Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Saving Time

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt describes the game designer's struggle between allowing constant saves while at the same time, designing a game challenging enough to keep the player's interest.

Saving the state of a game is the primary means of not losing progress. This can apply to any type of game whether it means not cleaning up a monopoly board in progress, writing down the positions of all the chess pieces on a board, keeping track of score, players, and position during a sporting event, or hitting SAVE on a video game. The main reason a game’s progress is saved is so that if an extended break is needed, players can continue where they left off without having to start over. But in video games in particular, Saving gains an additional uses; a saved state can be restored in the case of failure to allow the player to minimize the setback of defeat.

Unfortunately, saving has been a major point of contention in the video game industry. Under the Designer vs. Player methodology of Game Design, every time the player is given a chance to save before a challenge, the challenge is cheapened because the risk is “effectively removed”. Under the Entertainer methodology of Game Design, however, the job of the designer is to create an entertaining experience for the player, and having to replay the last hour over and over isn’t entertaining anymore.

These two methodologies bring forth a great argument, how often should the player be allowed to save? If the answer is never, then the player is required to beat the entire game in a single sitting. For some games, this may work; in fact, for the original Prince of Persia, it was a major gameplay mechanic – beat the game in an hour or you lose. If the answer is always, then the challenges need to be made more difficult so that even the player doesn’t get bored with trivial chance of success. Now this doesn’t mean that the challenges have to be all but impossible. For example, the original Kings Quest featured an pathway that was narrow, windy, and surrounded on both sides by sheer drops. The average player would deal with this by climbing a couple of steps and saving, then a couple more steps then save, etc. It wasn’t hard, per se, if done that way, but it wasn’t particularly fun with or without saving; it was just an exercise in patience. But, on the other hand, if the player can save at any time, then it’s not unfair to throw a big surprise at them. This works well in most simulation games where anything can go wrong at anytime, so the player can save whenever they are feeling paranoid.

Harder to balance, however, is the middle-ground. The frequency of saves defines how long the player must sit down at the game to play. It is very unlikely to find someone who knows a gamer that hasn’t at one point responded to a request with “Hold on, let me just reach the next save point!” or some variation on the theme. If saves are few and far between, then a player may have to spend many hours before they can stop playing, and if they can’t reach the save before they HAVE to stop, well then they just wasted a lot of time in trying. If the saves are too far from big challenges (possibly with numerous cut scenes en route), the time lost due to a failure can be enough to make a player not want to try again. Many older RPGs were very strict with saving rules, and many long running series show examples of this balance being updated for player ease.

But with the increase in portable gaming, the ability to take a break has become more important and, fortunately, easier to access. Both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP have a sleep mode that saves battery consumption and keeps the game active in stasis so gameplay can stop at a moment’s notice. But there is still the threat that the battery can run out before gameplay is resumed; it is now less possible, but not impossible. SquareEnix has generally been very good about this in its portable remakes of its Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. All of these games now feature a “Quick Save” option (not to be confused with a PC’s one button “Quick Save” feature where saving can be done without using a menu. What makes these games’ Quick Save special is that it can be used anywhere (not just at a save point), the save is stored when the power is turned off (so if the player is worried about battery life, they can save safely), and the save data is deleted if used (or in some cases if willingly not used). By having this feature, the player can stop playing at any point without fear of lost data, but the designers can have the peace of mind that the players cannot abuse saving to bypass challenges.

Granted this doesn’t solve the issue of lost time after a failure (though the Dragon Quest games bypass the issue by making death not mean Game Over, but that seems more suitable to a different GDAM topic), though as stated above, player-friendly placement of save points can fix this – such as right before a boss fight or right after a long sequence of cut scenes. In this day and age, there is really no reason why a player shouldn’t be allowed to stop whenever they want without penalty. It’s up to the designers to make sure that the system is fair and fun for everyone who has a stake in the final product.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for KOEI, currently working at their main branch in Yokohama, Japan. He is currently working on his first title as a designer. Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.


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