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Starfield Devs Had to Make the Ship Combat AI ‘Really Stupid’ to Get It Right, Says Howard


One of the main new systems that Bethesda Game Studios had to implement in Starfield was ship combat. Speaking with Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price in the latest episode of The AIAS Game Maker's Notebook Podcast, Game Director Todd Howard discussed the influences (FTL and early MechWarrior games) and revealed that the studio had to make the AI 'really stupid' to get ship combat to be fun for everyone.

The ship combat system, actually, was set pretty early on. I really like, and you'll see it, the way FTL does some things with power allocation. You can kind of see that in the game. I really like MechWarrior, the old ones that I played a lot, where the pace of combat is a little slower and you're looking at systems and power allocations but in a way that people could understand where we're not having to pause the game in space. That part worked out pretty well, but you mix all that with the AI... You know, it's very easy when you get into outer space, particularly with certain types of physics, to make the enemies really really smart or end up in a situation where you're forever just jousting. It turns out you have to make the AI really stupid... You know, you have them fly and then they need to turn. Like, 'Hey player, why don't you just shoot me for a while?'

Then you give the AI tools that the player can see, like how they're boosting away and the player goes 'I can do that'. Once we ended up with a good pace and we settled on how the enemies were going to move in Starfield, that's where it came together where we could dive into the systems and check out the damage levels, how shields work, how it feels to upgrade your ship.

The folks who worked on it, I think, did an incredible job. That's an area where I will say this, where the people who worked on that I can't say enough about them in terms of getting feedback and being willing to completely change it. That kept it moving forward. Then we'd try things and we'd go all the way back and then take a different route on it.

Starfield launched about a month ago if you consider the early access period. In the first two weeks, the game had already surpassed 10 million unique players, becoming the biggest launch ever registered by a Bethesda game.

The developers are planning to support it for a long time. The official mod tools are coming at some point in 2024, but there are already plenty of tweaks and mods available on PC.

Written by Alessio Palumbo
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