Planetary landing sequences are cool to watch (opens in new tab), but in the context of a videogame, the thrill tends to wear off after you’ve done it a half-dozen times or so. Because really, there’s not a hell of a lot actually going on while it happens: You just strap in, hold on, and hope for the best. Because of that, Todd Howard told IGN (opens in new tab) that while Starfield (opens in new tab) will give players an awful lot of freedom, it will not let them fly seamlessly from orbit to surface.
“We decided early in the project that the on-surface is one reality, and then when you’re in space it’s another reality,” Howard said.
“If you try to really spend a lot of time engineering the in-between, like that segue, you’re just spending a lot of time [on something] that’s really just not that important to the player. So let’s make sure it’s awesome when you’re on the surface and awesome when you’re in space, and those realities look and play as good as they can be.”
There are games that make seamless planetary landings work, like No Man’s Sky, Elite: Dangerous, and Star Citizen, but they’re sims. The most memorable sci-fi RPG of the past couple of decades, on the other hand—Mass Effect—does not: You’re either on the Normandy or on the ground, while the time in between is represented by a quick cinematic. Different genres, different priorities, and Howard said that the focus for Starfield is roleplaying rather than simulating.
A planetary landing in No Man’s Sky.
Bethesda revealed during last week’s Xbox/Bethesda showcase that Starfield will have 100 star systems with 1,000 planets to explore, which quickly sparked a range of reactions: Some people worried that all those planets will be repetitive and boring, others are hopeful (opens in new tab) they will be, and of course there are those who don’t care (opens in new tab) because they’re not going to waste time dicking around with them anyway. Howard had reassuring words for people in the third demographic that they’ll be taken care of: Starfield will rely on procedural systems to crank out those 1,000 worlds, but it will also have more bespoke content (opens in new tab) than any previous Bethesda game.
“We have done more hand crafting in this game, content-wise, than any game we’ve done,” Howard said. “We’re [at] over 200,000 lines of dialogue, so we still do a lot of handcrafting and if people just want to do what they’re used to in our games, and follow a main quest, and do the questlines, you’re gonna see what you’d kind of expect from us. But then you have this whole other part of, ‘Well I’m just going to wander this planet, and it’s going to provide some gameplay, and some random content, and those kinds of things.’ Kind of like a Daggerfall would, if you go way back.”
I do go way back to Daggerfall, which featured literally thousands of dungeons (opens in new tab) made up of randomized arrangements of blocks, interspersed with a much smaller number of handcrafted locations. And it worked really well: It took me longer than I care to admit to notice that building blocks were being reused (in my defense, this was 1996 and it was all very new), but even though it was really just filler, I loved crashing through dungeons to fight monsters and find treasure. It was a relaxing, on-demand diversion from the main quest, and it made the game world feel big and alive.
Howard acknowledged that some of those procedurally-generated worlds in Starfield aren’t going to be much fun, but said the game will ensure players can tell the wheat from the chaff.
“We’re pretty careful about saying, ‘Here’s where the fun is, here’s this kind of content’,” he said. “But still say yes to the player and, ‘You want to go land on that weird planet, check it out, and build an outpost, and live your life there, and watch the sunset because you like the view of the moons there? Go for it.’ We love that stuff.”
Starfield, Bethesda’s first original RPG in more than two decades, is currently slated to be out sometime in the first half of 2023.