justin․searls․co

Starfield’s player count slips below Skyrim on Steam, just two months after Bethesda’s ‘biggest launch ever’

What is interesting from all this is how quickly it appears that Starfield has tailed down from its impressive launch, dropping down just two months after it released; by way of comparison, Skyrim’s original release had fewer players at launch in 2011, peaking at around 290,000, but didn’t fall below 20,000 players until almost seven years later in May 2018. (Two months after release, Skyrim was still on somewhere around 90,000 concurrent players on Steam.)

Keep in mind, Skyrim’s players are far likelier to be playing on Steam (both because it launched there and due to better mod support) than the official Xbox app, where Game Pass subscribers have always had “free” access to Starfield.

That said, it’s hard to read this without thinking about the chorus of anecdotal reports I’ve heard from people who’ve played Starfield: Bethesda successfully delivered another “one of those” games, but it simply lacks the magic and awe that gave Skyrim its staying power.

Personally, I think a lot of this is due to the game’s setting. High fantasy lends itself to dramatic moments celebrated by epic orchestral movements in a way that feels tacked on when applied to a sterile sci-fi environment. Fast travel between star systems in Starfield undercuts its sense of scale to a degree that manages to make it feel smaller than Skyrim’s technically-not-quite-as-big-in-aggregate map.

These combine to rob Starfield of what industry folks call “emergent gameplay.” A random hail from a starship feels like a procedurally-generated interruption, whereas a fellow traveler approaching you along a trail at night feels like a natural coincidence or kismet. Both might be random scripted events, but only one maintains suspension of disbelief. Similarly, knowing that I could walk thirty minutes and eventually reach a mountain in the center of Skyrim’s map lends credibility to its environment, but being forced to constantly fast travel between planets shatters any illusion that Starfield players are exploring a single connected universe.

As a result, Starfield is merely a good game. It’s more Fallout than Elder Scrolls. And where Fallout oozes with charm and satire, Starfield feels flat and mundane. The premise may be more realistic, but the world feels less real as a result.

Finishing Starfield’s campaign and then deciding to continue exploring its world raises the question, “why?” It would be like checking out at Costco and then deciding to walk another lap through the store. Maybe there was something you didn’t check off your list the first time around, but one imagines you’re going to impatiently hustle to get it and get out.


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