Starfield Exploration Took a Hit to Make Spaceship Construction Really Cool, Says Former Bethesda Designer


Long-time Bethesda Game Studios designer Bruce Nesmith is featured in the latest MinnMax interview, discussing topics from The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall to Starfield.

Nesmith, who was also the Lead Designer on Skyrim, left Bethesda in September 2021 to focus full-time on his career as a writer of science fiction and fantasy novels. However, he had completed all the base work he had been assigned for Starfield at that point, including all the astrophysics data, designing systems for space combat and spaceship building, and the skill system with the built-in challenges.

When asked by MinnMax’s Ben Hanson about the exploration limits criticized by some Starfield players, Nesmith pointed out that the exploration stuff suffered a bit because the team decided to create other in-depth systems, such as shipbuilding, which turned out to be a fan-favorite. Ultimately, it was a conscious choice to put some of the effort elsewhere in the game.

There was a lot of discussion about the scope of the game. At one point, I said ‘You know, I bet this game would be a lot better if we restricted ourselves to about two dozen solar systems and focused on them’. The point was made quite legitimately that once you’ve done one solar system, you’re really not adding to your work all that much by doing a hundred. Just doing our own solar system, all the variety that you have to do just to have that, you’ve done 90% of the work for the rest of it.

Todd pretty much pulled the number 100 for the number of star systems out of thin air, but the more we went on, the more it was like ‘Okay, so all the core activity takes place in these two dozen in the Settled Systems region, and the rest of it is open space, but people love our big games, they love that open area to explore so let’s go ahead and let them have it’. Then it was down to ‘Okay, how do we make exploration meaningful?’ Once again, you have to succeed on one planet. Once you’ve got that formula, you have the formula for all the planets.

But when you’re also trying to do ‘build your own spacecraft’, which they didn’t have to do, they could have given you a bunch of pre-built spacecrafts to buy.. Once they’re doing all that quest work and all the huge variety of plants and animals, you got to make hard choices, and I think some of the exploration stuff just didn’t come through as well as it could have because they decided to make other choices. Never misunderstand this: in every game studio on the face of this planet, they know the choices they’re making and they know the things that are not going to be in there. They know what the players are going to moan about, but you’ve got to make a hard choice.

I think players have really gravitated to building their own ships, which makes me personally happy because I worked really hard on that. So that was probably a good choice to say ‘Well, the exploration could take a little bit of a hit so that we can apply that same effort to making ship construction really cool’.

Exploration is definitely different in Starfield compared to previous Bethesda games, as Game Director Todd Howard had confirmed ahead of launch, simply due to the fact that the content had to be split across many different planets instead of being focused in a single world space.

The over-reliance on quick travel when moving through space certainly irked a few users, though there are now mods to enable proper planet-to-planet travel, at least within solar systems.

Even with these quirks, Starfield was very well received and sold extremely well, especially in the United States.

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