Bethesda boss Todd Howard reckons many games are some sort of RPG nowadays, which is partly why Starfield doubles down on the studio's classical role-playing style to stand out in the crowd.
In an interesting interview with Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price on the Game Maker's Notebook podcast, Howard was asked about audience expectations. Price wonders if expectations for RPGs have changed, and if "what matters" to the genre has been changing.
"Yeah, I think dramatically," Howard answers. "I think the genre itself has blended into everything. I can't look at a game that doesn't have XP and leveling up. Pick any game you want. That's sort of bled in."
The easiest example to point to for the the RPG-ification of games is probably Assassin's Creed, which has long since transitioned from focused stealth-action adventures to sprawling, open-world, numbers-filled sandboxes like Assassin's Creed Valhalla – and is now coming full circle, returning to its more action-led roots with the promising Assassin's Creed Mirage. And Ubisoft's behemoth is in good company. Outside quintessential monoliths like Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, countless modern games regularly incorporate features and systems once associated with purebred RPGs, with role-playing conventions often boiled down to character progression.
Howard reckons anything can be an RPG, but in the face of shifting player expectations, he maintains that Bethesda's underlying approach to the genre, which has gone largely unchanged in 'Skyrim in space' Starfield, still zeroes in on defining and owning a literal role within a world.
"What makes an official RPG?" he asks. "I think if you're an old-school RPG fan you'll have your own list of rules for that. I love the genre because it can be anything. It can have action in it, it can have this, you can have other game types break out. You can have a racing game break out into an RPG, I don't know. It depends what pockets you're looking at.
"We try to stay true to who we are in terms of what we want to see in a game. We'll mash things up in the genre. We built a space shooter as well. Is that an RPG? Yes and no. How do we bring those elements that we think are important to an RPG, a role-playing game? How does this thing fill a role? How can I make it my own? How can I develop it over time and improve it to make it even more of my own? That's where our thought is on those things, and [we] stay away from 'RPG means this type of interaction.'"
In the same conversation, Howard explains that, more than Skyrim or any Fallout, Starfield was "intentionally made to be played for a long time," with Bethesda thinking about the next 5+ years of the game's life. He also reveals that last year, the dev team got a take-home build of the RPG which was "basically done."