In the weeks following the launch of Skyrim developer Bethesda’s highly anticipated RPG Starfield, the game has caught a bit of attention for its plummeting player numbers on Steam. Its ranking from user reviews has also dropped on Valve’s digital storefront, falling from “Positive” into the pale orange of “Mixed.” Why is one of the biggest RPGs of the last few years seemingly falling out of favor with players so soon?
Starfield arrived with beyond sky-high expectations and was designed to fuel countless hours of gameplay. Speaking to Insomniac Games’ Ted Price as part of the Game Maker’s Notebook series of podcasts, Starfield Creative Director Todd Howard said that the game’s “irresponsible” size was chosen to provide an experience that’s “intentionally made to be played for a long time.”
Read More: Starfield, One Month Later
But within a few short months, the hopes that accompanied the game’s launch have rapidly faded. The mega-hyped RPG is reaching the end of 2023 without a Game of the Year nomination at one of the industry’s most high-profile events, and is falling behind the player counts of other single-player, AAA RPGs, with apt and vocal criticism of its shortcomings. For a game that was expected to achieve such heights, that’s not great.
Starfield’s active player counts—at least the ones we have access to via Steam, which, to be fair, only paint one side of the story given that the game’s also on Xbox and on PC via Game Pass—are rough at first glance: According to SteamCharts, Starfield saw a 66.61 percent decrease in players a month after its release. Two months in, it saw what was left of its active player base halved. Here’s how that compares with other games of similar scope and ambition:
Back in 2012, Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim also saw diminishing player counts after launch, with a second-month player drop on Steam of 30 percent. Presently, Skyrim typically sees more active players on Steam than Starfield. A more recent Bethesda RPG, Fallout 4, saw its Steam player count decreased by 58 percent a month after its November 2015 release, with an active player base that hovers around Starfield’s current numbers.
And compared to two contemporary RPGs, Baldur’s Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, Starfield’s current active player count of around 16-20,000 at the time of this writing, is devoured by Baldur’s Gate 3’s 83k-115k, and Cyberpunk’s 40k. Even Skyrim Special Edition comes out ahead of Starfield, with 24k-26k players at the moment.
These numbers, and those for other single-player games, show that drop-offs are to be expected. But even among other AAA RPGs, even ones made by Bethesda, Starfield is flying in a little low. And a glance at public sentiment seems to suggest why.
I personally spent well over 160 hours in Starfield. I don’t regret it, but I had to make my own fun (as I discussed in my review of the game). I also just have a thing for anything remotely science fiction and also love spacey, ambient vibes. So stick me on a barren planet with distant mountainscapes and orbiting planets and I’m happy. Others agree, but after the pretty vistas have lost their luster, it’s common to see complaints follow.
Read More: Starfield: The Kotaku Review
As mentioned earlier, a steady stream of negative Steam user reviews have pulled it down into “mixed” status on the platform. Those reviews haven’t gone unnoticed, either. Bethesda, surprisingly, is currently spending time responding to negative Steam reviews in attempts to offer counterpoints, something very uncommon for a studio and game of this stature. Negative Steam reviews, though, aren’t outliers.
“Fun” in a video game is definitely subjective, but discussion of Starfield on the internet often seems to orbit around the same points concerning just how limiting, repetitive, and frustrating the game can be.
“Starfield seems to be the king of having an array of options, bet never the one you want to pick,” reads one comment on a Reddit post highlighting how an otherwise decent sidequest just boils down to two barely half-decent outcomes, with the one you get hinging on a dialogue option. Even the more interesting quests, like the UC Vanguard storyline, arrive at frustrating conclusions, like having your companions universally get mad at you for choosing to rely on natural predators to deal with a natural threat instead of bioengeering a risky microbial solution…in a quest explicitly about how bioengineering can go off the rails.
In general, Starfield’s fictional world is just tied up in head-scratching oddities, such as this quest offering a mere 2,600 credits to undertake an assault on the galaxy’s most notorious pirates while the cheapest ship in the game costs more than 100,000 credits, or how vendors, in a game where you’re expected to gather and sell many items, have frustratingly small bankrolls.
Starfield also rarely feels truly large and immersive. Your actions feel like they’re happening not in a grand cosmos, but in a tiny box. As one comment on a Reddit post put it, “You commit a crime across the galaxy, yet the whole known galaxy knows lol.” The same post, with over 2,000 upvotes, calls out just how absolutely bland and featureless most NPC interactions feel:
Why are the robots in this game more engaging to talk to than my own crew mates? Genuinely they’re funnier and have more personality. Every character in my head is “That guy from that room”, [...] “that one guy”, “the dude with the face that doesn’t move”. I remember no ones names unless they’re completely insufferable, forced on to my ship, or glitch hilariously or game breakingly.
When combined with the common sentiment that Starfield’s 1,000+ planets are mostly filled with empty space, boring activities, and oft-repeated instances of the same interior structures (which Todd Howard has suggested is the point?), it’s not hard to see why Starfield is drifting beyond the reaches of gamers’ collective attention.
Starfield’s vision of the distant, space-traveling future isn’t winning over any skeptics, and it’s barely holding the attention of its most eager digital space explorers. Is it the same kind of death knell that awaits multiplayer games after such an exodus? Probably not, but it’s certainly not great that Bethesda’s virtually endless space opera is failing to retain as much attention as it did in the build up to launch.