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Great Game Design Debate: Saves- Integral To The Design or Time Killers?

Today's debate focuses on the act of game saves: once a luxury feature, it has become a major component in game design. However should this feature be a major consideration of the design?

Josh Bycer, Blogger

March 11, 2012

6 Min Read

Today's debate focuses on the act of game saves: once a luxury feature, it has become a major component in game design. However should this feature be a major consideration of the design?

This is another one of those topics where I get to sound old at the age of 27. Gamers these days really do have it easy with their disk drives and cloud saves. Back during the NES era, if you wanted to finish a game, you were sitting there until the credits rolled. During the early days of the industry, saving during a game was reserved for RPGs and Computer games which were a step ahead with the hard drive. For everything else, you had to be lucky if your game had a password save. You youngsters out there are fortunate that you'll never have to deal with a 30 character password system.

As games became more complex and technology improved, saving went from being a luxury feature, to now standard. However, the actual implementation has several variations. Some games allow the player to save at any point, while others only allow it at specific locations. As the use of saves became standard, it allowed designers to increase the amount of content knowing that someone won't have to do it all in one sitting. Today, the act of saving has changed to be a part of the design process with how to properly pace and challenge games. This brings us to today's debate: should saving be an integral part of the game design, or not?

A lot of designers are trying to inject meaningful choices into their games such as the little sister decision in Bioshock. Being able to reload any choice you want undervalues making important decisions. Raise your hand if you ever created a separate save in a game before a major choice so that you can go back to it and select the other one.

Another detail of saves is with challenge; games where the player can save anywhere can ruin the challenge or mood of the game. In Amnesia: The Dark Decent, with the ability to save anywhere and infinite lives, it killed the tension of the game for me. However, playing the mini expansion where the player can't save and there is only one life, I was feeling nervous due to not knowing what's going to happen.

Saving can be used as a way to jack up the tension and challenge in a game. The Resident Evil series up until 4 (if I remember right) not only had specific save points, but a limit on how often you could save a game. Each time the player wanted to save they had to use an ink ribbon at a typewriter. However, there was a limit of how many were in the game. Games aimed at expert gamers, lose a lot of their "bite" if you can just quick save and quick load your way out of trouble.

With that said however, fixed saving can be a major hassle to deal with. Free time as most adults know, is not always guaranteed: family emergencies, plans and even a job can get in the way. Some games have their save points anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes apart from each other with checkpoints dispersed between. The problem is that checkpoints won't save the player's progress if they need to go somewhere.

Is it fair to force people to replay sections they already beat because of outside issues? An even harder blow to take is having a save point after multiple sections and the player having to go before finishing the whole thing. The length and complexity of games has increased over the years which also mean the amount of time that has to be dedicated to play. That's one of the reasons why mobile and casual games have become so popular: They're quick to get into, can be played in short bursts and there is very little progress lost if the player has to stop all of a sudden.

Now this is the part where I normally talk about where my opinion falls on the topic, however I'm going to mix things up. Instead of deciding between A or B, I'm going to purpose option C, a way of having your cake and eating it too.

I purpose that the option of having a "temporary save" become the new standard for design. A temporary save which is used a lot in Rogue-likes, is that besides having a permanent save. The game allows the player to save at anytime, but upon saving the player quits the game. When they load the save up, they are right where they started and the save is deleted.

This will allow gamers to not have to worry about outside issues stopping them from playing while still preserving the game design. Games can still have permanent saves in select places, but the player is no longer forced to lost progress if they can't reach a save point.

There is one game that I've played that used this system to great effect - Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. BoF is one part rogue like and one part RPG, in how the player is supposed to play it multiple times. The player has a rank that affects what story events, or sections they are allowed to visit during the game. Each time the player beats the game or is defeated, there score is tallied up and their rank is updated. One of the details that are factored in is how many times the player saves in the game.

Like the early Resident Evils, the player can make permanent saves, but at the cost of a save token which are limited in the game. Players can also create temporary saves in the same way I described further up. To get the best ranking in the game, one of the conditions is that the player cannot have any permanent saves in their run.

The beauty of this system is that the act of saving is still a part of the design by being a score factor, but at the same time it's not punishing people for having a life. For such a challenging and hardcore experience, both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are very lenient in this regard. Both games are constantly saving your progress behind the scenes and the player can quit out of the game at anytime returning to their exact position next time.

In today's world there are numerous ways for people to play games: consoles, handhelds, phones and computers. Free time for many people is a precious commodity and if given a choice, will prefer to play something that they have a chance at making progress with. Instead of playing a game where they have to effectively plan out when they can play it beforehand.

And that takes us to the last part of these posts, what do you think? One last thing that should be factored in to your decision: How many of you have stayed up way past your bedtime to try and reach a save point before bed? My current late night record is being up to 5:30 in the morning to finish the final level of Rayman Origins. As there was no way in hell I was starting that one from scratch again.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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