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Checkpoint saves suck

From time to time I feel compelled to preface a posting here by a reminder of what sort of person I am.  I’ve been playing computer and console games for over a quarter of a century, heavily biased towards the computer “role playing” game, fantasy, and first person shooter genres.  I’m more prone to like something like Deus Ex [1] or Oblivion [2] than Doom 3 [3], although I enjoy both types of games.  And Mario Kart [4] or Katamari Damacy [5] are right out. 

In a nutshell, I like games with a strong narrative: something that could make a decent fantasy or science fiction book.  Although I enjoy some twitch/combat games, that isn’t my forte.  “Childlike” games with bubblegum graphics and mostly mindless plots do not amuse me very much.

Now I’ve set the stage for my rant, the basic thesis of which is: Checkpoint saves and their cousins, single copy saves, are evil.  They suck.  They drain all of the joy out of otherwise good games.

This requires a bit of explaining if you aren’t a computer gamer…

The Console: home of the Checkpoint save

Being able to save a game wasn’t very necessary on early console games.  The entire game, beginning to end, was played in matter of minutes.  The play style was an outgrowth from the video arcades, where the objective was to consume your quarters- your quarters where how you extended your play time, and the more you died and had to restart, the more quarters you spent.

Adventure or role playing games never really existed in the video arcade.  They started on computers, and with them came the idea of providing a way to save your current progress.  This was critically necessary: the game might take a dozen hours or more to complete, and having to start all over from the beginning if you made an error and died was unnecessarily punishing.

So far what I’m describing is the state of things in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  As consoles became more and more sophisticated as the 1980’s progressed into the 1990’s, they also developed a need for providing a save game mechanism.  The games being played became more sophisticated, and started to include deeper role-playing or adventure content that demanded some way to store progress.  However, unlike the computer, most consoles had little or no storage for the purpose. 

The ways console game manufacturers worked around this were many and varied.  Extra memory cartridges, small internal flash memory stores, and more recently hard drives of various sizes.  But mostly it came down to limiting the options players had to save their game.  Perhaps you could only save at a certain point in the game: this allowed the developer to remove a huge amount of “state” data that had to be saved.  If you were at a certain point, you had (particularly in very linear games) obviously progressed past previous content.  That meant a save game file didn’t need to save all that previous detail- just a “done to here” flag, and maybe your character’s inventory and stats.  Since you had to get to a particular pre-determined place or marker in the game for this to work, it became known as a “checkpoint save”

A close friend of checkpoint saves is the “limited save slots” approach.  In this approach, you may have more options regarding where you can save.  But you can only have a small number of save games, sometimes only a single save game, stored at a given time.  A number of console games combine these two: you can only save a limited (perhaps just one) save game stored, and that save can only be performed at particular checkpoints.

The Computer: where saving is free and easy

Computer games rarely have limitations on where and how you can save your progress.  Games generally offer unlimited saves at any time.  This promotes a completely different kind of play style.  Let me describe how I might use this. 

As I play my game, I save after each major accomplishment.  I keep all of these saved states so I can go back if I later discover I overlooked something- perhaps killed the wrong guy, picked up the wrong item, or selected the wrong response.  When I come to a new location that screams “boss monster”, I also save the game.  If the fight is particularly tough, I might save after I defeat each sub boss, or after I complete each successful step in what might be a multi-part process to slay a particular enemy.  If I die, which I often do, I fall back only to that very recent step: I don’t develop a hatred for the game, myself, or humanity.

A few other considerations regarding this play style.  Some games tend to make me nauseous if I play them for extended periods.  It is a form of motion sickness: exactly what games will cause it I can’t tell in advance.  Virtually any game will make me feel queasy if I play it long enough, particularly if I have to repeat the same steps over and over and over and over and over and over.  Being able to shut down and take an hour (or day) long break before coming back to the game is crucial in these cases.

I also need to deal with things like my wife asking me questions, a cat needing attention, or the phone ringing.  I really take advantage of the save game process.  I like free and unlimited saves.

The Debate

Console gamers see unlimited saves as a sign of some sort of fundamental weakness.  They sneer at PC gamers who demand such things.  They yell and rant in forums about how their games should be made so you have to replay from the very beginning if you fail: that’s how real men play their games.  They claim this adds real-life difficulty and a sense of pressure to the game.

PC gamers automatically sense the stench of a console port as soon as they see a game that limits saves.  These kinds of “cross platform” games are more and more common these days, so the stench is growing.  The PC gamers pound their chests and wave their fists at the hyper-caffinated twitch game console players.  They laugh at the claims of console gamers that PC gamers need for unlimited saves demonstrates that they lack m4d ski77z.  They demonstrate their abilities anywhere, any time, by handing a console gamer a controller and grabbing their faithful keyboard and mouse and filling the whiny punk with lead in any first person shooter on the block.

My Position

I like my XBox 360.  The games are fantastic, the XBox Live features like achievements are fun, and the hard drive makes storing save games and downloadable content easy.  But I really, truly, fundamentally despise limited/checkpoint saves, and XBox games all seem to have this cancer, some moreso than others.

I like to experience my game, enjoy the narrative, and ultimately succeed.  I get no thrill out of dying and seeing the same scene over and over and over and over and over and over again.   I am happy for the twitchy little gamers who enjoy that kind of game play- more power to them.  But it offers no appeal to me whatsoever.

What I really don’t get is this: a game with unlimited saves does not in any way demand that you *use* those saves.  So if a console bigot wants to play “the hard way”, they can just pretend save games don’t exist.  Why must they insist on removing this fundamental feature for everyone who *doesn’t* like this style of play?

And I have absolutely no comprehension of the developers who build checkpoint/limited saves into their games.  The days when consoles didn’t have adequate storage for save games are long gone.  And if they want to provide a “challenge” mode, have a “hardcore” setting in the game that disables game saves.  Add an XBox Live achievement for playing the game on hardcore or otherwise with no or limited saves.  Let the people who see completing a game without saving as a badge of honour have their way: give them a badge of honour (an achievement) if they do so.  But permit those of us who don’t enjoy this play style to enjoy the game as well.

I would like to draw particular attention to the egregious example of these faults found in one game for the XBox 360 that I bought recently: Dead Rising [6].  Dead Rising implements both checkpoint saves and a single save slot.  The game developer had this to say:

Many have also mentioned that if they had multiple game slots it would make certain tasks/achievements easier to achieve. Though the unusual saves are largely unpopular with gamers and likely caused Dead Rising to be scored lower on game ratings, Keiji Inafune [7] said, in an interview with Electronic Gaming Monthly [8], that the saves were intentionally designed so that players would feel that there were some consequences for their actions and would be forced to make quick, tactical decisions.

Well, Keiji…I’m sorry to say that your decision ruined the game for me.   It looks fun, although its one of those that tends to make me nauseous after a few minutes of play due to some sort of motion sickness.  I enjoyed slaughtering the undead- the lawnmower and chainsaws were great.  But the lack of freedom to save when and how I wanted has made the game utterly unplayable for me.  I got about two hours of fun out of it, and got incredibly frustrated.  All of your thousands of hours of effort are sitting on a a shelf, untapped and unenjoyed.  I’d call your save game restrictions to be a poor decision on your part.

The Conclusion

Can’t we just all get along?  Build all future console games for today’s storage-equipped consoles so that they incorporate unlimited saves.  Add “achievements” and game modes to give badges of honour to gamers who use few or no save games.  Avoid the “console port stench” that arises whenever limited saves show up in a migrated game on the PC. 

Why is this so hard?  Why do some people insist that their particular perspective or preference is the only right choice?  What is it that makes accommodating other preferences so abhorrent to some people?

Are we really that childish?

[tags]checkpoint saves suck, consolitis, consoles, dead rising, save game[/tags]