Increasingly, PC action games are featuring autosaving rather than quicksaving. But every time I read reviews and online comments about one of these games, I see the same tired complaint: Developers who use this setup are allowing console conventions to override the traditions of the PC platform.
These folks could not be more wrong. The console developers have it right. Action games should never so much as offer the option of quicksaving.
The problem boils down to the question of challenge. In any kind of single-player game or puzzle, from Solitaire to logic problems to Sudoku, there are certain hurdles you have to clear, and it's considered cheating to move the hurdles. Knowing that you met a challenge proposed by someone else is what gives you a sense of accomplishment.
In video games, save points are a major type of hurdle. If you make it from one save point to another, you have solved a problem that the developers put in front of you. The bragging rights are yours, and you can move on to the next challenge, never to see the old one again.
The placement of save points is a core element of game design. Many gamers, myself included, despise having to re-do long sections of a game, but if there are too many save points, dying has too little consequence and you're tempted to play recklessly. Developers need to consider the second-by-second difficulty of the material and the experience they want their players to have.
They might opt for high difficulty with short levels (think Super Meat Boy), or they might opt for a steady difficulty with regularly spaced checkpoints (think Halo), or they might make a game with almost no consequence for death at all to appeal to children (think LEGO), but at the end of the day, they set the bar, and we players have to jump over it.
For example, we can't beat the first half of a Super Meat Boy level, save it, and then keep trying the second half until we get it. We have to beat the whole level in one take, because that's where the bar is set. If Super Meat Boy had a quicksave feature, the same exact accomplishment—beating a certain level—would mean different things for different people. For some people, it would mean they took the time to learn the level. For others, it would just mean they restarted every two seconds until they managed to do each maneuver correctly a single time.
In other words, the entire structure of the video game experience crumbles once you have the option to save wherever you want—and this is just as true for action games as it is for a platformer like Super Meat Boy. Are you facing a tricky combination of five enemies? The developers might want to you figure out exactly the right way to approach the situation—which enemy to focus on first, which places to hide while you reload—but there's really no need. You can kill one bad guy, save, kill another, save, and so on. You don't need solid tactics if you can load every time a twitch places the cursor in the wrong place.
It's especially bad during boss fights. There's really no need to improve—just shoot, save, shoot, save, and load when you take damage. The entire art of memorizing patterns and refining one's strategy is completely lost.
Quicksaving is horrible for flow as well. Whereas autosaving happens in the background and doesn’t disrupt the game, quicksaving punctuates the experience with frequent hunts for the save key.
It’s true that quicksaving doesn’t need to destroy the gaming experience—we could make up our own rules about when it’s okay to quicksave and stick to them. But given a quicksave option, most of us end up saving constantly, even if we realize we're sucking the fun out of the game. It’s human nature: We don't like to blame ourselves when we die—if we're having trouble, it's the game's fault, and saving more often just compensates for this supposed shortcoming.
And who's to say we're placing the save points too close together when the developers didn't bother to include save points at all? Some instruction manuals even encourage players to "save frequently."
To be fair, quicksaving has its place in some other genres. For example, in a strategy game, every decision you make might take a long time to play out—it might be a half-hour before you realize you failed and return to your last save state.
But in action games, where split-second reactions matter, quicksaving does nothing but encourage abuse and sloppy play. PC developers are absolutely right to abandon it.
Date: February 14, 2013