Bethesda is known for making big, blockbuster RPGs—but Starfield's space combat was a totally new frontier for the team. I've personally found a decent bit of fun in zipping around and knocking pirates out of the sky, even if it's clearly not the game's main focus. I don't envy the devs saddled with the task of balancing dogfights in space.
Todd Howard agrees that it was a bit of a pain to get right, as he said in a recent interview with the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. "[Space combat] was way harder than we thought … We see a lot of space games where you're gonna have like, derelict ships or other things to fly around, just to get a sense of motion, so the smallest thing like 'what does the dust in space look like?' so you feel like you're moving and it's not too much, not too little."
This kind of game development craft does tend to fly under the radar of gamers—often, good mechanical design isn't noticed at all, it just produces a good feel. It's true that even the smallest of adjustments can change how something feels entirely. In terms of the nuts and bolts of ship combat's mechanical design—namely, power management—Howard brought up a few inspirations.
"I like the way [FTL: Faster Than Light] 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 … that part worked out pretty well."
For Bethesda, the snags started happening when it came to designing enemy AI: "It's very easy … to make the enemies really really smart, forever we were just jousting [with them]. It turns out you have to make the AI really stupid. You have to have them fly, then they need to turn, basically like 'hey player, why don't you just shoot me for a while?' … [once we'd] settled on our pace, and how the enemies are gonna move, that's where it came together."
Honestly, I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was having some trouble keeping enemies in my crosshairs before I pumped some points into the targeting control systems skill. And that's with an AI that dangles their blastable hulls in front of you like a deer caught in headlights. I love a good FPS, but if you put me behind the wheel of a ship I'm likely to run into the first solid thing I see. Like a chunky metal moth to the sun.
Still, it's interesting to see the kinds of compromises dev teams have to make, especially when designing something completely out of their comfort zone. Given I quicksave before every skirmish (just in case I botch my energy management) I'm personally glad the game's pilots were built stupid on purpose.