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Keep Moving Forward...
by Kimberly Unger on 01/06/12 03:24:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


As a player it’s not something you think about very often any more. It can be one of the more thoroughly discussed elements of layout and design during the actual development process, but as the genres and canon that goes with each continues to calcify, it’s becoming more and more standardized. For a while there, when games and gameplay preconceptions were still malleable, you could get anything. In fact, if you were a “core” gamer you might even go to the trouble of playing through the first level to checkout the setup, then go back and starting over once you’d familiarized yourself with the status quo. It was the kind of thing that could change the way you played, it could take an aggressive, balls-to-the-wall gamer and make them think twice before leaping into oblivion, guns blazing. It could encourage a normally methodical, careful gamer to take risks they might not otherwise have taken, to waste gems or potions or bullets rather than carefully hoarding them against a Big Bad that might never show. (Who am I kidding, the Big Bad always shows up, doesn’t he?)

I’m talking, of course, about save points.

Any First Person Shooter player worth their salt breathes a sigh of relief when those words flash across the bottom of the screen, “Checkpoint Reached”. The actual verbiage might vary, but the meaning is the same. The suck is over and you have a moment to take a breath and unkink your thumbs before the gurgling horde of laser-fodder returns for another go-round. Its particularly interesting in this case because the genre that catches the most crap for not having story lines of note is also the one that has the cleanest, least disruptive method of moving the player forward. And, like a good novel, the point of a game, ultimately, is to keep moving your player forward. No one said you had to make it an easy movement, but the checkpoint method is the most respectful, it does the best job of maintaining the immersion that is one of the most desired qualities of a good game.

In contrast, take a look at a platformer title like Super Mario Brothers for the Wii. Like most platformers, the game only saves your progress at the end of a level. If you die anywhere within the level, you have to start over. Annoying, but clear and easy to understand. In the case of many recent platformers, however, the level has been further subdivided into mini levels, and from there we have checkpoints within the mini levels. The end result is a staccato-like gameplay experience, requiring the player to maintain a more aloof presence, keeping them from the immersion, the ability to get into the “zone” is lost. While arguably the platformers tend to be more story oriented (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia) the experience can lack the smoothness one gets with the FPS genre.

Counterpoint to both of these is the “save anywhere” option. These can show up anywhere, but are the mainstay of the RPG genre, which strikes me as odd because if you’re a story lover, the RPGs are where you tend to end up. The “save anywhere” option is probably one of the most often abused save styles, players can theoretically jump out of the game at will with limited penalty, even in the middle of combat. Players also have the option or running an encounter over and over again hoping for a better outcome (say finding a pair of silver bracers in the box instead of leather ones). When it comes to the MMORPGs, the designers have taken this into account, enforcing draconian penalties in some cases if a player jumps ship in the middle of a mission or a quest and leaves his or her buddies high and dry. In the single player RPGs however, this is not always the case. From a readers point of view, its nice to be able to put the book (or the game) down at any moment in time and pick up where I left off, but I think that required act of saving takes away from the immersion, it again keeps the player on a slightly more clinical level that they otherwise might be in relation to a game.

The key element we see in all of these is the expectation of the player. Despite what you might see in blogs and game commentary, players tend to gravitate towards a certain type of puzzle, a certain level of depth to their gameplay immersion. Despite their craving for a well-told story, a mother of three might opt to play platformers because they a so clearly broken up into bite-sized chunks that can be doled out between runs to soccer practice and swimming lessons. Despite the fact that story might not be as cool as wielding the latest and greatest bada** laser cannon with unlimited ammo and designer flames painted down the sides, a core player is often going to prefer the deeper immersion and longer, uninterrupted playtimes that go with the FPS genre. The real trick, as games move forward, is going to be finding ways to better match these players with the things they are looking for, and a harder look at save points might be a place to start.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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An interesting perspective, however this only is accurate in conjunction with various gameplay mechanics.

If we consider the old days of FPS, with games like Doom, where pickups governed your health, armor or other statistics instead of the more "modern" regenerating health system, it is easy to see why checkpoints don't make sense in the old classic FPS formula.

The pickups (and secrets) ingame provide a very important strategic element in your gameplay and putting in checkpoints would require a meticulous balancing so a player would not checkpoint at 1 HP before the bossfight.

The save-anywhere system in this environment however becomes a strategic tool in of itself. The player himself decides where to (quick)save his progress and needs to watch his relevant statistics (HP/Ammo). Furthermore he can always rely on the "safety-net" of secrets or discoverables that will replenish his statistics to tackle the next challenge if he misjudged the situation.

Once modern mechanics like regenerating shields/health or (usually) pistols with infinite ammo but cooldown come into play, a designer can safely switch to a checkpoint system.

Essentially the checkpoint system is designed to be used in a more scripted and linear environment (for better or worse) that absolutely ensures the player has enough resources for his next encounter.

The save-anywhere system however gives the player yet another tool to use in his strategy of play, but obviously doesn't work as well with modern mechanics as it unbalances the game.

In RPGs we have a certain different problem, especially if we look back at titles like Baldurs Gate, where decisions in combat can turn very costly indeed, so costly in fact that there is no recovery from them. This stems from the fact that RPGs do not have skill-based play (in the same sense an FPS does) but rely rather on tactics and decisions during combat encounters (hybrids like MassEffect/DarkSouls/Secret of Mana series/ excluded).

In a (classic) FPS a "bossfight" can theoretically be completed even when at 1HP health and minimal ammo, or maybe even melee attacks. The player himself can offset a lot of the damage by dodging or learning attack-patterns, in RPGs you really can't.

In classic RPGs the system is dice-roll based and your statistics govern the success of attacks. You didn't expect that monster to be immune to fire and have only one party member that can cast ice-spells and he is dead? Tough luck, you lost the encounter and possibly an enormous amount of progress.

I think both systems have its place, but the environment you put the player in ultimately decides which one should be used.

Bart Stewart
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Ah, the old save-game discussion. :)

Let me see if I can summarize the key premises at work here:

1. The point of a game is [for the developer] to keep moving your player forward.

2. Immersiveness is one of the most desired qualities of a good game.

3. "Save-anywhere" and even checkpointing can interrupt immersion.

4. Save-anywhere is "abused," allowing players to replay game segments for better results.

5. Casual gamers can accept and even desire checkpointing and save-anywhere, but core gamers want long stretches of uninterrupted play even if it means having to replay some long stretches.

6. [bonus commenter premise] Save-anywhere unbalances modern games.

Some of these premises, IMO, are basically OK. I agree that a good game is "immersive," and immersive games are good. But there are different kinds of immersiveness, and allowing the player to reload does not necessarily disrupt some kinds of immersion. In Call of Duty-style games, for example, whose primary intended player experience is excitement (i.e., sensation rather than rules-following, relationship-building or knowledge-gathering), allowing frequent reloading would interrupt that kind of immersiveness.

But what about games that enable other kinds of immersion? One of the pleasures of the original Crysis (which Crysis 2 failed to replicate) was being able to quickly replay an encounter to try out different tactics -- not for tangible gain, but to better understand the gameworld or just for the satisfaction of accomplishing the immediate goal in a more elegant way. Take away quicksave, as Crysis 2 did, and you prevent every player who might enjoy this kind of "what would happen if...?" gameplay from being able to experience it.

Skyrim would be a very different game without quicksave. The "get better stuff by reloading" problem (if you consider it a problem) is addressed in Skyrim by making local items in chests or shops worse after reloading, so that is not a valid objection to allowing quicksave. More importantly, the reduction of risk in exploring that is enabled by quicksave makes Skyrim a great game for Explorer-type gamers. By reducing the risk of taking a moment to see what's behind that hill, Skyrim encourages players to look around and try different abilities instead of racing as quickly and directly as possible to the level's endpoint. Take away that ability to explore in relative safety and what you wind up with is a sensation-focused corridor shooter instead of the distinctive joy of exploratory immersiveness.

Exploration-style play is also a rejection of the belief that it's the developer's job to "keep moving the player forward." That's a developer-centric mindset. It's not "wrong," per se; there certainly are (as Tadhg Kelly neatly pointed out in his "Four Lenses" article today) games where it's highly entertaining to be herded through various chutes according to what the developer has decided will be fun for you. (You might call this the "funhouse thrill-ride" school of design.) It can be lots of fun. But it's very definitely not the only kind of gameplay that's fun!

A Simulationist-style game sets up various physical rules within the gameworld and then turns the player loose to explore the various ways in which those rules function individually and cumulatively. That is the opposite of the developer-knows-best thrill-ride design model. It is instead highly player-focused: "Here's the toy chest -- have fun!" In this kind of game, where "immersiveness" comes from a richly-detailed world that deliberately imposes fewer constraints on how players use the gameworld's verbs, the cost to immersion of letting the player save whenever and wherever he wants is very low. That feature is not required; after all, Minecraft doesn't offer any built-in capability at all for reverting to previous saves, but it's still fun. I would suggest, though, that Minecraft's lack of quicksave is mostly fun for maintaining the level of danger in the survival part of the game -- for the pure exploration/construction part of the game, letting players have multiple save points would be completely reasonable; it would not damage that form of immersion in the least.

To the notion that allowing quicksaving "unbalances" gameplay, I feel pretty strongly that if a game is unbalanced it's because the designer designed it that way. If you (not you, Aleksander, but designers in general) think letting your players restore to previous savepoints would make your game too easy, then design it to be harder. Better yet, don't assume that you know best for your players what kind of difficulty level they're supposed to enjoy -- put the player's interests ahead of your own; design the game so that players can choose for themselves how hard the gameplay is. (That advice is for single-player games, obviously. For multiplayer games everyone who may interact needs to have the same level of difficulty... but you're probably not going to be implementing save points of any kind in such a game, anyway.)

Finally, I do agree with Kimberly's concluding point that good game design understands the target players and gives them what they enjoy. If they're likely to want short bursts of play, then a game that is designed to be played in short, saveable stretches makes sense. If they're more interested in experiencing unbroken periods of excitement and risk, then there may be less value in offering a kind of game that needs quicksave or frequent checkpointing (although excluding those will drive away exploration-enjoying gamers). The main thing is to know your target audience and understand what they like and why -- that's what should drive every design choice.

Those are my perspectives, anyway. I hope others will chime in on this subject as well.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"To the notion that allowing quicksaving "unbalances" gameplay, I feel pretty strongly that if a game is unbalanced it's because the designer designed it that way. If you (not you, Aleksander, but designers in general) think letting your players restore to previous savepoints would make your game too easy, then design it to be harder."

I think you misunderstood my point, I used the "unbalance" as an example what "could happen" in a different design-environment if you would apply quicksaving in a heavy scripted environment. Its a hypothetical scenario to illustrate how the environment dictates the save-system like you yourself illustrated with simulationist/explorationist-style gameplay (imagine if Baldurs Gate had checkpoints with its completely random combat during the first 6 lvls), not really intended as a general rule if you design a game from the ground up.

In fact I feel that it would be almost impossible to have a checkpoint system that made sense in Skyrim (or other RPGs) for example that would not feel like a hindrance because of its non-linearity.

Where exactly would you consider checkpointing? A dungeon entrance and exit? A level-up? In a free-roam environment where do you checkpoint during world exploration?

Checkpointing is in its very essence a scripted event and only works in scripted, linear environments where the designer knows exactly how the player will/can behave. The developer decides -when- you save.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for clarifying that, Aleksansder. I see now that you're talking about design across games, not for just one game. In that respect, I think we are saying the same thing: the particular form of a game's world should influence the type of save system designed into the game.

Regarding "checkpointing," I go back to what it's for, which is to provide a reasonable frequency of saving the game's state in case the player reaches an unplayable or unenjoyable condition. The term is usually used (as you said) in a linear game, hence the name -- it's like coming to a checkpoint in a road. But saving the game at a zone entrance/exit (as Skyrim does) accomplishes the same basic function, which is to provide a reasonable backup point in case the player doesn't do so himself.

I hope I've been consistent in saying that I'm not opposed to the inclusion of checkpointing in some form in most games -- I think that's usually a good idea. It's the exclusion of quicksaving as though it "unbalances" a game (i.e., "makes it too easy") to which I object.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I differentiate somewhat between "checkpoint" and "autosave", it might be silly semantics but i feel like the term "checkpoint" pertains only to scripted saves (i like your analogy with the road), while an "autosave" is what i would call a procedural saving system (can be for example time-dependent).

I think they are different.

But i agree they are in essence there to provide a reasonable backup to not inconvenience players.

Timo Naskali
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I think that drawing attention to a save game system, making it an integral part of gameplay, almost always increases the disconnect between story and gameplay; after all, it is a completely meta-story system. So while free saving can create interesting game dynamics, I think that ideally these dynamics should be achieved through other means in games with a strong narrative element. There are, of course, other ways to encourage exploration beyond free saving.

Take for example Hitman: Blood Money. In it, on harder difficulty levels, the player has only a limited number of free saves in his disposal. Since the levels are quite long and complex, the decisions on where to save become perhaps the most important strategic decisions the player has to make in the whole game. So while the limited save system does make the gameplay more challenging, it also means that something that has absolutely nothing to do with the game's story is pretty much dominating the whole experience, and in the process, I think, undermining the game's narrative.

How severe a problem this type of disconnect is I guess is up for debate, and I'm not saying all games should ditch free-saving, but for some games it could be beneficial to look at alternative options.

Simon Ludgate
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As a long-time pencil & paper role-player, I strongly feel that an RPG is about collaborative storytelling: the players are just as important storytellers as the game master. I carry this feeling over to video games too: I feel the player should be empowered to play the game in any way he or she desires to create the experience he or she desires most.

I'm a fan of modding, scripting, level creation, reskinning, and all that. And I'm also a fan of both timed and checkpoint style autosaves (especially if 3 or more of the most recent autosaves are available from the load screen) and save anywhere. If players "abuse" save anywhere to achieve a certain result, that's ok because that's the story they want to tell with their game experience. If players want to enhance tension by not saving anywhere, that's ok too because that's how they want their experience to roll out.

Ultimately, I feel like the following should be true about saving: if you have to leave RIGHT NOW you should be able to save and quit. I remember, as a child, playing old Nintento RPGs like Dragon Warrior and my parents calling me for supper and me calling back "let me just get to the save point!" It was frustrating. I much prefer how, on the Nintendo DS, many RPGs have a "suspend" save, a single save slot that gets deleted when you load it, but allows save anywhere in a game that might otherwise be constrained by limited save points.

Timo Naskali
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But it can feel kind of like cheating when you fail ten times on camera, but rewind the tape each time, until on your eleventh try you succeed, and that becomes the official version of the truth. All the NPCs might act like the player-character is the greatest person ever, an unbeatable champion, but the player knows that he "cheated" and doesn't really deserve all that praise.

Also, if the game's mechanics are such that no setbacks will ever happen to the player unless he wishes so, then it can make for a dramatically bland experience, since players rarely intentionally fail challenges for dramatic purposes. It's cool for RPGs to give the player the power to make a lot of choices and influence the direction of the story through them, but to give the power to travel back in time and negate the consequences of your past decisions at will? That wouldn't have been allowed in any PnP RPG I've played.

And yes, theoretically one could just ignore the existence of the quick load button when playing, but I at least just can't resist (ab)using it when it's there. Maybe somebody has made a no quicksave mod for Skyrim to save me...?

Bart Stewart
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Timo, that is an excellent objection because it's a great example of playstyle perspective. Specifically, I believe it's an example of the difference between the Narrativist and Gamist ways of looking at play.

The Gamist perspective says: hey, it's just a game. A good RPG gives the players whatever mechanics they need to always be able to win immediate challenges.

The Narrativist perspective says: no, this is a dramatic experience -- a story about a person's life -- and we don't get to rewind lifestories but take the good and bad as they come. A good RPG mimics that way of experiencing reality.

I think there's some truth in both of these viewpoints, which is why these discussions get interesting. :) I do think there are some potential solutions, though.

One is to recognize that no harm is done by allowing CRPGs to have different approaches to this question; there's no One True Way. It's OK for there to be RPGs that allow players to "replay" scenarios as a way to achieve a desirable outcome. Both Gamist and Simulationist styles of play need some form of that ability to get the kind of gameplay experience they enjoy.

But it's also OK for there to be RPGs that ask the player to accept and derive meaning from whatever experiences may come (assuming they're not "you lose" game-ending experiences). In a way, Wing Commander offered this possibility with branching missions that depended on whether you won or lost a previous mission. (Although you could replay entire missions to try to get a better result, you didn't have to do so.) Both Narrativist- and Experientialist-oriented gamers can get a lot of satisfaction from this performance-based "no do-overs" design.

Alternately, designers could try to design the game-state-restoring mechanic in a way that is explained within the lore of the gameworld. You're not "reloading"; you're using magic stones, or quantum-level temporal manipulation, etc. Doing this would achieve a couple of useful things. One, it means you get to have the Gamist/Simulationist mechanic of reloading state while preserving the Narrativist/Experientialist world-fiction.

And two, it allows you to impose in-game consequences for reloading in a way that feels fair. For example, you could have an NPC reward the player with more upgrade points for using fewer reloads. ("Thank you for minimizing your use of the Xothera crystals.") Again, this delivers desirable gameplay mechanics without breaking the fiction of the game.

This is something that's puzzled me for a long time: why don't more CRPG developers take this approach of implementing the reloading mechanic within the story and world of the game? It feels to me that there's a lot of potential there, not just for good storytelling but for interesting new gameplay mechanics wrapped around how reloading is handled. Other than Braid (whose novel form of "reloading" was the game's centerpiece), I can't think of any games that have even attempted this multi-playstyle design. Anyone?

Timo Naskali
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I think you might be right, Bart. I guess where I get into trouble is when my Gamist and Narrativist parts get into conflict, because I'm prone to save scumming ( ) but then sometimes I can feel a bit less satisfied at the end of the game when I've reached it in that way.

I agree making the game-state-restoring mechanic part the story can be a cool way to remove this disparity with the narrative and the player's gameplay experience.

From what I gather Radiant Historia integrated time-manipulation mechanics into it's narrative in an interesting way.

Also Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time had a time-rewinding mechanic quite similar to Braid's, and Ghost Trick had a checkpoint-based time-rewinding system with a story explanation.

Jakub Majewski
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Whoa... cool article, I'd been thinking about the death-reload experience for a couple of weeks now, and trying to write something myself.

For now, just a few comments, which I'll probably develop into a longer piece longer - and hopefully the feedback here will help shape it.

@Bart - I would argue that "rewinds" are not only a problem in the narrativist experience. Imagine if you were watching a tennis match, where whenever Player B wins a round, the judge intervenes and says - "ok, Player A, we'll go back to the start of the round, and try to get it right this time". How many people would find that exciting? Therefore, I think that relying on the player's ability to go back in time (whether through checkpoints or savegames) is actually bad game design - while certainly remaining an industry standard that people are used to. I think, too often, we take this kind of design for granted.

In fact, if you think about it, the only context in which "rewinds" make sense is in fact the narrativist experience. If you're telling a story, breaking up the experience and forcing the player to go back in time might be a problem in terms of pacing... but it's also the only way you can ensure the player remains within the bounds of the story. The only reasonable alternative would be a branching storyline - Wing Commander is of course the paramount example, but it also highlights how limited branching is. The original Wing Commander 1 allowed the player to skip any mission by bailing out - even deep in enemy territory, the pilot would magically be recovered, and go on to the next mission (even if the mission you bailed out of was a last-ditch defense of your own carrier!), eventually sliding onto the losing path. But Wing Commander 1 had very little real story-telling to speak of - all it really did was provide the player with an immersive backdrop. By the time Wing Commander 2 rolled around, with actual proper narrative becoming a significant part of the game, suddenly bailing out anywhere was no longer an option. About half the time, bailing out just led to an alternative death cutscene. Later titles in the series became even more restrictive, because the rising costs of production forced increasing restrictions on branching. By the time Wing Commander Prophecy came around, the designers could just as well have removed the option to bail out entirely - players simply weren't using it any more, because it was too unreliable to consider a valid strategy.

I guess what it comes down to, with narrative games, is whether you are prepared to let the gameplay impact the story - or if the gameplay is really just there to provide a means of unlocking further story segments. If it's the former, you want branching (but you'll still wind up using rewinds to restrict branching to something manageable...). If it's the latter, you want the bog-standard checkpoint experience you see in modern FPS titles.

So, when it comes to RPG games (where, arguably, narrative is less important than gameplay), I would definitely side with the gamist perspective - there is just something terribly wrong with the freedom to jump back in time. We accept it, because we haven't seen too many games out there with a convincingly better model (but they are out there, though - remember Pirates!, or Mount & Blade?) - but it's still wrong. It actually cuts death out of the game entirely - I mean, really, when I play Skyrim, the only time it occurs to me to worry about dying is when I've been dungeon-crawling for a while, and I don't remember when I last saved. Then I do worry, but the worry is that I will be forced to go through part of the dungeon again, which is not that exciting. How different is that to the experience you get in Mount & Blade - there, if you "die" in combat, your character can never actually be killed, but you are forced to accept the consequences of your defeat.

Of course, Mount & Blade is a different kind of RPG than Skyrim, there's virtually no story to speak of, and there is never, ever a need for the game to explain to the player why it is exactly that he survived - it's a game convention that clearly isn't realistic, but just as clearly, is perfectly reasonable within the game world. In Skyrim, this is more problematic - while you could easily explain why the player survived an encounter with bandits ("you awake in a ditch, stripped of your gold and possessions, but alive"), it's a bit harder to explain the fortuitous experience of being overcome by a sabertooth cat and *not* being eaten.

So, Mount & Blade's model, while evidently more fun, couldn't be transposed onto Skyrim... but the question remains, is the save-anywhere model used in Skyrim really the best that game designers can do? Or is it simply something that's used automatically without any real thought being given to the subject, simply through force of twenty years of habit?

Mata Haggis
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As a side-note: I had noticed many players get nervous when they see a checkpoint, assuming that there was something that might kill them approaching soon, so when I was working on a game I deliberately put checkpoints through the initial (completely safe) sequence to make them uncertain about when a real threat was coming. That choice almost certainly didn't benefit the immersion in the game, but I think it helped generate fear in the player, which I believe was of greater benefit overall.