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Saving the Day: Save Systems in Games
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Saving the Day: Save Systems in Games

September 1, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In an in-depth design article originally published in Game Developer magazine, Street Fighter II HD Remix designer Sirlin discusses who's done things right -- and wrong -- when creating save systems for video games.]

I once heard Peter Molyneux say that during the development of Populous he didn't want the player to be able to pause the game. His reasoning was that Populous is a world that goes on with or without the player. Luckily, his friends talked him out of it, pointing out that sometimes the doorbell rings, the phone rings, or the baby cries.

Games are not for game designers and their ivory-tower ideals-games are for players. Players have lives outside of our games and we should respect those lives and design our games accordingly, rather than expect our players to design their lives around us.

Players should be able to save anytime they want, or more precisely, they should be able to stop playing your game anytime without losing their meaningful progress.

This is an old argument where one side talks about the convenience of saving anytime and the other talks about the need to make games challenging, but this is a false dichotomy. We can allow the player to stop playing without excessive penalty and make a challenging game. It's just a matter of defining what "saving" actually means.

As an example, Mario 64 doesn't literally allow the player to save anywhere they want, but it still meets this requirement in spirit. The point of the game is to collect all 120 stars, and every time you collect a star, you "save and continue." You cannot save your exact position in a level, but such a feature isn't needed anyway.

The geography of the game is designed such that a player can reach the entrance to any level in just a few seconds by navigating Mario's castle and getting back to any specific goal in a level doesn't take long either.

This preserves the game's difficulty (players can't save and load to get the stars more easily) and it also means the player can turn the game off at any time, knowing that the only important progress (collecting stars) has been saved.

Save Point, Checkpoint

God of War 1 and 2 and Resident Evil 4 all use the same save system, which is also common in many other games. They all have save points and check points. Save points let players save their progress and load it later. Check points are sprinkled invisibly between save points and if they die, they go back to the last checkpoint rather than all the way back to the last save point.

This system isn't too bad, but it doesn't do a good job of letting the player save and quit at any time, either. It would make more sense if the player could pause the game at any time and save progress up to the last checkpoint.

I'm not suggesting that the player should be able to take a step, save, fire a shot, save-just that he or she should be able to stop playing the game and resume from the last checkpoint. After all, that would happen anyway through dying.

Why separate save points from check points in the first place? I think the answer is for technical reasons rather than design reasons. God of War was designed for the PlayStation 2 and Resident Evil 4 originally appeared on the GameCube (and later on PlayStation 2 and Wii).

These consoles take a few seconds to write a save to the memory card, so doing this every time the designers wanted a checkpoint would probably have been too annoying to the player. This lead to spread out save points and the addition of check points for convenience's sake. In the future, we won't have these technical restrictions.

Gears of War was designed for the Xbox 360, a system capable of writing a save file quickly. Gears of War's save system is a definite improvement over God of War's and Resident Evil's: The player can play through the entire game without having worry about finding save points, but can also quit playing at any time and automatically start at the most recent checkpoint.

Gears of War does this by having many checkpoints, all of which automatically save progress without any action required from the player.

This example well-illustrates the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. The save system is both very convenient and does not interfere with the difficulty of the game. In fact, Gears of War could be tuned to be arbitrarily difficult without sacrificing any convenience in its save system.

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Ahmed Saker
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^^ ... David ... you should get a REAL dog for your girlfriend ...

"Braid" has a great saving system ... infact it is not a saving system .. it is "Time " controling system ... you should see it ... so funny

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The reason that the save game system worked for Dead Rising was that they explicitly wanted you to start over from the beginning. Many times.

There were, as I recall, something like 12 different endings. And an entire playthrough took a max of 6 hours, realtime. So the punishment was minimal. And without forcing you to restart like that, most players wouldn't have discovered that the game plays very, very differently depending on what choices you make.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Are you kidding? I'm lucky if I have 6 hours in a month to play videogames. That is cruel and unusual punishment. It doesn't matter how many different endings there are when the game is so frustrating that people won't play through it even once!

Maurício Gomes
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Indeed, I finished Super Metroid in 6 hours, and to me this was one of the longest games that I ever played, how you say that 6 hours is fast? Are you mad?

Altough I like the idea (as a designer of course, I never played the game, so I do not know how annoying it is to start over), but that gives me new ideas (ie: you do not return to the START since that is much probably annoying, but you could have some penalty, like return in place and lost stats, or return strong but everyone respawns o/, a intelligent person could even use that to level up, kill everyone, kill himself, kill eveyrone, kill himself... lots of killing here Oo)

Squee Splat
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The above comments seem to be missing the point made in the article. The point isn't that a save system "worked" or didn't work, or how long a playthrough is without saves, it's that it was inconvenient for the player. Punishing the player for real life events (such as time spent) is NOT what game designers should be doing, and is what this article is condemning.

Another game that could have been mentioned here was Zelda: Majora's Mask. While the game was quite unique and interesting from various perspectives, its save system fell into this same trap of being for the game designer rather than the player. You could only do a full save by turning back time all the way to the first day. They did mitigate this somewhat by providing a "one-time save" feature, where you would strike certain statues with your sword to save, but when you loaded the save, that save would be deleted unless you saved again. It mitigated the problem somewhat, but still forced the player to spend fairly large blocks of time on the game without saving.

Chris Proctor
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"We should always try to design a save system that simply serves its purpose and fades into the background, otherwise we might end up like New Super Mario Bros.-a game with sales of over 10 million units worldwide, and with ten million girlfriends unable to play Nintendogs."

Hilarious, although I'd love to know whether this is just a joke to lighten the tone (presumably NSMB would have sold 10 million even if the saving had been more pleasant), or a last-second contradiction of the rest of the article ;-)

Marcel Jackwerth
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If I remember correctly, Oblivion tried to work around "cheating by saving". Once you saved your game, all NPCs were healed by a small degree - while your keeps the same.

So, saving a few times leads to a lack of ammo and health - but your enemy towers in front of you with a fully replenished healthbar. Sad, if you have been using that save-slot for the last few game-hours.

Michiel Hendriks
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Gamers shouldn't be bothered with saving games, because saving the progress breaks the immersion.

Quicksaving is also often badly implemented, the quick save feature should use at least 2 slots and cycle them.

Cheating by saving shouldn't be a concern, people are only cheating themselves. And if people resort to save cheating there might be something wrong with the game in the first place.

Matt Ponton
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Good article as always Sirlin. I am surprised you didn't touch on the JRPG genre. I remember I gave up on FFVII because I had gone 3 hours without saving, when I needed to go I was stuck in the Golden Saucer where the only Save point I was allowed to use I had to pay tickets for (I wasted my tickets on gambling) so I couldn't, I also couldn't leave the Golden Saucer to get the Save point a few screens before the entrance because "[My] Party was Split up." So I lost all my work and never cared to finish the game. You'd think the game would let you save at any time, even in battle I wouldn't be surprised since even in a game of chess you can take a break and come back to it later.

Allen Seitz
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Good article!

I'm huge fan of the hardware supported sleep that all DS games are required to implement. It makes sense for the DS because it's a handheld and you may need to put it down at any moment.

But now that I think about it, why can't the living room consoles implement a sleep too? Or better yet, since they're living room consoles, how about a hibernate? Obviously you drop your Internet connection the same as if you had unplugged your modem. And driving games and rhythm games aren't very well suited to hibernate. But a quicksave at home would be very welcome.

Sande Chen
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I second, great article!

Although it seems obvious, it's important to remember we're designing for the fun of players, not for the fun of the game designer (or the computer, for that matter).

I wish some casual games too would allow me to keep my progress and not make me start the level over.

Another note: There was that experiment (at MIT, I believe) where they had girls and boys designing games. Girls designed games that were much more forgiving of failure whereas boys designed games where the player would have to start over or would have to lose a lot of points or progress.

Luis Guimaraes
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I was really thinking about saving systems just a few hours ago...

The quick-save feature is really a bad thing that just makes the most hardwork player to cheatsave the game before every challenge [I`ve done quick saves before hacking in Bioshock! even with the vita-chambers there], and that`s an anti-immersive feature...

I think the best thing to do is about trying to mix the things, for exemple, using saves and checkpoints together, like in Resident Evil 4 or Symphony of the Night, where you get back in the current map even the game having a moderated saving system...

Another thing, depends on the game style, is to make the saving feature inside an in-game menu, "in-game" as "no-pause", like in MMORPG menus... some turn-based RPGs uses this: the player only can save the game when he`s out of a battle... well, open an in-game real-time menu may be something to do out of a battle...

Aaron Lutz
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I was surprised you didn't mention Jak II. Checkpoints were seamless, as the game designers performed them any time you were traveling from one area to another; areas were sealed by an airlock or something - took about 10 seconds to open and the game didn't freeze at all during this time; you could even still move, shoot, and ride your hoverboard.

And then when it came time to save, it was simple as opening the menu and saving; you could do it at any time.

Overall, though, good article. This is another something you'd think would be obvious, from a player perspective, but that designers generally implement poorly.

Ryan Nideffer
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I appreciate how you kept returning to the idea that games should be played how the consumer wants, not how the producer wants. This is one reason why sandbox games like GTA4 or Dead Rising (as you mentioned) are so popular. No matter how experienced or how intelligent a game maker is, they can't predict exactly how every single gamer will play their game.

Don't limit the player

Bart Stewart
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"Saving should be treated as one of the player's natural rights, not an earned privilege or a game mechanic around which to make strategic decisions."

Agreed. I don't enjoy a "we know what's best for you" attitude from game designers any more than I like it from other kinds of social engineers.

As a diehard save-gamer, I was extremely unhappy when I discovered in playing the original Far Cry (for PC) that there was no quicksave/quickload feature. Save and load were implemented; they just weren't made available to the player because the developer had the "we know better than you how you're supposed to play this game" attitude. Fortunately there was a console hack that allowed a quicksave/quickload key-bind or that game would have been dumpstered on the spot... but why should such a gross hack have been necessary in the first place?

Furthermore, as a dedicated PC gamer, the (from my perspective) misbegotten choice being made more often these days to design first for consoles and only later -- if ever -- for the PC means that more games are following the Far Cry no-save-option model. As a result, my gaming experiences are becoming worse, not better. I'm buying fewer games. Isn't that the opposite of what game publishers should be wanting?

Having said this, however, I have to acknowledge I'm not closed to all no-save-option designs. I recently decided to give Call of Duty 4 a try. (Again, this is the PC version.) When I realized that there was no way to save when I wanted to save, I growled something about "Far Cry all over again!" and nearly quit. But out of curiosity I kept playing a little longer... and discovered that the checkpoint system in CoD4 actually worked pretty well. The number and location of the checkpoints was usually close enough to where I would have saved so that I was willing to accept the game's handling of that for me. I still didn't like it, but I could live with it.

So this approach can work, even for someone like me who absolutely hates having a developer's theory about when I "should" be able to save my gameplay experience imposed on me.

It's worth noting, however, that this will not work for all kinds of games. CoD4 and BioShock, for example, are very different kinds of games. A linear shooter intended to be a high-adrenaline experience might be able to justify a checkpoint system rather than a save/load option that could supposedly "interrupt" the visceral experience more than dying and magically restarting at a checkpoint. I could accept not being able to save in CoD4 because the pace of gameplay in that particular game made a checkpoint system feel reasonably natural.

But in a slower-paced, more thoughtful and more exploratory game like BioShock, I and, I suspect, most other players want to be able to do what Doug Hofstadter once called "subjunctive replays" -- we want to be able to explore one path, then reload and see what would have happened had we taken a different path. RPGs with branching dialog trees generate a similar desire in players to try all the options to see all of the possible content. Games like these need to reward players who try to explore that content, not punish them for their curiosity.

One approach for accomplishing this would be to provide the traditional save/load feature so that players can -- without having to replay the entire game or level -- see everything the designers spent time making (and for which publishers want $60). Alternately, designers could design games with some kind of explicit subjunctive replay feature that allows the player to scratch that "what would happen if I...?" itch. Why not design exploratory games so that the act of saving and reloading (which a game can easily be programmed to detect) is an active and perhaps even necessary feature of the gameplay? What if reloading wasn't thought of as a punitive "ha! got you!" but as a "hey, if you think that was cool, go back and try it again!"

It might be OK to treat saving as a game mechanic around which to make tactical decisions... if game designers can break out of thinking of saving only as an enemy to be destroyed and start thinking of it as a feature that, for the right kind of game, could be fun to explore and play with.

Adrian Lopez
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"But players cannot reduce the game's difficulty with this feature because it does not give them a second chance of any kind. This is another example where the game can remain very challenging, and yet still allow the player to save and quit at any time."

Right. You can have a suspend/resume feature which enables players to effectively pause the game without leaving it running, but at the same time not have your game respond to player failure by automatically reloading the latest arbitrary "save game".

Reverend Ted
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Another noteworthy save system was found in Steel Battalion for the Xbox. The game was mission-based, with the game automatically saving your progress after each mission in the campaign, which could be played repeatedly (in two different difficulties) while retaining the unlocked equipment from the previous playthroughs. What made the save system noteworthy is how death was treated. If your VT (vertical tank) was critically damaged, you had a few seconds to press the eject button on the complicated custom controller, or your pilot would be "killed". When a pilot failed to eject and was killed, that entire save file was locked, placed on a list of "KIA" pilots, and you had to start all over from the beginning with a new pilot, regardless of how much progress had been made to that point. Furthermore, even if you successfully ejected, if you ran out of VTs as you re-attempted a difficult mission, your save would be locked and that pilot would be "relegated" - from a gameplay perspective essentially the same as killed. Furthermore, the player was prevented from abusing the system by powering off the console prior to imminent mission failure: the game updated the save as "in progress" when a mission was started, and when the game was restarted, the mission would automatically be "failed" - the pilot would not be killed, but the selected VT would be lost, placing the player one step closer to being relegated. There was also no "pause" function, though this could be circumvented by unplugging the controller, which would halt the game until it was reconnected.

Missions were available in "Free mission mode" outside of the campaign, but only once they were completed in the campaign, so there was no way to practice a difficult mission without risking the loss of another VT.

It was a punishing system by design, though by my reckoning most players who were die-hard enough to purchase what was originally a $250 game with an enormous custom controller appreciated the extra emotional investment in their pilot's well being. From a theoretical standpoint, it added a sense of continuity to the game world, where there was a very real incentive to make every attempt count. (This was not a game for "Little Jimmy". Another testament to this fact was the lack of a tutorial level for such a complicated title - the first mission began with a hangar door collapsing and an enemy VT opening fire on you.)

Matt Smith
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I think the save feature in NSMB was Nintendo's way of showing off the sleep mode on the DS. If your girlfrield wanted to play Nintendogs, she should get her own DS. ;)

Billy Bissette
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Sirlin mentions that Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter has a similar game restart system to Dead Rising, but he does not mention important differences in the saving itself. Dragon Quarter's save system is more similar to Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, which Sirlin mentioned next.

Dragon Quarter mixes save spots and "save anywhere". Permanent saves can only be made at specific locations, and furthermore require expending a save token, which can themselves be found only at specific spots. But temporary saves, deleted upon loading, can be made anywhere outside of a battle or cutscene. This eliminates almost all of the negatives found with limited save systems, and particularly those found in games that allow only a limited number of saves in a single game.

Steven An
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It seems like Dawn of Sorrow's save system is perfect: It does not degrade challenge (no more than pausing the game does), and allows the game to be interrupted at anytime. Aside from technical restrictions (which are increasingly inexcusable), is there any reason for a game to not have this?

The only issue is that such a system is easily hacked for PC games, and probably as easily for modern consoles. But again, if the player chooses to do that, they're just degrading the experience for themselves.

Another note-worthy scheme is from Outcast: If you wanted to save, you had to "meditate" for 5 seconds in game-time. If you got shot or something, your meditation would be broken, so it wasn't really possible to save in the middle of a fire-fight. This isn't interruptable, so I don't really like it, but I thought it was clever.

Carlos Mijares
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Making "save anywhere" systems works in general, but it should not be a mandate of every game ever made, and this is coming from someone that shares Mr. Sirlin's experience with Dead Rising.

I really want to play and get into the game, but the saving system is so punishing that it turns me off. However, I can easily see the intention to use the saving system as a tool of game design, and for the people with the patience/gameplay habits to deal with it, it can be a rewarding feature and succeed in its intended purpose of heightening the survival horror experience. My girlfriend loves the game to death, has about 900+ gamerscore points on it, and she's quick to tell me how much I suck for not getting into it. This is the same girl that wants me to play Viva Piñata and Animal Crossing.

My point is, some people will naturally be turned off by it, while others will see it as an interesting challenge that adds a lot to an already unique game. Plus, unless the purpose of Dead Rising is to, "Make every game approachable enough so ANYONE, from grandma to teenage hardcore gamer, can FINISH the game," then I don't see the system as a bad decision. The game was both a commercial and critical success, and thankfully, it proves that not every successful game needs to follow the typical path of predictable design choices.

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Did Mr. Sirlin say anything of his own, or just list a bunch of games and how they work, with an opinion on what he liked. How about some new, original ideas?

Jaco van der Westhuizen
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Here is an idea.

When he player starts a new game, he/she gets to choose what kind of save system they want. These could be named something like 'Casual' and 'Hardcore' and the player chooses according to how they like to play.

This way, the game designer doesn't have to choose whether the game is casual or hardcore and manages to include both groups into their demographic.

Onni Qvickström
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What are you guys on about? The perfect save system has already been made!

Diablo! (1, 2 or both? don't remember)

When starting the game you can:

*Start new game

*Load old game

When playing you can only

*Save and Exit

The game has total control over respawning. No quick save after every enemy, load after every death. Respawning always happens in the town. (Or at checkpoints or whatever the gamedesigner find apropriate.)

And the player has total control over when to play or not.

Long story short: quiting the game is totaly equal to pausing the game.

Some design should go into this. Like: you can't quit while in a fight, because it is no fun to start the game in one.