The year is 2018. I’ve just seen the teaser trailer for Starfield at Bethesda’s conference, and I’m flipping hyped. That E3’s news was some of the first I covered in a video, mainly a reaction to what I was excited about, and Starfield was one of the biggest items on the list. Sure, it was just a little bit of art and a logo reveal at the time, but the promise and potential captured me. A Skyrim or Fallout-style RPG in space? Count me in. Years have passed, an acquisition has occurred, and delays have come. We now rest on the precipice of a launch with this in mind: Starfield is the most important game Xbox will ever release, and here’s why.
Bethesda’s reputation is on the line
It sounds like a silly assumption to make, but we all would have thought something like this would sound silly of CD Projekt Red before Cyberpunk 2077 was released. I remember being in an analyst’s live chat (shout-out Benji-Sales) when Cyberpunk hype was at its highest and asked the question “What if Cyberpunk 2077 is bad?”. I don’t remember the answer, but even with the critical acclaim, the hidden console issues and horrendous glitches soured the staunchest of CD Projekt Red defenders, showing that even pivoting to the flashy neon of Night City didn’t make up for bad design choices. Yes, Cyberpunk 2077’s rebound rivals that of the much maligned turned inspirational No Man’s Sky, but it’s a reminder that even the best fail.
Bethesda has made some of our favorite games, but that doesn’t remove them from being subject to criticism. Even more so, they’ve already had a flub, with Fallout 76’s disastrous launch that was underlined with terrible microtransaction practices and bait and switch helmet bags in the Collector’s Edition. Sure, Fallout 76 has somehow survived its poor arrival, being one of the few live service games to pick itself up off the ground. But, the issue at hand is not many flops get a second chance, and you worry that Bethesda may have used their one. If they mess up again, they aren’t just damaging their reputation, they’re besmirching Xbox’s.
That being the case, Starfield needs to be a hit. Bethesda may be under a new banner with Xbox, but most of the in-house leadership still call the shots. The mistakes of the past have to be observed carefully so as to not be repeated. Starfield is taking us into a new world, apart from what we’re used to, but a lot of the same practices in game design might remain intact. After all, Fallout has largely followed the same systems and mechanics of its predecessors in the Elder Scrolls franchise. Much of what we’ve seen of the gameplay in Starfield makes you think a lot of things are going to be familiar, and unfortunately the bugs and glitches we’re used to could come with that.
Is doubling down on Creation Engine a good choice?
Part of why that is worrying is how unoptimized the Creation Engine has been over the years. It’s in a downward spiral with cracks showing in the foundation, especially with Fallout 76’s release. As Paul Tassi titled an article on Forbes from a few years ago, the Creation Engine has gone from a meme to a liability. It’s the equivalent of using some of the weapons you craft in Fallout 4, there’s a standard old base of something that worked before, but with a bunch of other newer pieces tacked onto it. Can it do the job? Sure, but not as good as a brand new weapon might be.
I know it’s an argument that doesn’t always hold weight, because after all, we’re on the fifth iteration of Unreal Engine and it looks incredible. But for that same reason, we at least have to consider the possibility of the Creation Engine being part of the problem. Sticking with something that works is great, but when your internal engine has been behind some of the buggiest games of all time, something isn’t working correctly. Skyrim and Fallout games are massive, which means there’s a higher probability something will break eventually. When you play other games in the same vein and don’t have the same amount of issues though, you have to question the validity of using Creation over something like Unreal. Creation games also look dated compared to some other games that were released in the same period of time, like Batman: Arkham City (2011), or The Witcher 3 (2015). I don’t expect photorealism, but sometimes you just want more.
This is an even bigger notion to consider when watching the Unreal 5 showcase that aired recently. Games like The Lords of the Fallen and Hellblade II look mind blowing, and this is only the start of what this generation can offer. Unreal 5 is only now being used by developers of this generation, so it wouldn’t matter in the case of Starfield which has been under construction since 2013 conceptually. Fallout 76’s opening nosedive shows, however, that a bad game built on a rickety foundation is going to lead to major criticism and bad publicity.
Should they rebuild it from scratch? Maybe. Their parent company in Xbox also has several fantastic engines in its back pocket they could lend to help things along. While it’s nice to be able to reuse instead of rebuild, often that leads to building on top of existing problems, along with designers taking shortcuts that create new issues. Given how long it’s taken to build Starfield, with the game announced almost five years ago and in development for longer, you have to wonder if they wouldn’t have spent less time starting over and leaving the Creation Engine behind rather than “remastering” it.
They do have to consider the modding community and the fact they know Creation so well, but eventually a quality of life upgrade is worth the risk. Since Bethesda knows it’s an advantage they have, prioritizing the modding community in whatever’s next, whether an overhaul or building editors into an existing engine, is a way to mitigate any losses. If they can figure out how to monetize said community (looking at you Creation Club), they can certainly find a way to give them the best in-game experience and tools possible.
Starfield should be a fresh start for Bethesda, being their first game under Xbox, but they’re dragging along what’s been powering their games since Morrowind. Even with that in mind, Starfield should be Bethesda’s most polished game given the amount of delays it’s seen. If it still hits Skyrim or Fallout 4 levels of glitching, there’s a major problem in keeping the Creation Engine around. All we can say for sure is that the Creation Engine isn’t helping push gaming forward, and while I could be completely wrong once Starfield releases, I’m willing to think I’m not. If the Creation Engine is the reason Starfield is simply a good game instead of an outstanding one, it won’t drive the engagement Xbox craves.
The Xbox acquisition factor
So far with Microsoft’s acquisition of Zenimax Media (which held Bethesda Softworks, Arkane Studios, and more), we’ve gotten exactly one exclusive game, that being Hi-Fi Rush (from Tango Gameworks) which shadow dropped earlier this year. Redfall is coming in May from Arkane, and from all the previews it could be a genre-defining experience. However, neither of these titles compares to the power of a mainline Bethesda game. Skyrim has sold over thirty million copies in its lifespan, and Fallout 4 shipped twelve million copies in the first day alone. I don’t expect Starfield to get even close to that in sales numbers, but it should blow away the field in engagement. It’s a Game Pass seller, which is what Xbox bought Bethesda for.
If Starfield doesn’t hit perfectly, being a genre-changing experience as well as the most polished Bethesda game ever, there’s a risk that people will fall off the wagon after a month. Hogwarts Legacy is having that happen right now, with half the player count on Steam after breaking records for single player games. It’s not indicative of the player base on console, but the pedigree behind Starfield brings with it the aspirations of being THE highest played game of the year. Anything less than that seems like it would be a failure.
And that is where the acquisition comes in. Sure, Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5 will eventually be in the service, but this is the most important game Xbox will ever launch. They spent 7.5 billion dollars because of the promise of what Bethesda can deliver, and I guarantee you part of that was seeing Starfield in action. After all, we even have some substantial people who made claims that PlayStation tried to secure exclusivity for Starfield. The potential is off the charts, the hype surrounding Starfield is rampant, and anything less than a Game of the Year contender is a disappointment. It may not be THE reason Bethesda sold to Microsoft, but you can bet Starfield’s overall performance both critically and in metrics will help Xbox justify the purchase.
Not to mention, Xbox really needs this title to be a hit. 2022 was terrible for Xbox as a brand, with next to nothing releasing, and even then not much to write home about (although you have to play Pentiment by Josh Sawyer and Obsidian Entertainment). Halo Infinite, what was supposed to be a flagship title, got off to a fantastic start that has been botched in the move to live service, with a massive loss of goodwill towards the franchise (even if most FPS series seem to be dealing with that right now). Xbox gamers are starving for first party games to play, and those provided in the Series era have been slim. It’s hard to retain twenty-five to thirty million Game Pass subscribers when you’re offering crumbs, and Starfield is an entire bakery.
So far, 2023 is beginning for Xbox in earnest, with Hi-Fi Rush being a media darling and Redfall gaining momentum. Third-party Game Pass support has also seen great results from the player counts of titles such as Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty and Atomic Heart. All of 2023’s achievements so far don’t mean anything though if you bomb in the holidays. Consoles haven’t been moving for Xbox early in 2023, largely due to shipping and manufacturing obstacles for the Series X and a decline in interest for the Series S. I’d almost guarantee, however, that they’re preparing to ship as many Series Xs as possible for Starfield’s launch. If the game is subpar, or even just above average, those might sit on shelves during the most important season of retail that exists. That eats into the money Xbox has spent on Bethesda (remember, it’s higher than 7.5 billion at this point), and the higher ups won’t be happy in that scenario.
But Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5?
We all know that, even if displeased with Starfield, there’s no way Xbox just drops them. Bethesda was too big of a purchase, and there are too many studios and IP included that Xbox needs to compete. They aren’t going after Activision|Blizzard because they think they have too many games in house after all. But, the decisions made here will influence what happens as Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5 continue and begin development.
This is both good and bad. We already know that Todd Howard has mentioned that the Creation Engine is still in tow for Elder Scrolls 6, which is a huge downer in my opinion. If Starfield flops, is there a chance that changes? What if Starfield is a humongous hit that defines RPGs to come? Guaranteed, you’re going to see those features and the Creation Engine and its attachments continue on as the building blocks for everything Bethesda does going forward. Starfield is the barometer for what Bethesda will do in this and the next generation.
I think what worries me more is Starfield middling out and being a good title but not moving the needle. Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5 could both suffer because Bethesda doesn’t know exactly where to go from there, and I don’t want to see Bethesda simply playing it safe with those games. That’s how we’ve managed to have the same engine in play for so long. I worry that between Fallout 76’s initial reception and a possible Starfield “meh”, Bethesda may not want to take chances. I know plenty of people who didn’t like the base building of Fallout 4 in the slightest and somehow that’s back in Starfield, so maybe they don’t care at all what people think. This game just seems to be under much more of a microscope than most though.
Starfield’s reception affects a galaxy of elements
It’s not just that Starfield is Xbox’s most important game ever, it’s that it’s so important in so many ways. How this game is received and the engagement that occurs will cause ripple effects. If it’s bad; Bethesda’s reputation is at risk, the Creation Engine will continue to be questioned, Microsoft and Xbox will at least do a double take at their acquisition, and the future directions of Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5 will be muddy. If great though; Bethesda retakes their spot among leaders in game development, the turnaround for the Creation Engine will be praised, Microsoft and Xbox will feel validated on the cost of Bethesda, and we will all be patiently waiting to see how Bethesda incorporates certain ground-breaking concepts into Elder Scrolls 6 and Fallout 5.
There is a lot on the line when September 6th, 2023 comes around. I’ll be playing it whether it’s good or not, because I love Bethesda games and sci-fi is my jam. Whether or not it’s able to attract the following Microsoft, Xbox, and Bethesda is expecting, however, is yet to be seen. Starfield is indeed Xbox’s most important game, because a lot of how we view the Xbox and Bethesda brands as a whole, as well as their future games, depends on it.
David Burdette is a gamer/writer/content creator from TN and Lead Editor for Gaming Trend. He loves Playstation, Star Wars, Marvel, and many other fandoms. He also plays way too much Call Of Duty. You can chat with him on Twitter @SplitEnd89.