Larian Studio’s Landmark Video Game May Change Industry Expectations Forever
When you consider Larian Studio’s critical and commercial success with Baldur’s Gate 3 (2023) in the context of the video game RPG genre, it is clear it had excellent positioning strategy marketing.
By any measure, Baldur’s Gate 3 succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. In its first year of release, the game has already:
- Won multiple industry awards
- Sold exceedingly well
- Provoked industry-wide conversations about what should perhaps become the new “standards” in video game RPGs
Any one of those three accomplishments would guarantee its status as an influential classic. All three of these achievements at once usually occur in the video game industry once a decade.
Many factors have contributed to Baldur’s Gate 3’s success, and analyzing them has proven a subject of some debate, though I think one obvious point has tended to be misunderstood by many. Baldur’s Gate 3 is often positioned as a next evolution of “CRPG,” a genre typically considered “niche,” which some think is now mainstream, given Baldur’s Gate 3’s success. I think this narrative ignores what Larian’s did so well with its positioning strategy marketing.
Calling Baldur’s Gate 3 a ‘CRPG’ Confuses Why it has Succeeded Like Few Other AAA RPGs
The terms we use to talk about things can often dictate much of what we think about those things. Incautious use of language can imprison meaning, and a product’s positioning strategy marketing.
If you didn’t know, CRPG is an acronym, used as shorthand for “computer role playing games.”
This acronym was presumably first coined in order to distinguish RPGs that could only be played on computers from the tabletop-based RPGs, which they were originally inspired by, such as Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate 1 (1998) and Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000), while not the first of their kind, were some of the most influential examples of these old school CRPGs. Games like these were designed to bring the tabletop D&D roleplaying experience to the computer. But, at time of writing, “CRPG” means something else, too.
“CRPG” is no longer strictly used to exclusively refer to RPGs that can only be played on a computer, but also as a certain genre of RPG that seem similar enough to old-school CRPGs. In other words, the very term CRPG, in contemporary usage, evokes a sense of nostalgia for a certain era of video game, only playable on computer, that was popularized in the eighties and nineties, often self-consciously modeled upon the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons.
This vague usage of the term carries baggage with it, as it implies a niche, elitist, hardcore player base seeking difficult, old-school game design (after all, few could afford personal computers for the very first CRPGs, and generally games from that era were often notoriously difficult). This reputation might seem like a useless bit of detail, but it matters, and we will come back to it later. This lingering bad reputation arguably defined Baldur’s Gate 3’s position strategy marketing.
Positioning Strategy Marketing:
Did Larian Studios Envision a Next-Gen CRPG?
Given all this, it’s not hard to see why many have labeled Baldur’s Gate 3 a next-gen CRPG. It is, after all, marketed as the successor to Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, which are prototypical CRPGs. And, like them, it is a direct video game adaptation of the tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons. It would only seem obvious that Larian always conceived and marketed this game as a CRPG.
Yet, that isn’t actually the case. Larian, the creators of Baldur’s Gate 3, never envisioned it as a CRPG during creation or post release, according to Larian director of publishing Michael Douse.
Douse’s stated reason is that Larian uses CRPG in the more strict sense of the term. Douse has argued the term CRPG seemed irrelevant for defining Baldur’s Gate 3 because the game was always designed for both video game consoles as well as personal computers. Fair enough.
But, the thing is, video game consoles, are in truth, just a different kind of computer, even if they are not technically personal computers. Michael Douse and Larian obviously know this, and so it is implausible to think this is really the reason why Larian rejects CRPG positioning. There must be more at stake than merely using precise technical terms about hardware.
The more likely, unstated reason is that positioning strategy marketing for CRPGs in the vague sense has enough bad baggage Larian had no desire to think of Baldur’s Gate 3 as a CRPG.
If Larian were designing and marketing Baldur’s Gate 3 as a “CRPG” in the vague sense of the term, this implies it is a niche game, for elitist, hardcore players who enjoy outdated, unpopular game design. And that explains why, on the one hand, games journalists often default to calling Baldur’s Gate 3 a CRPG (that is what Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 were.) And, on the other hand, it explains why journalists struggle to explain why Baldur’s Gate 3 has been such a success. Baldur’s Gate 3 being so successful will naturally seem mysterious if it’s considered a CRPG.
Of course, fans of CRPGs will rightly take issue with this oversimplification of the genre, and you could argue that Larian must have seen Baldur’s Gate 3 as a CRPG, otherwise why did they bother to market the game as the sequel to two of the most influential CRPGs? But, the popular perception of this term is established, and the lingering reputation behind it is why you get people claiming Baldur’s Gate 3 will “convert” more players into the “complex” CRPG genre.
But, as we’ve seen, Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t really a CRPG in the strict or vague sense of the term. You can see why people, pressed for time, and incautious with their words, might do so. But doing so makes it harder to notice Larian’s prudent video game positioning strategy marketing. Ultimately, the words we use to describe something profoundly impacts the way we think.
Positioning Strategy Marketing:
The Unique Reason for Baldur’s Gate 3’s Outsized Success
There are many reasons why Baldur’s Gate 3 has been so successful. One could talk about the design of the game itself, the studio behind it, the marketing, and state of the industry.
All these factors and more played a role, but the one I think most worth focusing on is the way the game was developed, because it was extremely unusual for AAA RPGs, and is necessarily directly responsible for a large part of the perceived quality consumers attribute to the game.
Baldur’s Gate 3 spent roughly three years on Steam Early Access before releasing, time which Larian spent refining the game and its choices in response to players. It is a truism among most reviews of the game that the perceived reactivity to player roleplaying choices exists on a scale hitherto rarely ever achieved. This matters because diversity of roleplaying options is, by definition, a core feature for any roleplaying game.
Larian spent three years studying players’ choices and refining new and old ones in response. It spent three years continuously improving the core gameplay loop with their consumers.
That is unusual for most developers of AAA RPGs in the current games industry, and this focus on iterative design in response to player feedback over literal years sets Baldur’s Gate 3 apart. Usually, most AAA RPG developers do not openly develop their game with community feedback, using player response and data in order to improve the game until they think it ready to release. The typical model is development in private rather than in open, direct dialogue with the public.
In an interview, Baldur’s Gate 3 director Swen Vincke has noted how, while they used data from this period to ensure that statistically more common choices felt well supported, that Larian made a point of investing in the kinds of choices even only a small amount of players make:
I look at the dashboard [showing data on what players do] from time to time. We have people who look at it, but I try to not do it because […] I want to make sure that we keep on investing heavily in things that maybe 0.001% of the audience will see. […] If you would say ‘oh, 80% of the players go there and they see that’, then what’s going to happen is you’re going to put all of your effort on the 80% experience, and you’re going to do less on the 20%. And that’s not what you should do when you make a game like this, at least in my opinion. So I try not to be guided too much by it, but obviously I pick things up like ‘this class is more popular than that, people are making that choice more than that.’ But we don’t let it guide the game development.”
Baldur’s Gate 3 was intentionally designed to reward lots of choices, even the unusual. Again, this is not the typical choice AAA RPG developers make. Most invest resources in developing only the choices many will make, and limiting resources to the kinds of content most players will see. The upshot to this approach is that you can guarantee that players see all the invested effort. The cost of this approach is that the games often seem to lack depth, and struggles to create the illusion or genuine reality that the game is super reactive to player choice.
Obviously, Larian’s development approach requires time -literal years- and a substantial amount of money, and the difficulty of replicating their method is precisely what has provoked the ongoing conversation about whether Baldur’s Gate 3 should be setting “standards” for RPGS. It’s not just that few developers might be willing to imitate Larian, it’s that many arguably are unable to.
But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, and Baldur’s Gate 3 is no different. If Larian has succeeded so much, it is because it has done something few are willing or able to.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s Positioning Strategy Marketing
Larian is aware how the level of choice they designed into Baldur’s Gate 3 makes it unique. And this core feature of the game, which few other AAA RPGs on the market can hope to rival, is front and center in the game’s positioning strategy marketing. It’s present all over Larian’s webpage for the game and the promise of player agency is prominent in their marketing execution. The end result is that this feature of the game is constantly mentioned in almost every review.
Larian’s position strategy marketing leveraged what makes their game stand out: player choice. The company wisely avoided positioning its game as a CRPG, because of the limits of that positioning. Instead, it focused on creating something few others can or will, and marketed it just as well. Baldur’s Gate 3’s success shows how powerful the right positioning strategy marketing can be.
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