I picked up a few neat games on Steam, and naturally that led to me picking up more neat games on Steam, and someone suggested I try out Dawn of War and that led to me grabbing a pack of like fifteen games including several I'd always meant to play and long story short I just tried out Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Stalker is a game about a man in the wastes of radioactive Chernobyl who has lost his memory. He wakes up with very few possessions to his name – a leather jacket, a pistol, a knife, and a seemingly Godlike ability to rewind the flow of time.

The developers didn't really intend that last one. But when they put in the ability to save and reload anywhere, that's pretty much what they ended up with.

But oh boy howdy is he a lucky man! Because, see, the wastes of Chernobyl are deadly indeed. For one thing, they're vastly radioactive, and a few steps in an unfortunate direction can pretty much instantly kill you. They're infested with mutant wildlife which possesses the ability to leap out of bushes and also pretty much instantly kill you. And if the wildlife doesn't get you, the bandits might. The bandits are unlike the other menaces – at close range they actually do instantly kill you.

And then you hit "reload", only this time, you know where the bandits are.

Theory: Unlimited saving of your game is the worst thing that has ever been invented.

Alright. Not the worst. But it's well up there, and its grip on the PC gaming world is seemingly unshakable. Imagine the following series of events.

First, people start saving their game. Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Get out of a battle in good shape, save your game. Prepare to go into a battle, save your game. Run thirty seconds across the world, save your game. Take five steps, save your game.

Get out of a battle in bad shape, reload your game. After all, why cripple yourself? You'll do better next time. You can ace that battle. And you will ace that battle. And you'll ace the next one, too, with your excess of firepower. And the one after that. And then you'll go and complain on message boards that the game is too easy.

So what do the developers do?

Make the game harder.

And suddenly a new player can't beat the game without doing the tango. Every battle is instant death. Every mission has to be done twice – once to scout, once to win. Every enemy outpost is a neon gravemarker, with words engraved upon, reading "Here, Jakob, Son of Smyth, Reloaded his Game Twyce before Going The Othyr Way, since Somehow he was now Psychically Aware of the Enemys."

Does anyone enjoy this? Anyone, anywhere, ever?

And this is not a hard issue to solve! It's been solved! Halo did it. Ratchet and Clank did it. Much more recently, Brutal Legend did it. In none of these games is it possible to lose, and in none of these games is it possible to do the save/reload tango. Death is handled by resurrecting you at the last checkpoint or at the beginning of the current mission. "Reloading" is equivalent to "dying" in that it drops you back to the same spot. In R&C and Brutal you can always abort a mission, going back in time to just before you accepted it, and go do something else. You cannot fail – only try again – and thus there is no incentive to stepping your way through the game five perfect seconds at a time.

And I look at this simple elegant solution, and I cannot help but think: why is this not used for every game? Why are games still made where you are even permitted to save whenever you want? Why, when it is so vastly detrimental to game balance, when it is so positively and thoroughly inimical to actual fun?

What game mechanic does save-anywhere actually allow?

I still haven't come up with an answer to this.

  • Michael

    2009, October 28th 7:52 PM

    Good post. You have to be careful with the save points as well though… I was recently playing Tales of Vesperia. I was nearing the end of the game, and I entered the final dungeon. I spent something like 3 or 4 hours exploring this place, fighting mobs more challenging than anything before them, narrowly escaping battles on several occasions. And then.. through a simple mistake.. I died. I was crushed. I had been desperately seeking out a save point for the past hour in order to avoid exactly what just happened. There was nothing I could do but… start over.

    It took me over a week to pick the game back up. I opted to grab a walkthrough and just burn through that last dungeon. It hurt. I was proud of myself for having not used a walkthrough up to this point, but I couldn't bare to have a repeat performance.. I just wanted to get through it and see the end.

    I think, ultimately, games should be playable however you want to play them. Just because you can save anywhere doesn't mean you have to save everywhere, right? I've played games where the thrill of discovery drove me through, and I didn't care about the challenge. You can't beat the convenience of being able to save your game anywhere, at any time. I agree that games shouldn't be made harder to compensate.. forcing the player to save everywhere is not the right approach. But I do like the option. I hate having to search aimlessly for some magical "point" in space that allows me to record my progress — I can't count how many times I've had to just leave a game running because something came up, and then I'm paranoid that power is going to go out and I lose all my progress… or the number of times I've said "ok, I'll just play to the next save point" and then invariably, some twist in the story drives me to play to the next.. and the next.. and the next. Great game design right there, but it sort of works against me. :)

  • Zorba

    2009, October 28th 11:41 PM

    Yeah, you definitely have to be careful. Like most good game mechanics, it puts even more weight on the shoulders of the game designer. Doing it wrong can result in a truly frustrating and annoying game.

    In Final Fantasy 7 there's a bit where you have a one-use portable save point. This is like the worst of all possible worlds, because there's no way to know when you should use it without already having finished the zone. I have absolutely no idea what the designers were thinking.

    I actually disagree with "games should be playable however you want to play them". The problem is that much of the time you have to trick people into having fun. If you give someone two options, one that feels like it's "doing better at the game" and one that's more fun, the vast, vast majority of people will pick the first option. This isn't a flaw with the players, it's a flaw with the game.

    One really nice tweak to this is that you can actually provide two save slots – one conventional "save slot" from save points, and one "pause slot". At any time, you can save to the "pause slot". Doing so quits the game immediately. If you run the game, you are given the option to load from the "pause slot". Whether you choose to or not, the contents of the slot are deleted. So now you can "pause the game" whenever you want, and you don't have to be paranoid about the power going out, and you still can't do the save/reload tango ;)

  • Michael

    2009, October 29th 6:57 AM

    Pause slot is a great idea. Never thought about that. There's still the issue though of progressing for hours and hours, unable to find the save spot, and then dying. It could be a flaw in the game design, but it could also be an issue where the player is just walking in circles, lost. I wonder how a system might work where you can pause at any time and also have a "save" option available every X minutes.

  • Zorba

    2009, October 29th 6:59 AM

    I'd call that a firm issue with game design. Most of the games that I mention up there do saving "transparently" one way or another – as you progress through the game it autosaves. There's no good reason for a console RPG to not autosave every time you're on the main map, and if it's not jamming a save spot in your face every 30 minutes, it's doing it wrong.

    Of course getting lost is also, more often than not, a game design problem :)

  • Kiru Banzai

    2009, October 30th 12:19 AM

    All I can contribute to this discussion, as a novice gamer, is the observation that games are hard. Not being able to save at leisure something like…well, to use an example from my real life, RE4, creates a real barrier to my chances of finishing the game, as I find taking on hostile zombies exhausting and am loathe to repeat it from the last checkpoint. RE4 is, by all accounts, a fantastic game. I'd like to see it, someday.

  • Neubert

    2009, October 30th 9:57 AM

    I remember IO interactive caught some flak for something like this with Hitman. I don't remember if it was checkpoints, or you restarted the entire mission (think it was this one) or perhaps there was a set number of saves you could do (I believe they did this in their later games).

  • Eryx

    2009, October 30th 10:19 AM

    I think the other extreme should be mentioned.

    A game taking a long time to complete (say, a day).
    Whatever happens in the game, you cannot reload.
    The save feature works exactly like the "pause slot" Zorba mentioned: as a tool for taking breaks, not for cheating. There is no other kind of save.
    If you die, you have to start over from the beginning. That means losing a day if you happen to lose your final battle. (That should not happen, if you manage to survive to the final battle, you should know the game well enough to be prepared for anything.)
    Each time you start over, you play in a new randomly generated world. You learn the general strategies, but no detailed "walkthroughs", as all the details will be different next time.
    Randomization also keeps the game interesting even if you play your 1000th incarnation and still have not won. (Yeah, these take long to master. And that's the matter of skill, more than luck, the best players can win like 80% of their games, and most of the remaining 20% losses are in the beginning of the game, so not much is lost.)

    These conventions are used by (hardcore) roguelikes. They are not popular, but have their dedicated fans. If you want to try, many hardcore roguelike fans recommend "Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup" as the best of the kind and one of the best games in existence.

  • Hawkswift

    2009, October 30th 8:29 PM

    I find that I often do like the option to save anywhere – particularly in sandbox style games where it is much harder to predict where the player is going to be going next. Fallout 3 comes to mind here – While I can save anywhere I don't find that the save-lose-load issue is much of a problem – if I'm having fun and doing decently I'll forget about it, often to my own detriment when I do eventually die of overconfidence. More, I don't think the option of exploiting saves should lead to making the game harder. One of the issues with difficulty is that players vary rather widely in skill and catering to those that think it's too easy means that the others will not have fun regardless of an easily exploited mechanic.

    As with a lot of difficulty-effecting mechanics it comes down to frustration management. This is hard, especially since you can't take what you're users say at face value – remember the X-Com bug that reset the difficulty to easy? If there are easily exploitable mechanics you have to take that into account. Some players will still have to use everything that they can to make the game winnable regardless but at least this way there is a choice. As has been mentioned earlier having to repeat content is both frustrating AND boring, and the ability to save anywhere can minimize that more than any of the alternatives I've seen. without save-anywhere you're stuck blaming the developer when caught for too long without a save point. While the blame may lie with them it doesn't provide the option for a fix. Save anywhere does.

    The pause slot is kind of interesting but I think most relatively casual players (and I include myself here) would prefer not to have the risk of having to repeat themselves in the event of a crappy loss. It does solve the 'I need to quit now' problem elegantly. Sure, intelligent placement of save points can minimize the boredom problem.

    I'm also wondering about the consequences of failure – death in most games causes you to lose time (which can hurt and cause a loss on interest) or resources. Resources tend to be trivial (in which case who cares) or make the game harder if you lose them. Making the game harder for the one having trouble with it doesn't seem like the right choice… Not exactly an argument in favor of save-anywhere but given that having to load to a save point often leads to the same precognition coupled with the boredom of (more) repeated material I'm not sure that's better. A better loss mechanic would be a better plan.

    Hope this was somewhat coherent… I'm pretty sure I disagree with the idea that the player's actions regarding mechanics like this are so predictable – granted I haven't seen any studies so I'm basing this mostly on my own play experience.

  • Michael

    2009, October 30th 8:41 PM

    Just thinking out loud here.

    Regarding RPGs, typically, death means loading a previous save.. thereby losing all progress made since then. Perhaps a good compromise would be a system wherein you're sent back to the last save point (whether you had used it or not) and retain items, experience, gold, whatever that had been gained. In this way, you lose progress in the game but retain the progress of your characters, and a system would develop where it would get easier each time — not just because you're more familiar with it but also because your characters are slowly getting stronger.

    Come to think of it, your earlier "rts" was much like this (I really enjoyed messing with that game's mechanics).

    Many games do work this way, or close to it. MMOs particularly. Perhaps more should. Resets are never fun.

  • Zorba

    2009, October 31st 5:26 AM

    There's definitely a possible issue with forcing people to replay the same content over and over. Most of the games I mention as handling this properly do it by having the "replay" section be relatively small. In Halo, you're looking at maybe five minutes of game at most, and you're being shot at during all of it.

    I definitely agree that making the game harder after a loss is a terrible idea. That just makes the player lose again. That does not achieve anything. Ratchet and Clank rigged things so that you kept all the experience and money you'd gathered, thus letting you slowly level up and get more powerful despite failure. Brutal Legend just let you go somewhere else and do something else. But Halo just tossed you back into the fray, and your personal skills improving was the only thing that made it easier.

    'Course, now I'm also playing Borderlands, which deducts some money from you but leaves all your experience alone and even lets you run back and continue the fight from whatever amount of HP the monster had when he killed you.

    Single players, incidentally, aren't predictable, but large groups of players are reasonably predictable in this sense, and this is just what players do. Enough of them, at least, to severely cut into your userbase.

  • WolfKrad

    2009, October 31st 3:59 PM

    I'm sure I clicked the "Submit Comment" button when I wrote a big comment concerning my feelings about saves, but since it didn't seem to show up, I'll try to write it again.

    While I agree that a save anywhere system has significant negative sides, I feel that poorly placed save points can be far more detrimental to gameplay than a simple save anywhere system. If a game developer is not willing to put in the effort of thoroughly testing and tweaking the save points, they simply shouldn't bother and go for a save anywhere system. At least that way it's up to the player how much gameplay is hurt.

    I'd like to point out two games with their own approach:

    Bioshock (and System Shock 1 & 2 before it) had a standard save anywhere system, but combined it with respawn points. The result was that although getting killed still sucked, it didn't result in a game over scenario. That took away the pressure and made people forget about saving (it also made the game too easy for those players which didn't need respawn points, but that's another discussion and can be handled through extra difficulty levels).

    Prince of Persia: Sands of Time used an auto-save system, but combined it with a rewind system. Failing a jump merely meant you wound back time and tried again. No problems. It made sure you couldn't make stupid mistakes and focused the pressure on the actual difficult parts.

    Nothing's more frustrating than having finally survived a large fight, only to misjudge a rediculously easy jump and plummet to your death right before you hit the save point.

    The real issue is not how to let players save, but why they want to. I say it's about pressure: if you're low on health and only have three bullets left and think: "Hmm… door. Most likely there's nothing but a big pile of ammo behind it, but there MIGHT also be an enemy", you WILL save.

    Tricks like Bioshock and Prince of Persia used take away this pressure for the player. While they both have their downsides, they do provide a way out of difficult situations other than saving. They might make a game easier, but, especially in the case of Bioshock, they also make sure the player doesn't concern himself too much with save games.

    Players worried about saves (whether its because they're constantly doing it or because they're hating the fact that they can't do it when they want to) signal a lack of suspension of disbelief. That's always bad.

    One final comment: a game should be fun. Every single bit of it should be fun, no matter how often you repeat it. If a player's thinking: "I'd better save, I don't want to play that last bit again" it should be because they want to know where the story or gameplay will take them. Not because they found it frustratingly difficult and genuinely don't want to repeat that experience.

    To summarize: the best way of handling saves is by making players forget to do it.

  • Zorba

    2009, October 31st 4:08 PM

    WolfKrad, I definitely agree with you there – notice how the games I mentioned don't have explicit saving either :) I actually don't have much to say in response because I just completely agree with you. Every second the player is worried about saving is a second they're not having fun playing your game. It is just not something that should occur.

    I've had an idea for a while that I may never get to make, but the basic idea is that it's a semi-random mission-like first-person-shooter. You say "I want to play" and you're given a 30m-to-1h-long adventure, but without knowing the details. You can't plan for ambushes because you'll never know where the ambush is coming from, if there even is one. The goal is to beat the adventure, but even if you fail, you're given something you can use to get stronger for the next attempt. (And you have some control over difficulty.)

    And, of course, there is absolutely no way to save in the middle of an adventure. You start, you're in it until the end.

    I think it could be marvelously suspenseful.

  • Stiltskin

    2009, November 2nd 7:18 PM

    The "pause slot" is actually already used in some games. One example that comes to mind is the FF3 remake for DS. You can only save in the overworld, but you can "quicksave" in the dungeons, with the save vanishing after you load it. It works pretty well.

    @Michael: You're actually describing Pokemon's save system. Of course, they punish you by having you lose money when you lose. But you retain everything else. This works excellently, IMO, for the type of game it is.

    @Zorba: Also, regarding your last idea, it could work, but realize that sometimes people just don't have time to play something for an extended period of time. The "pause slot" could work here, perhaps.

  • Joe

    2010, April 28th 1:25 AM

    All the timestamps on all the posts in this comment thread are *after* the release of Braid. Have any of you played it? I would assume so, but it seems like the connection would be obvious.

    In case you haven't played it, or in case you have but haven't made the connection between Braid and save-anywhere:

    Braid is a game that *automatically* saves for you every single game second, so you don't worry about saving or loading. It takes save-loading to its logical extreme. What you really get when you do this is the ability to rewind time; Braid has a rewind-time button. In the later levels it goes on to layer even more bizarre time mechanics, but the basic idea is the perfect answer to "What game mechanic does save-anywhere actually allow?"

    It's not the first such game either. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time also allows some rewinding, but it's not infinite or free like in Braid, so the infinite-auto-saving is a bit more obfuscated.

  • Joe

    2010, April 28th 1:31 AM

    Edit: after reading back further in this blog's archive, I'm now 100% certian that Zorba at least has played Braid. Hopefully I don't look entirely foolish. Is the connection between Braid and save-anywhere non-obvious?

  • Zorba

    2010, April 28th 1:38 AM

    Yeah, I'm definitely aware of Braid, and I think Braid is a fantastic game :) That said, Braid isn't save-anywhere – there are many situations where reversing doesn't help (one of the early rewind-immune levels, for example, where you have to do the first segment without reversing) or complicated matters significantly (anything involving shadows, anything involving timing of rewind-immune objects) and the only solution for those is to restart the level, or, more frequently, just get it right the second time.

    On top of that, Braid is a puzzle game, which is far more resistant to the bad parts of save-anywhere compared to reflex-based or skill-based games are.

    I suppose that's what I'd really get at, although I admit I didn't make it clear at all – take one of the genres that's really hurt by save-anywhere (a good FPS, for example) and then try to come up with something fun you can do with it. Puzzle games were never substantially hurt by it in the first place, so leaving it in wouldn't be much a problem.

    I have a tendency to make generalizations that really only apply to one genre of game and I should seriously stop doing that ;)

  • Joe

    2010, April 28th 6:31 PM

    I think making any game save-anywhere (and also making it super hard) *causes* it to be a puzzle game, if an obfuscated one. A game designer's failure to realize that it's a puzzle game often makes it a *bad* puzzle game.

  • Zorba

    2010, April 28th 7:08 PM

    That's a good way of looking at it.

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