January 4, 2008

Saved Games and Player Death

I once read a rant on some game review site that game designers no longer had any excuse for limiting the player's ability to save the game. Technical restrictions weren't a problem anymore, so just let us do as we please!

But that viewpoint, though common among players, ignores the importance of player death in gameplay. Generally, in any game, there is a possibility that you could lose. Saving eliminates that possibility. For a sufficiently devoted player, constant saving means that there's no possibility of failure at any level, and so any sort of tension that the game wants to create evaporates immediately. The worst that could happen is replaying a short bit of the game, so like Office Space's Peter Gibbon's, the only incentive to perform well is to avoid being hassled.

Marty M. O'Hale wrote a great article about this dilemma in The Escapist. As games got harder, players saved more often. Once designers saw this, they could justify adding more difficulties (including arbitrary obstacles such as deathtraps or highly randomized damage). In a sports game or casual game, we'd think it ludicrous to save before every single decision, but in RPGs and FPSs it's taken for granted.

O'Hale suggests that the solution is to replace player death with different types of gameplay-related setbacks. Rather than have the player die and reload, find some way to penalize the player and introduce a new situation. Penalties should never be random, and the player should only have to save upon ending a gaming session.

I can think of one game that already implements this system: Diablo 2. In D2, each death is accompanied by a loss in money and possibly experience. The player must then retrieve his "body" without the use of any of his previous equipment. The player is penalized, death creates temporary new gameplay possibilities, and saving is only available upon exiting the game. There's even a Hardcore mode, in which death is permanent, for the truly skilled and daring.

Prey and Bioshock also both attempted to circumvent the quicksave-die-reload cycle by implementing in-game respawning, though both also allowed saving at any time. These solutions, however, were lambasted for removing any penalty from death. Oddly enough, respawning automatically in-game was considered to be substantially worse than reloading. But if these games had included a more substantial penalty with each death and had removed the ability to save at any time, I suspect that they would both play better.

Games that try to reach this goal of limiting saving while improving gameplay have a whole new set of problems to deal with. Because losing now genuinely matters, the player has to be given several chances to overcome an obstacle. If he's run out of ammo, he has to be able to sneak. If he gets caught sneaking, he should be able to talk. If he's unconvincing, he needs to be able to run for it. If he gets caught, he can eventually escape. Each failure must have a penalty associated with it. Only if the player is wholly inept at all options can he lose the game and, perhaps, be forced to restart the level or even the whole game.

There's another big reason for saving, of course. I played Morrowind cautiously and rarely died, but I saved often because I feared the other great danger to my character: bugs in the software. Crashing is frustrating. One could take the D2 route and just eliminate all bugs, but that's an unrealistic expectation. I suggest, then, that the game implement a hidden autosave. Every time you step through a door, or every 30 seconds or so, the game silently and quickly autosaves. Then, if it closes unexpectedly, the option to restore the previous game becomes available. The designer preserves his saving mechanic, and the player doesn't get as frustrated as he otherwise would be. What's there to lose?


Anonymous said...

Sounds good to me.

Kevin said...

I'm not that much of a hardcore gamer, but I've played enough games to be familar with the kind of thing you're describing.

I have felt that, while games are fun, there isn't any real penalty for death. Tomb Raider starts you at the last checkpoint. Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb starts you at the beginning of the level. But those games don't have a scoring system. They are very linear, "overcome the obstacles to get to the next level" type games.

I think for games like that, a good penalty (albeit a rather harsh one considering the difficulty of some of the puzzles) is to maybe start the player off at the PREVIOUS level.