For Starfield, how big is too big?

Bethesda /

Earlier this year, we were treated to a gameplay demo from Bethesda on their newest IP in more than twenty years. Starfield has come at a time when the influence of its predecessors riddles the industry. With that came games with more of an emphasis on exploration (good) but with increasingly large game worlds (bad). If Starfield had been announced with this kind of trailer back in 2017 we may be having a completely different conversation about how it will revolutionize the industry, now we’re talking about how detrimental it is.

That’s not to say video games with large worlds are bad. The success stories are numerous with titles such as The Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Yet, despite those games’ incredible success with the formula, they all still resulted in fatigue at some point throughout their respective stories. This wasn’t something I experienced with older games such as Skyrim, Fallout 3 (or even 4), the original Red Dead Redemption, or Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. As these games struck a chord with audiences, the games continued to only increase in size, and with it, the amount of time the developer is asking you to play them.

I don’t go back to Skyrim because it asked me to keep giving it time, I go back because playing it never felt like a chore.

It brings me to a larger discussion within the gaming community over how big is too big? After you take five minutes to get your head out of the gutter and realize that it’s all about how you use it, take that logic and apply it here. Skyrim was one of the largest game worlds ever released when we experienced it for the first time back in 2011. Every game after it faced the same question, “is it as big as Skyrim?” and the answer would always be the same, “bigger”.

It resulted in games becoming too big for the stories they were trying to tell, or in many cases too big for the content they had to deliver. Being big for the sake of being big has taken over gaming. Far Cry began taking its series to even larger playgrounds, Red Dead Redemption 2 introduced one of the largest maps I’ve ever had to traverse. And when I say fatigue hit hard in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I mean it hit me hard. I think I took six months off before I went back to complete it.

Developers are asking players to dedicate all their free time or in some cases their lives, to their games. It’s no longer “here’s an experience we think you’ll enjoy”, it’s “here’s an experience that will take several hundred hours to get through as we milk you for your money to create an endless stream of income until we can come out with something else you can waste your time (and money) with“.

Starfield almost sounds like it is huge simply because Bethesda has the capability. Skyrim didn’t feel big for the sake of being big. Every area served a purpose surrounded by endless possibilities. I don’t go back to Skyrim because it asked me to keep giving it time, I go back because playing it never felt like a chore. It’s almost as if Outer Worlds has already achieved what Starfield is attempting to do years later.

When exploration in a game feels forced it takes you out of the driver’s seat and makes you a passenger on the tour of a very large virtual world. I felt that way in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, even though it is in my top five Assassin’s Creed games.

But big game worlds teeming with content are Bethesda’s bread and butter, and while everything in their games seems intentional, procedural generation is the word of the day, and Starfield is relying heavily on it.

Starfield is asking for a hefty time commitment

Todd Howard boasted a main story that would take approximately 40 hours to complete. That’s an incredibly long main story and doesn’t sound like one you’d want to put off too long if you have any intention of finishing the game.

When we purchase a game, we almost always purchase with the expectation that we’re getting quality content for the $60 (or $70 in some cases) we’re spending on the game. While value for each customer is going to vary, I think a  game that I’m not going to complete because it’s too big showcases more of a design flaw in the product rather than me simply not getting any value from it.

I don’t think I’m getting value for my money when I pick up a game and play 20 hours only to feel overwhelmed by how much the game is asking me to do or how much it is asking me to explore. Now I’m being told by Bethesda that I have more than 1,000 planets to explore? Even worse, I can land on any part of that planet’s surface and explore?

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That is going to take an incredible amount of time, especially if Starfield’s planets are dotted with quests, artifacts, and meaningful exploring. What even is that? Meaningful exploring. Well, it all depends on how Starfield as a game is built.

Meaningful exploring in Fallout 4 was completely different than what made exploring in Skyrim meaningful. And if Starfield is going to have any chance at retaining the attention of gamers in 2023, it’s going to have to provide its own unique form of meaningful exploration.