Checkpoint Save System is Stupid

In the good old days of arcade games clearing the final stage was usually an accomplishment that you could brag about to your friends. The games were made impossibly difficult in order to make you put more quarters into the damn arcade box if you ever wanted to see the ending. And you had to play it all the way through in one go. This translated into the Nintendo Hard generation of video games. With the appearance of first consoles and advent of computer gaming the focus seemingly shifted from fleecing youngsters from loose change to providing quality entertainment. But game makers took a long time to adjust. And thus we all grew up spending time cursing Mario, Mega Man, Prince of Persia and that damn Paperboy all the way to hell.

Prince of Persia

These games were very challenging, required perfect timing, twitch reflexes and punished you severely for any mistakes. Very rarely did you get the luxury of level codes that would let you start from the last level you cleared. It’s really a wonder we played these games. It was stressful, frustrating and the payoff was not that great – “Oh, btw the princes is in another castle”. Sigh…

Princess is in Another Castle

Still, these were classics and the challenging nature was part of their charm I guess. We are way past that. Few people enjoy this level of challenge. Most of gamers today, play for entertainment and are more interested story, climate and having fun. Well designed games offer adjustable level of difficulty. Casual players, and novices can set their difficulty on easy and have most of the enemies in the game shoot with accuracy of a Stormtrooper, and often forget to take cover. A seasoned player can crack up the difficulty so that every AI shot is a head-shot. This way everyone has fun.

No one expects you to play the game straight through or make you write down level codes anymore. Every modern gaming system (be in a PC rig, or a next gen console) has a spacious hard drive that can be used to store, among other things, save game files. There seem to be two approaches for saving games.

The first, in my opinion superior approach is to allow player to save anywhere, at any time. You hit a button, and the state of the game is instantly written to disk, under a file name you specified, or simply time stamped and tagged with information like current stage and time played.

The second approach is what I call “checkpoint save system”. Instead of letting player to decide what is a good stopping point, you automatically save the game when they reach a certain point in the game. Frequency of checkpoints vary from game to game, but you usually get several per stage so you don’t have to backtrack to much.

If you combine both ideas you end up with a perfect system to save the players progress. You incrementally auto-save game at certain points (usually before big battles, or surprise insta-kill situations) while still allowing the player to preserve the state anywhere in between. This method provides maximum entertainment and minimum of tedious repetition. If a player forgets to save, he can still play from the last checkpoint. If they save often, they will never have to backtrack more than few minutes. A good example of this idea put into practice is Half Life 2.

HL2

There are many reasons why HL2 was a great game. It had a great story, awesome game mechanics, great graphics – and of course the perfect save game system. Despite the game being quite challenging at times, I never felt frustrated, angry or cheated out of entertainment. And the fact that I could quick-save just before making that tricky jump did not diminish my feeling of accomplishment.

On the other side of the spectrum are games such as FarCry and the GTA series. These are the games I have real love-hate relationship. The former uses a classic checkpoint system saving your progress several times per stage. The later forces you to manually save game, but only between missions. This means that if you die or get arrested during a long and difficult story quest, you will have to start it from the begging. This usually involves driving from the jail or hospital to the mission’s starting point, picking up weapons along the way and starting over.

FarCry

Prince of Persia games pissed me off too for the same reason. While they were much more forgiving, an player friendly than the insanely difficult original they still they drove me mad. And no – the sands of time didn’t do shit for the types of blunders I was making, and I would waste them immediately.

I truly believe that there is just no reason to use the checkpoint system anymore. Why? Because the hybrid system is self balancing. A spastic n00b with no hand eye coordination (like me) can save every 3 seconds and get through the though spots with minimum repetition. And you have to understand that this tedious repetition is what really kills games for me. There is nothing enjoyable about re-playing the same sequence over and over, and over again – at least not for me. On the other hand someone who is into this kind of stuff, or simply enjoys a challenge may completely forgo manual saves and rely on auto-saves instead. You get the best of both worlds and everyone wins.

The whole argument that “allowing the player to save anywhere would make the game too difficult” is therefore null and void. It is simply a cheap way of increasing the games difficulty without spending resources on stuff like, say, improved, less forgiving AI. It also artificially inflates the relative time it takes to finish the game. So a reviewer for mainstream gaming press may note that it took him 60 hours to finish the game, even though around 80% of that time was spent on repeated attempts to reach one checkpoint or another.

Besides, even if you are a hard believer that giving the player unlimited freedom in saving every second negatively impacts their gaming experience (and btw, who the hell are you to tell me what gaming experience is best for me?) you can still limit the number of allowed saves without using checkpoints. This was done in the Hitman series, where based on the difficulty level you had a limited number of save slots per mission.

Hitman 2

Managing them was a challenge in itself – if you held on to them to long, you might get killed and will loose lots of progress. You use them up to quickly and you end up stranded in mid mission. Still, it was much less frustrating than praying that the next checkpoint is just around the next corner.

Which system do you prefer? Let me know:

Preferred Save Game System?
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What is the most mind numbingly frustrating game you have ever played in your life? This can be either something modern or an old school title. For me, it had to be a Montezuma’s Revenge on Comodore 64.

Montezuma's Revenge

It had 3 levels, each composed of a 100 screens, and if you died, you would start all the way from the begging of the current level. That, then probably original Prince of Persia and Mega Man on NES. :P

[tags]games, save games, save anywhere, save anytime, checkpoint, nintendo hard, arcade games, half life 2, hitman, farcry[/tags]

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7 Responses to Checkpoint Save System is Stupid

  1. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Not a specific game, but I hate FPS games that have the DIAS platform-jumping acrobatics. I guess one specific example was Turok on N64. I had great fun with this, and was only mildly annoyed at the occasional need for precision jumping. Then I reached a point where you had to make a long series of jumps, and if you messed up you died and IIRC they also had the damned “falling apart behind you so you better hurry up or you die” thing going on, too. I never got past it, so I never finished the game. Bastards! That’s why I pretty much stick to more realistic FPS games, be it WWII or modern. (BTW, wouldn’t an American Civil War or WWI FPS be cool?) My self-kills are much lower in those. :)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Platform jumping in FPS games is another one of my pet peeves! This is the worst genre to do jumping puzzles because… Well, in most games you can’t see your fucking legs.

    Since you can’t move the camera around it’s often very hard to judge the angles, or your distance from the ledge. This is why the games that include hard acrobatics are 3rd person perspective – like Tomb Rider or Prince of Persia.

    Btw, I have never finished a TR or PoP game – I don’t have enough eye-hand coordination to make perfect timed jumps for 20 minutes while being chased by enemies, while the floor is collapsing under my feet only to start all the way from the beginning when I die.

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  3. Muhammad SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The “most mind numbingly frustrating game I have ever played in my life” is without a doubt Contra on the Sega Genesis.

    Back then, I was only 12 when I owned the game on my genesis console. You are given only 3 lives with 3 “continues”. There isn’t any sort of health bar; a hit from an enemy bullet, or even touching the enemy, will deplete one life. Sad to say, I never completed it back then. Patience was a virtue I didn’t have back then. :P

    I’ve only managed to complete it when I discovered emulators-and-roms on the PC, utilising the very-much-grateful-for “save state” feature on the emulator!

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Epiphany Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    This page is probably the greatest gaming rant I’ve ever read. It was written before the 360, Wii, or PS3 were released and it is king of geared towards them, but the console makers didn’t seem to read or listen to this rant. It is 20 things console/game makers should do.

    Please excuse the profanity in the following quotes. #19 is about jumping in an FPS.

    19. NO MORE JUMPING PUZZLES IN FPS GAMES

    We’ll try to be calm and avoid the violent hyperbole that spoils so many gaming websites, but are you telling me that Congress can hold hearings about steroids in baseball, but they can’t do anything about jumping puzzles in first-person games? YOU CAN’T SEE YOUR MOTHERFUCKING FEET. IT DOESN’T WORK. I understand this occurring in games like Turok 3. That’s why they’re called bad games. But Half-Life 2? Are you serious? BOW YOUR HEAD IN SHAME.

    Anyhow, #6 is exactly along the lines of your post:

    6. All of the new consoles will have hard drives. Use them.

    When we’re on our deathbeds, we’re going to wish we could reclaim the time we spent wandering around for save points long after we were done playing every night. Imagine if your word processing program did this, refusing to let you save your progress until you typed six more paragraphs. Or, made you retype your last paragraph six times while zombies tried to shoot your cursor…

    The analogy sort of breaks down there, but the point is we shouldn’t ever see a “save point” in a game again. Limited saves were invented for consoles that didn’t have the memory to let you “quicksave” (where you can save at any time, any where, with one keystroke like on a PC). To keep that physical limitation and pretend it’s a gameplay element is like Superman 64 claiming its programmers’ inability to render any background scenery was “Kryptonite Fog.”

    There is not one single reason in the known universe for even one more game where the save point is ten motherfucking minutes away from the boss, forcing me to fight my way down the same hallway each of the 62 attempts it takes me to beat the guy (I’m looking at you, Metroid Prime).

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  5. Bub Bidderskins UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I have no real problem with checkpoint save systems. What I do have a problem with is when devs abuse checkpoints and force you to play the game their way.

    One of the most frustrating experiences of my gaming career is in Halo: Combat Evolved (for the PC) duuring the second mission where you are on a big building and you have to survive wave after wave of dropships. Since the checkpoint save system only saves the game at the very beginning of the sequence (and not between waves) if you died on wave 5, you had to play waves 1-4 again just to get that far.

    As I got increasingly frustrated with the repeats, my gaming skills degenerated until I was dying on wave one, cursing all the way down to the ground. Whatever console n00bs try to say, that is not fun. There is no “challenge” in fighting the exact same enemies, or watching the exact same cut-scene over and over and over again until you either 1) cheat or 2) destroy your computer in anger.

    If you like a checkpoint save system, fine, don’t use a quick-save and “challenge” yourself by clicking through that cut-scene for the fourty-second time. But there is no reason why games should not have a quick-save for you, the player, to decide when you want to save.

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  6. Phil UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I agree with the Author. All games should use a hybrid system of saving. If you gotta leave for any reason it’s nice to be able to save right then. But it is also helpful when a game auto-saves right before a spot where you are probably going to die a few times before passing it. I don’t care what gamer dorks say about subtracting challenge from a video game. I play to have fun and don’t want to waste my time repeating the same part over and over cause the is no save point between the easy part right before a big boss battle. Crappy save systems have definitely kept me from finishing more then a few games. i.e.. Mega Man, Metroid Prime, and the worst ever… Zelda 2!!!

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