Sunday, August 16, 2009

We Need More Bookmarks


Why are most pop songs approximately three to four minutes in length? Classical compositions are rarely that short. The answer is that the original vinyl 78s and 45s could hold about three to four minutes of music per side without sacrificing too much quality. What was originally a technological constraint became integrated into the way music is created. This technological legacy can still be seen today.

There are actually many facets of games that may result from obsolete technical constraints, but I'm going to address just one here- save systems. Specifically, this was inspired by something David Carlton wrote (with Randy Smith's MIGS presentation about saving before that).

The original purpose of save systems was to allow players to finish games that were too long to complete in a single sitting. The first console save systems didn't even use storage on the cartridge, they simple provided codes (or Castlevania's weird weapon grid) that loaded the game in a certain state. Since, they've become more complicated things with numerous implementations. They may or may not be encouraging negative compulsive behaviours (I tend toward yes on this one).

Unfortunately, the original purpose of save systems and the dynamics that emerge from the newer implementations have become confounded. Their original purpose ought to be broken out, leaving the rest of the save system to be addressed independently.

Simply, players should be able to stop playing a game at any point without fear of losing significant progress. To do anything else is to be disrespectful of your audience's time. It's absurd to require the player to wall off a section of their day to play your game. No other in-home media does this and there's no reason why games should get a pass. (As an aside, all cutscenes should also be pausable. Period.)

I like the Metroid series a lot, but I still haven't played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption yet almost exclusively because of its save system. Maybe MP3 isn't as extreme, but previous iterations required about a solid hour of play to make serious progress. Otherwise it would seem like a waste of time, with much of it spent trekking out and back to the save points.

If having that save anywhere/anytime is problematic to the game's design, providing a single "bookmark" save slot that is deleted after it's loaded is sufficient. Many DS games provide this functionality and as someone who has recently implemented a save system, it's not hard to do.

It doesn't even need to load the game exactly as it was saved, but something reasonably close ought to be ubiquitous. David discusses that save/load systems that force repetition of content as a punishment for failure are the reason why he'll save compulsively. And I could not agree more. If you're forcing players to repeat swaths of your game as a consequence for failure, something has gone off the rails.

Playing Little King's Story recently, I can't help but feel that their save system is unnecessarily punishing. You can only save in one place, there are times when you simply cannot save at all and if you fail in combat, you're immediately booted back to your last save. There was a point where I wanted to stop playing LKS but had to continue for about another twenty minutes or be forced to abandon content that could not be restored. And this was just after a boss fight! I can already tell that the LKS save system is going to force me into the compulsions Randy describes because the penalty for not saving is so extreme.

Japanese developers seem worse about this than NA/European studios, but this problem appears everywhere. We've all seen it. It's the save point just before massive, unskippable cutscenes that rolls immediately into a very difficult boss fight. It's the failure that forces you to perform the exact same series of actions again and again. These things don't make the game more challenging, they don't make it more interesting, they simply make the game more frustrating.

Having a save mechanism that's respectful of your player's time ought to come easily if you're empathizing with them. Provide a solution for the original problem the save system was meant to address. Beyond that, we can experiment more with save systems, looking for ways to move away from compulsive save/load behaviour. But unless players believe they can be confident progress won't be lost to punishing save systems, we're never going to move past save/load OCD.

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13 Comments:

Blogger JPLC said...

I could not agree more (especially about your point of making all cutscenes pausable). As I get older and gain responsibilities, I realize that I have less and less time to put in marathon sessions. I need to be able to save where I am so I can pick it up again later if I have to stop playing. Sometimes, with a "traditional" save system, I will realize that I just don't have enough time between save points, and I will skip playing entirely. This seems like a problem: developers should want players to play, no matter how sporadically, rather than to not play at all.

August 16, 2009 at 9:59 AM  
Blogger Reid Kimball said...

If you haven't, check out The Last Express. It has a nice, bookmark like save system. Here's a quote from a review:

"The Last Express employs an unusual system of saving game positions. You do not get any save game slots, but there is a game clock that you can rewind to any point in the past--or you can jump back to major stops on the train's route. It is also possible to have several games in progress, each with its own clock. This save game system is not as convenient as the usual setup, but it does have an advantage: if you mess up and die or the game ends before reaching the final destination for some other reason, the clock will automatically rewind as far back as is necessary to let you perform the correct actions leading to victory."

August 16, 2009 at 11:26 AM  
OpenID thegamecritique said...

I agree with the pause argument on cutscenes. Sometimes I hit the button just cause I have to leave the screen for a minute and it skips something I wanted to watch. That is another anoying factor. When you have to put your controller down to make sure you don't skip something important.

Also a great addition to save progress would be a better implimented checkpoint system. I remember Black where the checkpoints were 15 minutes or more apart from each other in a shooter with a very wonky difficulty curve. I would have liked closer checkpoints or at least one right before the difficult part in a level.

August 16, 2009 at 1:46 PM  
Blogger David Carlton said...

"Simply, players should be able to stop playing a game at any point without fear of losing significant progress. To do anything else is to be disrespectful of your audience's time."

Exactly! Nice to see this post coming from a developer - I'd be more than happy to see more experiments with saving, if we can balance developers respecting the audience's time with players respecting the developer's vision.

August 16, 2009 at 5:39 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

I think there is a lot of value in the DS/PSP implementation of this idea: ubiquitous global pausing. Press a button and the system goes to sleep, holding on to wherever you are. This is awesome. On the Wii, you can press the Home button at (almost) any time, and it forces the game to pause no matter what it's doing. This is my 'failsafe pause' on the Wii, and I've missed it sorely a number of times on the XBox. (In fact, it's worked against me; I've popped open the console menu, and not only has it not pause the game, but now my controls are moded into the console menu, leaving me to die in my game.)

My thought is that this could potentially be taken a step further, with ubiquitous global state save. (I haven't considered the technical ramifications of this -- any one want to give it a thumbs up or thumbs down?) In this way, you could pause your game at any point, then a family member could hop on the console and do as they please, and later you could come back to your game as it was.

And I strongly agree that this kind of saving should be deleted after it's loaded. Loading and saving are two very different concepts, and it's important that this discussion is about saving anywhere (or bookmarking).

To the second part of your post: Save systems encouraging repetitious replay... I think that this issue is a lot more complicated than most developers like to imagine it is. As far as I'm concerned, the issue is not that save points force players to replay content after failing. Instead, the issue is that failing in games forces the player to replay content.

Game worlds that are linear and static, with challenges that are static and solvable... will inevitably lead to frustration if you have to replay them. Save systems are just a feature that exacerbates this problem.

Of course, many games are linear and static by design, so it's not like we can just say, 'Make them more dynamic,' or, 'Make failure part of the progression,' and call it a day. It's just important to make sure that we are trying to solve the right problem.

August 16, 2009 at 9:17 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

That was a rousing post. Show me where to sign, and we'll get this petition rolling.

I'll also ask the same question I asked David on his original post. What are your thoughts on auto-saves at certain check points? It somewhat touches on the subject of authorial control we discussed when you joined us on the podcast. If auto-saves become ubiquitous, would we quietly acquiesce to authorial control?

Not that this is where I believe the future of saving is going - just a thought.

August 16, 2009 at 10:28 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

I fully agree that you should be able to stop playing at any time, and all cutscenes should be both pausable and skippable. Checkpoints and save points should be carefully placed to lock-in major achievements (like killing the boss) and prevent downtime after reloading. There's no reason to make me hear "Damn, that's a lot of juice!" and walk for 30 seconds to get to the action for the 25th time.

Anything past that is a design choice. Sometimes the difficulty of a game is contingent on being able to tackle a long stretch at once. RPGs, for instance, are typically based on playing your luck against your characters' stats, and managing consumable resources. That's not to say that every RPG benefits from a rigid MP system, but I don't want to lose sight of the interesting gameplay that type of design can bring. We should be able to have Skies of Arcadia's regenerating MP and Final Fantasy's long-form management coexist.

You are correct in saying that the original purpose of saving was to allow people to complete a game too long for one sitting, but you forget that an assumed feature of games was that you could tackle the whole game at once in a limited set of tries. Loss of progress upon failure was a given at that point. I think you're really addressing two issues in this post: the basic usability issue of being able stop playing without penalty, and the design issue of how much to penalize failure.

I think that it's important to consider what your savepoint/checkpoint system is going to do to the flow of your game. By placing points that lock in your progress, you're deciding that you want the player to be able to tackle that whole stretch at once. How long should this be? Maybe it's just one room, maybe it saves every single dude you kill (making the room easier to clear each time you die), maybe it's important that you can clear an entire building or dungeon. Maybe it's best just to let the player decide how much they want to tackle at once. The point is this is a decision that can drastically change the experience a player has with your game. The risk of losing progress can be a good decision in some circumstances, but the problem is really that people take a certain progress-saving system for granted when it may be inappropriate for their game.

August 17, 2009 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Ava Avane Dawn said...

The other way to go around the save/load-system is by creating conting that has random elements so that starting over makes for a different game and thus a different approach. In some cases this can be done by applying perma-death:

http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24468

In others, the challenge is greater. :)

August 18, 2009 at 6:38 AM  
Blogger Michael Miller said...

I think one important reason for compulsive saving (especially for long-time PC gamers) was left out of these discussions entirely. We talk a lot about needing to save the game at any point so you can leave at any point - and that implies volountary action. This could be solved by a save system that saves the game state when you exit (like in Diablo 2 or the PSP and DS games mentioned). However, games (especially in but not limited to PC games) will ocasionally crash and destroy all progress since the last save. I am recently replaying Morrowind, and although I have died only twice, I was dumped to desktop at least a dozen or so times. These crashes now make me save the game every 10 minutes or so and certainly before and after every tricky and/or timeconsuming section.

August 18, 2009 at 7:04 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@JPLC It really is that simple. As developers, we can't bully most players into spending time with our games. I'm all for looking at challenge in different ways, but "Do you have 20 one-hour long blocks?" is not a challenge that's valid. Not at all.

@Reid Oh, The Last Express. Is there anything you didn't get right? It's save system is a great example of one that provides useful (and interesting) gameplay functionality as well as being a useful bookmark system.

@thegamecritique Another major annoyance! I've certainly rewound movies/tv shows 30 seconds if I missed or misunderstood a line of dialog. That you can't do that with cutscenes (at least rewatch them) is simply crazy.

@David I think we've struck a good balance with DeathSpank and believe me, if testing shows we haven't, I'm going to be pounding on the table until we do.

@Graham If the console are going to move closer to the "home entertainment platform" MS/Sony/Nintendo want them to be, I think they've going to have to support the kind of save system you're describing. And we've had quicksave/quickload in games of staggering complexity for literally decades. Anyone that says such a system isn't technically feasible is being lazy, at best.

August 25, 2009 at 9:53 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jorge That's definitely a tricky question (especially with some games that don't have clear checkpoints). Making a game's save mechanisms entirely automatic (say, at checkpoints and at quit) should definitely not become universal, but would be an interesting experiment for sure.

@Julian Yup, you're exactly right. Aside from being able to stop/start without much loss of progress, whatever other features a save system has should be carefully considered. It's often the case that the ramifications of a save system (e.g. long, unskippable cutscene right before a very hard fight) simply aren't considered at all. If those decisions would be made more deliberately, I think this problem would be a lot less severe.

@Ava Avane Dawn I've been having a bit of a rogue-like lovefest recently and their elegance in terms of approaching play is definitely something I really like about them.

@Michael Miller Heh, I was just thinking about that before I read your comment. It's definitely a concern (and time-based autosaves can definitely help with this). And while it's less of a concern with consoles games, the power can always still go out. Unless you've got your TV and console hooked into a UPS, it's a problem that ought to be considered.

August 25, 2009 at 10:03 PM  
Blogger Adrian Lopez said...

I've written a response to your post here.

I also made the following comment:

A lot of games do make saving and reloading part of the game's response to player failure, which can lead to confusion whenever people discuss the issue of saving player progress.

People will argue against the loss of player progress by suggesting it's only a side-effect of the kind of restricted save system that due to modern technology is no longer necessary. "Nowadays we can afford to save state at any point in time," they argue, "so forcing players to replay certain segments of the game is just plain wrong."

This can clearly be shown to be false by looking at games that lose progress at a level other than that of the save system. Loss of progress, properly handled, is not a side effect of a flawed save system but a feature that's carefully designed into the game.

September 3, 2009 at 10:38 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Adrian Excellent response, thanks for that. Definitely a good formalization of what I was trying to say here.

September 7, 2009 at 12:22 PM  

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