Microsoft’s ‘Netflix for games’ braced for ‘huge influx’ thanks to ‘vast’ sci-fi blockbuster

Games don’t get much bigger than this.

On 6 September, Bethesda Game Studios, one of the most celebrated development teams in the world, will offer players something completely new for the first time in two decades.

Far removed from the elves, orcs, and magic of its premiere Elder Scrolls franchise; as well as the post-apocalyptic American states of its Fallout games; Starfield will take players into space.

Its scope is almost unthinkably vast, boasting more than 1,000 explorable planets, moons, and space stations, generated via a combination of artists and algorithms to make each feel unique.

Starfield boats hundreds of planets to explore. Pic: Bethesda

‘Irresponsibly large’

Like Bethesda’s previous role-playing games, Starfield lets players create their hero, who will meet thousands of characters over the course of their adventure.

Some will join their crew to roam the Milky Way – not just to follow the main narrative, but the exhaustive side quests and other distractions along the way.

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Indeed, Starfield feels honed to devour people’s lives. One of Bethesda’s longest serving executives, Pete Hines, described the game earlier this year as “irresponsibly large”.

Players (more likely their loved ones) will be the judge of that, Pete, but it likely only served to boost the already immense anticipation surrounding this highly anticipated game.

Lucy James, games journalist at GameSpot, says it’s probably the biggest title left in the 2023 release calendar – no small feat given Spider-Man and Call Of Duty are among its competitors.

“Bethesda Game Studios’s games capture the zeitgeist like very few games do,” she tells Sky News.

“They’re beloved for the depth of their quests, huge worlds, these memorable moments, and can they even get away with the kind of bugs that other developers couldn’t necessarily because their games are so ambitious.

“And they’ve been saying for years now that Starfield is the most ambitious title they’ve ever worked on.”

Starfield will allow players to design their own ships. Pic: Bethesda

Why Starfield means so much to Xbox

First announced back in 2018, Starfield was subject to multiple delays before settling on its final release date.

The wait’s been made worse given Bethesda’s main team hasn’t put out a game since 2015. That was Fallout 4, an instalment many players and critics felt didn’t live up to its predecessor or the studio’s most popular title: Skyrim.

Debuting in 2011, Skyrim took the relatively niche and nerdy Elder Scrolls mainstream. It’s sold more than 60 million copies thanks to countless re-releases on modern consoles like the PlayStation 5, virtual reality headsets, and even Amazon Alexa speakers.

But while excitement for Starfield is undeniable, it will likely not come close to such sales figures. It might be a big release for gamers, but it’s perhaps an even bigger one for Microsoft and its Xbox platform.

It may have felt like Skyrim in time came to every device that ran on electricity, but Starfield won’t even appear on PlayStation or Nintendo‘s Switch, both of which boast far bigger audiences than the current Xbox consoles.

That’s because Microsoft bought Bethesda’s parent company for $7.5bn (then £5.8bn) in 2020. One of the main reasons was bringing some of the industry’s biggest franchises to its Xbox Game Pass service, a Netflix-style subscription that offers games not just on console and PC, but also smartphones via cloud streaming.

James says the service, which has more than 25 million subscribers, has changed how Microsoft sees gaming.

“Microsoft came into this generation on the back foot – their previous console was much less successful than their competitor and they’ve made a lot of changes to how Xbox operates,” she says.

“They’ve purchased a number of studios and been working on improving their portfolio and image, but lots of people have still been critical of them for not having the strongest line-up.”

Starfield is set in the Milky Way galaxy. Pic: Bethesda

Game Pass braced for ‘huge influx’

The last entry in Microsoft’s once all-conquering Halo series disappointed many players in 2021, while some games that came to them via studio acquisitions – like Redfall earlier this year – were a flop with critics.

James says there’s “a lot of pressure” on Xbox to find a hit that will drive Game Pass subscriptions – and Starfield perhaps looks better placed than any game so far to do just that.

“There will be a huge influx come September when Starfield goes on,” she says. “You can buy it for £70, or pay for a month of Game Pass (£9 in the UK) to try it and then you have your foot in the door.”

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Starfield’s impact on Game Pass numbers could also offer a hint as to the outcome of Microsoft’s impending purchase of Call Of Duty maker Activision Blizzard – the biggest tech takeover in history.

The company will no doubt be hoping that mega franchise will drive up subscriptions even more. By the end of 2023, Game Pass could be the home of some of the very best and biggest titles in the industry, as Microsoft looks to do to gaming what Netflix has done to films and TV.

For now, Starfield is the poster child for that push.

Bethesda’s first foray into the final frontier was always going to be a big step for gamers, but it could prove a giant leap for gaming.