The Seven Basic Plots
DGD2: Genre Skeleton Key

Ratcheted Progress

Ratchet_1Although video games have improved in many ways over the years, one mechanism in particular has opened them up to a wider and more diverse audience - ratcheted progress. When I use this term I mean the automatic banking of tangible player progress. It should not be confused with save mechanisms, which are means of recording the state of play between game sessions in their only truly essential role.

A ratchet, of course, is a mechanical device which permits movement in only one direction - a handy thing in an adjustable wrench, for instance, or the crank that operates the sluice gate at a canal lock. The notion of ratcheted progress rests upon ensuring that the player's progress only moves in one direction - and that one direction is always to the player's benefit.

Sabre_wulf_screenshot_1In the beginning, before game saves, before ratcheting, before even prototype game saves like password saves, games had to be completed in a single sitting. Surprisingly, I found myself completing many such games as a young teen - including classic ZX Spectrum games such as Sabre Wulf, classic Commodore 64 games like Impossible Mission and classic arcade games like Rastan Saga. All without saves or ratcheting*.  We didn't know any better back then!

But as games became longer, something had to give. It took about eight hours for me to complete the C64 game Zoids back in 1986, which is a long time for a game without saves. Nintendo really changed this with the NES. Although I'm sure there were save mechanisms in some earlier, more obscure games, the same year that saw me struggling through Zoids also saw the arrival of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid which both had save mechanisms - and they both had ratcheted progress as well. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.

These early games only had a few bytes to save in - Metroid uses 24 bytes. (That's one third of the bytes required to record the previous sentence!) We know this because it has a 24 character save code you have to write down. This forced the game designers to think about how they would save the game. Any notion of saving the exact game state was out - only the important achievements could be recorded. This is how ratcheted progress began - as a solution to a technical problem.

MetroidI'm playing the NES version of Metroid at the moment with a colleague and friend in our regular weekly 'we have to do something together that isn't strictly work' get together. You get it free in Metroid Prime if you slog through the bosses of that, and of Metroid Fusion. We are enjoying it so much that it has almost completely taken over our game sessions each week. It's unbelievably hard, but that difficulty is tempered by the ratcheted progress - when you collect something of any significance, like a power up, you always have it from then on. It doesn't matter if you die, you still keep it. Very little that was around at the time has a mechanism like this, and it allows the game to age slightly more gracefully than its rivals. I can't imagine completing say,  Starquake (1984), again without  using an emulator's save function.

At some point, we got the first 'save anywhere' game - I don't know what it was. But I can imagine, from looking at badly designed modern games, what it might have been like to play. It probably didn't have ratcheted progress - instead, the player would have been expected to manually save to record any progress. This requires extreme patience and a slightly obsessive mentality to deal with. As an example of a modern game that thought that 'save anywhere' was the answer to all problems, I'm going to cite my favourite awful game - Shifters (2002), the sequel to the wildly unpopular Warriors of Might and Magic. This to me is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of video games, and as such I have played through it three times, mostly laughing all the way!

ShiftersWhen you play a game like Shifters, if you die without saving, everything you have done is lost. Everything. There's no ratcheting of any kind in effect. You must begin the entire game anew.  The game forces you to save constantly - it's the only way you can possibly play, because death lurks at every corner, often by plummeting hilariously to your death. (Of course, this isn't a reason not to implement a 'save anywhere' system - but it is a caution that by themselves they solve nothing).

In order to properly implement a ratcheted progress system, it is necessary for the game to be designed with ratcheting in mind. Ideally, there must be ways to progress in the game which are always to the player's benefit - inventory systems tend to be collections without limitations, for instance, as having an RPG style inventory cannot easily be combined with a ratcheted progress system (although it can be done). Some variability is acceptible. An in game currency system is workable, for instance, provided there are unlimited sources of income in the economy.

Mario_64One genre of games in particular evolved steadily towards ever more ratcheted progress - the platform game. While they were still rising in popularity, every 3D platform game from here to eternity had the same basic ratcheted progress system in place (largely copied from Mario 64, the template for almost all 3D platformers). In essence, there are various permanent tokens and abilities which can be collected, and whenever you collect one, the ratchet clicks on (often auto-saving at that point, so as not to force the player to remember to save at the end of their session).

The ratcheted progress made it easier to play. 3D platformers appealed to two distinct audience clusters - by DGD1 these are the Type 1 Conqueror (interested in challenge and fiero) and the Type 3 Wanderer (interested in a fun experience); by Nicole's Lazarro's system, players preferring Hard Fun and players preferring Easy Fun. But there was a cost to the ratcheted progress that no-one anticipated: the more that the ratcheting made these games easier to play, and therefore more in tune with the player needs of the Wanderers, the less the games appealed to the Conquerors. The degree of challenge had been reduced by the ratcheting. This has had the ultimate consequence of undermining the commercial value of these games.

This may seem counter intuitive. If the games are made to appeal more to the Wanderers, shouldn't the increase in support from this demographic cluster compensated for the loss of support from the Conquerors? Well, it is a sad fact of the games industry that people who fit the Conqueror archetype are the chief evangelists of games - as 3D platformers lost the support of the Conqueror, they lost the support of the people who told the Wanderers which games to play. (This problem was worsened by a rotting lack of play innovation in the genre which gradually drove it stale).

Ratchet_clank_bird_huntingFranchises such as Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Crank (and yes, Ratchet & Clank does have ratcheted progress...), bemused by a lesser degree of success with their first titles than expected moved wholesale back towards the Conqueror archetype - providing guns, violence and excitement - in effect, pushing the other way. They abandoned the Wanderers (who helped provide the larger sales figures) in favour of the Conquerors. They achieved a modest success, but less (I suspect) than they hoped and expected.

Thankfully, despite the problems that 3D platformers have experienced, ratcheted progress has not gone away. Resident Evil 4, for instance, has a surprisingly advanced ratcheting system which even tackles a classic RPG style inventory. The ratchet ticks on quite often (although it does not auto-save), often at the entrance to the current room, although in larger locations the ratchet ticks on when the player achieves something significant within the room. These checkpoints are invisible to the player, but one can generally trust that they are there. Not everything is included in the ratchet, though - ammunition and heals are left unratcheted, in order that there should still be some tension in the gameplay.**

As a general rule, audience needs dictate how much should be ratcheted. In terms of the two clusters we discussed above, the Wanderer will accept any degree of ratcheting - because as a whole they never want to do the same thing twice. Conversely, players fitting the Conqueror archetype more closely have exceptional tolerance for 'fail repeat' gameplay, and will play the same challenge over and over again. They are willing to do the same thing twice, or even a hundred times in the extreme cases - but they don't want to have to overcome a challenge they've already beaten once.

Re4When designing a ratcheted progress system for a game, one must therefore be aware of the audience being targeted. The more the game is appealing to players wanting Easy Fun, the more tightly ratcheted it can be. Whereas if you wish to supply the fiero that the Conqueror player wants and gets by overcoming a tough challenge, the ratchet should only click on after a significant victory. The one thing you don't want to do is design a game without any ratcheted progress at all - because to do so is to blackmail the player into having to save constantly, and to exclude most Casual players entirely.

I'm all for 'save anywhere' systems when they are done well, but I don't feel they are strictly necessary for the Casual market - whereas a well designed ratcheted progress system is vital in a mass market game, and its absence is largely inexcusable except in games targeting only a narrow Hardcore audience. There is a clear pattern in Casual player case studies - the vast majority of them accept the game the way it is: if they don't like it, they don't play it. They do not  generally make statements such as "this game should have such-and-such a function" because they do not think that way. They like or they dislike. If they dislike a game, they don't play it. (Or course, I am talking about clusters of players, and therefore patterns of group behaviour, not the behaviour of individuals, who are infinitely diverse).

I still believe that the absence of 'save anywhere' systems in upper market games does not reflect, as certain people believe, a strange conspiracy of game developers to deny players their rightful freedom to save (and, as an aside, your only legally supported right as a player is to take the game back to the shop if it is not of saleable value), but a decision to save the cost of the implementation and testing of a 'save anywhere' system in the sure knowledge that the majority of players do not need it provided a decent ratcheted progress system is included.  There may also be issues surrounding the psychology of "creep saving", but that is a whole different can of worms.

There is no doubt that all players love being able to put a game down at any time without any significant loss of progress. A decent ratcheted progress system can provide this on its own. Indeed, when such a system exists with an auto-save, the need for a manual save can be avoided entirely - which is a plus in the mass market, because the least game-literate Casual players do not wish to save at all, they just want to play the game. They may accept the necessity of saving files in productivity software like a word processor, but they don't want to be playing games that are anything like productivity software. Sheri Grainer Ray reports that women are often turned off by games precisely because they seem to resemble productivity software rather than entertainment products.

This is why I believe that focusing on save mechanics in mass market or mixed audience game design is a distraction (although this is not the case for games targeting certain niche markets, where players are willing to let saving be part of the play of the game). Ratcheted progress, and how the ratchet is geared, is more important to the nature of the appeal of a game than how and when the player is permitted to save, and the danger of remaining focused solely on the issue of the save mechanic is we may end up with more games like Shifters (made just three years ago) which allow the player to save anywhere, but are all but unplayable except as ironic artefacts of when game design goes horribly, horribly wrong.


*Actually, Rastan Saga did have credit-based ratcheting. But I never used it. Two friends of mine spent a whole Saturday playing the game and declared it couldn't be completed on a single credit. Well, what could I do but rise to the challenge!
**It is not entirely clear why Resident Evil 4 does not allow you to bank your ratcheted progress to a save file from the menu as a bookmark save; a 'save and quit' option. The game world abstractions present no obvious reason why the game must be saved at typewriters, although the typewriters do act as a prompt for Casual players to remember to save and so serve some small purpose. A 'save and quit' option based upon the cached ratcheted state would have presented no obvious problems in this particular case.


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The first Metroid's ace, but SUPER METROID is utterly fucking awesome. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Many argue that Super, Prime and Fusion are the best of the series. Metroid Zero on GBA is a remake of the first Metroid, but with some new areas and abilities. Also excellent.

Nice piece on ratchetted progress. What is the exact definition of the term? I'm assuming you mean gameplay-enhancing/evolving player achievments that are not forgotten by the software.

Any form of progress which has been designed to be mono-directional could be considered ratcheted progress, I suppose. It could be enhancements, achievements, collections, physical position (rare)... the key point is that it can go up but not down (or down but not up) - once you've done something, it remains done no matter what you do, even if you die.

I'm not sure how I'm going to get to play Super Metroid, to be honest. I don't want to have to play it emulated on PC, but there doesn't seem to be an option for any of the current Nintendo consoles. I guess I'll have to download it for the Revolution when it comes out.

Sadly emulation or buying thet cart on Ebay (or from Gamestation shops as they sell secondhand SNES games now) would be your only options.

There's been long time rumours of a remake, but yeah, I guess you could wait till the Revolution comes out. I was lucky in that I had the cart for SNES years and years ago. Easily one of my favourite all time games. A far richer and superior experience to the other 2D Metroids IMO.

Also, count yourself very lucky you don't have to play the first Metroid with that password system they used to have. Ouch!

I think I recall a cheat code for it:

______ ______

or something to that affect. I think you get to play as Samus in her street clothes.

Ah... memories...

Also, I noticed you have Zelda: Four Swords on your list up there. Have you managed to successfully bring together the same four people on a regular basis? I find that's the hardest part. We've since got three regulars and one spot for 'guests' as people just can't seem to synchronise all their plans together. Such a shame.

And have you noticed that at certain points, the game will degenarate into a battle for each other's cash? I think my friends and I spent about half an hour in one room throwing bombs at each other, completely forgetful of the quest at hand. Top laughs had by all.

Actually, we start playing Four Swords this Saturday. I put it on the list because I checked yesterday that all the kit worked. :) We have a regular group of four players on Saturdays, when we often play board games, but sometimes play video games. I'm looking forward to trying it!

It rules! Well done for getting a regular group together. That's the hardest part. Also I think the village level (i think it's the third stage) will be of interest to you. Let's just say it may inspire some thoughts on here... ;-)

P.S. The bombs are your friend. As is the fire wand.

Interesting, broadens the perspective on the save issue. I know I certainly prefer it when the game checkpoints from me, since manual saving can be a chore and easily forgettable. Of course, I still like the option to save when I like, but optimally the game will have a smart enough ratchet mechanism as to relegate manual saves as just backups for certain segments.

On an unrelated note, I'm curious as to see if you will cover Ragdoll Kung-fu, Marcos Healey's new offering via Steam.

Regarding Ragdoll Kung-fu, the one thing you'll notice about the games I play is that they are very rarely the most current games. In the first place, staying perpetually up to date with games is an endless treadmill I have no interest in walking, and in the second place, I can play games that are as much as twenty years old and still get both the full enjoyment and a useful perspective on game design. It's certain I'll check out Ragdoll Kung-fu at some point - there's just no telling when that will be. :)

Back in the day, Gauss came up with a table regarding the association of prime numbers and logarithms, the graph looked like a succession of steps. Imagine if the X axis is the linear progress from game start to the game's prescribed goal, and the Y axis is the probability of achieving that goal. If would seem to me that racheted progress works in a pattern similar to gauss' guess on prime numbers.
I have a theory on game systems, or ontologies, regarding the prime numbers, where a numerical value can be equated to a game's ontological component. 1 signifies a dominant factor such as XP in RPGs, a value which the user can never have enough of, more makes for better odds of success. 2 signifies dualistic factors, such as magic damage versus physical damage, or weapon damage vs. firing rate in RE4. 3 is an intransitive relationship between factors, such Weapon damage, aim, and manueverability in most FPS's. These are basic building blocks which combine to form higher numbered structures. If you hold the prime number theorem to this ontological numbering, then it logically follows that any non-prime numbered structures could be broken down into component structures, while prime numbered structures have a unique overall integrity.

Whenever a game features ratcheted progress, the factors that create the jumps in probability of success are implictedly part of the game's ontology. Sometimes, as in 2D adventure platformers such as Metroid or Castlevania:SOTN, these factors are discrete and do not have a direct numeric modification in the game engine. Examples are the ability to turn into space jump or turn into mist. Sometimes these ratcheting factors are numerically straightfoward, such as weapon modification in RE4. Either way the ratchets can be boiled down to a basic ontological factor, or at least they should in theory. So its very possible that the affect of ratcheted power-ups on gameplay can be quantified analytically in terms of succesive logarithms. Or maybe not, whats your take?

Do you come from a formal mathematics background? I used to be on top of my higher maths, but since leaving my first degree (astrophysics) I've let my skills rust slightly. :)

Looking at your thoughts on ratcheting, my first thought is that the effects of ratcheting on gameplay could be rather difficult to quantify - especially in cases of discrete power ups. Where they are numerical, they wouldn't necessarily have to be logarithmically related, but they frequently will (I suspect).

There are two basic progression mechanisms for numerical mechanics in games; linear and exponential. RPG games usually use strongly exponential progression, which will show the relationship you suggest, but other game types use linear relationships, or very weak exponential relationships (RE4's weapon mechanics have weak exponential relationships that often look linear when not seen as a complete pattern). In all these cases, the progression of difficulty is the disparity between the progression of the level of resistance offered by the opposition versus the player's abilities, if you see what I mean.

I don't think you need to use the metaphor of prime numbers to explore the decomposition of game elements, though - I believe this is what Raph is talking about when he applies the term 'ludemes', i.e. atomic game design elements, which is to say, applying reductionistic thinking to game design theory. I've somewhat lost interest in this approach myself, but that doesn't mean that it won't bear fruit. :)

I do see what you mean, the players abilities can be described as "material constrains" and the enemy/obstacle difficulty can be described as the "formal constraints". I had an idea for a challenge calculus where challenge could be quantified as the difference between the integrals of the respective curves. Sequential progress is the X axis (with 1.0 being completion), probable pattern is the Y axis (with 1.0 being invincibility) and information constructing the player's "vision" or predictive power being the Z axis. It sounds nice in theory, but isn't practical without a system of abstractions to go from in-game discrete and numeric values to the continous abstraction.

Craig Perko has been developing another mathematical framework of game analysis which is much more practical but not as sweepingly general. Portions of a tutorial can be found here:

The difficulty is in reducing ratched progress to a single value (probability of pattern being succesful), if that could be done then the methods Craig espouses might be reducible to a more, ahem, holisitic integrated model.

By the way, I come from humanities background, my hunch about Gauss was gleaned from an excellent book called "The Music of The Primes", which I highly recommend if you find free time from gaming, reading other books, work, blogging, family, and the rest of it ;)

First of all, let me say that I've read a lot of your posts now, and they are pretty inspired.

This topic is exactly the type of thing I wish more game designers would stop and think about. Video games are an integral part of this generation, and that has really had good and bad consequences. The good thing is that most players understand and are familiar with odd concepts that would not otherwise exist, like manually saving your game. But the really bad thing is that nobody ever thinks twice about these mechanics, which, as you've shown, are often superfluous.

Anyway, thanks for the insights.

Thanks for the kind words, Dan! Your comment here is quite apposite - although there is a flipside. Sometimes it is better that people don't think about the mechanics they are cloning, because it is possible to become quite tied in knots if one attempts to 'reinvent the wheel' too often! :) Best wishes!

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