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How Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew made save scumming a central mechanic

Mimimi Games needed a touch of magic to make save scumming feel like a natural part of gameplay.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

August 22, 2023

8 Min Read

"Save scumming"—the practice of quickly reloading saves after an undesired result in a video game—brings out some really weird opinions on Al Gore's internet. Yes, it's usually not how a game is "intended" to be played, but it's a feature that only exists in single-player games where players are free to dictate how they spend their time without hurting anyone else. It literally doesn't hurt anyone why do people have such weird opinions about it we don't need to have a hot take on everything oh my god.

But! Maybe I'm looking at this problem the wrong way. Maybe people have weird opinions about save scumming because save scumming is itself "weird." Players are used to "game over" screens or fail states that dump them back at the last checkpoint, but according to Mimimi Games head of design Moritz Wagner, plenty of players—players who even rely on save scumming in games—tend to think of it as "cheating." "They feel like they're doing something that's not intended by the game, because that's how it often is games," he said, noting that players may feel "cheap" even while willingly mashing the quicksave and quickload buttons.

Wagner's speaking from experience. He's been with Mimimi Games his entire professional career and was there when the studio broke big with 2016's Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. The stealth-strategy smash hit took inspiration from the classic Commandos series, and from the beginning, Mimimi wanted players to feel as free to experiment as possible. Save-scumming was meant to be an "integral part of the game," he said. He remembered bombarding people with tutorials to try and make the act of quicksaving and quickloading feel as natural as possible—but try as they might, it didn't always stick.

Well, if it was an intended feature, why didn't it stick? Wagner explained that save scumming can be "fourth-wall breaking." Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is set in feudal Japan's Edo Period, and there's no in-game reason for the player characters to be rolling back the clock every few minutes. Without any in-game motivation, it just broke the mood for some people.

That's why with this year's Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew, Mimimi went in with a key design goal in mind: making sure save scumming would be a "fun" part of the game—not just by creating an in-universe explanation for the temporal rollbacks, but also by integrating it deeply into the UI and design space.

By doing so, Mimimi gave itself more freedom to make more intricate and challenging stealth-strategy spaces—because it was able to trust that players would feel better about adopting a "try, try again" attitude.

Shadow Gambit uses "saved memories" to let players try out multiple solutions

Players are introduced to save scumming in Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew like this: after going through an early tutorial area as protagonist Afia where they learn how to traverse the map and perform basic assassinations, players are tasked with killing a higher-tier enemy unit. The unit has a new set of detection abilities not communicated to the player, so they're detected, killed, and taken out.

Afia's already an undead "Cursed" pirate, so she gets a little help from The Red Marley—the ghost ship she's on her way to rescue. The Red Marley returns Afia to an earlier autosaved "memory" and explains she has time reversal power that can help Afia on her mission. The power is then added to the player interface as a pair of big glowing buttons in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

It's a bit of a narrative crowbar, but by this point, Shadow Gambit has set itself up with a campy and mystical voice. The pirate accents are all heavily exaggerated, there's a talking boat and talking skeletons, Afia's sheathes her sword in her literal ribcage—everything's already a bit over-the-top, so loudly calling attention to the quicksave and quickload mechanics makes plenty of sense.

Sharp-eyed developers trying out Shadow Gambit will note that there are a lot of fine details in the quicksave/quickload interface. The pleasant sound of a ringing bell chimes whenever players save a memory. There's an eerie green animation that fills up the screen, and both buttons have been placed in the user interface with the prominence you normally give to button-mapped abilities.

If you think designing this feature was "easy," however, think again. Wagner noted that under the hood, a lot is going on whenever a player hits that "save memory" button. "The way our game saves and loads—it's rather different from most games nowadays, because it's really save and load everything," he said with some exhaustion.

"Everything?" What does "everything" entail? Well, how about the exact state and position of every NPC on the map, which are visible to the player at all times? Because players units can be entirely independent, everything everywhere on the item needs to be preserved for regular quickloads.

And now here's the rub—because saving that much data takes a few seconds, the developers risked losing the players' attention span with each saved memory. Depending on the players' hardware, such saves or loads could take seconds or milliseconds.

The user experience solution was to hide the loading behind two animations: the aforementioned bell, and a pearl cracking open. The pearl is a particularly neat trick since it acts like a faux in-universe loading bar. As the load progresses, cracks appear in the pearl, accompanied by a nice, loud crunching sound. Then the pearl breaks, the game is reloaded, and players are back to their last saved point.

Wagner said this all was necessary to make players feel like they could safely experiment with different solutions. "We want you want you to just experiment...failure doesn't matter in our games, because you can just try again."

Encounters in Shadow Gambit have to work with every combination of crewmates

Wagner explained that the in-story save scumming was one of the reasons why Mimimi wanted to make a more magical game than Shadow Tactics or Desperados III. In the back end of the latter game, the studio began experimenting with some magical mechanics that could fit in a Wild West adventure, and they'd decided they wanted to add more such tools to the player toolbox.

"That was the main most driving factor," he said. "We wanted us to be able to experiment with anything we could have come up with without thinking about realism too much."

Those abilities take some interesting directions. Some have obvious stealth benefits, like those of the ship's doctor Suleidy, who can throw out magical seeds that sprout into cover-granting bushes. Others are more abstract—like passive traits that impact how characters navigate the environment.

Having more abilities to work with opened up some of Mimimi's other design goals: letting players customize their stealth squads and setting up an "open sandbox" structure for each level. Those design goals did lead to some challenges with scoping—and one major challenge was that Mimimi was deliberately surrendering some of its design tools from Shadow Tactics and Desperados III.

In those games, they knew where players would spawn on the map and what abilities they would have access to—meaning they could design encounters meant to be solved by those specific abilities in a general order.

Those affordances were willingly discarded in Shadow Gambit. Wagner said this meant the level designers had to become comfortable with open-ended spaces. He said there wasn't any "magic" to adapting to that process—"just lots of iteration."

What he did say mattered a lot was making sure the character abilities and enemy types were "systemically set up in a way that the level designers have the tools to build something that is fair." Giving enemies abilities that can counter player powers was a core part of Shadow Gambit's design foundation—and make challenging encounters that feed right into the native "save scumming" of the game.

Wagner's musing about level design led him to wax poetic on another "meta-strategy" of challenging games—the art of "cheesing" your way through an encounter. Wagner used the example of encounters you might find in Elden Ring or Dark Souls, where players can defeat a challenging boss by poking them to death from a nearby ledge with arrows or magic.

It's a mentality Wagner embraces, even if it appears to work against how Shadow Gambit is supposed to be played. He noted that designers can counterbalance such behavior by creating a wide enough variety of encounters that draw "cheesing" players into gameplay. Some developers might worry that allowing such behavior could let players speed through a game too fast.

But that "doesn't matter," Wagner explained. If the player had fun killing one boss in a sneaky manner, they'll feel accomplished with what they pulled off—but will have skipped over an experience that would prepare them for another encounter. The skills and accumulated knowledge all eventually balance out—a great reward for designers who, as Hidetaka Miyazaki told us earlier this year, put trust in their players.

If there's a lesson for other developers in Shadow Gambit, it's that the meta tactics your players use to brute-force through encounters are the very design ideas you can include. Whether it's "save scumming," "cheesing," "min-maxxing," or whatever else players come up with, they're design ideas that show players want to engage with your game, just not in the way you expected.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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