Thought Experiment: Save Anywhere
October 11, 2005
Scene: a project meeting of Hypothetical Games, a mid-sized developer working on a prestige product for the upper market - something equivalent to God of War or Resident Evil 4. Present are the game's Producer (who is in charge of the schedule and, by extention, the budget), the Game Designer (who is the advocate for the games' audience and co-ordinator of the game design), the Lead Programmer (in charge of the programming team), the Lead Artist (in charge of the graphics and animation teams), the Lead Level Designer (level design team leader), and the QA Lead (in charge of testing and quality assurance, and an adjunct to the game designer).
The meeting is nearly over.
Producer: Any other business?
Game Designer: Just one thing. The save games. I feel I need to point out that if we can't save everywhere without restriction, it will upset some of the Hardcore players.
Producer: How many players are we talking about?
Game Designer: 5-10% of the total audience. But these are Hardcore players - there will be a crossover with magazine reviewers, so it could cost us on our review scores. And the people affected feel very strongly about this issue - it could hurt us.
Producer: You said before that a lot of Hardcore players benefit from being a little frustrated - it enhances the emotional payoff of 'fiero'. Is that right? The feeling of triumph over adversity?
Game Designer: Well, it's true that a lot of Hardcore players have fiero as a key payoff. But you don't need to be frustrated to get fiero. It's beating the challenge which gives the fiero - frustration is just a common accompanyment to fiero.
Lead Programmer: I'm not keen on trying to support a save anywhere system for this game. We've got a lot of unique subsystems - it's not just a single gameplay model throughout. We'd need to implement a seperate save mechanism for each subsystem. Some of our foes are as complicated as a typical boss in terms of the programming - we'd need to develop a system for saving all their states in all instances.
Producer: How long would it take to implement?
Lead Programmer: It'll add maybe 10 to 20 percent to the time to implement each subsystem.
QA Lead: And it'll add at least the same to the QA time... we'll have to test each one seperately. It's a lot more work to test a save system that can be used anywhere than a save system that only needs to be tested for each checkpoint. This is a big world we're talking about, and we have to check the save works in every situation! Personally, I liked the plan we already had with the hermetic save system...
Game Designer: It's certainly the simplest and easiest option to implement, but as I say, we could be alienating some players in a very influential audience cluster. If we don't get Hardcore support, we'll never reach a large enough Casual audience to make back our development costs.
Lead Artist: What about the Casual players? How does this affect them?
Game Designer: Well actually, that's the other problem. We're expecting to reach quite a few players with mid to low game literacy. The save anywhere system could be a problem - it will be possible for players to accidentally save in a situation from which they would be trapped. But given we have a check point system, they can always go back to an earlier checkpoint.
QA Lead: I have to say, I don't relish the thought of running the useability studies if we have a save anywhere system. We never do an adequate job of teaching inexperienced players how to use a save system.
Lead Programmer: There are people who don't know how to save?
Lead Artist: I have to say, there are times I don't know what I should do when I'm saving. I'd prefer not to be faced with any decisions when I'm saving; I just want to play the game! If I have to manage my own saves, I usually just keep one, so if that save leaves me trapped - I'm screwed.
Game Designer: If that happens, you'll still restart at the nearest checkpoint though.
Lead Artist: Still, I don't like it when the game makes me feel stupid.
Game Designer: We could add a save game tutorial...
Lead Artist: Which would make me feel even more stupid!
Producer: Not to mention adding to our costs. You're already saying this is going to add at least 10% to the programming and QA budget, let alone the cost of a tutorial to teach Casual players how to use the extra save system.
Game Designer: Well we can hide the 'save anywhere' system in the options, where it has to be manually enabled. Hardcore players always find things in the options, whereas Casual players almost never look at them.
Lead Artist: Does that mean we need multiple versions of the in game menus? That will take a little extra time, but I'm okay with it if the programming team don't mind.
Lead Programmer: Well we can do it, if its definitely worthwhile. It all takes time to implement, though. I'm more concerned about saving the state of the rooms in all cases - it gets quite complicated when there's a lot going on. We have to save positions, animation frames, AI data, particle system states...
Game Designer: I suppose we don't have to save everything perfectly. As long as the player starts in roughly the same place - it should be okay.
Producer: This is a prestige product. Either we save perfectly, or not at all. We need the publisher to back the game with substantial marketing spend and if it looks like we're not doing everything with the highest possible production values, that won't happen.
Lead Level Designer: We could extend the checkpoint system to specify more places to restart, and just use those as the restore points when the player uses the anwhere save.
Producer: Will that add to your workload significantly?
QA Lead: It will add to mine if you want us to test them all.
Game Designer: We can just restore the player to the start of each room.
Producer: Will that satisfy the needs of the Hardcore player who wants to save anywhere?
Game Designer: I don't know. It's hard to predict this sort of thing.
Lead Level Designer: We have some pretty big rooms. I think starting at the beginning of each room is going to be basically the same as our current checkpoint save system.
Producer: Okay, let me just get this straight. You want to use maybe 5 to 10 percent of the development budget - say, half a million dollars - for a save system that only benefits a minority of our audience, and that may give problems for a large part of our audience. I don't get it. God of War and Resident Evil 4 pull in 94 and 96 scores on Metacritic without this sort of save system, so it doesn't seem like we need it. Even GTA: San Andreas doesn't have it. Why do you think this is so important?
Game Designer: Every game is different. If our game needs the capacity to save anywhere, we need to plan for it now.
Lead Programmer: It's true - once we've built all these subsystems, it will be much harder to add save mechanics to them all. It would help to know what we're doing before we implement the key systems.
Lead Artist: It seems to me that for the kind of game we're making, impressive graphics and sound are more important than little details like a save system. Wouldn't we be better off putting the money into that?
Game Designer: We're already spending millions on the game; I'm just suggesting we use a small amount of the budget to meet the needs of an influential part of our audience.
Producer: This isn't a democracy, but I'd like to know what you all think. Let's put it to a vote.
They vote, and a decision is made. The question is, what decision does the producer make?
Disclaimer: the voices in this discussion represent viewpoints I have heard expressed in game development during my years working in the industry. None of the voices represent my own viewpoint, which can be found in an earlier post entitled 'To Save or Not to Save'. The purpose of this post is to demonstrate some of the factors that contribute to 'save anywhere' not being a standard feature in games.
Interesting article. But I disagree with the assumption that it's the hardcore player who wants to save anywhere. In fact, in my experience, it's the exact opposite: hardcore players have been trained to put up with all sorts of stupid behavior on the parts of their games. The people who want to save anywhere are the casual games. Here's a counterexample:
WIFE: OK, Honey, we're late for Thanksgiving dinner. We have to go now.
HUSBAND: Sure thing, hon, I'll be right there. I just have to get to the next save point. If I quit now, I'll lose the past 20 minutes I've played and have to do it again.
WIFE: How long will it be until you reach the next savepoint?
HUSBAND: Well, usually the save points are spaced about 15 minutes apart. Of course, sometimes they're 30 seconds apart. And then sometimes you'll have a deathmarch where you have to trudge through the laval level for an hour.
WIFE: An hour?
HUSBAND: But that's unusual. It should just be a few minutes. Well, assuming I don't accidentally walk past it and miss it.
WIFE: Why can't you just save the game?
HUSBAND: Well, the game designers worry that they might alienate part of their audience with complex concepts like saving the game.
HUSBAND: Why are you looking at me that way?
WIFE: My mother, who is 80 years old, knows that she has to hit "save" before quitting her word processor. There are people who seriously think that saving a game is a hard concept?
HUSBAND: Well, it's a very complex issue, sweetheart.
WIFE: And these are the people who are making me late for Thanksgiving dinner?
KIDS: MOM! DAD! WE'RE HUNGRY!
HUSBAND: Be right there, kids! I just have to get past the Plains of Pandemonium and defeat...
[WIFE shuts off console.]
Posted by: peterb | October 11, 2005 at 01:13 PM
I tend to also feel that casual gamers like the save anywhere. I also think it depends on the game. For Ninja Gaiden Black, not having a save anywhere works perfectly well, it adds some to the challenge. However, take a game like ICO or FFX. I loved both games, but both could have benefitted from save anywhere. There are times you only have 20 minutes left to play (possibly before going to see relatives). You hate to play for 20 and not be able to save, but you also hate just to sit there. In these instances, I usually have to pop in a different game to kill the time.
So, save anywhere isn't critical, though it is a great feature that should be added to more games (I also can't think of a single game that had save anywhere that would have benefitted from having a differnt save system).
Posted by: lordxixor | October 11, 2005 at 02:36 PM
I too truly don't understand the contention that only the hardcore wants save-anywhere.
Before I played Halo on my Xbox, I had only ever played two or three video games in the preceding 15 years, and I had never considered that a modern game would do anything but save-anywhere.
The claim that save-anywhere is hard because you must capture the instantaneous state of every single creature in the game is a carnard and a bad strawman. There is no such requirement. The requirement is that I be able to restart the game from the same location that I saved and from a state which is substantially similar. The mini-boss I'm fighting does not need to be drooling in exactly the same way when I get back, but if I had him half-killed when I saved, he better be half-dead when I come back.
The claim that implementing checkpoint saves is *good* for the player, or is what most of the audience wants most of the time is so confusing to me that I don't really even know how to start to discuss the issue. Nobody I know who plays games, casual or not, likes checkpoint save systems. Period.
Posted by: psu | October 11, 2005 at 03:23 PM
There are a lot of issues overlooked in the above dialectic; it was never intended to be exhaustive, merely indicative.
"There are people who seriously think that saving a game is a hard concept?"
Not saving a game. Managing game saves. Is this distinction not obvious? See the example in the original post: it's not that the Lead Artist can't save a game, it's that they don't want to have to manage multiple save files to protect themselves from saving in an unrecoverable position.
Regarding Casual gamers, I think I have already laid out my position clearly in an earlier post. All the Casual player really wants to do is to be able to put the game down at any time. That can be met by a bookmark save or (better in my opinion) ratcheted progress. Saying that Casual gamers 'want to save anywhere' overlooks the fact that many Casual players don't want to have to deal with a save mechanism at all! :)
My personal position is that any game should allow you to stop playing at any time with no significant loss of progress. I don't personally believe a 'save anywhere' scheme is a particularly good way of doing this in a mass market product. But the above post isn't about my position at all, but rather about why most prestige games don't tend to have 'save anywhere' schemes.
Posted by: Chris | October 11, 2005 at 03:28 PM
"Nobody I know who plays games, casual or not, likes checkpoint save systems. Period."
Perhaps as a relatively recent game player you don't remember what it was like before we had checkpoint saves? When you died and lost all of your progress because you hadn't remembered to save in the last hour? It sucked. It sucked big time. It was, in fact, one of the most annoying things in games! When autosave systems, like checkpoint saves, appeared, and you didn't have to remember to save constantly, it was a blessing for most players.
Or perhaps are we using 'checkpoint save' in a different context? When I say it, I mean the game automatically banks your progress (saves) when you reach a checkpoint.
I personally remember what it was like before we had save games at all - now *that* was annoying! :) You had to do everything from scratch every time. But we still played the games, because they were the best we had at the time.
Posted by: Chris | October 11, 2005 at 03:40 PM
what i really meant was that the 2 games i did play in that 15 year span were on a PC, and they had save-anywhere.
Posted by: psu | October 11, 2005 at 05:18 PM
Also, by "checkpoint save" I mean "you can only save at fixed checkpoints."
This is orhogonal to whether the save happens automatically or not. Many games, including God of War, RE4 and Final Fantasy have savepoint only saves which are not automatic. This seems to me to be the worst of both worlds. I have to remember to save, I have to understand the save UI, but I don't get to save anywhere I want.
Posted by: psu | October 11, 2005 at 05:26 PM
Yes, I can see why you greet this approach with such ire. :)
Until a strong commercial argument to provide better save systems is widely recognised by the industry, we will probably be stuck with systems like this for a while, though. They really do simplify QA, and the testing process for games gets very expensive.
Personally, I can just about tolerate this type of save system because I was raised on much worse save systems. :) That doesn't mean you should, of course. :)
Posted by: Chris | October 11, 2005 at 06:09 PM
Ah yes... the long 'password systems'. I bloody hated those. Always lost the bits of paper I scribbled them on. I wonder how many trees died for our games addictions back then...
Posted by: Dan Boutros | October 11, 2005 at 08:47 PM
Call me an anarchist but I think relying on save systems is a sign of bad design. Just design a game where the player doesn't need to do things over and over again. Or where it's fun to do them over and over again. This morbid obsession with "game over" is retarded. If the game punishes players so badly that they feel the need to save all the time, then I think the game designer should seek psychiatric help.
Posted by: Johny Zuper! | October 12, 2005 at 07:58 AM
I'm with you on this one Johny - save systems need to fall back into the architecture and cease to be the player's concern for anything other than games targeting a purely Hardcore audience.
However, some players (Type 1 Conqueror according to DGD1, or those liking "Hard Fun" in Lazarro's system) enjoy the feeling of triumph over adversity (fiero) so the punishment the game meets out may (bizarely) actually add to their eventual enjoyment. Since this play style is prevalent in game development companies, it tends to be over-represented in the games that get made.
Posted by: Chris | October 12, 2005 at 08:51 AM
One thing to remember about 'Hard Fun'.
It's only fun when it feels like the player's fault. There has been many a joypad thrown when lazy designers stick badly communicated unblockable attacks in their enemy soldiers or bosses, in aim of making something hard. If the collision detection feels exagerated on their side, you feel cheated, frustrated, angry and hateful toward the game.
I know, because one particular Ninja Gaiden boss helped me feel this experience first hand. Had I not been waiting for the game for so long I may not have played that section through. I'm glad I did, but still, I do remember leaving the game alone for 3 weeks before trying again and discovering the monotonous pattern I had to employ to beat this lazily designed 'fun' thief.
Posted by: Dan Boutros | October 12, 2005 at 01:04 PM
Sorry. On reflection I didn't articulate my examples very well. Bottom line - if the design is seen as fault and not the player, the game will be branded by the player as a source of uneccessary frustration rather than enjoyment.
Gradius V was a very long anticipated game for me. Then I got to one of the levels that was more 'memory game' then reactive fun shooting game. I sold it the next week. 9/10 in EDGE my arse.
Posted by: Dan Boutros | October 12, 2005 at 03:04 PM