The new Starfield teaser has dropped today, prompting a flurry of hype and speculation about the mysterious new RPG. The game is only a few short months from release, and we’ve seen so little of it until now. Fans only really got their first glimpses of the game last year. And we’ve seen basically no gameplay, other than a few pre-rendered scenes that purportedly are pre-alpha footage taken in the game engine. The Starfield release date is November 11, 2022. It’ll be available on PC, Xbox, and as part of Game Pass on day one. Until then, we just haven’t seen enough of the game to know for sure what we’re getting. And for some, that’s a big concern.
What is Starfield going to be?
All the hype surrounding this game has been kind of confusing for some people. It seems some people don’t understand what this game is. Sure, we’ve got a few basic preview videos, but we only have the words of the people working on it to go on. And if you’re wondering what kind of RPG it is, there’s a simple answer. It’s a space exploration game. Think Elite Dangerous, but with more substantive storytelling and a focus on NPCs and factions that eclipses the Frontier title. We’re mostly meandering in the void on what that means in practice, but we have some glimpses.
Game director Todd Howard, studio director Angela Browder, and art director Matt Carofano did give us more to go on. “A lot of our games are about exploration, and that’s the ultimate exploration, is what’s out there? What’s past Earth?” said Carofano. “Whereas Skyrim is sort of an epic fantasy, this is a more grounded game and a more grounded setting about exploration…”
So how do we keep hearing about Skyrim in relation to this game? It might just seem like clever marketing to tap into that nostalgia, but there’s more to it. You can glean a fair bit about the new sci-fi RPG from that comparison. The idea is that the Bethesda games of the past will influence this new IP, but not totally shape it. But the cryptic statements and hype that we’ve heard about “Skyrim in space” suggest this might be a bit less true than Bethesda want us to believe.
“We always have that ‘step out’ moment into the world, so to say,” Howard says. “The technology has changed. We’ve all changed. So our expectations when loading up a game, like, ‘Okay, I’m going to step out and there’s going to be this moment.’ Us being able to do that and have it feel new every generation, every game, is special about what we do.”
In other words, you’re going to get a Skyrim-esque tutorial section like many other Bethesda games. This area is meant to set the stakes. But in practice, it’s a tedious on-rails affair that most players dread. In other ways, things might end up improving, at least we hope. Again, we’ve seen basically nothing about the game, yet Bethesda is lauding it as a major advancement of their core ideas for what makes an RPG.
The developers have touted other improvements like pickable starting locations, to help sell that you’re in a more vibrant universe. Although Starfield isn’t the first game to do this, it will be interesting to see how they handle it. And speaking of factions, that’s one area we finally have more detail on.
There are pirates and united militaristic empires to quarrel with. But really, we’ve seen them in name and concept art only. Going beyond that, we arrive at today. The hype around the recent teaser points to a faction system and companions, the same ideas Bethesda has had in place since Skyrim and Fallout 3. But glimpses seen in the videos suggest some troubling assumptions might be true. While having faction-based storytelling and a morality system isn’t a bad thing, the way it’s being presented here is concerning.
The team did say that they want there to be more weight to decisions. Starfield wants to use a dialogue system “where you’re actually trying to persuade somebody of something,” calling their evolution of dialogue from Oblivion “definitely one of the most successful ones that we’ve had” in terms of helping immerse the player. What that means in practice remains very vague. And it’s always healthy to hope for the best while remaining skeptical.
Pointing to a line uttered in the previews, the team is quoted as saying “So it lets you be a good person and still play with the bad guys.” That suggests there’s more player agency in the morality and faction system. That could be a good or bad thing. There is such a thing as too much player freedom. If your player can interact with anything in the game world regardless of choice, there are no stakes to anything. The ability to hop between factions in Skyrim comes to mind, and how little they ultimately mattered in the grand scheme of the story. So despite all the allusions to deep and interesting factions, there’s this dread that they aren’t all that substantive. But again, we don’t know for sure.
One thing that might offer us a clue is the development of the game.
What has development been like?
This is where there are too few details to say anything more concrete than, a really difficult time. Game journalist Jason Schreier said on Twitter that the game planned to hit Alpha in mid-2021. He also revealed that “Starfield’s team was very small until 2019.” This means that the years before 2020 saw precious little progress on the core game, as it was mostly in pre-production up to that point.
Now to explain why that’s important to understand what an Alpha means. Despite what Steam Early access has done to warp understanding of this term, it’s very simple. Alpha means prototyping is done, and that the game’s core is feature complete. Sure, developers will tack on bug fixes and refinements, but the gameplay loop is nailed down and largely complete. When you put the statements together, it reveals that 2020-2021 was when most of the actual work on the game was done so far. Adding to the mess is the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down production. That’s likely why we saw nothing much about the game during 2020.
So back in 2018 when Todd Howard called the game “playable” and “in production”, alarm bells went off for some fans. Those are some very vague terms, and they can mean pretty much anything. In short, if the game was in alpha, then they would have called it that. Cut to 2021 and the game is in production for the entire year, at full speed. Prior to this point, there’s been precious little concrete reveals or news, and only mostly silence. One could also compare this period to the same period that the infamous BioWare shooter Anthem went through In the three years before its unveiling in 2017, the game was essentially silent. What followed was a marketing blitz designed to promote the game. Which is what we saw in 2021 with Starfield. One could argue that this is a good sign for a few reasons. Mostly because it means Bethesda is moving at a much faster pace than expected, but at what cost?
Anthem was blitzed onto the eyes of gamers in the years following its reveal. And fans bought into it, hard. The actual release though, was a dizzying mess of controversies and bugs. Players were very unsure about the future of the game. What was sure, was that Anthem was never “the Bob Dylan of video games.” And yes, that’s an actual quote from Casey Hudson, one of the brains behind the game. Anthem was shut down a short while later. And while there are some major differences with the way Bethesda Game Studios is handling Starfield, it’s hard not to see a similar trajectory in development as possible. When you see that kind of common sentiment to over-promise and underdeliver, a certain amount of pessimism creeps in when looking at the games industry.
So what does all this mean?
To Bethesda’s credit, they have avoided some of the landmines in marketing their game that titles like No Man’s Sky fell into. The studio is being very reserved in what they’re showing off right now. While what we’ve seen so far is visually impressive, context is painfully absent. There’s one example I’ll point to here.
This is all very impressive, but we don’t know what these scenes are in-gameplay. The robot shown above could be little more than a simple character intro cutscene. Without knowing for sure what the context is for these scenes and concept art, praise should be reserved. But ultimately, this lack of context adds to a more concerning idea about the release of Starfield. Bethesda has always had relatively short pre-launch marketing campaigns, leading to an explosion of late-development excitement. But there seems to be a lot more hype for Starfield compared to other games. And it seems as though some of that is a bit unearned on Bethesda’s part.
It can take months to polish a game of this size to an acceptable standard. In the era of day-one DLC and patches, we can rest assured that a massive bug-fix patch will accompany the release. So what will the game be like on launch? And with the game being 8 months away from release, the idea that it’s not finished yet is frightening. And though Bethesda has some very talented people working on this game, we just haven’t seen enough of it to trust in the vision. The vague statements about the game’s factions, characters and more just aren’t enough to avoid the obvious assumptions. This is the reason why criticizing the marketing of Starfield is important. We don’t want another Anthem or Cyberpunk 2077 on our hands.
There are other things about development that suggest it has been grueling work. During the Tokyo Game Show, Howard told the audience that Starfield will launch with a complete Japanese localization and that it has over 150,000 lines of dialog. That kind of scale takes months to achieve. And when you consider that actual development has only really been going on for maybe two to three years, you might be able to see the problem.
The Creation Engine has become infamous among many gamers for being prone to bugs, and there’s going to be some level of messiness on launch. The scale of this game is arguably greater than anything Bethesda has been able to achieve before. And given the past, some folks are very suspicious over what can be delivered—versus what’s promised. So we have to wait until we see more of the game to truly get a feel for how Bethesda will do that. We all remember what Fallout 76 turned into on launch, and why it took months to get it to an acceptable state. Literally no one wants that for this game. The company better have learned its lesson with Starfield, or it’s going to be a mess. And it goes without saying, but probably don’t pre-order this, at least until after you get to see it in action.