How saving mechanics affect fun

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September 26th, 2009

Game saving feels like a fairly benign topic at first. However, if you stop to reflect on the issue, the mechanics of progress saving have a dramatic impact on your gaming experience.

In the old days, a single-player game was a challenge to see how far you could get without dying. Games like Asteroids, Tetris, Mario and Sonic would throw a sequence of progressively harder levels at you until you either "beat the game", or you ran out of lives and failed. If you were lucky, there was a pause button you could use to take breaks along the way and if you did well enough a high score list might immortalize your initials, but saving was not an option.

Old video games were like free solo climbing. No rope. No harness. You either climb to the top and "beat the game" or meet your demise.

Since those ancient times we've seen a lot of developments in saving technology. Now games can save our progress after a level's completion, in the middle of levels via checkpoints and thanks to invention of quicksave some games let you save any time, any where, at your leisure. Aside from creating a market for overpriced and undersized console memory cards what impact does progress saving have on our gaming experience?

Saving can increase fun

-The solution space doesn't have to be smooth

With checkpoints and quicksaves you can push the player off a cliff in the solution space and know that he's got a climbing rope and harness to help him make a controlled descent. Obstacles in your game are allowed to be a lot meaner, because the player won't be expected to survive them all in a row.

-Noobs aren't left behind

Lets say we have a level with six obstacles and that each obstacle will either be overcome by the player or will kill him. Let's also assume that a skilled player has a 90% chance of overcoming each obstacle and an unskilled player has a 70% chance. If the level requires that all six obstacles be passed in a row, it is still probable that the skilled player will pass (.9^6=.53) while the unskilled player will have 1/8 odds of succeeding (.7^6=.12). By segmenting your levels with save points along the way, you avoid frustrating the players with lower skills.

-Stopping points are convenient

When players have already sunk substantial time for one day into a game, it's nice to have easy-to-reach save points that let them take a break. This has also allowed games to get much bigger without overwhelming players; like a good book you can put down after reading a chapter or two.

Saving can decrease fun

-Risk is fun too

When I played Unreal Tournament as a kid, I picked a difficulty setting that was a little too high for me. When I finally worked my way up to Xan Kriegor, the boss, he was extremely hard. During the deathmatch I could not save my progress after each successful frag or reload whenever he fragged me, I had to play out the entire level flawlessly. Whenever I developed a small lead my pulse would quicken and I would often find myself swearing at or taunting my computer as if it were a real person. After a series of close defeats, I finally got in the zone, had a perfect round and beat Xan. I think it might have been one of the most fun video game moments I've ever had.

-Quicksave is a dangerous option

It's not really an option. For a rational player trying to minimize the risk of failure, spamming quicksave is the mandatory dominant strategy. I definitely would have used it all the time in Unreal Tournament and it would have greatly demeaned my victories. A quicksave option is almost the same as building a God-mode directly into your game.

-There are no consequences

When saving and reloading is too easy, you are free to jump off cliffs and shoot the NPC that's supposed to be your best friend in the face. Some may argue that these random acts sound like fun, but they also destroy the atmosphere of the game and eliminate the chance for a deeper form of entertainment. I'm convinced that I get more emotionally attached to movies and books than to games because of the fact that every action is permanent. Perhaps we could use more games like this.


Quicksaving feels too easy while no saving options at all would be way too hardcore. The middle ground seems to be either saving progress at the end of each completed level or using checkpoints mid-level. Personally, I think the completed level saving method used in Lugaru, was just right. The stress of knowing that I had to make it all the way through a map without dying encouraged me to think about combat strategy. Also, each successive fight in a Lugaru level became more exciting because defeat meant sacrificing all the work done to win the previous fights. I think this level by level saving mechanic would work nicely for Overgrowth as well.

Do you agree with my observations about saving mechanics? What games have managed to handle progress saving elegantly?