October 11, 2005

Somebody Save Me

by peterb

Chris over at Only a Game published an interesting perspective on save games. He wrote a hypothetical dialogue between a game producer and his engineering, art, and QA teams on what type of save game system they should include on their game.

I think he raises some interesting points, but I think he misses the mark on some others. So I am responding with a dialogue of my own that I think more accurately captures what's at stake.

One of Chris's core assumptions is that only "hardcore" players care about being able to save anywhere. I disagree with this assumption. In fact, in my experience, it's the exact opposite. Hardcore players have been trained to put up with all sorts of stupid behavior from their games. The people who want to save anywhere are the casual gamers. Here's a counterexample:

WIFE: OK, sweetie, we're late for Thanksgiving dinner. We have to go now.

HUSBAND: Sure thing, hon, I'll be right there. I just have to get to the next save point. If I quit now, I'll lose the past 20 minutes I've played and have to do it again.

WIFE: How long will it be until you reach the next save point?

HUSBAND: Well, usually the save points are spaced about 15 minutes apart. Of course, sometimes they're 30 seconds apart. And then sometimes you'll have a deathmarch where you have to trudge through the lava level for an hour.

WIFE: An hour?

HUSBAND: But that's unusual. It should just be a few minutes. Well, assuming I don't accidentally walk past it and miss it.

WIFE: Why can't you just save the game?

HUSBAND: Well, the game designers worry that they might alienate part of their audience with complex concepts like saving the game.

WIFE: ...

HUSBAND: Why are you looking at me that way?

WIFE: My grandmother, who is 80 years old, knows that she has to hit "save" before quitting her word processor. There are people who seriously think that saving a game is a hard concept?

HUSBAND: Well, it's a very complex issue, sweetheart.

WIFE: And these are the people who are making me late for Thanksgiving dinner?


HUSBAND: Be right there, kids! I just have to get past the Plains of Pandemonium and defeat...

[WIFE shuts off console.]

HUSBAND: ...Hubris.

It's not that I think Chris is a bad guy. He's looking at this from a software developer's perspective and discussing the tradeoffs. I'm looking at this from a consumer perspective. The ability to walk away from a game at (nearly) any moment, to save at roughly any time and return later without substantial penalty, is of paramount importance. It is, if you will, part of the production values of a game. I believe that a commercial game that does not provide that ability is — as far as this aspect of production is concerned — unacceptably primitive, and unprofessional.

In other words, I'm not inclined to be generous about this. Traditional console game attitudes towards save points are antediluvian, wrong, and broken, and the entire idiom of the "save point" must be destroyed. If you want to save some money to create an unprofessional game, go ahead. But I think we should be creating the sort of consumer environment where people who try to sell games like that are mocked, just like people who produce commercial movies with poor production values are mocked.

Chris raises some objections to "save anywhere" that I think are somewhat tangential to the problem. First off, let's recognize that by "save anywhere" we don't really mean "store 100% of the game state at absolutely any time, including when I'm about to take a bullet to the head." Rather, it is a fuzzier definition that amounts to "allow me to save frequently enough that if I have to get up and do something more important, I can do so after no more than at most a minute." Or, more succintly, "allow me to save often enough that I don't feel compelled to hop on a flight to LA and hook the game's producer up to the face-slapping machine." I don't care (and won't complain) if the game had to reset some bits of state to ensure it wasn't in an unwinnable state, as long as it doesn't require me to replay the last 20 minutes of gameplay, which, let's be frank, probably weren't all that much fun the first time through anyway.

Second, there's cost of implementation. On the one hand, Chris talks about how save anywhere creates more work for QA, but on the other hand he agrees that a "let me stop playing now" checkpoint save is pretty much a requirement for reasonable games. Don't such saves present approximately the same QA load?

Lastly, Chris worries that the user interface aspects of managing many save games might be too confusing for users to handle. He's right. However, this is completely orthogonal to the issue of whether such UIs are on top of "save anywhere" or "save at save point" systems. Developers can (and have) created save point systems that are just as confusing as save anywhere systems. User interface is an important aspect of any game, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse to not do the right thing.

User interfaces are funny things. There are the patent aspects of user interfaces (this is a button, these are checkboxes, this is how I navigate menus), and there are latent aspects. Books, for example, have a fabulous save interface: put the book down, and then when you want to start reading it again, pick it up, find the page, and read. DVDs, likewise, use chapter markers and fast forward to allow the viewer to pick up where she left off. No matter how transparent a checkpoint save you provide, you still run the risk of providing a simple patent UI, but a horrible latent UI: every gamer, no matter what their level of sophistication, is capable of forming the thought "Why is the game making me play this? I already finished this part."

And when the players have that thought, it's the game designers, and their reputations, who are stuck in an unwinnable state.

Posted by peterb at October 11, 2005 05:50 PM | Bookmark This

Wife? Kids? See, there's your problem. A true gamer craves not these things. A true gamer needs only his mom's basement and enough income to pay for the latest titles and hardware. And only true gamers are worthy of the games created by the mighty developers.

Posted by Tom Ault at October 11, 2005 09:40 PM

Here's the bottom line: if you can pause, you can save.

Not 15 minutes ago I finally told my daughter to pause and go to bed. She had spent nearly an hour getting through about half of a tricky job on Sly 3, and my son kindly advised that the remainder would take at least 20 minutes. The TV is off, the PS2 will hum merrily along for the next 19 hours on pause until she gets home from school.

If I can pause play at any point, then dammit, the various asynchronous elements are all on standby, and to my reasonably tech proficient mind, this is a persistable state. So I guess maybe I AM saying if it comes to it, save the whole state. Consoles are becoming tightly tuned mini-pcs as it is, at least one already has an HD. Emulators for previous platforms offer ubiquitous pause and save of entire state. HD capacity always substantially outpaces memory capacity.

I think I'm off on a tangent. Suffice it to say that, based upon my 'solution' tonight, I think the Commonwealth Edisons of this country might be providing kickbacks to the game publishers.

Or I just like to hear myself type.

Posted by Tim F at October 11, 2005 11:23 PM

Hi Peter, I think this post does me something of a diservice. The thought experiment was supposed to represent the typical discussions inside an upper market developer with an eye to demonstrating why upper market games tend not to have 'save anywhere' schemes. It was categorically *not* supposed to be my own viewpoint converted into a discussion. My own viewpoint was in an earlier post entitled 'To Save or Not to Save'. Perhaps I could have made this clearer, though.

"but on the other hand he agrees that a "let me stop playing now" checkpoint save is pretty much a requirement for reasonable games. Don't such saves present approximately the same QA load?"

What I believe is that the player should be able to stop playing at any time with no significant loss of progress. There are two ways to do this - bookmark saves, which can be done easily by exporting the full game state thus producing huge save files (too big for anything but PC and Xbox), or designing the game with inherent ratcheted progress. The latter is my preference, especially for mass market products. Look at Zelda. You don't need to save anywhere in Zelda, because the game is designed to record any significant progress automatically (at least, it was when it was on a cartridge).

So, to clarify, there is no voice in the dialogue I posted that represents *my* voice - even the game designer voice is not my own - every voice in the dialogue represents opinions I have heard overtly or implicitly in my time as a game designer, and so writing as if these views are my own is a nearly libellous. :) Of course, this is partly my fault for not making it clear that this is what I was trying to do. I will update the post accordingly to avoid any future misunderstandings.

Psu said in my comments "I have never read a convincing argument in favor of not implementing save-anywhere" - the reason for this is that no-one actively advocates not having save-anywhere, and it is actually a web of tensions in game development that prevent it from happening. I decided I'd try and get across a snapshot of the situation in an effort to explain why it is that save-anywhere doesn't happen all that often outside of PC games. I'm starting to regret my impulse to help in this instance, since it has kind of had the opposite effect. :)

Anyway, it has provoked some general discussion on the subject, so there's no harm done - unless your post convinces anyone that I am against the player's right to save and quit at any time. Thankfully, there's not a great deal of risk of this. :)

Posted by Chris at October 12, 2005 02:57 AM

Tim: on consoles like the PS2, being able to pause is not the same as being able to save. This is because the current game state can be the product of the play up until that point - saving the current game state may be insufficient to restore all the data up to that point. This is in part due to the unusual architecture of the PS2; the textures and other data loaded into the PS2 have become dynamically cached during play - to completely save the position might require you to save everything in the texture space of the console (depending on how the game was put together) - which could be a huge save.

This is why bookmark saves are easy on PC and Xbox - you just dump out all the game state, textures and all if necessary (although outside the PS2 it is rarely necessary as I understand it). The memory card on the PS2 isn't exactly big (8 meg), though. With 32 meg of memory the worst case is presumably that you have to save a 32 meg save file!

A disclaimer, however - I'm not a programmer and hardware has always been my weak point, so this just represents my dim understanding of the issues involved.

Posted by Chris at October 12, 2005 03:23 AM

Tim: if you can pause the game, you can save? Hmm, MAYBE. Most console games are required to run for 12 hours without crashing, to be allowed to release. Beyond that it's guesswork - it will PROBABLY work, but who knows? (As an example, leave Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 running for more than 36 hours - it'll tell you you've been playing for some random length of time, possibly even negative, due to a timer overflow).

Secondly, there's always the possibility (inevitability?) of the kit getting turned off in the meantime. Especially if it's also what you use as your DVD player, or you want to play another game. "If you can pause you can save" just doesn't cut it. (Don't get me started on games that don't even let you pause, for example in the middle of FMVs or cutscenes. The phone's ringing, if I was watching a movie I could pause it, why can't I pause the cutscene in this game???).

Chris: no save game system, ever, saves things like textures in memory (or at least shouldn't). The ability to save anywhere does not require that the entire state of the memory in the console be saved - it ONLY requires the designers/programmers of the game to make the decision to allow you to do it. A game that does NOT allow it, does so only because someone, somewhere, has consciously made the decision that *they* should be in charge of *your* game experience, and *they* don't want *you* to save. In which case, *I* won't play *their* game. (Sports titles excepted?)

peterb: I completely agree with you!

Posted by at October 12, 2005 06:05 AM

It's funny you mention the Zelda save system.

Not surprisingly I hate the Zelda save system.


I wrote that about Wind Waker, but Link to the past is similar.

Posted by psu at October 12, 2005 07:19 AM


My position is that if a game can be paused, if the game can be so interrupted, that such a state should be storable and resumable from a persistent medium (HD, flash mem card, etc). I did not mean to suggest that 'pause' is an acceptable save mechanism, sorry if that was what came across.

Chris clarified that saving at a pause 'bookmark' would indeed pretty much require a full state save on at least the PS2, which is also rather extreme. I mentioned that PC legacy platform emulators do this all the time, but this does require the availability of some high volume storage medium (HD, flash mem, etc) which so far limits to PC or XBox.

I don't think I'm adding much value on this one, but thanks for the opportunity to rant a bit!

Posted by Tim F at October 12, 2005 09:04 AM

The worst save system I ever encountered was in Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The game was uniformly praised for its gameplay, which was pretty good, but it involved a bizarre and unexplained save system which (I think) saved only the first time you passed a checkpoint. Since the game wasn't linear, I once made the mistake of taking a left instead of a right (or something similar) and stumbling into an area I wasn't supposed to go into yet. The result being I triggered the checkpoint "early", and to get to the next checkpoint was about an hour and a half of playtime.

That was just one of the many reasons I traded in the game unfinished, despite being really curious where he got his eyeshine.

Posted by Jason at October 12, 2005 09:10 AM


I apologize if I misrepresented your position. I think I decided that since some of the characters in your dialogue used some of the terms of art that you favor ("fiero", for example), and since they used the terms "Hardcore" and "Casual" as defined by your taxonomy, that they must be thinly disguised avatars of your own opinions. Sorry for making that unwarranted assumption.

Everyone else: go read Chris's article instead of relying on my summary.

PS: But games that don't let me save anywhere are still the devil.

Posted by peterb at October 12, 2005 09:50 AM

Peter: I think the real problem was that I didn't make it clear what I was trying to do - and adding in terms like 'fiero' only confused this further. So thank you for the apology, but please accept mine for being misleading in the first place. :)

Psu: I read your rant about Zelda. Many of your problems have nothing to do with the save system - they are about how the world of Zelda works. For instance, the reseting of the rooms in Zelda happens whenever you leave a room or area - it has nothing to do with the way the save mechanism works, if you see what I mean. Basically, the root of your problem is the game world abstractions for Zelda, not the save system, per se. I freely accept that in the absence of knowledge of either how the game saves it data, or how the world abstractions work, the two issues become one, though, so this isn't meant as a rebuttal, just a brief commentary.

I suspect you are not alone in having difficulties with the Zelda world abstractions, although none of the case studies I've gathered so far reflect it so it may be a minority issue. (Or, more likely, the fanbase for Zelda is fairly insular so players who would dislike the world abstractions tend not to play it in the first place). Nintendo are planning to change the world abstractions for the Zelda franchise after Twilight Princess, I understand, perhaps this will produce a game more to your tastes.

On reflection, however, I should never have cited Zelda as my example - that was lazy of me. There are better examples of ratcheted progress elsewhere; most 3D platformers have a decent checkpointed autosave system which constitutes ratcheted progress. My apologies for any confusion this dodgy example may have engendered.

Posted by Chris at October 12, 2005 11:01 AM

I have a hard time believing that checkpoints are somehow easier than save anywhere, from an implementation standpoint. A checkpoint has its own set of assumptions based around the game having reached some kind of quasi-stable state, so that we can -- at this point in time -- only have to save a subset of the information and still keep things believable. Save-anywhere passes the abstraction sniff test a lot easier than checkpoints, where level design screwups or any number of other gameplay bugs can expose the tears in reality.

I'm much more inclined to believe that people implement checkpoint systems because they think that that's what people want on consoles. And -- my personal convictions are showing here -- I think that's crazy talk. I think save points make sense as a way to do rolling backups that make some intuitive sense and don't require aggressive user participation (so that I'm not taken out of the game after every fight so I can go save and protect my work), but that doesn't mean I don't want the ability to save arbitrarily in addition to that.

Posted by Eric Tilton at October 12, 2005 02:19 PM

C: "A game that does NOT allow it, does so only because someone, somewhere, has consciously made the decision that *they* should be in charge of *your* game experience, and *they* don't want *you* to save. In which case, *I* won't play *their* game."

I think alot of people are either ignorant of the issue, or ignore it. Quite simply, I believe that it is absolutely nessecary in certain cases that teh designer be in charge of when a player can permisave their exact state.

I agree completely that a player should be able to stop and quit at any time they need to, I can't stress this enough, but being able to save a game state exactly and indefinately is something that must essentually be restricted in many games to properly balance the gameplay.

When playing Goldeneye, one's inability to save during the middle of a level is neccessary for the sake of the gameplay. As a player, my goal is to beat a given level on a given difficulty, by any means neccessary in the context of the game and strategies involved. The game itself is naturally one of endurence, the player must do his/her best to get to the end of a level while completing all objectives, getting hit as few times as possible to ensure their chances of survival. The challenge comes from this endurence, the test of survival is what makes the game.

By adding the ability to save at any time, the challenge is drained because each section can be done individually, the challenge of tackling the level as a whole is removed. In order to make a game where you can save at any time challenging, you must introduce design that impliments 'difficulty spikes' as opposed to endurence, which I feel is a far inferior design practice.

That is why as much as I advocate being able to save at any time, saving the state of a game at any possible point is a no no in many games and should be kept as such.

Posted by Andrew Van Caem at November 14, 2005 09:22 PM

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