Starfield design director calls out unfair game criticism: ‘Don’t fool yourself into thinking you know why it is the way it is’

Starfield did not land with quite the positive thump that just about everyone expected, and lots of people have thoughts about why—and that has apparently inspired Starfield design director Emil Pagliarulo to muse about how confident some of those critics are in their opinions, despite how “disconnected” they are from the process of actually making games.

“Funny how disconnected some players are from the realities of game development, and yet they speak with complete authority,” Pagliarulo wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread. “I mean, I can guess what it takes to make a Hostess Twinkie, but I don’t work in the factory, so what the hell do I really know? Not a lot.

“Part of me really gets it. When you’re a consumer and spend money on things, that gives you the right to complain about those things. I spend a LOT of money on games every year, and sometimes it takes a lot for me not to scream into the internet’s collective consciousness.”

Pagliarulo said he’s held back by two constraints: He knows how hard it is to make games and has too much respect for those who do it, and it would be both unprofessional and uncool if he did. And back in the days when he was a game reviewer, he was “absolutely that person who would say whatever I wanted about a game, good or bad.”

(Image credit: Emil Pagliarulo (Twitter))

But in those days, he continued, he had no idea how much work and stress was involved in making a game. Now, after more than 20 years at Bethesda, he’s well aware that the process of making games “is a series of concessions and tough decisions,” and naturally that’s changed his perspective. And while he’s “not trying to change anyone’s mind” on the matter, he’d clearly like it if people were a little more thoughtful about their criticism.

“You can dislike parts of a game. You can hate on a game entirely,” Pagliarulo tweeted. “But don’t fool yourself into thinking you know why it is the way it is (unless it’s somehow documented and verified), or how it got to be that way (good or bad).

“Chances are, unless you’ve made a game yourself, you don’t know who made certain decisions; who did specific work; how many people were actually available to do that work; any time challenges faced; or how often you had to overcome technology itself (this one is HUGE). So yes! Love games, buy them, play them, and complain to your heart’s content! It’s sort of the nature of the developer/player transactional relationship. But… just know that the game you’re playing is in some ways a freaking miracle in and of itself. Normal people have come together to work FOR YEARS for one goal – to bring you fun and happiness. So it helps to remember that… and them!”

Pagliarulo doesn’t mention Starfield by name once in his thread, but it’s hard to imagine he could be talking about anything else. Unlike most Bethesda RPGs, which are just about universally acclaimed, Starfield fell flat: It’s a good game, but when held up to the last 20 years of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, that’s just not good enough. But amidst the valid criticism are overtorqued complaints suggesting that Starfield is flat-out hot garbage: The maker of the Skyrim Together mod, for instance, recently announced that they’d abandoned work on a planned Starfield Together mod because “this game is fucking trash.”

That’s probably a bit much, and there’s acknowledgement that some criticism of Starfield is over-the-top in some of the replies to Pagliarulo’s tweet. But others make the point that you don’t have to know how to make a Twinkie to know when one tastes bad. That maybe misses Pagliarulo’s central thesis a little bit—he’s talking more about the process than the end result—but I think it’s a valid position: I don’t know anything about producing a TV show, after all, but I know why Manimal got cancelled, and I’m still making jokes about it.

(Image credit: Emil Pagliarulo (Twitter))

Ultimately, Pagliarulo’s not wrong. Even getting a small indie project from concept to launch is a Herculean feat, and as much as the “lazy developers” trope has taken hold in recent years, the reality is that just about everyone involved in making a game is fully committed and working hard to make it happen. It really is, as Pagliarulo said, just about a miracle that a lot of these games ever see the light of day. 

But I also have to wonder if he’s maybe stirring up the waters unnecessarily. It’s a valid perspective from a respected industry veteran, yes, but it also makes me think of Bethesda’s campaign of posting cheeky responses to negative Starfield reviews on Steam: Sometimes it’s better to just leave well enough alone.

In any event, Bethesda isn’t done with Starfield yet. The studio recently said that “all new ways of travelling” through the game, along with numerous other fixes and enhancements, are coming in future updates planned for 2024.

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