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Fixing the "Impossible (Auto Save) Scenario"

Every designer should address the loophole problems in their design when it comes to game difficulty and the players worst enemy... auto save.

Matt Christian, Blogger

August 3, 2011

5 Min Read

One of the most aggravating things a player can experience is the "impossible (auto save) scenario", a situation where the player finds themselves in a portion of the game where they're presented with a challenge that is either extremely difficult or actually impossible due to the game auto saving in an unfortunate spot. 

Sadly for the gamer, this isn't their fault and is completely an issue with game design.  Here are some experiences I've had in recent games and the solutions presented by game development professionals.


This is the one item I haven't experienced first hand, but is definitely a precursor to the ideas presented in the next sections.  A major point of interest reviewers had for Devil May Cry 3 by Capcom was the fact that the game was very difficult.  Capcom knew this and after dying three times in Normal mode the gamer was given a congratulatory pat on the back and told they've unlocked Easy mode!

Capcom's solution provided the player with the option to continue the game after hitting a difficulty wall.  It may not have been the most elegant solution (we'll see some great ones coming up) but it definitely was one of the most publicized inclusions of this design a game has had in recent years.

Cliff Diving

Bungie's Halo: Reach implements an auto save system that fires in the game at certain points, similar to the previous Halo games.  Sometimes the save seems possibly triggered by the player progressing through a level, a certain event completed (such as killing all enemies in a room), or even time-based as you can run around a single spot for a long time and sometimes are granted with the saving icon.

At one point in Reach I found myself cruising along a road in my trusty Warthog with my dedicated team beside me.  Without warning, a hairpin turn appears and we all go hurtling off the cliff in the most horrifying of space-marine related auto deaths known to man (or SPARTAN). 

Little did I know, the game had recently autosaved... about 1-2 seconds before the turn.  Over and over the game would respawn my band of crash test dummies only to shoot us off the cliff.  Due to the design behind the Warthog and the included physics system, it was physically impossible to turn that sharp or stop fast enough to prevent this situation.

This issue is really a 'loophole' (or logic hole) in the design.  The design of the core game is rather solid and the save system is solid, but the way the two work together just creates problems that need to be solved through additional design.

In my opinion, the developers at Bungie solved this extremely elegantly and is one of the best design decisions I've noticed in a game.  After dying between 5 and 10 times, the game seemed to revert to a previous checkpoint which happened to be only a minute or so before the turn.  This solved my impossible scenario without feeling like I was overly set back in the game.

The Devil is in the Details

A recent game rental provided me with a copy of Visceral Games' "retelling" of Dante's Inferno.  Feeling confident in my gaming abilities I started a new game on hard mode (note, there is one higher difficulty but is locked the first play through).  Everything was going well for a few 'levels' until I hit a trigger section, a spot where I was supposed to pull a lever which would extend a bridge and, to no surprise, spawned 6 enemies.  I only had a sliver of health at this point so I was quickly killed.  Thankfully the game spawned me just before the lever pull but still with that sliver of life.

Over and over these demonesque beasts would take me out until finally after respawning several times the game popped up a little tooltip: "You know, if you suck this bad, you can change the difficulty in the pause menu" (loosely translated).  It wasn't until dying again that I noticed the game had done something else, it actually had filled my life bar a bit when respawning me.  Every subsequent respawn would provide me with more and more health until eventually my life bar would be completely full.

In the context of this style of game it was a good solution to a problem with the auto save loophole.  The Bungie solution would possibly have worked but without that extra life I might just be stuck in a longer area and dying over and over.

But, maybe it's my gamer ego talking, this solution irritated me because the game was giving me more than just a little helping touch on respawn.  Later in the game I knew I could complete a section but by the time my skill was there I was already being handed free life gain.  In reality, in some areas it felt like I was somehow cheating by taking a boost in life when I didn't feel I needed it only to beat the system.

Take Away

In the end, every game has a different way of dealing with difficulty and with implications with auto save.  The design choice for solving this issue should be appropriate for the game and the audience.  In most cases this kind of loophole fix will probably even expand your audience as you're trying to make the game more accessible to more ability levels.  Keep in mind how other companies have provided solutions for these issues and even try to leverage them with some added changes.  Sure you can just ignore it and make your game hard, but how many players are going to give your game a fourth and fifth chance after dying in the same manner over and over and over and....

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