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Why Aren’t There More Space RPGs Like Starfield?

Long before Starfield, there was Starflight.

Designed by Greg Johnson and published by Electronic Arts, Starflight imagined a fully-explorable galaxy with an astonishing scale. It did all of this on the Amiga and Commodore 64 – machines with less than one percent of the power of modern PCs.

“The sense of immense scale was absolutely mind-blowing and unlike anything I’d ever thought games could do,” one developer who was inspired by Starlight told me. “Like, in the same year that I was playing NES Mario games, it was a game that felt limitlessly large.”

Starflight’s scope inspired a generation of developers, including a young Todd Howard. But a survey of the modern RPG landscape reveals comparatively few games like it. The list of the most popular RPGs are dominated by fantasy settings, from Ultima and Dragon Quest to Baldur’s Gate 3 and The Witcher. Even games that bill themselves as sci-fi RPGs, like Phantasy Star, have a little bit of that swords and sorcery flavor to them.

You’d think role-playing games that catered to the core fantasy of building a crew and taking to the stars would be more popular given the crossover between Star Trek nerds and role-playing games. But while Mass Effect, The Outer Worlds, and KOTOR have found success over the years, they’ve been dwarfed by the sheer popularity of fantasy RPGs.

In the same year that I was playing NES Mario games, it was a game that felt limitlessly large.

“I think it's because fantasy games have a clearer blueprint. It is a very broad setting, can be something wild like Planescape: Torment or Shin Megami Tensei, but you can also just do people with swords in pseudo-Europe killing dragons and people will be happy,” says CRPG Book editor Felipe Pepe.

“Sci-fi is way trickier, way more controversial. People can reject Starfield because it has no aliens, or complain that Shadowrun has elves and orcs. Say that The Outer Worlds plays too safe, but The Technomancer and Kenshi are too weird. Digital Extremes said many times that WarFrame was a nightmare to pitch, no Western publisher had interest in their setting.”

It’s not just RPGs. Fantasy in general seems to have more crossover appeal than sci-fi. A Guardian article titled “The triumph of fantasy fiction” delves into all of the ways that fantasy fiction satisfy a desire to venture into other worlds; the ways that they can titillate with sex and violence. Science fiction, especially stories set in space, have a tendency to be colder, more intellectual, more machine-like. It’s no coincidence that Star Wars, one of the most popular space franchises around, is more fantasy than sci-fi.

RPGs are steeped in fantasy

The role-playing genre itself is steeped in fantasy. Its origins can be traced back to Dungeons and Dragons, which itself drew heavy inspiration from The Lord of the Rings. Tamriel was created out of a tabletop campaign; Final Fantasy lifted the D&D bestiary wholesale. Mecha anime was hugely popular in Japan in the 1980s, but the earliest Gundam RPG was basically a reskinned Dragon Quest game.

Developers who do try and make space RPGs frequently find their ambition getting the better of them. Mass Effect Andromeda was partly sunk by its inability to make good on its initial vision of expansive space exploration. Todd Howard allegedly described Starfield as “irresponsibly large.”

There's an enormous amount of stuff in sci-fi that has not been explored. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have plenty of sci-fi RPGs in my head - Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke

Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke, who has found great success through fantasy RPGs like Divinity: Original Sin and Baldur’s Gate 3, says that sci-fi RPGs are risky.

“I think there's an enormous amount of stuff in sci-fi that has not been explored…I would be lying if I didn’t say that I have plenty of sci-fi RPGs in my head,” Vincke says. “It doesn't mean that we're going to make one, but there's a lot of... When it comes to RPGs, fantasy is the traditional one, because you know there's a wide market for it. So that's the reason, because the risks are very large in making them, so you’ve got to be really sure about yourself if you go elsewhere in that space.

“Traditionally, what you've seen is that fantasy has sold more than sci-fi, I think. Starfield might change that now, so we'll see. So clearly, Mass Effect has been very popular also, right? I guess the other bit with sci-fi is that it's often traveling space. It’s very complicated, very resource intensive, to make that feel good. But again, it's not because it's a sci-fi RPG that actually needs to involve space travel.”

Even when space RPGs are popular, they can be overshadowed by their fantasy counterparts. Dragon Age: Origins famously outperformed the original Mass Effect. It’s easiest for games with magic and dragons to achieve mainstream success than it is for those based on starships and high technology.

Space RPGs still have a real appeal

And yet there’s a real appeal in an RPG that lets you take to the stars in the ship of your choice. If there’s one thing that Starflight and Starfield have in common, it’s the way that they push the limits of possibility. Such games paint on a vast canvas, utilizing system on top of system to bring their world to life.

In that respect, Starfield is the fulfillment of a dream. Rarely has an RPG like this been given the time and resources afforded Bethesda’s RPG. It’s vast… maybe too vast. It pushes against the boundaries of what’s possible and doesn’t always seem to succeed. Its shipbuilding is esoteric, unintuitive, and clearly intended for nerds who just really love starships. It’s billed as one of the most momentous console exclusives of the past few years, but it’s clear that it’s made for an audience of one: Todd Howard.

There have been few games like it over the years, and few developers are apt to follow in Starfield’s footsteps. Nevertheless, Howard’s words from 25 years ago sum up what’s in every sci-fi fan’s heart.

“Now a space RPG… that would be something.”

Kat Bailey is IGN's News Director as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.

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