June 28, 2004

Groundhog Day

by peterb

Having to deal with yet another bad designer's stupid implementation of "save points" is the worst part of being a console gamer. Almost everyone gets it at least a little bit wrong. Many designers get it very wrong. A few game designers get it so wrong that you want them to be put into suspended animation and then revived only when the Earth has been conquered by a race of technologically advanced yet horribly malicious alien beings who will transport them into a whirling nightmarish dimension of transinfinite pain.

For those of you who are not gamers, allow me to explain the idea of "save points." Back in the 1980s, game consoles had extremely limited memory profiles and storage space. To allow larger games to be played in several sittings, designers introduced the concept of save points -- when you reach a specific point in the game, the player can save their progress to some stable or semi-stable storage. This allows the game designer to merely have to store a bit meaning "I have reached point 4" rather than keeping track of all the state in the game world.

The existence of save points caused a number of conventions to be placed on the narrative of the game worlds: the idea that enemies come back whenever you play the game, even if you've "cleared" that section, the idea that, since all gamers are 12 years old, they won't have to stop playing at a moment's notice, and the idea that if you die halfway between save points, you have to play the last segment of the game over again. And over. And over. And over. And over.

Here's what other types of media and life experiences would be like if they were implemented the same way some game designers implement their games:

  • If you're reading a book, and you put it down in the middle of a chapter, you have to start reading from the start of that chapter. Over and over.

  • While watching a DVD, during certain critical, dramatic portions of the movie (called "cut scenes," by directors) your pause button will no longer work.

  • In the newest version of Microsoft Word, you can only save a document after you write a certain amount of text.

  • You're beating the tar out of a moronic game designer, but if you forget to break all his bones in exactly the right order, you're forced to start beating him up again.
The worst part about this, to me, is that people make up stupid reasons why this braindamaged behavior is good. Among the dumber reasons I've heard offered are: "Allowing the user to pause so they can take their bleeding child to the hospital will ruin the dramatic flow of the game," "But, if we let the player save at an arbitrary time, they might save after every combat and ruin the 'challenge' of the game!" and -- I swear I'm not making this last one up, this is a paraphase of a certain idiot reviewer on a not-to-be-named game review site -- "If you can't spend a solid hour playing a game, you're not hardcore enough and you shouldn't be playing video games."

There's a kernel of truth in some of these. Yes, it's true that a player can ruin the fun of his game by saving immediately after every hard challenge is passed. So what? The bottom line is that the player can better manage their happiness than you, the game designer, can. Based on my own experience and the conversations I've had with fellow gamers, the single most common reason a player puts an otherwise good game down and never comes back to it is because of the inadequate placement of save points. No one wants to replay a segment that they already played through just because they made a mistake 90% of the way through.

In today's videogame world, the common case is that the design of the game sucks. The common case is not that I am sitting there, unable to save, saying to myself "Gosh, I sure am excited by the dramatic tension introduced by the fact that if I die here, I'll have to spend 20 minutes trudging through the castle and fighting the same monsters I just defeated to get back to this point all over again." The common case, rather, is that most people, most of the time, say "I just died because of the stupid camera, and now I have to do the whole stupid lava level all over again from the stupid beginning, because the stupid designers were too stupidly arrogant to put in enough stupid save points." You know what most of us do when confronted with that sort of game?

We stop playing the stupid game.

I have a friend who never finished Shenmue, because the climactic battle was a horrific 40 minute deathmarch. With no save points, and with plenty of unpausable cutscenes. He had started playing it early one evening, not realizing what he was getting himself in to. And he was about to go out on a date, and had to stop. Was he going to play the entire 30 minutes he lost again? No. He decided -- correctly, in my opinion -- that the annoyingness of the game exceeded whatever pleasure he might get out of seeing the end.

Listen. I know it's hard to accept. But the odds are, simply, that your game is not that good. Really. It isn't. We want to play your game because we want to see what comes next, not because we want to see the stuff we've already seen 6 times because some boss keeps defeating us. If the player wants to ruin your big dramatic moment, too bad. I can pause Scorsese's movies any time I want, and I should be able to leave your game, and come back to it, any time I want. If Scorsese can get over it, so can you.

The other objection I hear is that to get the sort of "instant save and restore" functionality I want, I can just pause the game and turn off the TV. This is a morally disordered argument: someone else might want to use the console to play a different game, immediately. Some games -- those would be "poorly designed games" -- don't let you pause any time you want. And, frankly, I grew up in the 1970s with the "Energy Blues" playing on Schoolhouse Rock. I don't want to leave my console on when I'm not using it. I want to turn it off. Lastly, I guarantee that if I turn the TV off but leave the console on, someone (such as myself) will turn the console off accidentally.

There are basically two ways to fix the brokenness of save points: the somewhat wrong way, and the right way. I'll describe them, and then I'll describe an alternative solution that, I think, will eventually become the norm.

The somewhat wrong way to fix the problem -- which is still better than nothing -- is to put a metric ton of save points around your game, so that the player has the opportunity to save "frequently enough" that they're not bothered by them. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance went this route. As I say, this is at least better than nothing, since it will likely allow the player to not have to play for a solid hour to get back to where they were when they died. The risks here are twofold: first, you might underestimate what "often enough" means, and second, if you provide a save point the player will feel obligated to use it, so a larger percentage of the game is taken up with the mechanics of saving. Halo tries to fix this latter problem by frequently "checkpointing" the player's progress -- just silently saving it when the player crosses certain boundaries -- but I've never met anyone who felt that it actually worked right, since it only works within a given session, not across sessions.

The correct solution is to allow the player to manage their own save points. Let them get access to a menu anytime, anywhere, and save the game immediately. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic does this, and it is a pleasure to use.

The software developers -- particular the user interface geeks -- among you may have noticed a systemic problem in what I'm describing. It relies on the game developer doing the right thing. As game developers are apparently intent on proving, over and over again, that they don't know or care about proper user interface design, I will suggest a different idea. The issue I'm most concerned with is not "saving" for purposes of time travel, but the ability to stop playing at a moment's notice and to pick up exactly where I left off later. That service could, and I argue should, be implemented by the console itself, not by the software developer. When I want to suspend or hibernate my laptop, I don't have to go around to each application asking for permission: I just suspend the damn thing. On a system with a hard drive (hello, Microsoft!) doing this sort of hibernation is a solved problem.

In summary, this is not a game-specific issue. This is a user-interface issue. You'd dismiss as unacceptable a word processor that refused to allow you to save your work unless you finished the paragraph you were writing. We should not hold games to a lower standard.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at June 28, 2004 05:20 PM | Bookmark This

I usually make exactly the same points whenever I discuss this over at www.gamedev.net on the Game Design forum. However, I will play Devil's Advocate for a second here.

Gamers often derive a lot of enjoyment by comparing their experiences to that of other players, whether seeing who can get furthest, who can complete the game in the shortest amount of time, or how different people approach the same obstacle.

Allowing a player to reduce any problem to a number of infinitely small steps (ie. allowing saving and reloading at any point) can be viewed as allowing a player to reduce any problem to a series of random events, which they are guaranteed to eventually defeat. This effectively changes the computer game from being a game of skill to being a game of chance. eg. If you normally successfully hit an opponent 1% of the time, judicious use of save + load can elevate that to 100% of the time, with no bullets wasted.

So the argument here is that it essentially breaks the 'meta-game' where those who win are considered to be of higher skill than those who do not, by allowing patience to be a substitute for skill.

Posted by Ben Sizer at June 28, 2004 06:35 PM

Rejecting the idea that the user should be able to control when and where she saves games on the basis of it ruining the "meta-game" is sort of like saying that word processors make writing, on average, worse because it allows writers to correct so easily that they don't think about what they say.

Each statement has some small kernel of truth to it, but at their core each statement is actually just someone wanking for the benefit of their own ego.

My response would be, if you want to write the great American Novel with an Underwood typewriter and no white out, or if you want to go to all your fan-boy friends and tell them how you played all of Halo in one 8 hour sitting, and then you want to point to your achievement and get a warm fuzzy feeling, then fine.

But don't make ME play the same 15 min sequence of Splinter Cell 50 times because I haven't quite figured out how to get past the automatic machine guns at the end of the sequence and for some reason the save points are just after where I need to be instead of just before.

Did I mention that Pete left out the worst problem with save points in games like Halo and Splinter Cell... the fact that their distribution in the game is completely random? Sometimes they are 10 seconds apart, other times it's like they are hours apart. But I digress.

Summary: I don't care about the meta-game. No one is forcing you to save the game if your fragile male ego doesn't allow it. There is no harm in doing this right to keep from pissing people off.

Posted by psu at June 28, 2004 07:12 PM

Seems to me that a compromise that would make both camps mostly happy would be a console-controlled save mechanism, such as the one you described, that saves state, but then immediately discards it as soon as it's read back into memory. The game's built-in save points would remain, along with the challenge of completing certain parts of the game -- but then players could stop playing whenever they wanted. I think of Nethack as a great example of this: there are no save points, and if your character dies, he (or she or it) is made into a bones pile and is no more -- but you can suspend the game at any point, and pick it up at any time. I've played characters over the course of *years* by that method. It would be subject to tampering, of course, but people tampering with the system would get that same dirty feeling that you get when you make copies of promising characters in Nethack, or you cheat in solitaire.

(Oh and by the way, hi, I don't think I know you, but I live in Pgh and went to CMU and know a bunch of the same people.)

Posted by Joel at June 28, 2004 07:51 PM

Hear, hear.

So, yeah, I confess I could care less about making the save point guys happy. They're insane. They should not be coddled or mollified. It's the 21st century and storage is cheap.

When I play CRPGs, I swap between two save games for fault redundancy, but I resist the urge to keep a big tree of saves from back before every dialogue decision. I want the game to have a feeling of irrevocable consequence. On the other hand, when playing Thief, I save after every blackjacking. And I never finished Metroid because the final boss was incredibly difficult, and there was no way to even save just before fighting him. I got better things to do with my time, and -- as peterb ably points out -- I know how to manage my happiness.

Posted by Eric Tilton at June 28, 2004 09:25 PM

I still prefer "beating the CRAP out of a moronic games designer", but I understand that this is a family blog.

Er, oops.

Posted by Jonathan Hardwick at June 29, 2004 12:50 AM

psu - I largely agree with you, although I think that the word processor comparison is flawed since the original purpose of the word processor is not to provide a challenge, which a game clearly is.

I do agree that having to wait 15 minutes to save is too long. In many games, a good compromise - if one is needed - is to allow save + reload in any non-combat situation, plus incremental auto-saves as you go along for the event of power outages, etc.

Perhaps a game should be labelled with the same/resume functionality on the packaging so that people are more able to buy the type of game that suits them. Adults often have very different time management priorities and repetitive task tolerance levels to teenagers, so I think different people require different mechanisms.

Posted by Ben Sizer at June 29, 2004 06:41 AM

Hello? The point of games is not to provide a challenge - it's TO ENTERTAIN!

According to dictionary.com: "game: (1) An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime"

If certain game designers would stop thinking "je suis un artiste!" and instead concentrated on how to provide entertainment, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

And suspend to disk is not enough. I *need* to save at any given point and maybe retry from there because game designers sometimes tend to think that they can substitute bad gameplay with overwhelming enemy power. "Boss Monsters" are one of the most annoying things games have - and if I get close to beating the boss, I sure want to save, just in case.

Not to mention the notorious instability of games. Want an example: "FarCry" crashes about every 10 minutes, and has save points about 12 minutes apart. I'm ready to throw it in the trash. If I could just save from time to time, I'd probably still keep playing it, since it's fun enough when it doesn't crash.

And just because teens might have more tolerance for repetitive tasks doesn't mean we have to force it on them, do we? The point is that the gamer KNOWS BETTER how he wants to play the game than the designer. Once people get that, games will get better.

Posted by Robert 'Groby' Blum at June 29, 2004 10:57 AM

I don't care about compromise. Having a decent UI for saving games in no way forces anyone to use said UI, and in no way forces the game to not have some kind of checkpoint behavior.

If the other camp wants to be stupid and wierd, that's their own business. I see no reason to pander to them.

Posted by psu at June 29, 2004 11:10 AM

Wow, there are some great points brought up here.

Groby: You are reminding me that I need to write a semi-rant specifically on the issue of "boss monsters", climaxes, and the lack of adequate denouement in videogame narratives.

hardwick: Look, you, I included the phrase "morally disordered" specifically to pander to you, so stop complaining.

ben: I see where you're coming from, but I still think this is the tail wagging the dog. All of the discussion of challenge, the risk of (as Brian Hook calls it) "creepsaving" is true, but are ex-post facto justifications for an implementation that is driven completely by laziness on the part of the developer. This is one reason I think we should take suspend/resume functionality, at least, out of the hands of the developer.

Tilt: Metroid is indeed one of the games I gave up on because of the save point bogosity.

Joel: Hi. Yeah, I'm an old time Nethack (hack 1.0.3, actually) addict. I'd like to see a modern console game incorporate the 'bones' idea. I think it's great.

Posted by peterb at June 29, 2004 11:37 AM

I have no time for the argument that save points should be far apart because it makes the game more challenging.

Here is a list of other ways to make a game more challenging:
-Periodically blank out the screen and let the players navigate by memory through sections with pits.
-Sometimes the player's gun jams and they have to play a mini game to unjam it, all the while the zombies are still coming.
-At the beginning of the game, ask the player to make an irrevocable choice between 3 things. At the end of the game, pick between the 3 things. If the game's choice and the player's choice coincide, they can win the game, otherwise they must play it from the beginning.
-When a player dies, erase their save game (Kudos to Steel Battalion for actually doing this).
-Randomly change the controls so that sometimes up is down and down is up. Do this with no warning.

All of these are things that you could do as a designer but that as a good designer you SHOULD NOT DO. The rule of thumb for game 'features' like save points should not be "does it make the game harder?" it should be "does it make the game more entertaining?" Having to play the same section of the game over and over again does not make the game more entertaining. It does make it harder.

If you are a designer and you *really* want to impliment your insane sadistic vision of hundreds of gamers fighting the same group of enemies over and over again, have a 'harcore' difficulty setting with no save points at all or some junk. Do what you like with them, just leave me out of it. Then they can say "I beat Ninja Gaiden on Hardcore" and I can say "I enjoyed playing Ninja Gaiden" and everyone will be happy and will continue to buy your products.

PS: Robert, there are unofficial instructions available that tell you how to impliment quicksave in Far Cry. It makes the game a whole lot more fun.

Posted by Tim Maly at July 3, 2004 12:39 PM

There are some points here I simply have to reply to, but before I start I should say that I certainly agree that poorly implemented save points can completely ruin a game. On more than one occasion I have put down a game never to play it again when facing the prospect of re-playing the two hours of gameplay I just completed.

That being said, there are times when instant and unlimited reloading would be a very bad thing.

First, I should draw attention to a whole generation of games that were implemented with the classic save/load paradigm, but now can be played with instant state saves and reloads. Namely, the computer emulation of console games. This added functionality changes the gameplay of these games. In some, instead of having to carefully think and anticipate the next step, a player can simply try recklessly at each step until they succeed. In other games, events that were supposed to be rare can be manipulated into being regular. Imagine the concequences for a simple game of soccer. The player saves, shoots at the goal, and it is blocked. Reloads their game, shoots, misses, reloads shoots, scores! The repeated reload feature makes the game trivial. It's like a game where the goal is to turn it on. You start up the game and it's over. Or if you still wanted to watch the game why not include a button that makes the game play itself? You can press it, and two hours later you've won. Oh wait, they have these. They're called movies. It sounds to me like some of the folks who have posted above should go out and rent one. Not only can you easily pause this medium, you can also rewind it to any point at any time.

Now, don't get me wrong. In games that are essentially interactive movies this would be an excellent feature. You could watch the parts you want when you want. But it wouldn't be challenging.

What it seems to boil down to is a disagreement on what level of challenge is desirable in a game. Reading the previous posts suggests that some of the folks here do not particularly enjoy arcade games. That's fine. And I agree that most games should, when possible, have a difficulty setting that allowers the user to pick a challenge that they find comfortable. But arcade games are almost universally endurance runs. Tetris, Raiden, and Bubble Bauble come to mind. If you could pause or reload Tetris as each block fell the game would get very boring very quickly because there wouldn't be any challenge to it.

I most wholeheartedly agree with Tim Maly that games should not include obstacles that are simply obtuce, and that games should be designed entirely around entertainment. Blanking out the screen probably isn't an obstacle people will feel a desire to overcome. However Tetris is a shining example of how having to think *faster* is an obstacle that makes the game enjoyable.

Games that impede your progress until you achieve a particularly high mastery aren't good games. Well designed games allow you to play or replay the parts you enjoy until you are satisfied with the results. Rewarding success makes players happy. Punishing failures makes them unhappy.

An always available save/resume function is brilliant. You can leave a game and come back to it whenever you need to. A function that allows you to repeatedly reload your game is different. Appart from significatly changing gameplay it would also remain an easy, readily avaiable shortcut. From experience in computer emulated console games, it becomes difficult to avoid its use. If the game hardware was built with this feature, you should also expect new games to reflect it. A helpful example here is a game called Disgaea. This game has a very fast reboot/reload from save sequence, and allows you to save quite frequently. In Disgaea you can find a treasure at the end of a level about 5% of the time. Now the game almost "expects" you to save and run the last part of that level 20 times until you find the treasure. While the rest of the game is great, that repeated reloading is extremely unpleasant. Just having the reload feature there would change game design, and not necessarily in a good way.

I know this is getting a little phillosophical, but why do people play games? As mentioned before, entertainment. And some people find a challenge entertaining. Others would like to just observe and interact. Personally, I enjoy games that provide an adequate challenge. That's because when the game's over and the power's off, the only thing that has changed is me. My ability to think and solve problems, even if only game problems, has improved. That's all that's left. Sports are another example where this is the case. Sports are for entertainment too, but the point of being an athelete is to improve yourself - to get better at the game. Both sports and games are an abstract set of rules, and the goal is to succeed within this set of rules. The set of rules makes the game *difficult* to succeed in. Choosing not to follow these rules is called cheating, and that's what infinite reloads boil down to. It is mangling the existing rules of the game to make it easier to succeed. If a game is too challenging and you have to put it down, fine. Obviously the game wasn't right for you. Maybe you aren't a hockey player either. And better games *do* appeal to more people. I am strongly in favor of games being generous. Giving players things rather than taking things away from the player makes it fun. Games *should* be built around fun, built to be entertaining.

Posted by Lucid at August 3, 2005 06:14 PM

Quoting Lucid: "In Disgaea you can find a treasure at the end of a level about 5% of the time. Now the game almost "expects" you to save and run the last part of that level 20 times until you find the treasure. While the rest of the game is great, that repeated reloading is extremely unpleasant. Just having the reload feature there would change game design, and not necessarily in a good way."

It's pretty easy to argue that it's not the save/reload cycle that's the problem here--it's the fact that there are random things that happen (no matter what you do) only a small percentage of the time. Randomness works well in situations where there are enough events for the distribution to do its work--for example, the amount of damage you do when using a certain attack can have a certain amount of randomness. This allows you to pursue different tactics based on risk vs. reward. But when events which you have *no control over* are highly random, it's a problem.

So, the problem here is not that it's easy to save and reload. The problem is that save and reload is the only way you can improve your chances of getting that treasure. A non-computer game approach to the same problem can be seen in the rolling rules of the d20 system: in situations where there's no real danger or distraction, you can choose to take an average result instead of rolling a d20 to use a skill. In situations where there's no penalty for failure, you can choose to take extra time and take the best possible result when using a skill. The rules that explicitly allow this are a really great design addition to the game system--because they codify the knowledge that when there's no risk (or minimal risk) and a high reward, there's no reason for people to avoid repeated attempts. And, more importantly, they codify the knowledge that repeated attempts are *not fun*.

So, I'd say that this same kind of thinking should apply to video games: the right solution to "people will just try to do this random thing over and over again until they get it--using saved games" is not to make it harder to save and restore. It's also not to make it easy to save and restore and assume they'll make use of that feature until they succeed. The solution is, rather, to remove the randomness. Make it a game of skill (which an unskilled player might game using save/restore, but which more players will choose to do "right".) Even better, make it a game of skill in which failure *doesn't* lock you out--unless the reward is minor enough to not be a neccessity. Or make it the reward for solving a puzzle. Now nobody has a good reason to save/restore just to get a treasure--and the game is more fun both for the players who improve their skill and get the item right away, and for the players who try several times to get the reward.

And both types of players, of course, benefit from not having saving and reloading be a hassle.

Posted by John Prevost at August 3, 2005 09:03 PM

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