’ (and the market’s) expectations. It also shows the fundamental downside of this rigid pipeline game production model. Perhaps now is the time, upon learning from <Starfield>, when Bethesda Game Studio should consider a fundamental shift in its pipeline.
<Baldur’s Gate 3>, on the other hand, is a game that was developed simultaneously as the developers share the development process. The game was available for early access for three years until the game’s official release and frequently disclosed its production process to Baldur’s Gate series fans. Such strategy resembles the lively production cycle of crowdfunding economics, despite the game was not directly funded by crowdfunding channels (e.g., Kickstarter). (Because Larian Studio has never adopted the crowdfunding method to finance their games since their successful <Kickstarting of Divinity: Original Sin> (Larian Studios, 2014).) Already in the beta testing phase, gamers were able to deliver their feedback for the game to the developers via the game’s official community on the internet. The developers also disclosed their progress upon such feedback and change through community updates, which wouldn’t have been possible without the trust of the developers in their games’ community.
Larian Studio has also implemented the abundant openness and freedom of TRPG as much as possible into the game during its three years of early access. I don’t need to delve into further details of <Baldur’s Gate 3>’s high degree of freedom, as it has been widely acclaimed in numerous game reviews and demo play videos on the internet. What is important to mention here, though, is the fact that <Baldur’s Gate 3> was produced in a way to accommodate as many demands coming from its fans. I consider this consensus-building with the fans to be what eventually leads the game to an overwhelmingly positive response upon its release.
This is obviously not an easy direction for the company, which makes the development story of <Baldur’s Gate 3> so much more interesting. While the game design that guarantees maximum openness and freedom to gamers does sound appealing to players, it also adds complexity to the game for those who create it. Also accommodating every demand could just end up making the game that is too complex for people to even play. Being a top-down RPG (with the possibility for gamers to adjust the camera angle), unlike other mainstream CRPGs like <Starfield>, is not also the most favorable choice from the perspective of large capital investors. <Baldur’s Gate 3> also needed to provide a vast-scale world setting, story, and significantly more cut scenes than any other of Larian Studio's previous works. So we can imagine increased the level of complexity in its production that its prequels.
As such, Bethesda Game Studio and Larian Studio developed their games with clearly different directives. In addition to that, they have different pathways in history of their businesses. Bethesda Game Studio, as shown in their solid pipeline process, is a company rooted in the conventional forms of game production studio systems in the 1990s. The company gradually scaled up with mergers and acquisitions backed by large-scale capital investments – like those in large-scale software sectors. During this time, in the early to mid-1990s, when Bethesda started as an RPG production studio, the online game community was immature. It didn’t have its own logic of ‘economy’ per se, with only a handful of alternative publishing channels available at the time. Such as shareware or small game retail stores.
Due to the technical limitations of the internet environment at the time, the shareware phenomenon did not grow significantly, rather only regarded as a sort of pre-showcase method to share parts of the game to lure gamers to purchase the ‘full version’. At that time, only small-scale game developers, such as hobbyists, were able to receive direct feedback from their potential gamers for games in development. Such direct feedback mostly relied on an immediate network and thus clearly was not possible for mass-scale game production. Furthermore, the growth of Bethesda Game Studio was driven by its CEO, Robert Altman, who formerly worked at Zenimax Media and had expertise in company management and finances. Fast forward to today, we also cannot separate Bethesda Game Studio from the influence of large corporations, such as Microsoft, and investment firms on Wall Street.
On the contrary, Larian Studio is a company established without a pre-existing business entity and therefore operates without existing company management or shareholder’s interest. As Jason Schreier, an American game journalist, mentioned in his article in Bloomberg, Larian Studios is a private company with its majority shareholder privately owned by Swen Vincke, Larian’s chief executive officer, alongside his wife. This allows Larian Studio to take its initiatives without trying to meet Wall Street’s expectations.
However, Schreier also pointed out that such a company structure also comes with “full of risks”. As a matter of fact, Larian Studio struggled after the company failed to retrieve its share of profit from their moderate success of <Divine Divinity> (Larian Studio, 2002), the first of the Divinity game series. The company had to run with only three individuals at some point while working on its sequel, <Beyond Divinity> (Larian Studio, 2004). Despite this risk in finances, Larian continued to operate in a private company structure maintaining its focus on a specific game genre, even after the success of <Divinity: Original Sin> (Larian Studio, 2014).
For me, this resembles Nihon Falcom, one of the mid-size Japanese game studios that is consistently producing its own unique style of JRPGs. But of course, the main difference is that Nihon Falcom is now a public company, while Larian Studio leveraged its pivotal growth from crowdfunding economics. So what aspects of crowdfunding economics benefited the studio’s growth? Larian Studio’s supporters were comprised of people who gathered through word of mouth, fan-based, a niche group of enthusiasts. They were different from the AAA fan base, those that are often loyal to past franchises and rooting for their past glory’s comeback. In contrast, Larian Studio’s early Divinity series reached moderate success in the sense that it did not draw a solid fan base like in those massive-scale game corporations. Their <Divinity: Original Sin> recorded a positive response in the mid-2010s when various crowdfunding projects emerged all across the game development scene – with the rise of the Kickstarter platform. However, even the studio’s Kickstarter project did not draw much attention, even less spotlighted than the Kickstarter projects from the former-Interplay Entertainment veterans – the publisher of Baldur’s Gates franchise since the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, <Divinity: Original Sin> made a success by satisfying the fans of classic RPGs, managing to establish the studio’s first fan base after sourcing its finances partially through crowdfunding. What is interesting here is that, unlike other successful Kickstarter game projects, including the projects from the industry-acclaimed AAA game industry veterans, the team of <Divinity: Original Sin> had not many track records to present at that time. But perhaps this allowed Larian developers to go more boldly – instead of following a safe track. Ironically to say, they didn’t have much – nothing much to lose, therefore were able to leverage greatly from this new trend of crowdfunding economics.
Now, <Baldur’s Gate 3> is a product developed after Larian Studio’s growth in scale since its boost from the crowdfunding economics. The game involved an estimated 200 people in development, without counting the workforce in their newly established overseas branches. Size-wise, the studio is nothing like their early days of <Divinity: Original Sin>. As journalist Schreier and the industry veteran Xavier Nelson Jr., pointed out, perhaps the production of <Baldur’s Gate 3> was a lucky move in the first place – as Schreier said in his article on Bloomberg, “most other video-game developers are either part of publicly traded companies or too small to make games as ambitious as <Baldur’s Gate 3>.” Established game companies like Bethesda Game Studio may be able to deploy larger manpower and greater capital investment, but wouldn’t have been able to mediate the risk of developing a game with complex rules, turn-based combat system, with countless branching paths that require countless resources on content that may go mostly unappreciated.
It is even remarkable that Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of “Dungeons & Dragons”, allowed Larian Studio to go with three years of early access of <Baldur’s Gate 3> as it might have risked the reputation of its brand with an unfinished game. It is also a drastic contrast with the early access of <Divinity: Original Sin> that was done primarily for just refining and supplementing a near-to-complete game. In comparison, <Baldur’s Gate 3>'s early access was recklessly long and was disclosing its production process to the potential players. Of course, there were traces of some promised coming-soon contents being deleted upon the game’s release as if the early access schedule could not be extended indefinitely. But still, the trust and openness of Wizards of the Coast towards Larian Studio of letting them to continue with 3-years long early access is surely an interesting element to look into.
The success of <Baldur’s Gate 3>’s open game production, rooted in crowdfunding economics, is perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon that we’ve come across in the world of games in the year 2023. Those who actively participated in the early access of <Baldur’s Gate 3> were either niche, too old-fashioned, or outside the mainstream target audiences – at least, that’s how it has been seen by cool-headed market analysts in large investment capital firms. But such a niche and active fan base is not just limited to the classic RPG genre. There are numerous devoted communities in point-and-click adventures, hyper FPS, 2D platformers, dinosaur simulators, and so on. On top of that, with the growth of ESD (Electronic Software Distribution), early access, and crowdfunding since the 2000s, the world’s indie game market is more robust than ever before. This enables a scalable fandom market, which was once neglected by the logic of large capital, can now unite and establish alternative means of the games market. And this is not just an isolated case of <Baldur’s Gates 3> – there are other cases like <Planet Coaster> by Frontier Dev.
<Baldur’s Gate 3> demonstrates that fans are no longer remaining as passive consumers. It shows the impact of crowdfunding economics on the indie game scene, where niche fans' trust and devotion towards the game (i.e., towards the game that they would like to play) actually becomes powerful enough to affect the mainstream market. This contrasts with <Starfield>, the mass-scale production backed by large investments with a veteran production team but decided to go a safer and proven pathway towards revenue. It could be that gamers are getting fed up with the industry giant’s overemphasis on satisfying their shareholders' interest to maximize revenue and minimize risk.
What backers of crowdfunding economics are doing to the game developers somewhat resembles how aristocrats during the Renaissance era used to order custom-made handicrafts from artists and craftsmen – backing the creators to make the game that fits their specific taste. While the Renaissance aristocratic patrons were a tool for monopolizing arts and crafts with their power of class and wealth, the contemporary patronage of games is more like a collective action of anonymous consumers. Here, their primary aim is to regain their access to niche crafts (of games) that were once alienated from the mainstream capital market.
Of course, nothing is perfect. There’s also a downside to crowdfunding economics – that it's not always a happy ending, and the development of <Baldur’s Gate 3> was perhaps a rare experiment and one-of-a-kind incident that will be remembered in the history of the game industry. It is also yet unknown whether Larian Studios will continue onward with this experiment in their future projects. Vincke has already commented in his interview with Bloomberg that he doesn't want to spend another six years working on one game and was unsure about what Larian Studios' next game is going to be. It could be that their next project may not follow the exact pathway of <Baldur’s Gate 3>, and the moment may be remembered as one lucky happy moment. But nevertheless, the success of <Baldur’s Gate 3> showed the world how far crowdfunding economics could go; the economics of people’s crowdfunded desire, of wanting to see the product they want to consume. For that, it was indeed the most remarkable incident in games of 2023. That’s not to say all gaming industry to follow the same path as <Baldur’s Gate 3> – which is impossible – but the story certainly could inspire future innovators to come.