Ever since Baldur’s Gate 3 exploded in popularity after its August 3 release date, the fact that it’s not coming to Xbox Series X/S the same time as PS5 has reignited the controversy around Microsoft’s console strategy and its commitment to a policy that seems like it will become increasingly unworkable in the years ahead.
Baldur’s Gate 3 supports local co-op splitscreen, and developer Larian Studios has been very public about its struggle to get that feature working on the less powerful Series S. Microsoft requires games to launch with the same modes on both Series X and S, and despite Baldur’s Gate 3’s popularity, no exceptions were made for the critically acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons RPG until now.
Larian director Swen Vincke said the studio had arrived at a solution after meeting with Phil Spencer, Microsoft Gaming’s CEO, at Gamescom this week. “Series S will not feature split-screen coop, but will also include cross-save progression between Steam and Xbox Series,” he tweeted, with the games now confirmed to arrive before the end of 2023.
Spencer was asked about the apparent Series S conflict in a Eurogamer interview earlier this week. “I don’t see a world where we drop S,” he said. “In terms of parity, I don’t think you’ve heard from us or Larian, that this was about parity. I think that’s more that the community is talking about it. There are features that ship on X today that do not ship on S, even from our own games, like ray-tracing that works on X, it’s not on S in certain games.”
It’s unclear if Spencer means that split-screen gameplay in Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t a requirement on Series S. Kotaku reached out to both Microsoft and Larian Studios to clarify the situation. What is clear is that the company doesn’t plan to abandon Series S support for games in the near future. “We’re going to learn from this experience as well because we don’t love that [Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t on Xbox yet],” Spencer told IGN in a separate interview. “But I don’t think it’s something that’s a fatal flaw in the system. It’s partners prioritizing their time, us listening and being a good partner to them.”
The Series S has been raising questions from the very start. As Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier pointed out on August 24, even prior to its 2019 release there were concerns from game developers that the difference in performance could make realizing their full “next-gen” ambitions more difficult on Xbox. Anecdotal reports from Gamescom are that developers there have been privately sharing frustrations about the challenges presented by the Series S as well.
Spencer noted to IGN that games like Diablo IV work fine across both platforms, and reiterated that Microsoft wants to open up gaming to more people, and sees the Series S’s low price as a cornerstone of that strategy. At $300, the less powerful console is the same price as the Nintendo Switch and $100 cheaper than the disc-less PlayStation 5. Over the recent holiday period, it was briefly marked down even further to $250. And the option to subscribe to Game Pass means Series S owners can access a huge library of games, including new blockbusters like Starfield, without shelling out hundreds more.
The popularity of the Series S for players might also be what makes it that much harder for Microsoft to leave it behind. “I also wouldn’t expect and don’t think it makes sense for Microsoft to drop Xbox Series S support or have some titles only ship on Xbox Series X,” tweeted Niko analyst Daniel Ahmad. “The primary reason being that Series S makes up a significant part of the Xbox Series X|S install base and people did indeed buy it to play ‘next gen’ games.”
As laudable as the goal of an affordable next-gen console is, we’re already nearing the three-year anniversary of the Series X/S, traditionally the halfway-point in a console’s lifecycle. If there are already rumblings of some games struggling to support certain features on Series S, it seems likely to get worse by 2024, especially for timed exclusives getting ported directly from the PS5. That would be the same year in the Xbox One’s lifecycle that Microsoft released the Xbox One X mid-generation refresh that aimed to offer 4K resolution and higher framerates. A similar new console has already been ruled out this time around, however.
Spencer told Bloomberg in June that he doesn’t feel an “imperative” to release a more powerful version of the Series X, and reiterated that at Gamescom. We’re focused right now on the increased storage Xbox Series S,” he told IGN. “But no, like I said, we’re kind of at the end of the beginning in my mind. So I think we need to let devs settle on this hardware and get the most out of it.”
Sony, meanwhile, appears set to launch a PS5 Slim within the next year. While it’s not clear if that console will have meaningfully different specs than the existing ones, it would still be a significant iteration on the hardware, especially if reports of a standalone attachable disc drive for the PS5 are also accurate. Microsoft hinted at the new console in a Federal Trade Commission court hearing in June, and footage of what’s believed to be the case at a manufacturing plant in China recently leaked as well.
Whatever new console or hardware refreshes arrive in the years ahead, Spencer warned players not to expect prices to significantly drop like they have in previous generations. “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,” he told Eurogamer. “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. It’s why you see console pricing relatively flat.”
In fact, prices have been going in the opposite direction. Microsoft raised the price of the Xbox Series X/S abroad, following in Sony’s footsteps from a year prior. Even the Nintendo Switch, released over six years ago, remains the same $300 today that it was then. The Mario maker has now sold over 125 million units. So far at least, Microsoft doesn’t seem on track to hit even half of that. It’s currently at 21 million according to a presentation slide that leaked earlier this summer, with hardware sales slowing down instead of speeding up.
Starfield could change that when it arrives on September 1. Director Todd Howard says he plays it almost exclusively on his Series S and it works just great on the cheaper console.
Update 8/24/2023 11:59 a.m. ET: Added new information about Series S version of Baldur’s Gate 3.