Starfield leaks prompt discussions of game quality, journalism and respect

How much should we know about a game before it comes out?

Starfield Xbox

As Bethesda fans wait anxiously for the release of Starfield, its next open-world grand-scale RPG, one thing isn’t in short supply: leaks. There’s always another leak around the corner to show off the gameplay, achievement details, cutscenes, and anything else the leakers can get their hands on.

When a game experiences a lot of leaks before its release, especially a well-known and highly-anticipated title, the community begins to have discussions within itself. How should we feel about leaks? Are they ethical? How far is too far? Is it disrespectful to the developers? Should journalists be covering them?

Everyone has their own opinion, usually informed by their specific, intersectional position within the sphere of gaming culture. Developers think differently than fans and both those groups think differently than journalists or business executives.

Gamers have been waiting for Starfield for five years; it was announced back in 2018. They’ve been waiting for some kind of new Bethesda RPG since the release of Fallout 4 in 2015. As we approach the finish line, it’s no surprise that the community feels jittery, like it can’t sit still.

Enter: a lot of leaks. We have a full soundtrack, lists of achievements, menu and gameplay footage, storage size and so much more.

Disappointment from developers

When a game is significantly leaked, we always hear about the developers’ disappointment. A leak strips their work of its context, art and purpose. Developers look forward to the release, too, and sometimes frame leaks as a lack of respect for their work.

Emil Pagliarulo, Studio Design Director for Bethesda, took to X (Twitter) to remind fans that “any conjecture based on so little information is just utter guesswork.”

Leaked material is never seen in the context it was intended. Even if the game is fully finished and a cutscene is leaked, the player didn’t have to work through hours of gameplay to reach the emotional climax. Besides, leaks aren’t necessarily a finished product, even if they look like it.

Late last year, Grand Theft Auto VI gameplay was leaked and fans online began to critique the graphics.

“If you knew how game development goes, you’d know that visuals are one of the first things done,” said X (Twitter) user @Design4Mind317 at the time. “This game is 4 years into planning & development. What you see is almost exactly what you will get. The next year is mission coding and debugging. All backend stuff. It does look ass.”

This and other tweets like it were heavily criticized for judging a product in a stage of its life that was never intended to be seen by the general public, in addition to their faulty understanding of game development.

Should journalists cover leaks?

A complicated controversy that’s arisen is whether it’s appropriate for journalists to cover leaks, even if a member of their team is using a review code of the game and that content is under embargo. Matt Frary, Bethesda’s Director of Public Relations, fed this controversy in a tweet expressing his disapproval.

We don’t know which sites are embargoed and which are not, so it’s hard to point fingers specifically. There are arguments to hear on both sides.

Gaming journalism is a complicated beast very unlike traditional news media, and much more reliant on clicks for funding, so covering leaks could be seen as greedy. On the other hand, you might argue that it’s a journalist’s job to cover the latest news and they’re not necessarily the same person writing the review, or that game developers sometimes leak their own work for media attention.

Developer vs developer

One of the most recent leaks was of Starfields startup screen. It’s a relatively simple design, featuring the logo and a sun rising behind a planet.

Video game designer and executive Mark Kern tweeted a picture of it, saying “the start screen of a game can reveal a lot about how rushed the team was and how much pride they took in their work. Starfield’s start screen either shows hasty shipping deadlines by a passionate team overworked, or a team that didn’t care.

Bethesda developers defended themselves in the tweet’s replies. Pete Hines, Bethesda’s head of publishing, called Kern’s analysis “highly unprofessional.” He also refuted Kern’s claim that “start screens are often done at the very end of development.”

Fans joined the fray too. Many rushed to point out some of their favourite games with similarly simple screens, and that the simplicity can be artistically purposeful, including Skyrim, The Last of Us, Dark Souls, Elden Ring and Portal 2.

Others pointed to games Kern worked on that also had simple start screens, such as Firefall. It was made by Red 5 Studios, which Kern founded.

Despite his negative feedback on the startup screen, Kern still plans to play Starfield.

“I’m looking forward to the game and have it preloaded,” he typed in response to one person. “People just don’t read and don’t understand the tweet.”

Starfield will release on September 6th, 2023 for Xbox Series X|S and Microsoft Windows.

Image credit: Bethesda