Game Philosopher

The philosophy of games and gaming

Archive for October, 2006

To save or not to save?

Posted by gamephilosopher on October 25, 2006

When designing games in my head, I’m often torn as to how to handle saving. I like to push for what I see as realism, but balance that with keeping the game fun.

I remember when Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption came out several years ago. It had a pretty bad save mechanism where you had to go back to your “home base” to save the game. That meant that the entire time you were out on missions, you couldnt save at all.

This was incredibly annoying as a player because it’s inevitable that you’re going to die at some point in time during a mission. On the other hand, if I was designing the game to immerse the player in the world of vampires, I might want to emphasize the lack of safety that a vampire may feel when he is out there amongst the humans. Further, that he must return to his lair in order to rest and heal himself.

I was reading a review of the game (probably PC Gamer) and it said something like, “PC GAME DESIGNERS, there is absolutely no excuse for not allowing your players to save whenever they want to.” At the time, I agreed.

In this case, the need for realism gets in the way of gaming. You WANT to have a fun time playing the game, and playing over parts you’ve done three times already because you’ve died tends to not be fun anymore.

But then how do you instill fear into the player? The rationale behind fear is that you are afraid of losing something — your life, your wallet, job, whatever. If you could reload in real life, would you be afraid if someone pulled a gun out on you on a dark street? Why should you fear what you can easily go back and avoid?

Let’s explore some strategies for saving.
Single Save Slot – Older games had this where you could save and load at will, but you didnt have a whole list of saved games you could reload — you only had one slot. That meant that you could save before a boss battle or before trying something stupid, but you couldnt go back to a game you saved 2 days ago and try a different plot branch – you had to replay the game to do that.

In my opinion, it’s a pretty good way to ensure you don’t focus on protecting your ass by saving constantly, but it can lead to really bad situations where you’re too low on health to continue and dont have any saved games to go back to. Perhaps you could combine this strategy with the next one.

Checkpoints – Final Fantasy 7 and Anachronox are 2 of the many games that used checkpoints as a saving model, including most console games. It’s not a bad way to go, but I often found that the checkpoints were either nowhere near where I died, causing me to have to redo scenarios or they were tell-tale signs that I was about to hit a boss or a really tough area. Some games just saved your progress at the beginning of each new level, so no matter where you died in it, you only had to redo that one level. Again, lots of replay.

Skill Level – Hitman allowed you to pick a skill level at the beginning of the game that would determine in several different ways how hard the game would be. One of the variables across the skill levels was the number of saved game credits you were given at the beginning of each level. So, easy skill level allowed 10 saves per level, while hard only had 3. If you were really good, you could save your credits for later levels where you may need more than your allotment. If you used them up, you had to start the level over again.

Sands of Time – The latest 3 Prince of Persia games introduced a nice way to ensure you don’t have to reload every time something goes wrong. You could rewind time for about 10 seconds and undo your mistakes. You had to kill enemies to earn credits to rewind and if you didn’t have any more credits you couldnt rewind. Further, you had to wait after rewinding time to refill your rewind counter, or else you’d only be able to rewind for a shorter amount of time. You also had checkpoints at each level, so if you screwed up your rewinding and really died, you only had to go back to the beginning of the level.

Progression only – I dont really have an accurate title for this one 🙂 But its essentially that you live with your mistakes and you don’t have the option of going back, only continuing onward with the choices that have been made. This is similar to the single save slot approach, but you don’t really have the option to save and load, only to continue on. This is best illustrated in Indigo Prophecy/Farenheit and Mount and Blade. (I’ll review Mount and Blade shortly)

So there you have it. Several of the variations on saving. So how do you design a save game system without discouraging the player and without allowing the player to become complacent with the welfare of the character? Discuss.

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