Home > video games > Save Points are Pointless? – Modernizing the RPG

Save Points are Pointless? – Modernizing the RPG

So I recently started playing The World Ends With You, a DS game by Square Enix. In recent years, Square Enix has been trying to address some of the age-old gripes that traditional role-playing games have been plagued with. Today, we’ll look at some of these classic issues and see how they are addressed.

One such issue are save points. They’ve been around for quite some time now. RPGs on PC have typically been “save anywhere”. I believe Final Fantasy 1 for the NES was the first game to incorporate save points, in that you could only save in inns, and if you had a tent that you could use in the overworld map. It wasn’t until games like Tomb Raider that truly integrated save points into an action game as being part of a level. There have been countless debates now on whether save points are a good system.

Save points and save anywhere are both double-edged swords. If placed properly, save points can be an integral part of the game design, and change the experience for the player. When save points are littered everywhere every 5 minutes of play, or before and after every single difficult section in the game, then the purpose is defeated. But if they are far and few in between, the player is forced into a sense of unease. This sort of tension is good in video games. However, the downside of course is that if the player dies, they lose a lot of progress and only amounts to serious frustration when they have to replay a whole boring section just to die at that one difficult point. There is no proper solution to this. One way is to place checkpoints between the save points, where if the player dies, they restart from the checkpoint, but if they turn off their system, they start from the last point in which they saved. This isn’t effective, as all it does is punish the player for not having enough time to play a designed level in a single sitting. But it does remedy the frustrating portion of losing 2 hours of game time because of player death.

For a game on the go, save points are that kind of punishment. Sure, portable game devices are blessed with sleep-mode, but this punishes the player for accidentally hitting the power button or for not charging their battery. A player desperately seeking a save point when his battery indicator is flashing red is not a type of game design you want to implement. Portable gaming is mostly meant for quick pickup and play to fill in the gaps of non-activity.

An example of such a poorly executed save point system would be Metroid Prime Hunters for DS. In fact, I refuse to even play that game, knowing that if I game-over, or if I accidentally power off my system, I lose A LOT of progress. The only available save point is back on your ship, so you end up spending a lot of pointless time backtracking to save instead of making forward progress.

As discussed before, depending on how saving progress works, it’s a double-edged sword. The save-anywhere function can sometimes ruin gameplay, or worse, place the player in a situation where they are forced to start from the very beginning of the game. For example, if the only place you can save is at an inn, and it requires more money than the player can afford, and the player is low on health, then the player is screwed. Likewise, if you place a save point deep in the dungeon, and the player is close to death when he saves, he’s stuck in there. There’s no workaround to this other than an auto-save file that’s separate – probably one that is just outside of the dungeon. But even that can suffer the same effect.

Another negative aspect of save-anywhere is that the player can “cheat”, depending on how the designer looks at it, I suppose. It allows the player to “look into the future”, restart from his last save point, and change his tactics accordingly. This is even worse when it comes to games that involve gambling. Essentially, the player never loses.

Because the player never loses, the tension associated to gameplay disappears. This is particularly bad in survival horror games, which is why most good survival horror games don’t have save anywhere. Player gets into a potentially scary situation, and saves. Suddenly the player has no fear of getting defeated, because he can then just restart from where he left off, and already know how to deal with the situation. Some may argue “is that so bad though?” Understandable. Even without save anywhere, and the player dies, he will eventually get there again anyway. By saving anywhere, you are preventing the frustration of humongous backtracking.

Nowadays, with checkpoints and save anywhere, death is more of an inconvenience rather than a deterrent. How do you design a game in such a way that you retain the tension, while not punishing the player for needing to shut off his game to do something? Temporary saves. What essentially happens, is the game allows you to save at save points normally, but with the added feature of saving a separate temporary file that deletes itself when the player resumes. If the player dies, he restarts at his last save point (not the temporary save). This allows the player to stop playing whenever he wants without punishment, and also keeps the tension real, as well as prevent players from cheating and ruining the game balance. It’s the best of both worlds. Non-saveable checkpoints can still be placed in if the game design chooses to, in order to help eliminate frustration of significant backtracking.

With that in mind, TWEWY chooses the Save Anywhere route. Since the player can get through a section without any encounters at all, the only thing the player loses from a game over are the points earned from combat to the point where he last saved. Usually, the player understands the risks involved for not saving often enough. In fact, the game could have used a completely behind the scenes auto-save after combat and it would have worked without a hitch. But it seems TWEWY likes to be on the side of flexibility for various reasons open to the player.

Flexibility in design is very important, but the sacrifices and changes in gameplay must be weighed out and countered properly in order to make the chosen save system work properly.

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  1. anurag_animax
    August 1, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    have you tried golden sun games for the gba . It incorporates the save anywhere feature quite successfully .you can save anywhere and everywhere even in front of bosses.

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