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When is a game launch not just a game launch? When it’s a matter of identity, of course; when some segment of the gaming population has managed to tightly wind some aspect of their sense of self around the perceived success or failure of this commercial product.
People behaving badly online is nothing worthy of a raised eyebrow anymore, of course, but when we hit launches like this it’s time for everyone to batten down the digital hatches, because things will get nasty and bystanders will get caught in the crossfire.
Perhaps the last major outbreak of truly terrible online behaviour around a game launch was when the first reviews of CyberPunk 2077 started to appear – pointing out (entirely correctly) that the game was unfinished and in a shocking state technically was greeted with a truly insane reaction from self-styled hardcore fans who had not, of course, played the game yet themselves.
Without the need to be a standard-bearer for Xbox, Starfield would be a far less contentious game
It's been a minute since then, and while there’s still plenty of console war idiocy to go around – imagine me here waving a vague hand at pretty much everything that’s been said about Final Fantasy XVI’s commercial performance since launch, for example – most game launches have been spared the worst of the online vitriol.
Until last week, of course; until Starfield.
Reviews for Starfield started to appear at the same time that people who had paid for early access to the game were able to begin playing, and even before the reviews appeared there was some heated discourse around the critical response, since it was clear that Bethesda had cherry picked outlets that would be allowed early access to review the game.
This isn’t a new tactic by any means – many publishers try to juice their day-one Metacritic numbers in this way, knowing that they’ll drop off once scores from less docile outlets start being posted. It’s not a great look, though, and there’s a huge risk that the perception (accurate or otherwise) that the publisher doesn’t trust the game’s quality enough to allow non-handpicked outlets to review will outweigh any perception boost from a temporarily inflated Metacritic score.
Then the reviews dropped, and in among the gushing praise from carefully selected outlets there were a handful of voices who said what any actual fan of Bethesda’s games had known all along, and what would come to be reinforced as reviews from other outlets trickled in over the following week: that Bethesda’s RPGs are, as they have always been, magnificently ambitious, creative worlds that are nonetheless let down, especially at launch, by bugs, glitches, and outdated tech, and which are massively rewarding, but only if you’re willing to look past many foibles and issues.
Starfield is no exception; much like Skyrim or Fallout 4 before it, it is a game that will be deeply beloved by the niche audience who adore the freedom and variety of Bethesda’s worlds, and are willing to forgive a great deal in return. A consensus seemed to emerge – it needs patching and polishing, there are a lot of rough edges, and it will struggle to appeal beyond Bethesda’s well-defined (and very decently sized) niche, but it’s a good game.
One vociferous segment of the internet proceeded to lose what little was left of its collective mind – because it’s not enough for Starfield to be a good game. It’s not enough for it to be a pretty great example of Bethesda’s prowess in open-world RPGs. It’s not enough for it to deeply satisfy a niche audience. This was a game in which people had enmeshed part of their personal identity, and it needed to be world-changing; it needed to be the game which would catapult Xbox’s game portfolio onto an even playing field with PlayStation’s studio output, the game whose very name would be the mic drop that would settle any fanboy argument about which platform had better software.
And anyone suggesting that Starfield wasn’t any of those things, couldn’t live up to any of those dreams? Break out the graphic death threats, lads – after all, comedy is legal on Twitter now.
This was never a weight of expectation which Starfield should have been expected to bear. The most devoted fans of Bethesda’s open-world RPGs (and I don’t think I count in the upper echelons of that ranking, though I don’t like to count how many different platforms I’ve bought Skyrim on) would ruefully acknowledge criticism of bugs or outdated tech, which are par for the course with these games, and would describe them as slow burns, rewarding players for investing time and suspending disbelief. They’re not games for everyone (which is not remotely to say that they’re for a “better class” of gamer – you’re not a better person for your ability to ignore uncanny valley facial animations or hand-wave away glitching enemies) but that does not fit with the role that has been thrust upon Starfield as Xbox’ great hope for 2023.
One vociferous segment of the internet proceeded to lose what little was left of its collective mind – because it’s not enough for Starfield to be a good game
Even if the timing of its launch, as a much-anticipated first-party game arriving at a time when Xbox’s software pipeline really does need to start proving itself, makes the immense pressure somewhat inevitable. It’s deeply unfortunate that it’s a Bethesda RPG like this which is expected to bear that weight of expectation. These games are unquestionably beloved, but they’re also games that appeal very strongly to a specific niche audience that is willing to forgive technical issues and mishaps in light of the freedom and variety the game world provides.
At launch, these games are always worthy of a highly qualified recommendation – if you love the core experience they offer, you’ll be willing to overlook bugs, crashes, and outdated tech; if that core experience doesn’t grab you, though, you’ll be immensely frustrated by those aspects and confused, at best, by the rapturous response you’re seeing to the game from other players.
Without the need to be a standard-bearer for Xbox’s hopes and ambitions, Starfield would have been a far less contentious game. But this is meant to be the Game of the Year contender that would finally see Microsoft’s software pipeline for the almost three-year-old Series X and S consoles starting to deliver upon its promise – the moment when the $10 billion-plus that the company spent buying developers and publishers a few years ago finally starts to bear fruit.
In the minds of many consumers (especially those who are far too online), this isn’t just a game launch – it’s a pivotal battle in the console war. Consequently, any criticism of the game’s imperfections (which are many!) is interpreted as an attack on the Xbox platform; any praise for its achievements (also many!) is dismissed as fanboy raving. The degree of hype focused around Starfield has probably helped its early sales, but it may not serve the game well in the long run.
Whereas Skyrim launched to an audience of Elder Scrolls die-hards who knew what to expect, and then slow-burned its way out to a wider audience with some patches in place and a clearer understanding of the game being spread through word-of-mouth, Starfield has launched to a much larger initial audience but may struggle to grow beyond that as initial responses – from hype to disappointment via frustration, and all points in between – crowd out the word-of-mouth for the game and colour its public perception.
Both for Starfield’s sake, and for the sake of Xbox itself, I wish expectations had been managed a bit more realistically
Both for Starfield’s sake, and for the sake of Xbox itself, I wish expectations had been managed a bit more realistically. It’s great that the Xbox platform has a major exclusive with a significant built-in fanbase – but Starfield would have really shone as a single part of a wider slate of games coming out this autumn, rather than a solo high-profile exclusive that’s expected to carry the platform through to the new year. Bethesda RPGs are not and never will be all things to all gamers; they’re wonderful games beloved by a decent-sized niche audience. Fill in enough decent-sized niches and you get a mainstream platform – this is how the console business has always worked, and for Xbox, Starfield is a good step on that path, but it is only one step.
Xbox doesn’t need a single game to come and be its software Messiah; it needs a game pipeline delivering good quality titles multiple times a year, with a clear road-map of major releases to look forward to. Expecting Starfield to make up for all of that by itself was never a reasonable ask, even if it was understandable why, in the absence of such a varied release slate (so far), it’s understandable that Microsoft defaulted to pointing at its one hugely anticipated AAA game every time its software plans were questioned.
I just wish it hadn’t. I wish that Starfield was being given an opportunity to be assessed as a (great, flawed) game, not as a potential platform saviour that the internet’s angriest men are fanatically and personally invested in, and perhaps more broadly, that we could leave behind forever the daft idea that a platform can sink or swim on the strength of any single game.
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