2023 was a year of amazing games, but Starfield was not one of them. The spacefaring role-playing game from Bethesda was supposed to be the next Skyrim, but bigger. Garnering mixed reviews and player reactions, it quickly became clear that Starfield would not reach the heights of Bethesda’s best work. Now, less than six months after the game’s launch in September, the player base has shrunk by 97 percent, according to SteamDB. Some outlets are reporting on this as if it’s dire news, and sure, if you just see that number and don’t think about the larger context, you might think it looks pretty bad. But here’s the thing: why should we care?
Well, we shouldn’t. In an age of live-service titles with endless seasons that are meant to make every game the only game you ever need to play for the rest of your life, we frequently hear stories of games being closed down because they couldn’t retain a player base. That’s what happened with Square Enix’s Babylon’s Fall. But there is a key difference between games like that one and games like Starfield. Starfield isn’t a live-service game. Like past Bethesda RPGs, it’s a single-player game with the main goal of delivering an expansive and immersive world and narrative to the player. You play it, you have a great time with it (or not), and you move on with your life. This is what thousands and thousands of games have been designed for, since time immemorial. Or at least since the mid-80s.
I never thought I would be the person defending Starfield. I do not like Starfield. I find its world empty and lacking in interesting stories, and bounced off of it pretty quick. But other players found a lot to love in Starfield’s sci-fi adventure. Those players went on a sci-fi exploration story that satisfied them for dozens of hours. When they finished the game they probably put it away, happy with the time they’d had, and moved on to something new. As should be expected of a single-player game with a self-contained narrative.
According to Howlongtobeat.com, it typically takes players about 66 hours to beat Starfield. If you are a completionist, it will take you closer to 150 hours. Six months has an exponential amount more hours in it than 150. Most people will have reached the end of their adventure with Starfield by now, hence the drop-off in player numbers. That doesn’t make Starfield a failed game. For context, Elden Ring had less than 5 percent of its peak player base six months after release. It still went on to win almost every game of the year award under the sun and is still lauded as one of the best games in recent memory. This trend is typical of nearly every single-player game. We need to stop judging single-player experiences by a metric that’s not meant for them.