Save System Design pt.3

This article will look at examples of save system design that exist somewhere in between no-save and save anywhere. I'll describe each system, and then explain how a player may use, abuse, or be influenced by the design.

[part 1] [part 2]

This article will look at examples of save system design that exist somewhere in between no-save and save anywhere. I'll describe each system, and then explain how a player may use, abuse, or be influenced by the design. 


Fire Emblem (GBA) vs Advance Wars.  

These strategies games are both made by Intelligent Systems. While Fire Emblem (FE) focuses on character based leveling and tactical-strategy gameplay, Advance Wars (AW) generally focuses on pure strategy with no suspended elements between missions. I've only beaten FE for the GBA, yet I've beaten every single AW game released in America. One of the main reasons why FE is so difficult is the permadeath feature. If a unit dies in a match, it stays dead for the rest of the game. With a set number of units to utilize for the entire game, you can imagine how much of a slippery slope this permadeath creates. And with missions where dangerous enemies spawn onto the map without warning, playing FE games can be filled with frustration. 

I believe the difference between my somewhat low appreciation for FE and my immense love for AW stems from the save system. Learning the ropes in either game requires a lot of trial-and-error. Such is the nature of very deep or complex systems. And such is the typical nature of human learning. In AW the greatest penalty for losing a unit is the loss of the mission, which can then be replayed. As long as you eventually achieve victory in a mission, the rippling consequences of your actions never bleed over into later missions. In FE because of permadeath, if you lose a character (or enough characters) you can essentially lose the game. The fear of reaching the end of the game and not having enough resources to win is why players commonly restart missions in FE when they lose a character. Both games let players save and load their progress between missions, but only Advance Wars features an in-mission quicksave option.

Advance Wars lets players quicksave at any time on their turn. You can then load this save as many times as you like (before you beat the mission which auto-erases the quicksave). There's only one quicksave slot so you'll never get confused over save files. Using the quicksave you can explore strategic possibilities thus enriching your learning process and cutting down on repeated attempts. AW quicksave feature is difficult to abuse. Being a strategy game, your knowledge skills are the only DKART skills being tested. If you don't have a good enough strategy, it doesn't matter how many times you load back to the middle of the skirmish. You'll still be stuck in a situation created from your poor decisions. Like in Super Mario Bros, the challenges in AW generally vary with each attempt because the AI builds specific units and acts in specific ways in reaction to your commands. So, there's not much to memorize or discover by abusing the quicksave.

In FE, the challenges have less variation, a greater penalty, and no saving tool to help players test out their ideas. This is by far a worse combination of features. Some say that it's more "hardcore," but if you understand how players learn, the nature of FE's challenges, and how the fear of loss shapes behavior, you'll understand that FE's design merely increases frustration, repetition, and encourages less experimentation.


Mass Effect. Save almost anywhere.

In this game players have save freedom just about everywhere except in combat. Since combat is the part of the game that stresses the most skills and has the highest action frequency, it is likely that players will make the most mistakes there. To maintain the balance of player actions and consequences, the developers simply prevent players from saving in combat. If you really don't like the outcome of a battle, load your save and do it over from the beginning. This design is very much like Fire Emblem. 


Resident Evil (Gamecube). Limited saves. Unlimited loads. 

The original style Resident Evil games have a limited save feature that I really like. By exploring in the game, you can find ink ribbons that function a kind of currency for saving. If you have no ink, you can't save by "writing your progress" into the typewriter (location based save objects). The game also features many save slots and unlimited loading. The reason I like this ink ribbon save system design is because it made me think about saving as a precious resource like gun ammo. Since the series is a survival-horror game, being worried about the unknown challenges to come works to create a constant tension. Compared to other action games, ammo scarcity make Resident Evil unique. Instead of blasting down every zombie, you learn to analyze scenarios and skip unnecessary confrontation. The same type of design was applied to the save system and achieve the same result.

The save system design discourages players from abusing save files. With a limited number of saves possible, players can't rely on making small attempts at progress and then falling back to the typewriter to save in order to safely inch their way through the game. For these reasons, the save system design of these Resident Evil games uses a decay dynamic and fixed save stations to create spaced "save phrases" while giving the player some flexibility to subdivide a phrase. At some point, successful players reach an equilibrium of ink ribbons, ammo, and confidence and spend more time surviving in the gameplay than worrying and managing save files.


Pokemon Black/White. Single save slot. 

Pokemon Black/White is an example of a modern, highly successful game with only one save slot. It works much like the Mass Effect save system design where you can save anywhere except in battle, and I like it this way. Pokemon is already a game where players can customize 649 different Pokemon and their adventure to a large degree. Managing multiple files with this many customizable details would be a nightmare. I can see myself getting a headache searching for which file I put my SpD/SpA IV/EV trained Venusaur that has the egg move giga drain. Also, if players could save to multiple files, then everyone could clone Pokemon and thus diminish the give-take significance of trading Pokemon.

More importantly, Pokemon is a game where all of its features are consistent with the in-game fiction. Whether you battle other players, visit the online dream world, collect items, or talk to NPCs everything you do is part of your Pokemon story. Withone save file, I can experiment with a few options without penalty, but ultimately I cement all of my mistakes and accomplishments into my story. Pokemon is a pretty forgiving game in terms of difficulty and penalties for losing battles. This design further reduces the temptation to abuse save options. When I think of my Pokemon journey, I have one clear picture in mind; not dozens of splintered efforts/files. For these reasons, multiple save files would not work for Pokemon.


The single master experience (i.e. save abuse prevention).

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, Animal Crossing, and Demon's Souls are examples of games with save system design that is more strict than even Fire Emblem and Super Mario Bros. While FE lets the player save to any one of 3 save slots between missions, and SMB features checkpoints, these games only have one save slot. When you save, you must quit. And when you load, the old save is automatically overwritten with your new progress. If you quit out without saving, you get penalized. 

These games are designed to completely prevent save system abuse. All of your actions and mistakes are permanent. While this type of save system design is commonplace with rougelikes, it's very rare in other genres. If you attempt to reset Animal Crossing without properly saving and closing, you get forced into a passionate and lengthy diatribe from Mr. Resetti (see the mole character on the left in image above) before you can resume playing. Continue messing with the system and your character will lose its soul. Demon's Souls features only auto-saving, which it does every few seconds or so. If you die in Shiren, you have to start over from the beginning of the game.

In the nd, with this kind of save system design you learn to live with your consequences and mistakes. All of your decisions have more weight to them because you can't undo any of them, good, bad, or otherwise. The sting of defeat is potent, but also expected and somewhat comforting. You'll likely die a lot in Shiren and Demon's Souls. Not beating yourself up over mistakes and instead learning from them makes the play experiences unique from than other gaming experiences. You definitely have to be more hardcore (dedicated) to get through these games.  


The Legend of Zelda Series

Another interesting example of save system design is the Zelda series from A Link To The Past (SNES) onward (except Majora's Mask). In these games, you can pause and save at any time. But you cannot load from within the game. When you do save, your items, money, and effects on the game world are saved but not your position within the world itself. When you do load up your game from the title screen, you start at the entrance of the last building/dungeon you visited. So, Zelda is a perfect example of a save system that doesn't save everything. 

Zelda games also traditionally feature multiple save slots. While in game, players can only save to the save slot that they've loaded. It's only from the title menu that the files can be copied or deleted. So, if you come to a place on your Zelda adventure that you want to create a save point to branch off of and explore possibilities, you have to exit the game to manage the data. This design keeps players more focused on the game by preventing save file manipulation and considerations while playing.

Another way the Zelda games limit the player's saving options is at the end of the game. When you go in for that final push to defeat Ganon, Vaati, Majora, etc., you cannot save the game. Rather, the game may save your rupees and other small details, but it won't let you save approaching or after the final battle. With this design, players never have to worry about saving and getting stuck at the end of the game. The option to go back and explore the game world or beat the game again is always open. I almost trapped myself with a save playing The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on the 3DS. Using the built in emulator save state system, which functions as a one-slot save anywhere tool, I saved the game after I had defeated the final boss. Since I had been relying on this quick and abusable save system, I had neglected to save the game using the original built in method. Luckily I found a clever way to escape. That ocarina really came in handy. 


Save points that refresh health.

A common trend with save system design are save stations/points that restore health, ammo, and other resources. While this feature doesn't necessarily fall under the "other grouped functions" facet of the save function, I believe its inception was the result of observing how save system design affected player behavior. With games that do not refresh your resources, save stations can become a kind of safe zone that players strategically use to gather supplies without the threat of dying and wasting their time. By gathering some supplies, saving the game, and repeating the process, players can use any unlimited save point as a safe way to grind for levels, ammo, health etc. Because this strategy is typically very safe (much lower challenge), offers a simple reward, and is time consuming, I believe many developers simply cut out the unnecessary grinding by restoring the player at the save point. This save-restore point design is common in Metroid games now. Perhaps it was design innovations like this that eventually lead the way to frequent check point design and regenerating health in FPSs. 



Bangai-O Spirits(DS). Alternate storing.

 In this odd and amazing shmup, players can export and load custom level data via audio files. Yes, it's as crazy as it sounds. While the Wii, DSi, 3DS, PS3, PSP, and the Xbox360 allows users to export and copy game data files onto other digital storage media, none of these options are as odd or as indirect as converting data into an analog audio signal. I've gone to youtube videos what have the level data as the audio track. I just held my PC speaker up to the DS mic and download DLC like never before. 

If you think Bangai-O's storage and transfer methods are unique, in Spore players can store and share their creature creations in special PNG image files. If you see these specially formatted pictures online, just save the image and drag/import it into your game to have the creature come to life. In a similar way, players can save and export special bar codes containing their Miis created on the 3DS. I've actually scanned a business card with this code on the back to grab a stranger's Mii.


Lacking save file storage options.

For one reason or another, the developers of Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Resident Evil 5 decided not to let players copy or transfer their save files from one system to another. At the beginning of the tournament scene for Brawl, players had to grind matches out on each Wii system to unlock all the characters. Doing so was annoying to say the least. When I played RE5 on the PS3, I beat the game over at a friend's house. He let me borrow the game so my brother and I could play the mercenaries mode at home. Unfortunately, we couldn't transfer the file or download one off the internet. So, we had to beat the whole game over again just to unlock the mode again. Capcom wasn't done there apparently. With Resident Evil Mercenaries 3DS, players cannot delete the save file on their 3DS game cart. When you get a high score or unlock content, it's there forever.


Checkpoint Design

Check points are really just auto-saving auto-loading features of save system design. Technically, a checkpoint doesn't have to save the entire game state. In the same way that saving in Zelda records player progress and not position, the checkpoints in Mega Man take you back to a point in the level but you have the same ammo that you had when you died. Some checks points are more like save states returning the player back to the exact conditions as when the checkpoint was reached. For another clarification, checkpoints aren't all unlimited. In SMB players have limited lives to use before its gameover. While in many modern shooters, the player has unlimited tries to achieve total victory with zero penalties as far as replaying previously conquered levels go. Checkpoints can also be interactive elements in the game world. In Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy, players have to touch small gates/poles to activate a checkpoint. This means players can also skip activating them. In LittleBigPlanet it's possible for players to push, pull, roll, and interact with check points using gameplay mechanics.


Save system design has a lot of variation. Regardless of the options you choose, the rest of the gameplay experience should be tuned so that everything works well together. In part 4, we'll look at the "undo move" feature that some puzzle games have and which games are better suited for it.

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