“I had a moment of realisation of just how much we’d have to design, there’s a lot of space in space!”
Todd Howard, game director of Skyrim and Fallout 4, is speaking to the BBC ahead of the launch of his most ambitious project to date.
Starfield is a sprawling space epic, giving players the freedom to navigate the stars in search of action and adventure.
Howard admits candidly that this new release, “ended up being much larger than anything we’ve done. At times we thought, ‘are we in over our heads?'”
It’s not surprising, given the scope of the game Howard and his team were aiming to create.
Starfield promises players unrivalled freedom. As a member of a space exploration group trying to uncover the story of a mysterious artefact, players can choose to travel to more than a thousand different planets, customise their ships and weapons in an immeasurable number of ways and experience hundreds of different stories, missions and side-quests.
Bethesda Game Studios, established in Maryland, America, is well known for making role-playing games that players invest a lot of time in and Howard explains the vision for this title was for something “that people are going to play for a long time.”
But how long is too long?
It is a question that is often asked in gaming lobbies, Whatsapp chats or in pubs and coffee shops.
Aren’t shorter, more focused and polished experiences the way forward? Do all modern titles need hundreds of hours worth of material? Doesn’t that risk the inclusion of errors – all for the sake of providing untold options for players to choose between – when the majority of players won’t access all the options?
Howard isn’t concerned: “In my career I’ve found two things about people who play games. Often they do play one title for a really long time rather than moving on to something new.
“But even if they only play for 10 or 20 hours, finish the main story, save the world then move on, they’ll have at least seen all the other choices that could have been taken. It means those 20 hours will be different for every player because they were exposed to so much choice – which impacted their appreciation of the story and experience.”
Long role-playing games that players can sink tens if not hundreds of hours of playing time into are currently re-emerging as the big trend in gaming. This year the games which have impressed critics and audiences alike are titles like Hogwarts: Legacy, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3. All give the player countless options of quests and locations to explore at any given moment. Starfield is the latest.
Howard’s games are renowned for this style of gameplay, and Starfield is no different, even if he does acknowledge there are some drawbacks to this style of game design. “At times I suffer from choice anxiety,” he admits.
“But options are what I think keeps a game going in your head. When you put it down, you start thinking about when you can pick it back up? What am I going to do next? Or when you get distracted by choices in a game, and the hours go by, that’s when I start feeling good about a game I’m making.
“Things are always a bit of a mess during development, but you know things are starting to gel together when you go in to test something, and it’s late in the day and you’ve got to finish up soon, and you start playing. Next thing you know, three hours have gone by and you’re like ‘oh my, I didn’t even know!’
“That’s when I start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and I know we’re on to something.”
Many of the concepts seen in Starfield have been explored in games before and comparisons with titles such as No Man’s Sky have already been made. However, the promise of this freedom to explore space coupled with Bethesda Games Studio’s legacy of storytelling is what made Starfield one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2023.
The reaction so far has been broadly positive, with the review aggregator site Metacritic giving the game 87 out of 100. In his review for IGN, which scored the game seven out of 10, Dan Stapleton argues that the “combination of disjointed space travel, non-existent maps and a slow rollout of essential abilities very nearly did it in. It was the joys piloting a custom spaceship into and out of all sorts of morally ambiguous situations in a rich sci-fi universe that eventually pulled it out of a nosedive.”
In The Video Games Chronicle, Jordan Middler scored the game five out of five saying, “The sense of wonder, adventure, and possibility is an intoxicating trick that never wore off.”
Scoring it seven out of ten, Michael Higham, writing in Games Spot, argues that: “Bethesda’s spacefaring adventure has its moments with impressive scale and satisfying combat… but its uninspired vision of the cosmos make for a journey that’s a mile wide, but an inch deep.”
Other publications, like The Guardian, Eurogamer and Kotaku, whose reviews are highly regarded, have been unable to fully analyse the title yet because of a dispute over when they received a copy of the game to try.
We sat down to speak with Howard before this was public knowledge,
This release is an important moment for Microsoft and especially its Xbox console. As an exclusive title, bosses hope it will draw more players to choose their machine over main rival the PlayStation 5.
Despite many of the world’s most popular titles being cross-platform, Howard argues that exclusives like this still have a place in the industry: “When you’re making something exclusive then the more you can focus.
“You know this is the hardware or the thing people are playing on, so the ability to focus on that always yields a better product. You do want people to be able to access it of course. But being with Xbox means there is an ease of access for us and I’m told we’re expecting more people playing this launch than anything we’ve ever done before and that’s despite the success of our previous games.
“I do also think people attach brands to certain games. When you think of Zelda you think of the Switch and I think there are times when that can be a real benefit.”