Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Save This!

Because my Xbox 360 finally died I decided to play some older games that have been waiting for me in a stack for some time. One of these games is Killzone (the original not the PS3 sequel). An average shooter, the game convinced me to stop playing it after about 20 minutes. Not because of the sloppy controls or the combat. No, it convinced me to not play it because I died.

Not because the game killed me in a cheap manner. My death was entirely my fault. Rather, it's where the game restarted me. About 8 minutes earlier in the game, at the beginning of the level in fact. I had gone through three major events since then and the game hadn't saved the game a single time in there.

What the bloody hell?

I absolutely don't understand why checkpoints are far apart from each other like this in some games. I remember Resistance: Fall of Man frustrating me endlessly as I replayed huge sections of the game every time I died. The recent Ninja Gaiden games make you go through multiple boss fights without saving sometimes. This is an absolutely punishing, horrible way to treat players. Furthermore, it's hurting our ability to grow the audience and get more people into gaming.

Why? Because a player's time is precious. We are all busy people in this world. We have lives, jobs, families, and responsibilities. The amount of time we can game isn't huge. Every time you make the player replay large sections of your game because you want to artificially make the game more difficult, you give them an out to quit your game and go be entertained by something else. Maybe they'll go watch TV. Maybe they'll play Guitar Hero. Or maybe they'll write an angry blog post talking about how this design is piss-poor.

Forcing players to replay large sections of your game after death is a barrier to entry for many players and a clean, easy place to opt out for most. Ask yourself this. What's more important? That the player get through 10 minutes of gameplay without dying or that the player keep playing your game? I would guess that the vast majority of the time the goal is for the latter to occur. That gets people playing and enjoying more of your game. It gets them to tell their friends or have other people try the game. If you really want to punish players for dying, why not make it only on your hardest difficulties for those players who want that sort of challenge?

We're getting better at this as an industry but still have a long way to go. The answer isn't, in my mind, let the player save anywhere. It's almost 2010. Save state should be invisible to the player. The player should never worry about if the game is saved and how to reload and which reload to use. The game should automatically do the right thing. I'm not saying we need to go the Bioshock or Prey model and remove any punishment from death. I'm saying a light slap on the wrist is sufficient. Don't kick me in the scrotum.

There are, as always, exceptions. Survival horror games would lose much of the horror if there wasn't a significant negative consequence for death. Games who's appeal is purely based around extreme challenge would also fit in as an exception. Most games, however, implement checkpoints poorly due to them being low on the rung of important things to do during development of the game. Sometimes they are the last thing to get put in. Other times, no one is checking them to make sure they aren't too far apart.

This isn't a good reason. We need to break the mold that punishes the players for playing and trying, and instead let players embrace failure not fear it. Let's start treating our players with some amount of decency and maybe they'll actually finish our games. The best part is, this is an easy to solve problem that just takes some forethought and common sense and testing to make sure you got it right.

We can do so much better. Let's start.


  1. I agree, encouraging the user to keep playing your game is definitely the right approach. It is a tricky thing to balance however. Where is the line drawn between too many checkpoints and too little? Bioshock and Prince of Persia are good examples of this. Both these games attempt to not punish the player for failing, yet both have been criticized for being 'too easy'.
    We've changed the way we deal with player failure quite a bit in recent years. Most likely caused by an attempt to capture more casual gamers. Sometimes, this comes at the cost of the more hardcore gamers.
    As we look to the future I believe we'll figure out a formula that pleases both crowds.

  2. I think this is where we can start using difficulty levels for one (and letting players CHANGE difficulty levels on the fly, not just when starting a new game).

    Most players are willing to accept playing a couple minutes of a game over. 10 minutes is daunting. That's the key to me. Minimize the impact, not eliminate.

  3. I agree whole heartedly. As someone who would like to eventually get into this industry, these are the little thing in games that make or break them for me. I agree that the way Bioshock did it for a FPS was kind of wrong, I feel that a system like that was better suited for a game like Oblivion. I think that Bungie has it right about the checkpoint system. I know that if I have to start a major skirmish in say Halo ODST and I die, which I do lol, I will be right back at the thick of it ready to try again. Sometimes I do not understand why game companies do the things they do in games. I guess they are trying to just get their product out there and hope someone buys it, but seriously, how hard can it be to think about small things like checkpoints. I agree that if you want to make the game harder then the harder difficulties should allow those kinds of options. Can we really think of games like Resident Evil that would suffer from this? RE4 might of suffered from this kind of system, but RE5? That game is so far from what Resident Evil was it makes me sad sometimes. WHAT HAPPENED TO MY ZOMBIES?? heh ok sorry off topic. I think that you are correct sir on how companies handle these things. Maybe they should think of things like the people buying and playing their games rather than the money they get from them? I do not know as I am not in the industry yet, but one day maybe people like me will be there to think of moments where you stopped playing because you had to restart a whole level and say "Hey Guys . . ."

  4. Definitely a peeve of mine. I cant help but give up on a game when this happens.

  5. Haven't we already started though? Does Killzone 2 share this flaw?

  6. I don't recall being punished by any particular game's checkpoint system but I do feel that this is one element should be included in the players choice of difficulty options. Both Volition and Rockstar learnt the value of checkpoints and used them in the DLC releases for Red Faction Guerilla and GTAIV respectively. This inclusion vastly improved the enjoyment of the game because it eliminated much of the dead time associated with the start of missions in open world games, preventing the boring repetition of driving to a battle again and again in the event of failture. I think you make a valid point with your rant :P and hope others take heed.

  7. ...... if thats the case, why don't you just skip players past the section they die at /facepalm

  8. One thread that often comes up in these discussions (on your twitter discourse leading up to this post, for example) is 'how far is too far?' I think this is the meta question that things like making the game too easy peel from.

    For me, the sticking issue is that the purpose of a save (whether manual or automatic) is to allow the player to remake a choice. Sometimes it's a choice that leads to failure ("I jumped too early and fell down a pit") or a choice that leads to dissatisfaction ("I bought the wrong doodads and now my character looks ugly").

    (Note that in this regard, a save is identical to an undo: The analogy in software is complete, and a game like Braid demonstrates this usefully.)

    So, saves are bad if they do either of two things:
    1) They don't roll back far enough, so the critical choice has already been made. Like that time every player has in a shooter where they save the game with a grenade under their feet; every time they load, they immediately blow up. Frustrating!
    2) The game rolls back past either good choices or non-choices that the player has already made, and the player is forced to relive them. Re-enacting a winning strategy is boring, and going through a non-interactice scene is boring. Frustrating!

    This is completely separate from issues of challenge: Whether I'm a hardcore and want to repeatedly have my butt kicked, or whether I'm a casual and just want to get the experience, I still don't want to do anything but face interesting, unsolved challenges.

  9. But what about Goldeneye? It proves there is something to say for sparse checkpoints/no checkpoints at all.
    I'm not saying I like it per se, but it does force a certain style of playing on you, that might be more fun in the end.

  10. @JXs I don't know if I'd use Goldeneye as an illustration of this, but yes, checkpoints can be sparse, so long as replaying that long segment remains interesting. For example, in Hitman I rarely felt pained if I hadn't saved in a while, because I knew that I could try something completely different when I loaded. In Hitman 2, they made the levels more linear and drastically reduced the player's options, and so I was way more compulsive on the quicksave coz I didn't want to lose progress made.

  11. I totally agree with you. A poorly done saving system is one of the small things that grind down a players enthusiasm

  12. i know this was posted half a year ago but i just gamefly'd demon souls and this game is a good example. the game is hard to begin with and every time you die you start from the beginning no matter how far you gotten into the level and all the enemies respawned. i never leveled up or anything. i even tried a stronger character and could pass the first level. i played it for 3 hours.

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