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Save System Design pt.1

It's difficult to find a video game these days that doesn't save player data in one form or another. With advancing technologies for console and handheld gaming, save system design is more complex than ever. Let's examine save system design in detail.

It's difficult to find a video game these days that doesn't save player data in one form or another. Along the same lines, nearly all games with campaigns, single player modes, or story modes feature some kind of progress saving feature. In general the functions of saving and loading fall under the umbrella of difficulty design.

In some ways, adding or taking away saving options does not affect the difficulty of gameplay challenges. Rather, it changes the flexibility that one can bring to the challenge in terms of taking breaks and reducing repeated attempts (elements that are outside of the challenge itself).

With advancing technologies for console and handheld gaming, save system design is more complex than ever for more games. We now factor in portability and short play sessions, continuity with storytelling, difficulty, repetition, feature expectations, exploration freedom, the mental state of the player, and more. The following article will examine these considerations in detail.

We commonly think of saving and loading data as a player initiated function in video games. Technically, computers are constantly writing, reading, and deleting data. But from a game design perspective we can think of save system design as a combination of 3 main actions; save, store, and load.

The facets of save functions include whether the game auto-save, the action is player initiated, what data is saved, when the player can save, and other grouped functions. Store options include how many slots are available and whether the player can copy, delete, or import/export the file. And load options are whether the game loads the data automatically or not, when the player can load, and any grouped functions. 



As is my custom, I like to ground all design discussions with a look at Super Mario Brothers for the NES. At first, I thought that only the high score was saved to the NES cartridge. After I received a "game over" I had to start the game over from World 1-1. But SMB actually does feature a save system.

Apparently, if you hold the A button and hit start, you can resume progress with your score reset on the first level of the last world you visited. This handy little feature saves your progress automatically and temporarily. In other words, the game doesn't store the information in memory so that it can be loaded after the system is reset.  

Ignoring this simple and somewhat secret option, we can consider how players have responded to the difficulty design of Super Mario Bros. In my mind, before learning the save trick, I felt that SMB was a surprisingly challenging game.

If I didn't take the warps and farm 1ups using the infinite Koopa shell trick, I really had to focus on good strategies to survive all 8 worlds. Thinking that a "game over" meant "start over" every coin became a worthwhile investment. In this way, a greater emphasis was put on collecting coins to earn extra lives, a well tuned suspended element in SMB's design.

Restarting a game from scratch at a game over screen is about as harsh a pentalty as it gets. Older games like Super Mario Bros and roguelikes commonly have such a design. It seems like the biggest potential drawback to the lack of a save system is being forced to replay levels one has already beat. For SMB I see this as a positive thing.

Playing through levels again emphasises the emergent possibilities of a game's level design. Think about it this way, if every time (or even many of the times) you play a level the challenge and therefore the experience is different, you have to play the level more and more to appreciate this quality.

After playing World 1-1 and 1-2 dozens of times, I formed a routine which included grabbing all of the powerups, uncovering all the secret blocks, and sliding down every possible pipe. Basically, I had my winning strategy memorized. However, the more I played each level the more I realized just how varied the challenges could be mainly due to SMB's layered level design (counterpoint).

The interplay with the enemies and their multi stage threats, the destructible environments, the secrets, the coins, and the powerups are designed to interact with each other so that player actions ripple forward to create hundreds of different challenges and scenarios. Even on my 100th trip through 1-1 I've found traps that were never apparent to me before that were triggered by the subtle changes in my actions.

Furthermore, just beating a level or completing a task does not mean you have mastered it. Like with most writing, films, music, or other pieces of art, there's more to investigate, learn, and understand than one can ever experience initially.

So, replaying content is something I appreciate because it helps me enjoy it better. For a game with a strong story focus, I can see why replaying levels could be irritating. Imagine reading half way through your favorite book and then being forced to read through the book again from a previous chapter.

Rereading a section before you get to the end of the story may seem jarring because of the linear, forward moving progression of the story. Then again, don't you reread words, sentences, and paragraphs when you're confused about something? When you're watching a TV show or a movie, don't you pause and rewind when necessary? Isn't it more important to understand as you go along instead of push ahead especially when you move at your own pace?  For these reasons, being forced to re-experience story content doesn't really bother me.

I don't see replaying a level or a challenge as a bad thing at all. This is not to say that I don't get tired of replaying a level at some point. Ultimately, I understand that most video games are learning systems where increased skills are required to overcome later challenges. This means that I am likely to come to a point where building the necessary skills requires replaying levels and challenges. This also means that building these skills may take time, rest, and refection. At these moments repeated attempts may only frustrate the situation. For these reasons, what I want may be at odds with what I need. 

Since Super Mario Brothers, SMB: Lost Levels incorporated the secret load feature as a clear menu option. In SMB2 a game over reset players all the way back to the beginning of the game. And SMB3 resets players back to the first level of the world they died on.

From Super Mario World and beyond, players can save their progress and work to unlock everything the games had to offer. With each change in the save system design, the way players could play the game changed. Also, with each change, the game designers at Nintendo adjusted the rest of the game as well. 

So, from Mario's "old school" auto-save, load only, single (temporary) slot, in part 2 we'll look at the other extreme of save system design.

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