Starfield – Meet Emil Pagliarulo

Emil Pagliarulo, a Looking Glass and Bethesda Game Studios veteran, is the lead designer and writer on Bethesda’s upcoming sci-fi RPG Starfield. And if you’d like to know more about his impressive career, inspirations, and ideas for Starfield, you should check out this in-house interview on Bethesda’s official website.

Here it is:

Having worked here for 19 years, he’s worked to create lasting memories and share incredible stories spanning from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind to Fallout 76. Now he’s getting some space as the Lead Designer and Writer on Starfield.

If you haven’t been following Starfield news, you may have missed our latest Into the Starfield video, ‘Made for Wanderers’. Pagliarulo, along with Game Director Todd Howard, Lead Artist Istvan Pely, and Lead Quest Designer Will Shen dive into the process behind crafting the worlds and experiences that make Starfield and Bethesda Game Studios’ games so alive. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it, we encourage you to check it out!

In this Studio Spotlight, we get to know more about Pagliarulo and what it means to be a Design Director at Bethesda Game Studios and Lead Designer on Starfield.

What is a normal day in the life of Starfield’s Lead Designer and Writer?

A normal day? Making a game like Starfield during a global pandemic? No such thing!

The role of any developer can change dramatically depending on the stage of the project. In the early days, during pre-production, it was the super fun and daunting task of coming up with the fictional foundation of a brand-new universe – our first new IP in over 20 years. What are the major locations? Who are the major characters? And, most importantly, how do those tie into the main story?

Now that we’re in full production, the majority of my time is spent either meeting with the designers to help guide their work, or playtesting the game constantly to gauge our progress and see what might need to be adjusted. You know, our unofficial studio motto is, “Great games are played, not made.” And that means experiencing Starfield the way a player would, at every stage of development. We’re brutally honest with ourselves about what is and isn’t fun, what does and doesn’t work – and doing what we need to do so players get the experience they expect and deserve.

How did you get to where you are?

You know, I’ve been in the industry for 25 years at this point, 19 of them at Bethesda. In that time, I’ve worn a few hats, created different types of content… but now it all feels like training for Starfield. You can’t even start making a game like this unless you know what you’re getting into. So that experience has really proven invaluable.

We’re definitely curious as to where you were before Bethesda. What was your first project in games?

Thief Gold, at Looking Glass Studios. That was super exciting for me, because Thief: The Dark Project was my favorite game, so not only was I working in the franchise, but I was also putting my work directly into the existing game I loved so much.

What role did you start out in at Bethesda and what was the first project you worked on?

Designer? Senior Designer? I honestly can’t remember if we even had the “senior” title back then! We’ve changed a lot over the years! Literally the day I arrived at Bethesda I was put on the Bloodmoon expansion for Morrowind. And I met some great people I still work with to this day.

What has been your favorite thing that you’ve worked on so far?

I’ve really loved every game I’ve worked on, for various reasons. So this answer could be different depending on the temperature, the time of day, or whether or not I’ve just had some coffee. And I’m going to remove Starfield from the equation because it seems too obvious.

Thinking about it now, Fallout 3 really stands out. We had just acquired this classic IP, and it was my first time being a lead, and we really had to create everything from scratch. So there are a lot of things that became staples of the franchise, that I had to help create from whole cloth. V.A.T.S., the lockpicking minigame, the dialogue system, some of the new creatures and weapons. Meeting Liam Neeson to record his lines – how can you beat that? And, you know, Fallout 3 wasn’t a huge game, really. Not by Bethesda standards. But it was tight… and it was really well-received. So there was this sense of, not only did we not blow it, we really had created something special. That was an exciting time.

You’ve been with Bethesda Game Studios for 19 years. You must have a favorite work-related story?

One of my absolute best memories was when we had this kid visit us from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I remember talking to him, and he told me how big of a Dark Brotherhood fan he was, and how much it meant to him. And I had gotten this replica Blade of Woe made. I mean, this thing was metal, and heavy, the handle was wrapped with leather. It was sitting on my desk. I remember saying, “Hey, hold on a minute. I have something for you.” I went to my desk and got it and gave it to him. And man, to see his eyes light up, and the shock on his face. It was a simple gesture, but it meant a lot to this kid, and it’s something I will never forget.

What’s the best thing about your job? What makes you the happiest?

That, like a lot of things about my job at Bethesda Game Studios, has changed over the years. There was a time, let’s call it a decade ago, when I was really almost obsessed with my individual work. My writing, my quests, my scripting. Really trying to get it all right, so fans would enjoy it.

These days, I’m really happy when I get to help other designers reach their creative peak. Whether that’s brainstorming design ideas with them, playing their quests and providing feedback, or really just sharing my experience with them. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the feeling of coming out of a meeting with a designer, and they’re just energized. They’re psyched. And you helped get them there.

What is your favorite thing about Bethesda Game Studios?

Honestly, it’s the relationships I’ve forged here. It’s not only crazy to think I’ve been here for almost twenty years, but that I’ve worked with some of the same people for just as long. Having that shared history and experience is just so invaluable, so special. And it’s really hard to describe the experience of starting a new project, being in pre-production, and talking with Todd about what we might want to do, what we might want the game to be. Because you have these conversations, and there’s a real magic in them, because you sort of put your clairvoyance hat on, and realize that in a few years, gamers are going to be playing this game… and this is where it all started.

What does Starfield mean to you?

Saying you’re going to create the studio’s first new IP in twenty years is one thing. Actually pulling that off, that’s a different story. It’s been so awe-inspiring watching Starfield morph into this amazing game, little by little, and with us covering SO much new ground. There comes a point when you’re working on a game, and it’s just kind of a mess, especially early on, because – news flash! – that’s what game development is. But then you get to that point where systems really start to come online, and things start to work well, and gel, and you see everything forming into the vision you had when you first started on this crazy journey. When that first happened with Starfield, it really was an, “Oh. Oh wow. Yeah. This is… something really special. Players are going to lose their minds.” Now we just have to finish it!

Who or what has inspired you?

That’s easy – the entire Bethesda Game Studios design team. I’ve been very fortunate in that I get to represent Bethesda, Starfield, and our amazing design team. But this is a team sport. We can only do it together. There are a lot of incredibly talented people working on Starfield you may never have heard of, but without their passion and dedication, a game like this simply cannot get made

. The whole team draws a lot of inspiration from other games, too. Thief still ranks as one of my favorite games of all time. But I play a lot of games, from all different genres. My Gamerscore is something like 168,000, and that’s just the Xbox games I play. So there’s always something that inspires or excites me. I really love playing games that just make me shake my head, like, “Wow. I know how they did that, and it is a crazy accomplishment.” The newest Spider-Man games have been like that for me. Or Cyberpunk. Man, to make a giant, open-ended environment like Night City? That is no easy feat. Seriously impressive.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into game development?

I think games are at something of a crossroads, honestly. We’ve got a lot of moving parts in the industry these days. Everyone is largely working from home because of Covid, NFTs are starting to be introduced, some gamers are starting to experience franchise fatigue. But the advice I would give to anyone looking to get into the industry is to ignore all that. We’re in a weird bubble right now. You need to focus on the most important thing, and the most important thing is, do you love games enough to want to commit your life to making them?

You know, games are fun. That’s why we love them. And very often, making games is fun. But you know what? Very often, making games isn’t fun. It’s hard work. It can be stressful. Depending on your position, there can be a lot of moving parts to manage. So you really need to be one of those people who can stick something out, and hold onto your vision, and share your creativity with a like-minded team. Because at the end of it all, there really is nothing like it, seeing your game on the shelf, or available for download, or part of the public conversation. But the best part, the absolute best part, is playing the game after it’s released, and realizing, “Wow. This game is awesome. And I’m a part of that.” So love what you love, don’t lose sight of that, and be ready to work.

Thank you to Emil for taking the time to share his stories and inspirations. We’ll be sharing more from the minds of Bethesda Game Studios. You can check back here for the next Studio Spotlight or join Constellation to get updates and news about Starfield.

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Val Hull
Val Hull

Resident role-playing RPG game expert. Knows where trolls and paladins come from. You must fight for your right to gather your party before venturing forth.

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