Game Philosopher

The philosophy of games and gaming

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.


5 Responses to “To save or not to save?”

  1. zkip said

    These are the ones I would consider if I were designing a game. Nothing else would appeal to me unless it was some obscure style that absolutely required something different.

    Single Save Slot – I think the most popular usage of this type of save is in the Pokémon series. The only place you can’t save is in battle, which is reasonable. The main reason there’s one save slot, I assume, is so you don’t abuse trading rare Pokémon that you can only attain once per campaign. In other games, however, I’m not a big fan of this, as it means just what you said; you can’t go back and continue the game with another plot branch.

    I don’t particularly like missing out on any of the storyline, even if it breaks the immersion. I always want to go back and play the parts of the game I missed the first time around, but if these plot-altering choices only affect dialogue, then I’m just not patient enough for it. If the gameplay isn’t great [to the point that I’m willing to replay the same levels over and over], I’m not going to go back and grab those little snippets of information, even if I have more than one save slot and don’t have to restart the game. But that’s another issue altogether. But one save slot forcing me to start over completely dissuades me even further.

    I mean honestly, isn’t giving the option to stick to one save slot a better idea? If the decision is in the player’s hands, then he can decide whether to stick with the choices he’s made or go back and start from wherever he likes. It’s supposed to be a fun game, and if you’re stressing over a perfect performance on your first try, you lose some fun.

    Still, some games don’t even need more than one save slot. Mario Kart, for example (64, Double Dash, DS, whatever) doesn’t need more than one slot. Maybe this is characteristic of certain genres, but it works. It’d be more of a nuisance to have more than one slot. I don’t need to go back just to progress through the unlockables all over again, and if someone has that inane urge, they can delete their save data and start over.

    Save Anywhere, As Many Times As You Want – Morrowind is well-known for being an immersive game, yet they have in place a system which has no restrictions on save data. This is what was missing from the original list here,

    Checkpoints – Checkpoints are a good idea. They work for a lot of different game types, especially classic games. Sonic 3 [and Knuckles] had one of the most successfully implemented save types, which involved being able to select levels you’ve beaten, once you’ve finished the game, I believe, and continuing from the last zone you entered in any other case. Obviously though, there are a few different kinds of “checkpoint” save types I can identify.

    1. The game automatically saves at the beginning of each level with no input from the player (e.g. Sonic Advance). This is ideal for only a few genres of games, such as linear first-person shooters and platforming action games. If you had some kind of inventory or had to backtrack, like in an RPG, this probably wouldn’t work.

    2. The game automatically saves multiple times within a selectable level (e.g. Halo), thus cutting down on the replay of old material as you die and respawn within the same level. Also, you can choose to begin on any level you’ve already started. That’s always nice when you have a particular level you enjoy, and only have 10 minutes to play.

    3. “Save Points,” or the like, in an RPG over other game with an overworld. Also, the “Hideout” in games like Grand Theft Auto.

  2. Good points. I definitely should have mentioned the GTA style checkpoints that you essentially have to seek out, as opposed to them being right in front of you at crucial points in the game. Of course, this is more a product of the open ended-ness of GTA as opposed to the pretty linear design of one of those games that has the checkpoints right where you need them.

    Maybe a good way to satisfy everyone’s need for saving would be kinda like Hitman’s where your skill level would determine how saving worked. So if you were on EASY, you could save anywhere, but if you were on HARD, the game would only save your progress at the beginning of each stage.

    If only game designers put this much thought into their saving schemes! All in all, it seems like most console games limit the saves, due to lack of space on the memory cards, and most PC games don’t unless it’s plot driven or a port of a console game.

  3. zkip said

    That’s actually an almost revolutionary idea.

    I’m looking at Hitman 1 and 2 on my shelf, and I did notice the number of save slots differed on different difficulties (try to say “differed on different difficulties” ten times fast), but I always played on Normal so it never mattered to me.

    But your idea… I’ve never even seen anything like it before. It’s actually more of a high-risk setting than a high-difficulty setting on Hard Mode, from the looks of it. And when you beat Hard Mode, you could unlock Real-Life Mode, which allows you one save slot that erases itself when you get killed. Damn, metagamers would be bragging if they managed that.

  4. FredFish said

    If I’m immersed in playing a game, the last thing I want to have to think about is “how long is it since I last saved?”. So for that reason, I’m generally in favour of auto-saving or save points (with save at any point reserved for save-and-quit when I need to stop playing.)

    Wizardry 8 and Temple of Elemental Evil both have the option to play in the “Real-life Mode” Zkip suggests (called “Ironman mode”). Both are stupidly difficult played like this (for me, anyway,) but some people like it.

    And of course rouge-likes (ADOM, Rogue, Nethack, etc.) mostly use this system by default. (Which works well in conjunction with the random map generation, so you’re not just having to replay the exact same thing each time.)

  5. Apparently, the new episode of Halflife 2 is going to autosave by sensing when you’re out of combat. That should be interesting.

    I just heard about ToEE and its extreme mode on another board. I don’t think I’d find it very much fun to not be able to save at all, because its not like every time I play, its going to be the same – This isn’t Mario Brothers.

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