Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Autosave Blues

This topic has been sitting in the backlog for a while, and although nothing major has catapulted it to the forefront, a few comments about recent games tipped the scales. Plus after several more abstract position pieces, I wanted to get back to something very tangible. Let's talk about autosave and how pretty often, it sucks. And sometimes, it really sucks.

"Are you sure you want to quit? Any unsaved progress will be lost."

We've seen various instances of this phrase in countless games. We vaguely understand what it means, but if you really break it down, useful information in that message is tragically absent, especially if the game relies exclusively on autosaving.

Imagine that message appearing in a game where saving manually was not possible. You want to stop playing, but it immediately casts doubt on your intended action. "If I quit, what am I going to lose?" the player may ask. This certainly doesn't provide that information, and likely there's no way to ascertain that information at all. Worse, this message appears any time you quit, whether or not the game saved one second before this message was triggered. Even if there's no unsaved progress to lose, this message is still ambiguous about what consequences, if any, will occur as a result of this action. Simply, this is not a well designed interaction.

This is the kind of message that's build to satisfy TRCs/TCRs, not to actually provide a good, usable experience for the player. So I've compiled a set of thoughts/principles/whatever, in an attempt to encourage others to be a bit more conscientious. This seemingly inconsequential feature actually matters a great deal to broad playability of your game.

0) Let players save whenever they want

This is totally side-stepping the issue, but honestly, it's not an outlandish request. It should be really, seriously considered as to what benefits players will get with an exclusively automatic save system. Taking away manual control completely is a dangerous proposition and one that should only be considered if it has real, tangible benefits. Saying, "Well, now the player won't have to worry about it" usually just means "this is easier to implement" and will usually result in the player worrying about it more, not less.

Now, there are genuine gameplay complications to a general save-anytime system. Turn-based tactics games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance don't offer a save/load within any particular battle. Doing so would encourage micro-optimizing every single turn, which might lead to a more successful battle in the long run, and also gives players tool for creating boring, tension-less fights. But rather that offering no save features at all, they have a one-time save slot (especially important since it's a portable game which needs to be safely turned off any almost any time). Saving mid-battle quits immediately after the save and loading that file restore precisely to that point and then deletes the save. Essentially, it does just what a save is meant to and restores that game state. While popular amongst mobile games, this feature is certainly a viable option for games where saving anytime is not viable. But really, most of the time, you should just allow players to save anywhere.

1) Let people know what happens if they quit

Alright, enough deflection. If an autosave system is a must, it's vital to let players know what happens when they quit. And this does not mean saying "Any unsaved progress will be lost." At the very least, let the player know when the save occurred. That information is available to you, and easily. Even that simple addition makes "Any unsaved progress will be lost (last save was 30 seconds ago)." so, so much more useful to the player. But ideally the player will know far more specifically what "unsaved progress" really consist of, which leads to ...

2) Provide consistent autosave behaviour

The indelible Chris Remo was discussing Crysis 2 on Twitter, relating that he found the exclusively autosave system very frustrating (especially for a freakin' PC game and considering you could quicksave anywhere in the first Crysis). He said he'd play for ~20 before work in the morning, but when it was nearing time to go, he had no idea how long he had to continue playing before he'd be able to save again. Two minutes? Five? Twenty? Such information was totally invisible to the player.

I'm sure we've all had a similar experience. Gotta dash out, partner needs help in the kitchen, etc. We're forced to either leave the game paused (not often viable) or spout the repugnant, "Just a minute, I have to get to a save point."

At the least, make those autosave moments evenly spaced. Either literally, as in every 5 minutes, or after some very specific and readable events. Having to just stumble blindly forward, hoping you cross that trigger soon, is basically unacceptable.

3) Make autosave part of another system and obvious

At the very least, try to make autosaves part of another readable system. In DeathSpank respawning from death and loading from a save were the exact same action. I think (hope?) that consistent behaviour made it obvious to players who'd saved and loaded once what future behaviour would be like. If your autosaves occur after any level or changing map, that's better than it being tied to random checkpoints or worse, completely invisible (you laugh, but more games than you'd think have done that).

This may seem like a quibble, but really, it's important. Developers don't see it much, since we've got command line options, debug cheats and a heap of other things. But for players that have to just start at the beginning and go until the end, this can be a big deal. How many reviews of the otherwise excellent Costume Quest negatively mentioned its autosave system? How many FAQs and forums have that same question?

I wrote a good chunk of DeathSpank's autosave behaviour, and honestly, it's not that hard. And we had all kinds of ugly issues to resolve. E.g. dependent sets of gamestate variables and conversation variables that would get set during a conversation but if the console was rebooted before the conversation was over, those would fall out of the sync and it would be impossible to progress in the game. Finding reproduction steps for those bugs, before we realized what the general issue was, was not fun at all. But even then, it was manageable and something that basically myself and our system engineer were able to hand. Nobody has any good excuse not to do this well.

It's easy to skim on basic usability like this, because it's one of those things that only gets mentioned if it's bad. Nobody praises a good autosave system. But unsung valour is sometimes the most important. A poorly implemented autosave system can be one of the biggest sources of frustration for an audience. Sorry folks, this is one of those things we just gotta suck up and do right. At you know, at least not awful. It's really not that hard.

(As a footnote, I updated yesterday's post to include a link to a second podcast I recorded over the weekend. It's Graham and I talking about the burgeoning Vancouver indie dev scene. Being such topics are near and dear to my heart, I thank you for indulging this extra linkage and encourage you to give it a listen)



Blogger Unknown said...

This is why I liked Fallout 3's autosave options. You can chose to have it on or off and it told you exactly when it would be saving (when you enter/exit a building, after fast travel, after waiting, or sleep). For me it was only a matter of convenience because you can still save manually whenever you wanted. To me, this is the perfect combination; the autosave for convenience in case you die unexpectedly, and the manual save in case of glitches or if you want to backtrack and make a different decisions.

April 5, 2011 at 11:17 AM  
Blogger Gravey said...

Then let me (half-)praise Torchlight XBLA's autosave (can't speak to the PC version): in addition to autosaving with every portal, exiting to the title screen saves things exactly as they are. Unfortunately, that was a lucky discovery since it violates Rule 3 as far I can remember: it wasn't obvious or explained. But still, nice that it's there.

That said, I'd still rather have a PC-style save-anywhere system. Console Far Cry 2 is still more enjoyably tense without it though, if more time-consuming.

April 5, 2011 at 3:33 PM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I think the save anywhere system should be in every game. I know some games try to make it seem more realistic by using limited saves as a gameplay tactic (resident evil) but it doesn't appeal to me. I just got Pokemon Black myself and wish they would put an autosave system at least at key points. I have had moments where I beat a gym leader, then forgot that I saved when I spent two hours in game.

April 6, 2011 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Totally, I'm less bothered by games that have both automatic and manual save systems. It's when it's 100% autosave, and it's implemented poorly, that things get problematic.

@Gravey PC version is the same way, and it's relatively obvious. I mean, the first time you load the game and see it's right where you left off, you'll probably get it ;) But yeah, I suppose there is a bit of hesitation to do that since so many other games don't handle that well.

@GamingInPublic I think there are very valid gameplay purposes for not allowing saving anywhere with unconstrainted loading. But in those cases, an alternate (like most portable games have) is important, as I mentioned.

April 7, 2011 at 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If memory serves, I played Limbo for about 3 hours straight because I hadn't seen a save point and wasn't told that the game had been constantly autosaving my progress. Eventually, I decided to roll the dice and quit the game, hoping it'd been autosaving (luckily it had). But it wasn't made transparent and that was a bit frustrating.

April 8, 2011 at 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Batman Arkham Asylum is my most recent whipping child for this. It's a great game, but the autosave system is abysmal, for the reasons outlined here. I'm not a fan of autosave at the best of times, but when they are less than informative and flat out toss some of my progress, it's annoying. (Not being able to go back to an arbitrary save point to replay a fun area annoys me too.)

April 11, 2011 at 1:42 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Elves I understand that PlayDead might not have wanted to interrupted the experience with overtly game-y elements, but I think a balance can be struck, rather than leaving things in the realm of ambiguous and possibly frustrating.

@tishtoshtesh That's an seriously problem for me professionally too. If there's some cool moment in a game I want to share with colleagues, I often have to resort to a YouTube video (which is not nearly as effective) if I can't just load an archived save at that point of the game. The ability to return (broadly, anyway) to previous points of a game is pretty important for a number of reasons.

April 11, 2011 at 3:00 PM  

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