Starfield's Fanbase Split: Bethesda's Mod Reliance Sparks Debate

todd howard

todd howard

Bethesda relies heavily on mods. First and foremost, let us get that out the way: they need modders to come to their games and add content or fix issues they have left in the game. This has been true for many years, and with the release of Starfield, nothing has changed in this regard; you might say that Bethesda built Starfield to be modded.

Starfield has had a bit of a Marmite relationship among the fanbase; just a quick look at r/Starfield will highlight the love-it-or-hate-it split, with few sitting on the fence when it comes to their opinions on the game. In this article, we will look at the current state of Starfield and how the fans are currently feeling about the game, and we will dive into whether or not Bethesda has already killed Starfield's modding scene.

Starfield Recap

Now, this isn't going to be a section recapping the story of Starfield; you can check out our piece on the making of Starfield for that. Instead, this is where we will look at Starfield's reception since its launch in September.

Starfield was highly anticipated; Bethesda Game Studios have an army of rabid fans who flock to each new release, but things were slightly different this time. Bethesda had captured the attention of not just their loyal fanbase but also the general gaming world. See, with Zenimax (Bethesda's parent company) being purchased by Microsoft, Starfield was announced as an Xbox exclusive, leaving PlayStation loyalists more than a bit miffed.

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Fans took to social media screaming into the void about how Xbox was disgusting for cornering the market and how they were 'ruining' gaming by doing this, among many other rants directed towards Microsoft and their big green box. Starfield had begun to be disliked before much of the game had even been shown; promises of review bombing were rife among gaming forums, and Twitter (X) feeds months before Starfield even launched.

Fast forward to release day, and Starfield was met with decent reviews; critics seemed to love the game for the most part, and once fans began to play, the reviews on Metacritic showed that Starfield had been received well. Starfield sits at a respectable 83 for critics on Xbox, 86 on PC, and a solid seven from the fan scores, perhaps not the perfect scores that had been anticipated, but by no means a bad overall scoring.

So, what happened within the fanbase to create such a negative discourse around Starfield? Well, that can be broken down to a few reasons we will get into. First, the content in Starfield is spread out more than any other Bethesda open-world title that has come before it. There is a rule for open-world games called 'the 40-second rule', coined by CD Projekt Red while working on their Witcher franchise.

The 40-second rule was designed to keep the player engaged while exploring the world of The Witcher 3, and to achieve that; it outlined that the player should encounter a point of interest within 40 seconds when exploring. Starfield breaks this rule, and then some; the 'realistic' layout of the galaxy and star systems within naturally means that points of interest may be a whole planet away rather than 'just over there,' causing many players to deem the game 'empty and boring.' Bethesda did jump on these complaints about their new game, but that wasn't enough to sway the public opinion. Starfield (on social media and forums, at least) was beginning to be labeled a failure due to these discussions.

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Another issue, mostly outside Bethesda's control, is the 24/7 cycle of video games these days. Long gone are the days of players only investing in a couple of games a year or even a game every month, thanks in part to streaming. Being purchased by Microsoft and them making Starfield a console-exclusive naturally made the game a perfect fit for day one launch on Game Pass. The problem with that is, while more gamers will inevitability try the title than if it wasn't included, they are also more likely to drop a game and move on to the latest hot thing dropping on the service. I would have kept Starfield off of Game Pass and made it a premium-cost title, but that would only have led to further discourse among fans had that decision been made.

The other, less discussed reason for Starfield's public opinion souring is perhaps the true root of the negativity - Bethesda made a game for everyone, not their core audience. Criticism is often made towards Bethesda's approach while making their massive open-world RPG titles, generally from hardcore RPG fans who think they oversimplify the RPG mechanics. More than ever, Starfield feels less like an RPG and more like an action title; not necessarily a bad thing, but a decision to make a game for all and not a core audience can alienate your fanbase unnecessarily. You just need to look at the success of Baldur's Gate 3 to see that people will buy a well-made RPG that doesn't oversimplify things for the player. If you don't retain your hardcore fans, converting the casuals will be even harder.

Whatever the reason may be, Starfield is definitely in a position right now where it needs a lifeline to get back into people's good graces, and via mods is the way that Bethesda will achieve this.

Bethesda X Mods

Bethesda has an almost symbiotic relationship with the modding community; the running joke for their IPs is that 'modders will fix it.' This feels like a strange business model, but it has proved successful for Todd Howard and his team time and time again. Skyrim is the golden child of Bethesda and acts as their get-out-of-jail card when it comes to releases that do not quite match the lofty expectations set by The Elder Scrolls V.

Skyrim was lightning in a bottle, a resounding success of a game that Bethesda looks to replicate with each new title. But was Skyrim universally acclaimed at launch? Yes. The game still sits at a lofty 96 score on Metacritic for Xbox 360 and was snapped up by gamers of all types. Marketing for Skyrim was everywhere back then; you couldn't move without seeing a trailer or poster for the game. Sure, the title had hiccups like bugs and glitches - but people loved it.

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Modders soon flocked to the fantasy open-world game with the hunger to create and manipulate the base game into something extraordinary. To this very day, mods are still being worked on for this all-time classic over a decade after its release. Not many games receive this kind of support from the community, but Bethesda struck gold with Skyrim, and fans still play religiously with no signs of slowing down. Their other big IP - Fallout, also has an active community of modders dedicated to making fantastic content to enhance your time in the wastelands.

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Mods were undoubtedly a key component in Skyrim's longevity and continued success; Bethesda has re-released Skyrim several times, including official paid mods via their Creation Club service.

Starfield Modders Exodus

During the promotional campaign before Starfield was released, Todd Howard doubled down on Bethesda's encouragement and support for the modding community. Howard went a step further, claiming Starfield was designed to be played for decades; Phil Hines also commented about how the galaxy was created in a way that would make the game a modders paradise.

While we are seeing a steady flow of mods over on Nexus, nothing on a big scale like Falskaar for Skyrim has been released so far. This could be attributed to the fact that the game had only been out for three months at the time of writing; it is most likely attributed to the fact that the Creation Kit had not been released to give modders access to officially supported tools. Modders won't want to put time in without the kit because it provides full developer access to the tools used to make Starfield, coupled with the fact that updates can break mods, requiring hours of reworking to get them working again.

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Another blow to Starfield's ambition to be accepted by the modding scene was thanks to the new 'Creations,' Bethesda's rebrand of Creation Club. In an update to Skyrim in December 2023, fans got to check out this latest venture into charging for mods by Todd and the company. This did not go over well at all with the community. They are already making clear that their stance is to keep mods free forever, and many are expressing their dislike of modders like PureDark, who charge for mods and pledged not to upload their creations onto the platform once it launches. Besides the new update breaking several legacy mods, Creations looks like it will be looked upon with as much disdain as the Creation Club received.

However, there may be a more concerning reason why we have not seen any substantial mods. One notable team of modders famous for creating the multiplayer mod for Skyrim titled Skyrim Together was working on a similar mod for Starfield. The mod would have allowed players to team up with friends to explore the Settled Systems and adventure together, but work has ceased indefinitely. Citing that it was because “[Starfield] is f**king trash.” It's not a good look for one of the more popular Skyrim mods. The creator of Skyland, a popular Skyrim mod, also stated he intends to refrain from signing up to Bethesda's creators program.

So, could Starfield be saved by mods? Sure, but Bethesda should have released the Creation Kit at launch so modders could hit the ground running. Holding it back has left many players to have already walked away from the new IP, many who may never return given the allure of other new titles constantly being added to Game Pass; the other worry is that longtime fans are also being disillusioned with the slow roll-out of updates even after lengthy delays being allowed for extra polish time.

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Bethesda also needs to be careful with their implementation of paid mods; this tactic looks like it will lead to the modding community distancing themselves from Starfield and potentially all future Bethesda titles if they seem overly predatory with their pricing.

Whatever the future may bring, Bethesda needs to move fast on releasing Creations and getting the Creation Kit out there; further delays could result in everyone walking away from the game designed to be appealing to modders in the first place.

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