At What Price Progress? A Plea for Sane Save SystemsBy Kyle Mann | July 6, 2011 | Editorials | No comments | Share
We’ve all been there: a long gameplay session draws to an end, your in-game avatar traverses toward the nearest glowing checkpoint, when you’re assaulted by a baddie and die a horrible death just inches short of the safe haven. A half-hour, perhaps multiple hours, of gameplay lost, due to an unfortunate in-game confrontation before you could reach a seemingly arbitrary point the developer designated as an allowable place to put down your controller and take a break. The result? Frustration, irritation, perhaps a lack of desire to replay those tedious moments the game forced you through again and again due to its restrictive save structure.
Can a checkpoint system be well-implemented? Yes, of course it can. The purpose of a checkpoint system, or a no-save segment within a game, should be to challenge the player to overcome a strung-together set of obstacles without being able to record progress at each miniscule moment of success so as to eliminate all difficulty inherent in the design of the game. Where checkpoint systems falter, and where I believe they ought to be phased out in favor of a sometimes superior save-anywhere setup, is anywhere they impose artificial difficulty through needlessly punishing a player in spite of multiple consecutive successes in the confines of the gameplay.
Now, the objection might be raised that quicksaves can and are often abused, allowing a player to abuse the F6 key in place of successfully completing chunks of gameplay that the developer intended to be a coherent, sequential experience. This of course is a possibility, but I strongly believe the removal of player frustration is preferrable to any attempt to micro-manage how each player plays the game. If Johnny wants to quick save around every corner or after every headcrab kill, it isn’t detrimental in any way to how the rest of the gaming community chooses to experience the game. Giving the player options to experience a game at his or her pace is rarely a bad design decision.
I am not arguing for a complete removal of checkpoint saves; I am simply calling for developers to more carefully select the save system that suits their game’s individual structure and pace. Allow me to provide some examples: the Call of Duty series originally supported quicksaves, but later on pulled the feature in favor of often-sparse checkpoints, a move that I feel was a step in the wrong direction given the game’s structure and challenge. Single-player first-person shooters, by and large, offer canned, scripted experiences that vary little with each playthrough, and as such benefit marginally, if at all, from the inclusion of an artificially limited save system. If I have played through the firefight once, I am not going to be inclined to play through it again until a second complete playthrough months or years down the road.
On the other side of the coin are games that test the player primarily through speedruns or a successful run past several daring obstacles; these may be justified in not offering a save-anywhere feature: take Super Mario Bros. or Super Meat Boy for instance. Both of those games, along with myriad other platformers we could list, push the player to complete a single level, usually not ridiculously long, in one single run with no mid-level saving apart from the odd developer-sanctioned checkpoint along the way. Yet, because of intentional, deliberate game design, we accept these systems without much thought. I believe this is because we recognize the game’s challenge lies in navigating the level as a whole unit, not piecemeal. Also, these games often encourage the player to seek alternate routes or methods, even offering elusive achievements or coins for going the hard way. This is in direct contrast with the aforementioned shooters, which sometimes have a pre-set way of doing things in conjunction with the way the developer scripted the in-game events to occur.
Rule of thumb: if I as a gamer am actively wrestling with your game’s save system, if I am planning my route and actions within your levels so as to get my toes across the next invisible marker so I can see the two beautiful words, “Game Saved,” then your save system has failed me as a consumer of your product. Gamers should desire to reach the goals within your game because the goals are in themselves desirable, not because they dread replaying the same five minutes of tired, scripted action for the twentieth time. Save systems in turn should exist to augment the player’s experience, removing layers of frustration that may have otherwise occurred. Imagine a world without save games: being forced to glue oneself to the television or monitor for a dozen hours to simply complete a game, hoping he’s not interrupted by any real-life responsibilities or distractions. Of course, while modern games wouldn’t do that to us, they often do so on a miniature scale.
I’m going to be honest here, and feel free to call me a bad gamer or a noob if you wish: there are dozens of games I haven’t completed simply due to the manufactured challenge their save systems introduced: Call of Duty 2 and Modern Warfare, Halo 2, Final Fantasy VII, Red Steel, and the list goes on. It’s not that I couldn’t have beat these games if I had sat down with enough gumption and spare cans of Mountain Dew to power through them; it’s that at some point I decided enough was enough. I wasn’t going to play through the same segment of the game for the bazillionth time, especially not when games that I could be having much more fun playing through were sitting there, beckoning me with their wiles from my shelf.
What is the solution? Sadly, as with most aspects of game design, there is no silver bullet other than hard work and careful planning. Developers must ask themselves whether their save system enhances or detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game, and implement the correct system accordingly. Perhaps, if game designers begin to question the game-saving conventions of their platform and genre, we can all have a better game experience as we see games improve in the way they allow us to save our progress.