Amidst a plethora of new information about Starfield from the Xbox Bethesda Showcase, probably the most talked about detail was Todd Howard’s announcement that the upcoming sci-fi RPG will feature 1,000 fully explorable planets. Howard has now told IGN more about the game’s approach to procedural generation and its offerings, assuring us that players can ignore them in favor of a massive amount of fully handcrafted content if they wish.
Speaking to IGN, Howard addressed the huge reaction to the news of Starfield’s massively explorable space: “We’re pretty aware you’re throwing that [information] Towards the end, people will say, “What did you just say?” and then they will have a lot of questions [about] how it works.”
While Howard says that going forward the team will take a deep dive into exactly how this content is created and how it feels in action, he offered us a glimpse into the mindset around it, centered on a single philosophy: “We’re trying to tell me as much as you can.”
“We do a lot of procedural generation [in Starfield], but I would keep in mind that we’ve always done it,” Howard explained. “It’s a big part of Skyrim in terms of quests and some other things we do. We create landscapes with procedural systems, so we’ve always been working on that. [The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is] One that we look at a lot in terms of game flow. And we had developed some procedural technology and made some prototypes, and with Starfield it really started to come to a head because we think we can do that.
While he didn’t go into detail, Howard emphasized that Starfield’s procedural generation is robust enough to handle the sheer scale of diversity required to build 100 solar systems’ worth of planets:
“So it starts with this: Can you even pull it off visually? You know, a planet. And a planet by itself, if you think about it in a game concept, just a planet is infinite if you want it in a realistic way. So when you’re dealing with scales and procedural systems like that, the difference between, say, one planet that has some variation, and a hundred planets or a thousand planets, it’s actually not that big of a jump if that makes sense – if you have good systems for it.”
But what Howard seems particularly clear is that there is a “golden path” (or perhaps “golden freeway” would be more appropriate) through Starfield that represents the full, hand-crafted Bethesda RPG that fans would expect, he emphasizes that the team has created more handcrafted content than ever, set in its vast procedural galaxy:
“I should also add that we did more handwork in terms of content in this game than in any other game we’ve made. This is us [at] over 200,000 lines of dialogue so we’re still doing a lot of manual work and if people just want to do what they’re used to doing in our games and follow a main quest and complete the quest lines, you’ll see what you see. 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 have some gameplay and random content and things like that.” Like a Daggerfall would if you go way back.”
Again, the philosophy is about saying yes to the player, allowing them to detour into areas the designers could never have filled in, and do something there even if it’s not part of the main game.
“We’re also keen to let you know what that is [that procedural content] is. So if you look at space, you know there are many ice balls in space. So one of our big design considerations for this game was, “What’s fun about an ice ball?” And it’s okay sometimes if ice balls aren’t — it is what it is. We’d rather have it and say yes to you, ‘Hey, you can land on it.’ Here are the resources, you can survey them, and then you can land and spend ten minutes there and say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to go and go back to the other planet that has all this other content on it, and I’m going to do this questline follow.’
“So we’re pretty careful about saying, ‘Here’s the fun, here’s this type of content,’ but still say yes to the player and, ‘You want to land on this weird planet, look at it and build an outpost and live your life there and watch the sunset because you like the sight of the moons there? We love that stuff.”
Starfield is due out for Xbox and PC in 2023, and the first gameplay reveal featured combat, introduced customization, and even hinted at a visit to Earth and our solar system. We’ll find out a lot more in the months leading up to release, but the game already sounds massive.