Although 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.
In 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.
I'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!
When 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.
One 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).
Franchises 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.
When 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.