Amid a huge amount of new information on Starfield from the Xbox-Bethesda showcase, likely the most-discussed detail was Todd Howard’s announcement that the upcoming sci-fi RPG will include 1,000 fully explorable planets. Howard has now told IGN more about the game’s approach to procedural generation, what it offers, and assured us that players can ignore them in favor of a huge amount of fully handcrafted content, if they want to.
Speaking to IGN, Howard addressed the huge reaction to the news of Starfield’s massively explorable space: “We’re pretty aware you throw that [information] out near the end, people will go ‘What did you just say?’, and then they’ll have a lot of questions [about] how that works.”
While Howard says that the team will offer a future deep-dive into exactly how that content was made, and how it feels in action, he offered us a glimpse into the thinking around it, centered on a single philosophy: “We try to say yes as much as possible.”
“We do a lot of procedural generation [in Starfield], but I would keep in mind that we’ve always done that,” Howard explained. “It’s a big part of Skyrim in terms of questing and some other things we do. We generate landscape using procedural systems, so we’ve always kind of worked on it. [The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall is] one we look at a lot in terms of game flow. And we had been developing some procedural technology and doing some prototypes, and it really started coming to a head with Starfield, in that we think we can do this.”
While he didn’t go into details, Howard stressed that Starfield’s procedural generation is robust enough to handle the sheer scale of variety required to build 100 solar systems’ worth of planets:
“So it starts with: 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 one planet is infinitely big if you’re going to do it in some realistic fashion. So once you’re dealing with scale like that, and procedural systems, the difference between, say, one planet that has some variation on it, and a hundred planets, or a thousand planets, it’s actually not that big of a leap, if that makes sense – once you have good systems working for that.”
But what Howard seems especially clear about is that there is a ‘golden path’ (or perhaps ‘golden freeway’ might be more appropriate) through Starfield, which represents the full, handcrafted Bethesda RPG fans would expect, and he stresses that the team has created more handmade content than ever before, set within its giant procedural galaxy:
“I should also add that we have done more handcrafting in this game, content-wise, than any game we’ve done. 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.”
Again, the philsophy here is about saying yes to the player, allowing them to make detours into areas the designers wouldn’t ever have been able to fill out, and providing something to do there, even if it’s not a part of the main game .
“We’re also careful to let you know that’s what [that procedural content] is. So if you look at space, you know there are a lot of ice balls in space, so that was one of our big design considerations on this game is, ‘What’s fun about an ice ball?’ And it’s OK sometimes if ice balls aren’t-it is what it is. We’d rather have them and say yes to you, ‘Hey, you can land on this.’ Here are the resources, you can survey it, and then you can land and spend ten minutes there and be like, ‘OK, now I’m going to leave and go back to the other planet that has all this other content on it, and I’m going to follow this questline.’
“So we’re pretty careful about saying, ‘Here’s where the fun is, here’s this kind of content,’ 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 will arrive for Xbox and PC in 2023, and the first gameplay reveal showed off combat, introduced customization, and even hinted at a visit to Earth and our Solar System. We’ll be finding out much more in the months before release, but the game already sounds enormous.