Thursday, October 16, 2008

Video game saving is broken, the content is the gamers, and how to fix it

Save Game Info I have never designed a video game, but I have been playing games for a long time. Being a software developer, I have some strong opinions on software design, and game design in particular lately. Specifically, I think the way saving works in games has to fundamentally change. Developers have to rethink how their save systems work, and consumers deserve clear upfront information about how they can use any games' save system. Why is this important? Because knowing upfront the information about the save system can directly affect whether you enjoy the game, whether you can finish it, and whether you can access all the content. The handful of recent titles that drove me to think this through were Metroid Prime 3: Corruption on the Wii, Rock Band 2 on the Xbox 360, Half-Life 2 on the Xbox 360, and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on the Wii.

What is a saved game?
Wikipedia defines a saved game as:

A saved game is a piece of digitally stored information about the progress of a player in a computer or video game. This saved game can be reloaded later, so the player can continue where he or she had stopped. Players usually save games to prevent the loss of progress in the game (as might happen after a game over unless the game features permadeath, in which the save file is permanently deleted), especially when interrupting or ending a game session.

While that is a perfectly serviceable definition, a saved game is really a piece of the gamers' life. A saved game then allows the gamer to retain a portion of their life that they have chosen to share with you game designer by proxy through the game. Notice I didn't say "your game" to game designers. That's because once you release the product to the public, it is now a shared creation, because the game is nothing without an audience. But a saved game is also more than that, it is the gamer's key to the content which they have already bought! Video games have been using digital rights management (DRM) for years, and no one has been talking about it. Not only to protect a game disc from being copyable, but nearly all games disallow access to all their content unless the gamer has played through the game nearly exactly as the game designer said the gamer should. If the game doesn't allow gamers to save their progress at will and provide access to all content once bought, the game is broken because you game designer aren't valuing the gamers' time, and thus their life. Sorry if that sounds too dramatic, and I know it's only entertainment, but I can't think of another way to spin it.

A word about the kind of games
I am really only concerned with home video games where the gamer is involved with either a single-player or co-op experience. Traditional multiplayer or MMOs aren't addressed with this post because as a shared public experience, there is intentionally and intrinsically, the decision by each individual gamer to participate in that kind of experience. That said, I do over one piece of advice in the solution section for MMOs.

Time is all we have
Time is the most precious commodity any person has. When you engage with any form of entertainment, you want to know if it's worth your time. To make that judgement, you seek out reviews and opinions from people you trust. If you decide that something is worth your time, video games, as far as I can tell, are the only popular mass entertainment form where the consumer isn't in control of the content and the time required to finish the product is open ended. There is no information at the time of purchase, not even an estimate, about how much time it's going to take to finish the game. Movies have running times and the viewer can skip chapters or fast forward and rewind. Songs have length, fast forward and rewind. Books have pages that the reader can randomly turn to. Even sports have a match time limit or set number of points. Concerts have expected length. Games, nothing. You literally have no idea what you are getting yourself into. How can we be 30+ years into home video game systems and still not have such a basic piece of information, duration, easily communicated to consumers? How can gamers still not be allowed to choose what parts of the game to play or not?

What's wrong with save game design?
Simply, the gamer is not in control of the experience. It seems game designers have gone to great lengths to not allow users to have control over the game since there are actually numerous different kinds of save systems employed in modern video games. I am not presuming this is an exhaustive list, but in my experience:

  • Save Anytime. User can choose to save whenever they want, and that exact moment in the game is exactly where they return if they load that save game. There are actually a couple sub-variants on this.
    • Limited to a fixed number. Either through design or technical reasons (i.e. available memory)
    • Unlimited. User can save as much as they like up to the limits of storage
  • Checkpoints. At fixed points in the game, user progress is automatically saved. There are also sub-variants on this kind of save game system.
    • Checkpoints can only be returned to within a level. Once you hit a checkpoint, if the character dies between checkpoints, you return to the previously saved checkpoint. If you turn off the game, you return to the beginning of the level unless the user can also choose to save wherever they want. Another anti-feature to this system is that the current checkpoint replaces the last checkpoint. This is bad because if something is broken in your current checkpoint (e.g. You are stuck on the side of a cliff you can't climb *cough* Halo 3 Highway level) then you can't step back a checkpoint, you have to restart the whole level.
    • Checkpoints can be returned to on game load. Nicer, since intra-game sessions are not snapped to level.
  • Saving embedded in the game world. This is perhaps the worst save system because the game designer doles out the required resource with extreme scarcity. Worse, it makes no sense that a save mechanic is embedded in the game. It would be like you could only pause a movie at certain scenes in movies on DVD, which of course sounds insane.
    • Tokens. If you have ever played a Resident Evil game with its typewriter ribbons, you know what I am talking about.
    • In Game Save Stations. In Metroid Prime 3: Corruption the only chance for a user to save is at certain places in the game (sorry, can't remember the name)
Why are these save systems, excluding Save Anytime - Unlimited, in use today? Here are the reasons I have come up with:
  • Lack of confidence. I can't help but think game designers, perhaps due to the immaturity of the form, in someway fear that players won't want to play their game unless they are in some way artificially induced to progress.
  • Inability to save as a dramatic device. Game designers rely on the inability of the gamer to save progress to create tension. This is bad idea. The tension should come from the story.
  • Game challenge tied to limited save availability. I can hear the argument coming. If you give gamers the ability to save anywhere, what's left of the game? It is way past time to do away with this outdated thinking. For example, in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, if I could save anywhere, it certainly wouldn't have prevented me from playing through the game. About the only thing it would have done is cut down my artificially inflated play time by about 15 minutes.
  • Masochism. I don't know if gamers or game designers, or both, have enjoyed this abusive relationship, perhaps so, but I for one have had enough. I have stopped playing games that don't respect my time. The reason why Half-Life 2 triggered my thoughts on this is because it's one of the better ones in recent memory allowing you to save whenever. It automatically saves at certain times, but you are limited to a certain number of chosen saves. Also, you don't really get enough information about the save on the load screen.

Solution: Saving is entirely at user discretion and should be a platform feature
This is the way saves should work:

  • Gamers should be able to save anytime, anywhere, as many times as they want. Game designers can continue to structure their games as a series of challenges, but it is up to the gamer to decide if they want to play through the challenges as designed.
  • Saving can be disabled during challenges, but they can't last longer than 15 minutes. A challenge is an uninterruptible task, liking fighting a boss. But at whatever difficulty level you are playing at, those encounters can't last longer than a set period of time. Based on my experience, 15 minutes is the mark. Any more than that, and it's no longer a fun challenge, it becomes a job.
  • Games should have the equivalent of chapter selection on Movies.The user should be able to randomly access any part of the game they want, even without having played through the game. Again, it's up to the user to decide if they want to play the whole game, or if they just want to show their friends a part of the game without local save files.
  • All game controllers should have a Save button. Seriously, 2008, and there is not a uniform way to trigger either a save game screen, or ideally a "Quick Save" option. Also, why not normalize some buttons with DVD+DVR controls? The "start" button on the Xbox 360 should just be labeled a play/pause button. The back button could easily be replaced with a Quick Save button.
  • Game system should standardize the UI for save games. No developer should have to spend time writing their own save systems. It would be like having to write the code for DVD player pause/play functionality every time you release a movie, insane.
  • Save games should be backed up by the platform (e.g. Xbox Live, Playstation Network) and synched to your other consoles No reason I shouldn't be able to start playing a game on the console under my big screen TV, make progress on it at a friends house, and then finish it at home again.
  • Access to game content in multiplayer modes should not be tied to progress/completion of single player content. I can't tell you how many now I buy a new game to play the multiplayer parts first, only to find it's crippled because I haven't played the single player part. Mario Kart Wii, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Wii, Rock Band 2, the list goes on and on. And sorry, unlock codes are lame, a relic of a bygone era. If the industry wants to grow up, it has to stop doing this. Also, unlocking content is not a re
  • Save game files should contain information about the game at the point in time, so the gamer understands where in the game they are. Actual thumbnails from the game when you save are a must. More detailed information too, like any meters you can see on screen, you should be able to see the data about that in the save.
  • Games need to auto-reload to last save on launch. What happens when you watch a movie and turn off your DVD player, or watch a video in iTunes, then stop it and start playing again? It resumes from where you left off. All games should default to this! If this isn't the 90% case when playing through a single player game, I don't know what is. But this load also needs to be cancelable on the chance that its wrong. The current way most games work is just dumb. On Xbox 360, you have to:
    1. Start the game
    2. Click a button to get past the obligatory landing screen after the parade of logos
    3. Select Load Game and press button
    4. Select where you save game is stored
    5. Figure out which save game you want to load
    6. Wait for load
    Loading the last user saved or system saved game should be the default in all games until the user quits the game in a different mode (e.g. multiplayer), which it should then launch into.
  • Stop showing most publisher/studio/tech logos on launch. Take a cue from the iPhone, when the user or game saves progress, take a full screen snapshot of where in the game the player is. When the game is reloaded at launch, show that screenshot with a progress meter if its a long load, or just get the game running and make the content animated from that screenshot frame. You can even composite unobtrusive logos in a letterbox like fashion over top of the saved game screenshot. Animated logos with surround sound are only cute once, then despised every time after through the appearance of blocking the gamer from getting back into the actual game. I don't need to see the Havok logo anymore in a game, I get it. The equivalent would be like having to see that the filmmakers used Panavision or Kodak before the movie even starts, silly. Doesn't everyone hate having to sit through the FBI warning? That's one of the sweet things about movies from iTunes, no FBI warnings, trailers, or multiple studio banners, one on the film and one for the home video division. If you have to pay a few more dollars to get the engine credit to the end credits, please do so.
  • For MMOs with challenges (e.g. Raids/Dungeons) dependent on a group, use game telemetry to provide probable time estimates. I have done my fair share of raiding in World of WarCraft. I was never able to do a lot of raiding because I never had a good idea how much time any raid or dungeon run was going to take. WoW collects a tremendous amount of data about the game, which I call telemetry, and it should be used to provide gamers estimates based on past raiding/dungeon parties similar to your own.

I am sure I have missed something, or there are holes in some of my arguments. This post was already long enough, covering every possible corner case would have made it ridiculously longer. I am more than happy to answer any comments, or if you want to send me an email you can through innerexception AT