Some Nerdy Stuff

April 29, 2009

Save Game Design, Its Effect On Gameplay, and a Proposed Design

Filed under: Uncategorized — aaronls @ 12:17 pm

Some games employ save game points at designated points in the game, whether those points be geographical, temporal, or relative to some other milestone in the player’s progress through the game. Other games allow saving and loading to occur anywhere within the game, and even have quick save/load hotkeys.  Two successful titles each employing one of these save game features are Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto 4 (GTA4).  Both of these titles feature a an expanse of geography that the player can freely explore.  Both of them feature quests or missions that the player can complete.  As far as today’s modern games go, in a very broad sense they are fairly similar, and thus we will compare how their different save game designs effect gameplay.  Fallout 3 allows the player to save or load a game at anytime.  GTA4 allows the player to only save at a few designated geographical locations, or whenever a milestone has been reached, such as completing a mission.

In Fallout 3, one might begin a mission (AKA quest) by travelling to the first waypoint of the quest.  Once arriving it is likely that the player will save their game, because in the event that something bad happens as they get involved in the quest, they want to be able to load from the point after the lengthy trip.  As they begin completing the quest, it is likely that they will often hit the Quick Save key as they make satisfactory progress.  If they make a misstep, like stepping on a landmine which causes them significant damage, then they will likely load their last save.  This time, being aware of the landmine, they will sidestep or disarm it.  Depending on the player’s tendency towards perfectionism, they will save and reload more or less often.  Since it’s a single keystroke away, it is likely common that player’s save everytime they encounter an enemy, as well as after defeating the enemy.  If they are not satisfied with an encounter, because they took alot of damage (costing them resources to heal) or used alot of ammo, then they will likely reload from the last save.  Because they are not losing very much time when they reload, since they can save so often, reloading is very tempting if an encounter played out in a less than perfect way.  However, this can make the game feel tedious.  The player never knows how much ammo, money, healing kits, etc. that they might want to have later in the game.  So they inflict upon themselves this perfectionist tedium in an effort to horde as much of these resources as possible, and consume as little as possible.  In Fallout 3, I rarely find myself running into a situation with guns blazing, and instead sneak about trying to get one shot one kill sneak attack headshots such that I conserve ammo, thinking I might need it later.  Typically I finish games like this with a huge horde of ammo.

GTA4’s save game design does not lure the player into such a tedium.  When a player embarks on a mission, they must complete the entire mission before the game is autosaved.  Mission’s often don’t take long.  Maybe 15-30 minutes on average.  Thus, if a player’s character dies towards the end of a mission, they have to start over and have to repeat only 15-30 minutes of gameplay.  Yet, this is a significant enough amount of time that the player will adopt a playing style that maximizes their character’s survival, because dieing halfway through a mission means having to repeat several minutes of gameplay.  The playing style they will adopt likely includes using ammo and weapons aggressively as they attempt to eliminate enemies and other threats quickly.  For example, I always go into a GTA4 mission fully stocked with rocket launcher ammo, and use it often, even though it is expensive.  Generally, the cost of the rocket launcher ammo is a mere few percent of the total money that the player will typically have, and is well worth the survivability it affords a player during a mission, by allowing them to quickly eliminate multiple enemies, thus minimizing damage the enemies do to the character.  Needless to say, virtually blowing virtual shit up with a virtual rocket launcher is fun as virtual hell (notice the fun isn’t virtual, it’s real, really fun)!  If the GTA4 player’s character is near death, and it is 10 minutes into the mission, then the player is likely to try and find some way to heal themselves, rather than lose 10 minutes by loading the last save.   They will even just tough it out if no healing is available, and hope they can survive till the end.  This adds to the excitement by adding an element of being on the edge, in desperation, and in constant danger.  This element of danger is not present in Fallout 3, because there is always feeling of safety afforded by the save game you took 30 seconds ago when your character was at full health.  On several GTA4 missions I had to adapt my strategy towards the end of the mission, because my character was low on health, by taking cover more often, and not rushing into rooms.  Yet, this didn’t feel as tedious, because there was this intense feeling of desperation.  My character being so close to death made me very aware that should I screw up, it meant starting the whole mission over again, meaning I was desperate to survive!  It’s all about evoking the player’s emotions!

I think there are alot of positives in the GTA4 save game design.  This design works only because missions are well balanced, not too lengthy, and were probably play tested thoroughly to minimize frustration.  Most missions I was able to complete in one try, and only occasionally two or three tries.

On the downside, if you go out to explore the GTA4 world, and just do random non-mission activities, you actually have to travel back to a safe house to save your game.   If you go out on an excursion for a long period of time, and don’t make that effort to save your game, then subsequently get arrested, you would probably not want to save your game since you would have lost all your weapons in the arrest.  Often I found that I would go on these excursions for fun, but never save my game afterwards.

If we applied the GTA4 design to Fallout 3, the first problem I would anticipate would be that Fallout 3 missions can last hours.  This means two things:
1) Getting killed half way through a mission is a huge loss of player time, resulting in a great amount of frustration, especially if they thought the way in which they died was no “fair” (e.g. some sort of bug).
2) To complete the mission, the player must have a sit down game session for the entire duration of the very long mission.

Secondly, mission in Fallout 3 are parallelized, meaning you can be in the midst of multiple missions.  The intended playing style seems to be that your travels through the game world are not dictated so much by the mission’s tasks, but instead as you travel through the game world, you complete tasks that are near your current travels.  Sometimes you don’t even know where to go to complete the next task in a mission, and just stumble upon the next character or item you needed to find during your adventures.

So how would we adapt the GTA4 save game design for Fallout 3  such that we get some of the positive gameplay experiences, but without the problems described previously.  First, let’s break down some of the elements of the GTA4 design that I think are crucial to it’s success.  First, the time period between saved games is a crucial factor.     The fact that the save occurs at the end of a mission is irrelevant.  It is the fact that it just so happens this period is typically 15-30 minutes that I am really interested in.

Important elements of the GTA4 save game design:
1) The 15-30 minute period between save games is close to what one would want the minimum player’s gaming session to be.  If it’s too much longer than this, then you are expecting the player to commit too much of their time to a single session of gaming and you would be alienating those who have a limited amount of gaming time.  Such a game would feel more like work than a game.
2) The time between saves should be short enough that should the player need to reload from the last save for some reason, then they will not have lost an infuriatingly huge amount of gameplay time and progress.
3) The time between saves should be long enough that the player should not be tempted to reload, lest they loose that gameplay time and progress, except when absolutely necessary.

Notice that 3 is at odds with the other two, thus a careful balance must be struck.  I think a good approach would be to decide what is the longest time period that acceptably meets the requirements of points 1 and 2, and hopefully it will be long enough to meet point 3 as well.

If I were to redesign the Fallout 3 save game design, I would actually employ something I call save game credits.  You would start the game with maybe 2 credits, and you will receive a new credit perhaps every 10 minutes.  You can save your game at any point in time, but doing so will consume a save game credit.  We would also want to only allow some max number of credits one can horde, such as 2 or 3. This ensures players aren’t tempted to do tedious unentertaining things like leaving their character in the game for hours to accumulate credits.  If you set the max too low, such as if you were only allowed one save game credit at a time, then you will have players who will save their game, and then leave their character standing their for 10 minutes, because they don’t want to go any further without having an available save game credit in case they feel they need it.  A max of 3 would allow them a buffer, where they could save a couple games in a row, and still continue on knowing they have one save game credit left if they need it.

Essentially this design allows the player to save their game every 10 minutes, yet the buffer of 3 save games allows them some flexibility in saving more often for a short period, followed by a period of less often saves.  I would reimplement the autosave feature such that if the player has 3 credits already, and the 10 minute period elapses that would give them a 4th, then an autosave occurs.  Thus autosaves never waste a credit(since it would have already been lost).  This is important because autosave’s in some games have a bad habit of saving at inopportune times.

I would not be surprised if this has already been done in other games.  It is similar to the “lives” concept of old arcade games, such as Super Mario Brothers, where you had some number of lives, except that was essentially a limited number of reloads.  Whereas my design is a limited number of saves, and gameplay time is the replinishing factor instead of ingame accomplishments/powerups.  The significant difference here is that if you run out of lives, you typically had to start the game again from the beginning.  With save game credits, running out of credits merely means that you have to play on for another 10 minutes before you can save your game again.  You can still load from the last save game as many times as you want!

I just finished playing Call of Duty 2, and I definitely liked it’s save game design where it seems to be scripted to save periodically throughout a mission at various milestones.  However, there were a couple of very frustrating points where it would have been nice to have had a little bit more control over when it saved.  One particular case it seemed like there was a long period that no save occurred, and I kept getting killed and having to repeat alot of gameplay again and again before I eventually lowered the difficulty for that one mission so that I could make it through the particular stretch.  Otherwise I flew through the missions without thinking about saving and loading at all most of the time.  This improves the immersion of the game, since you are distracted less by the technical aspects of the game, allowing you to get wrapped up in the experience.

With my save game design, players who try to horde save games will within 30 minutes reach the max number of save games, and then the autosave feature will take over, saving the game for them every 10 minutes.  Should the most recent autosave occur at an inopportune time, then it is only another 10 minutes back to load the next to last save game.  This would allow the player to not even thinking about saving their game, thus improving immersion.

My next post I think will be on how character stats can take away from immersion, and analyze possible techniques to mitigate the problems they cause.  For example, in Call of Duty 2 there is no health bar or health points visible to the player.

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