Starfield’s Long Development May Not Save It From Past Mistakes

Starfield's long-awaited gameplay showcase was a spectacle that seemed to represent the game's incredibly long development time. However, a few familiar promises tell a different story.

Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Summer Game Fest 2023 was a collection of ups and downs, but the award for the most ambitious stream arguably goes to the Xbox Games Showcase. Of course, the Xbox team almost doubled that event’s length with the Starfield Direct presentation, which focused on Xbox’s biggest upcoming exclusive.

But as I watched that 45-minute Starfield stream, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen the same song and dance before. Probably because we all have.

Bethesda officially announced Starfield during E3 2018, but, according to an interview with The Guardian, Bethesda Game Studios has actively been developing the game since 2015/2016. Technically, the studio started working on the game way back in 2008, though it seems like much of that initial work consisted of elaborate brainstorming and conceptualization.

Of course, Bethesda Game Studios (and Bethesda as a whole) haven’t been dormant during that time. For that matter, neither have the countless other studios that have been releasing their own ambitious projects during that prolonged period. We’re supposed to believe that Starfield represents the progress made by all of those games and all those studios during that time. Instead, many elements of the Starfield presentation more obviously represented a lot of the mistakes that have been made during that time by Bethesda and others.

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As I watched the Starfield Direct, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was watching the trailers for games like Fallout 76 and No Man’s Sky all over again. Mind you, I don’t mean trailers for the games as they are now. Their respective studios have fixed many of those game’s problems since their releases. Instead, I’m talking about the announcement trailers released before Fallout 76 and No Man’s Sky were launched. After all, the Starfield stream’s gameplay clips were all shot and edited in the same seemingly careful way that made those other reveals feel (at least in retrospect) dishonest.

In the past, Todd Howard has made some fancy statements regarding Bethesda’s games, many of which were meaningless boasts. Remember when he said Fallout 76 would support “16 times the detail” seen in Fallout 4 and include a better lighting system? Well, Howard made a surprisingly similar claim during the Starfield Direct and added that the game would also feature a new animation system. Obviously, Starfield‘s long development time could have indeed resulted in such improvements. However, most of BGS’ titles take quite a long time to develop, and the studio still has a reputation for over-promising.

Actually, Starfield‘s deep dive even included a line that echoed one of Howard’s most infamous promises. In 2011, when Howard introduced audiences to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, he uttered the line, “You see that mountain? You can climb it.” That claim was supposed to get fans excited about the size and scope of Skyrim, and, to be fair, Skyrim is certainly a sizeable game. However, the exact wording of the claim proved to be something of an exaggeration. Howard makes a similar claim about Starfield and the many moons players will see as they explore all the game’s planets. According to him, they will be more than backdrops. If players can see a celestial body, they can land on it and mine it for resources.

Suggestions like that put fans in that same awkward position. Given the many technological advancements made between the launches of Skyrim and Starfield, gamers might actually be able to explore every chunk of space rock in the latter game. Then again, Howard has a history of making claims that Bethesda’s games can’t live up to no matter how impressive the final product may be. His decision to spiritually recycle one of his most infamous claims makes you wonder if the Starfield team has really learned from past mistakes. At the very least, lines like that trigger a part of long-time fans’ brains that reminds them to be cautiously optimistic if they’re going to be optimistic.

Speaking of exploration, in 2020, Howard claimed that Starfield will populate the vastness of its dark, digital space with 1000 planets as well as various space stations, freighters, and party ships players can also apparently visit. He is sticking by that claim, which could explain why the game has taken so long to develop. Crafting 1000 explorable worlds is no easy task, even with procedural generation aids.

However, no matter how many alien planets players can land on, if they aren’t worth exploring, why bother having them? This exact same problem eventually impacted the Mass Effect series. The first Mass Effect game features plenty of “explorable” planets, but aside from a few key ones, most of them are open, flat plains that you drive around in your futuristic car. Many gamers hated that design, which is why BioWare scaled back its ambitions and focused only on developing worlds that served a purpose in Mass Effect 2 and 3.

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Even when the company thought it was ready to try again with Mass Effect Andromeda, BioWare only dared to try to develop a few hundred explorable worlds and later abandoned that idea due to a lack of resources. So how did Bethesda manage to pull off that feat that BioWare fell so short of? Once again, we have to trust the vague ideas of technological advances and increased budget/development time. Alternatively, there’s always the possibility that Howard was exaggerating about the number of worlds players can explore, or maybe Bethesda decided to rely on crunch culture again. Neither possibility is a good look for the company, and believing that either isn’t true requires us to put a lot of faith in that “it just works” idea that Bethesda has been burnt by in the past.

Even the locations that we know Bethesda has hand-crafted reflect issues from prior sci-fi RPGs. During the Starfield Direct, Production Director Angela Browder claimed that the city of New Atlantis is the absolute biggest hub town Bethesda has ever built in terms of size, art, and crowds. Lead City Designer Brian Chapin expanded that the cities will feel lived in and be populated by characters who feel like they have their own lives and schedules.

To be fair, most previous Bethesda games have pulled that feat off, and few have had as long of a development time as Starfield seemingly benefited from. Lately, though, gamers have rightfully become wary of games and game locations that are just big for the sake of being big.

Probably the most recent face of this issue was Cyberpunk 2077. That game’s main location, Night City, is absolutely massive with a ton of vertical real estate. Yet, despite all that, the game was supposed to support an equally massive NPC population with crowds that rival real-world cities, all of whom were supposed to lead their own digital lives and schedules. That didn’t happen. Granted, CD Projekt RED had never produced a game with as big as Cyberpunk 2077, but the same could be said of Bethesda and Starfield. The trick is going to be making the core ideas so big that it would have felt impossible for smaller worlds to support them. Otherwise, we run the risk of being reminded of what happens when an idea is stretched thin to cover a sizeable chunk of digital real estate.

For as long as Starfield has been in development, serious questions remain unanswered. Sadly, given Bethesda’s past works, we realistically can’t expect the release version of Starfield to run or look anywhere near as good as the trailer (despite Microsoft claiming otherwise), and that’s on top of all the other unknowns that I just mentioned.

I am hoping against hope that I’m just being unreasonably paranoid and that all those extra years in the oven have given Starfield a large, explorable galaxy that is worth exploring and is brought to life with a lighting system (and all the other things) that lives up to Todd Howard’s promises. But if I had a nickel for every time Bethesda released a trailer for a game that makes promises it can’t keep, I’d probably be rich enough to have bought the company before Microsoft did.

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