Saving in Games: Part 2 - Not Worth Saving
As mentioned in my previous post, Save Points cause a problem because gamers aren't allowed to stop games at any given time. It's a sin, for example, how New Super Mario Bros. lets you save in the overworld only in specific situations, now whenever you want. This shouldn't be the case. You should be able to stop a game at any given point in time. The problem is that Save Points have become so integral to gameplay these days that it's going to take a shift in mentality for people to stop relying on them so much when designing games. It's my belief that Save Points should have no affect on gameplay whatsoever.
I mean, it's gotten to a point where Save Points are the difficulty of the game. When you have the makers of Final Fantasy XII on record as saying that they intentionally provided less Save Points in dungeons to make the game more difficult, you know we have problems. The designers should be able to make a game more challenging by tweaking the game system, not by limiting your ability to save.
The original Resident Evil on the PlayStation is a perfect example of Save Points affecting gameplay. Not only were you allowed to save only at typewriters placed lightly throughout the game, you were forced to save sparingly thanks to their ink ribbon system. Thus, the difficulty of Resident Evil came not from the obstacles they threw at you, but really from second guessing yourself on how far you could push your current run before you saved again. The entire level of fear and difficulty of that game was caused by the save system.
Such save systems also end up causing side effects that affect the way you play the game. It wasn't about simply surviving anymore, it was about surviving efficiently. If you wasted a lot of ammo against a certain group of zombies or took too much damage and used up precious health sprays, you oftentimes reloaded your game from the previous save point to try and do it more effectively. Again, save systems should never affect the way you play the game.
If we look at a game like Metroid Prime for the GameCube, we can see how easy it is to tweak the difficulty of a game just by how you place the Save Points. There was one section in the game that was, for me, by far the hardest part of the game because there were no Save Points to be found during a long stretch that ended at a boss fight. It was only after the boss fight that you got to a Save Point. If they added one Save Point in the middle of that long stretch, it would not have been hard at all. Save Points shouldn't have that much power. If you keep the entire game exactly how it is now, with the same map and the same enemy placement, and just added a number of Save Points here and there, the game becomes immeasurably easier and less challenging. Conversely, if we take the Save Points and remove half of them, the game becomes much harder. If you can use the availability of Save Points as a means of deciding how hard a section of the game is, it just means not enough effort is being used to make the game tougher through gameplay design.
Now let's look at the original Metroid on the NES. There are no Save Points in the game. In fact, at any given time, you can pause the game, hit Up + A on the second controller, and you get a password that, effectively, is your saved game. I don't recall Metroid being any less enjoyable than Metroid Prime. And I do not see, in any way, how the gameplay of the original Metroid is diminished by letting players stop at any given time. If I find an energy tank, I can just generate a password immediately. But in Metroid Prime, you end up with ridiculous temptations to, upon finding an Energy Tank, travel backwards to the previous Save Point so that, if you die, you don't lose the Energy Tank you just found.
So for similar games like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, why force players to run to Save Points to officially save their game? Replace the Save Points with "Start Points" and let the player save at any point in time. When you continue your game, you will always begin at the most recent Start Point you've activated (which is pretty much how the original Metroid worked). So if you get fairly far into a new area and have exposed a bunch of the map and have done a lot of exploring, you can just save the game and save the items you've gotten and the map you've opened up. Once you continue, you will start at the most recent Start Point.
I'm not sure why designers started believing that the ability to save at any time was bad. It obviously does not affect the quality of the game: the Metal Gear Solid series has always allowed you to save at just about any point in time you want. Just give Mei Ling a call in the first MGS and she'll save your game right there and then, for example. To make the system work, the MGS games are peppered with "generation spots" throughout the game. These spots are the places your game will start once you load your saved game. Giving the players this benefit does not diminish the game at all -- we all know how popular the MGS series is.
So games like the MGS series and PC games (most notably first person shooters that allow you to save your game at will like Half-Life) help to counter the belief by some that games will be too easy if you can save every 5 seconds. I disagree. Difficulty should always be determined by game design. And if you really do believe that being able to save every 5 steps makes you somehow less skillful, you don't have to use it. If a player wants to reduce his own challenge and enjoyment of the game by saving every step, let him.
Save points are now archaic and yet still relied upon too strongly. Games should be designed without them in mind. There are tons of alternatives to Save Points. And in the next post, I'm going to go over a bunch of games that use Save Points and talk about how they could have been changed to work without them.
Next up: Part 3 - Examples of Ways to Remove Save Points