Monday, April 30, 2012

Save that Game!

Disclaimer – I will try to touch upon as many saving methods as possible but most of my knowledge comes from my memory which can be faulty.

Designing a game is really just making decisions about that game. Most people think that a game designer only designs combat systems or player interactions. However a designer has to make sure that all the other aspects are appropriate for this game. These aspects are often over looked by the player when they are done well and are usually reasons for hating a game when they have been implemented poorly. The aspects of game design range from designing the user interface for menus to creating a useful world map. This and the next few entries will focus on discussing the various methods of saving in video games.

Save systems have been around in various forms since the NES days. However many games for the NES did not allow players to save their progress and thus developers had to create games based on this limitation. Developers knew that players should be able to finish the game in one sitting but had to find some way to make sure the games felt long enough to justify a purchase of somewhere between $40 to $60. Some developers tried to increase a game’s longevity through frustratingly difficult gameplay (the original Ninja Gaiden comes to mind, along with Contra). Other developers pushed for more levels but were relatively easy so the player could finish the game in a reasonable amount of time. However to add in replayability developers could add in secret items or collectibles that affect high scores so friends can compete for top scores.

One of the earliest save systems I can think of is the use of passwords. I’m sure many people can remember using passwords in Mega Man X. The password system was great at that time. It allowed players to continue previous plays with most of their abilities intact. Developers could take advantage of this through creating elaborate levels that would be larger since time was not a significant limitation anymore. Players would receive a password after they finish the level and can return the next day to play the next level. The password system had other advantages such as allowing for friends to share passwords and the ability to have passwords work on other cartridges. If your cartridge was lost or broke and you acquired a new copy of the game, passwords ensured that your save file would allow you to continue your progress regardless of what happened to your previous cartridge. One of the main disadvantages of the password system was the complexity of the passwords. The amount of character used for passwords could range from 9 to 20 characters and a single error would often make an invalid password. Also it can be easy to lose a piece of paper with some random letters on it because your mom thinks its just some garbage. Eventually cartridges were equipped with a battery backed RAM that allowed for saved games to be stored after the console was turned off. Nintendo used this technology to allow adventurers to save their progress in their quest to save Princess Zelda in the Legend of Zelda on the NES.

Another save system used frequently is the manual save points. RPG’s use manual save points along with the ability to save anywhere on the world map. The manual save point is usually some spot or item that allows the user to save their progress as many times as they want as long as they can continue to access the save point. Designers could use manual save points to break up a larger dungeon into smaller sections or use it to alter the difficulty of an area. RPGs tend to allow users the ability to fully recover either through an innate ability of the save point or through an item such as a tent. This allows designers to place save points right before a tough boss battle to ensure that the player had a chance to recover from all the battles throughout the dungeon. The only problem is that the designer has to assume where the player will need the save point. Different players get stuck at different places when playing through a game. Thus it is the job of the designer to make sure save points are dispersed at strategic locations by understanding the players need. A designer could place a save every few feet but then the player will feel that the game is more about saving then actually playing. Designers need to justify using save points by placing them either before or after a tough battle or puzzle because nobody likes to do the same thing over and over again.

One of the flaws found in Ninja Gaiden II is the improper placement of save points. During the start of one of the later chapters, the player has to fight about five alternating battles between two enemy types. Each battle is self contained and only features one type of enemy. At the end of the gauntlet is a large circular room with both sets of enemies. While from a design perspective this is great. The smaller sets of both enemies fought individually allow the user to have an idea of what waits for them at the end. However fighting both types of enemies at the same time is a different experience. After losing the battle, I find my self at the start of the gauntlet. I have to fight my way back to the final room through the same enemies that I have already mastered because of the lack of any save point before the end of the gauntlet. This only frustrated me since I was wasting my time fighting the same encounters that I have already mastered when I should be at the final area. Fortunately there is a save point after the final fight so I never had to repeat that fight.

I originally intended this entry to incorporate all my ideas for the save methods but I think it might be better to break up the entry into three sections. The next section will discuss saving anywhere and the usage of checkpoints.