The Art of Saving

By Nick Olsen

Video game developers routinely get put in no-win positions by the consumers who play their games; we expect a flawless experience (an admittedly unrealistic expectation) and even when developers deliver a near-flawless game, consumers inevitably latch on to the few flaws they find and take to the internet or other public forums to air their grievances. It’s human nature, I guess, and we’re all guilty of it. But great games have a way of overcoming the little flaws that hold them back from true perfection to deliver a truly memorable experience, and they do so in a variety of ways both big and small, obvious and subtle.

In most cases, it’s the big, obvious in-game moments and interactions that players latch on to that form the lasting memories (emerging from the vault for the first time in Fallout 3, playing as the Galactic Empire for the first time in StarWars: TIE Fighter, experiencing the beauty of Ico’s unconventional game design, etc.), but the small, subtle nuances in a game’s design can go a long way in determining whether the gamer gets an enjoyable or infuriating experience. In the modern age of gaming, as worlds ever-expand to massive size, one of the more subtle aspects of game design has begun to play an increasingly important role: saving.

The Basics

Before we can dive deep into the impact that great or flawed saving systems have on gameplay, we first have to understand the basics. For this discussion, we’ll focus on three important but different tools utilized by developers:

Checkpoints (according to Wikipedia):

Checkpoints are locations in a video game where a player character respawns after death. Characters generally respawn at the last checkpoint that they have reached. A respawn is most often due to the death of the in-game character, but it can also be caused by the failure to meet an objective required to advance in the game. Checkpoints might be temporary, as they stop working when the character loses all of its lives. Most modern games, however, save the game to memory at these points, known as auto-saving.[4]

Checkpoints might be visible or invisible to the player. Visible checkpoints might give a player a sense of security when activated, but in turn sacrifice some immersion, as checkpoints are intrinsically “gamey” and might even need an explanation of how they work. Invisible checkpoints don’t break immersion, but make players unsure of where they will respawn.”

Save Points (according to Wikipedia):

“Some video games only allow the game to be saved at predetermined points in the game, called save points. Save points are employed either because the game is too complex to allow saving at any given point or to make gaming more engaging by forcing the player to rely on skills instead of on the ability to retry indefinitely. Save points are also far easier to program, so when a game developer has to rush a game, save points are attractive to build in, also testing the ‘save anywhere’ is far more difficult.”

Save anywhere (according to Wikipedia):

“A video game may allow the user to save at any point of the game, any time. The phrase “Save, save, save!” is a reference to this feature and if often included in guides to these types of games to ensure that the user takes maximum advantage of this feature. This was chiefly a computer-only save game ability until the introduction of hard drives on console systems. There are modified versions of this, too. For example, the Nintendo Gamecube game Eternal Darkness uses a modified version of save anywhere, where the player can save almost anytime, for an unlimited number of times, but cannot save if an enemy is in the room.

To make gaming more engaging, some video games may impose a limit on the number of times a player saves the game. For instance, IGI 2 allows only a handful saves in each mission, while Max Payne 2 only imposes this restriction on the highest level of difficulty.”

Super Mario World (checkpoints), Tales of Vesperia (save points) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (save anywhere) provide high profile examples of each model, respectively. Each system has it’s place within game design, and some developers mix and match multiple models within a game to provide the best experience. But when choosing a model for a game,  developers should consider the following factors: does it match what I’m trying to convey with my game, and will it be seamless for the player? If it does not match and it is not seamless, that is when players will begin to voice their displeasure.

Start at the Beginning … or the Middle

Most early games didn’t utilize saves; often the games weren’t long enough or difficult enough to justify the need for them. Those that did utilize them, did so sparingly. The Legend of Zelda utilized an on-cartridge, battery-powered save file because the game’s length meant that few players would sit and beat the game in a single setting; but even then, saving was cumbersome, requiring the player to die, or by pressing the A, B, Select, and Start buttons on the controller simultaneously, on top of which, players were instructed to hold the reset button on the console when powering the unit down to ensure the data wasn’t corrupted. While it was nice to be able to save, it was hardly an elegant solution.

Saving Mega Man V

Some early games like the Mega Man series used passwords instead of save files.

Other games utilized passwords to save progress instead of actual files. Upon the completion of a level, or a death, the system would generate an alphanumeric password to give to the player. When entered, the password served as detailed instruction for the game to recreate the exact circumstances from when it was generated. In this way, the game was never required to store a save file, but this too presented challenges: players would have to copy and enter the password exactly, a sometimes tedious process; or, as often happened to me, the player could forget or lose the password, meaning they had to start the game again from scratch (for further reading: a list of classic games which utilized passwords for saves).

Early games utilized post-level checkpoint systems most frequently; for example, in Super Mario Bros., once a player completed a level by triggering the flag at the castle, the level was considered closed and the player moved on to the next. Interestingly, Super Mario Bros. also utilized checkpoints halfway through levels (though they weren’t visible, meaning players had to hope they’d crossed the threshold); if a player surpassed the halfway point, then died, they would start their next life at the halfway point of the level. By the time Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System appeared, the midway checkpoint was in full swing with some added functionality. From my essay on Super Mario World:

“Similar in nature to the goal posts designating completion at the end of each level, a smaller version appeared at roughly the halfway point. As soon as the player crossed these posts they’d begin the level from this point should they die before reaching the end. This checkpoint also provided another player benefit – should Mario cross the marker in his “small” state, he’d instantly be transformed to his bigger version as if he’d receiver a Super Mushroom. This checkpoint system became especially invaluable in later levels of the game when difficulty increased – by restarting at the checkpoint rather than at the beginning of the stage, the player could focus on defeating the particular challenges which killed them rather than re-defeating the segments they’d already navigated successfully.”

Super Mario World also introduced limited save point functionality; after a player defeated a select level, such as a Ghost House, Switch Palace or Castle, they could either “save and quit” the game or “save and continue” playing.

As games continued to evolve and expand, so too did save functionality. With the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, gamers were introduced to memory cards which were required to save game data, and eventually, consoles would start to rely on hard drives, much like their PC gaming counterparts. But no matter what consoles stored game data on, the primary save functions of checkpoints, save points and save anywhere would remain staples of game design.

Making the Right Choice Matters

So how should developers choose the correct saving method for their game and why does it matter? To answer the second question first: it matters because games are meant to be an immersive experience that draw players into the world for long stretches; if saving their game becomes a frustrating exercise, that sense of immersion is disrupted. Video games already struggle with a host of other disruptions both big and small; from Josh Snyder’s essay on semiotics:

“Perhaps, if the developer isn’t so concerned about how the player will navigate their world, they can focus on character development and dialogue. Only when video games have their own fully developed semiotics will they be able to surpass film, music and literature as truly the most immersive, personable art form available.”

Other disruptions occur with screen tearing, frame rate drops, invisible walls and objects, clipping, etc.With so many potential disruption points for players, adding to the list with an out-of-place save mechanic should be avoided.

Now the tougher question: how should developers choose the correct saving method for their game? First, they should think carefully about the type of game they’re making – is it a platformer with a series of short, frenetic levels? Is it an open world Western RPG? By having a clear understanding of the type of game the choice should become easier. Let’s examine the survival horror genre as an example. Bill Henning defined the genre’s key characteristics in his essay “Reviving the Dead: The State of Survival Horror”:

“Survival horror games drive players through the narrative through simple tropes: survive the night (Resident Evil), desperate escapes with plot twists and turns (Dead Space), or unraveling the players sanity (Silent Hill 2). Usually, health and ammo are limited, emphasizing the survival aspects of the game – players watch their health dwindle with each fight, knowing that every bullet counts, right on down to the last magazine. It’s common for player to not know when they can resupply those precious items, adding a layer of dread on top of the experience.”

With these elements in mind, spaced out save points likely make the most sense, as the distance between them adds to the established sense of dread and anxiety by amplifying the need for detailed resource management and planning – if the player is unsure when the next chance to save will arise, they’ll need to focus on acquiring and carrying the items necessary to their survival without expending those precious resources unnecessarily.

Saving Alan Wake

Light served as a safe haven and checkpoint in Alan Wake.

Remedy utilized an autosave mechanic in Alan Wake and it matched their game perfectly. As the player navigated levels abundant with darkness, light became the primary weapon for players to combat the enemy spawned by the “Dark Presence” and served as safe havens where the player could rest for a precious few moments free from enemies. But the light also served as a natural checkpoint system in which the game saved the player’s progress automatically. When Remedy brought the game to the PC, gamers clamored for save anywhere capability, but Remedy didn’t cave; they offered the following explanation:

“The save games will work as they did on Xbox360, with automatic checkpoints. We know some of our PC fans would love a “save anywhere” system, but unfortunately we can’t easily change how the saves work as there are certain restrictions where you can save in the tech so adding a free save anywhere would likely expose a lot of new bugs.”

While it’s true that introducing save anywhere functionality may have introduced a bevy of technical problems, it also would have significantly altered the dramatic structure of the game. As Kotaku’s Brian Crecente said in his review of the game:

“The emotional impact of seeing a light in the distance as you run through darkened woods, howling shadows at your heels, cannot be overstated.”

Large, open-world games like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas on the other hand are best served utilizing the save anywhere mechanic as designated checkpoints at random parts of the map would do little to enhance the story and would create a great deal of frustration for players. To be clear, both of those games utilize automatic save points when players enter in and out of individual set pieces, such as caves in Skyrim and vaults in Fallout, but in these games, players are free to roam the map as they please and experience random encounters, meaning it could be hours before entering a new setting to trigger an automatic save. And as anyone who has played these games can attest, a lot can go wrong in that span of time, from glitches to random encounters with overpowered enemies.

In fact, when I play these games I’ve made it common practice to manually save at least every 15 minutes, just to be sure I don’t lose hours of progress should I encounter one of these game-altering enemies or other problems. In these instances, the convenience of saving anywhere overrides the disruption of immersion by helping to avert the greater frustration of lost hours of game progress. Interestingly, following the release of downloadable content for Skyrim, Bethesda recommended turning off  the autosave functionality as it caused the game to crash, increasing the importance of the save anywhere functionality and using it frequently.

The Value of Mix and Match

Saving Bordlerlands

Borderlands utilized New U stations in a dual capacity, creating a seamless save experience.

Recently, developers realized that these save mechanics aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive and incorporate more than one into their games. The Borderlands series provides an interesting case for combining the checkpoint and save anywhere mechanics with great success. As players venture throughout the vast maps of Pandora, they’ll often stumble across checkpoints which serve two purposes. First, it triggers an automatic save, writing a complete save file to the player’s designated storage device. Second, it provides a traditional spawn point should the player meet their end in battle.

On top of these multifunction checkpoints, Gearbox also incorporated a save anywhere mechanic in which the player can quit the game at any point and save their progress. But this save anywhere mechanic differs from those found in games like Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim; when players load their saved game, they begin at the nearest checkpoint, rather than at whatever point in the world they may have saved. For example, say a player quits and saves in the middle of map they just cleared of enemies, when they load their save the next time they play, their story progress, completed missions and inventory will all remain, but they’ll spawn at a the checkpoint closest to their location when they quit with full health and shields.

But why did they choose this option for their save anywhere, rather than a more traditional model which would have restored the game in the exact moment of the save? It’s likely two factors. First, the checkpoint/respawn system was already in place, so why not use it and reduce the amount of coding and development necessary to install an independent save anywhere feature? Second, it fits within the story, as the checkpoints are referred to in-game as “ New U stations” and provide a digital reconstructed clone of the player upon their death. Quitting the game essentially acts as a death, without the associated penalty of subtracting a percentage of the player’s funds as a reconstruction fee.

While more games have adopted the mix and match strategy to give players the best, and least disruptive, saving experience, many are still relying on outdated mechanism borne from the past when hardware limited capabilities dictated function. For example, I recently played through Tales of Vesperia for the first time, and was annoyed at the prospect of having to seek out save points, which were often 90 minutes apart. This style of saving has been a staple of Japanese RPGs for years, but the more I played the game, the more it felt like an outdated relic. After a while, I found myself pining for a save anywhere mechanic.

Part of the problem in this scenario is my somewhat hectic life. Rarely these days do I have time to spend hours on end sitting and playing a game. The ability to play for 30 or 45 minutes to advance the story between other day-to-day activities is one that I’ve grown accustomed to. Having to venture far and wide to seek out a save point, all the while being interrupted by battles with random spawning enemies only served to disrupt my immersion and displace it with annoyance and frustration. Other than this singular issue, I truly enjoyed the game.

A number of Tales games have been released since Tales of Vesperia in 2008, so perhaps the antiquated save mechanic has gone by the wayside or at least been modified for a better experience, but if not, it’s only going to seem more antiquated as other games continue to evolve. Could a simple tweak to a Borderlands style save anywhere feature benefit the game? Would abandoning save points altogether in favor of a Skyrim save anywhere be more appropriate? It likely depends on the story that each Tales game seeks to deliver, but Vesperia certainly would have benefited from the inclusion of either.

Right or Wrong?

Saving Dark Souls

Some would argue that the save points in Dark Souls were spaced too far apart, others think they’re perfect.

Of course there are always games which will raise questions whether they got a particular mechanic right or wrong; when it comes to saving, the greatest debate likely centers around From Software’s Dark Souls. In a game notorious for its difficulty, with a setting designed to make the player feel weak and isolated, it’s easy to understand why From Software chose to greatly space out its campfire checkpoints to an extreme degree. But many players counter that the distance artificially inflates the difficulty by shifting the focus from sections where a player struggles to unnecessarily repeating sections in which they don’t, limiting their ability to practice the skills necessary for defeating what’s kept them from advancing.

The following excerpt comes from a discussion on The Escapist and outlines the argument:

I knew it was going to be hard BUT the thing that most people were saying about the diffuculty [sic], was that the game was never cheap or unfair. But how is making me replay the same 10 minutes of gampeplay [sic] over and over and over and over again not just a cheap way of padding the gameplay? I wouldnt [sic] even mind if i was actually gaining some levels out of this constant grinding … but because i die at the boss every time, meaning I NEVER progress. I could actually travel back in time 3 hours and i’d be in the exact same position, which i think IS unfair.”

Of course, reading through the discussion leads to plenty of counterpoints (which I would recommend doing so) and I am honestly on the fence about this one. Again, it’s clear from the design of the rest of the game that From Software did put some thought into the positioning of the save points, but I’ve also felt the same frustration as The Escapist user quoted above. Would having more frequent checkpoints helped to ease my frustration? Yes. Would it have lessened the experience the game was trying to deliver? Also yes. But again, what’s clear is that From Software put a lot of consideration into their checkpoint location and mechanic, and how it would affect the gameplay, which is what every developer should do.

Time to Evolve

So much of the video game industry has evolved over the years, including the audience playing the games. Just as the developers making the games have grown more sophisticated, so have the players, and in an age of ever-expanding worlds and increasingly intricate missions, every nuance of the gameplay get’s hyper-scrutinized. That scrutiny extends to elements both big and small, and how users save their games is no exception. If developers continue to use antiquated mechanics that don’t match the game, the player’s sense of immersion will come to a grinding halt, and players will voice their frustrations.

As developers create their games, it’s important that they consider how saving will work within the world they’re creating. Whether they choose to go with checkpoints, save points, save anywhere or a combined approach should depend on the story, the gameplay and what the developers hope to convey to the player. Most importantly, saving should be a seamless experience for the player to ensure the sense of immersion remains in tact.