Anger Management #2: Irreversible Actions

Welcome back to Anger Management. What inspired this week’s rant? Universe at War. Mainly known for managing to craft three impressively balanced-yet-asymmetrical sides to play as, then scuppering the hard work by having a lacklustre single-player campaign and forcing players to use Games For Windows – LIVE if they wanted a multiplayer game, Universe at War managed to annoy me for an altogether different reason.

UAW (as it shall hence be named) has a fairly typical autosave system for an RTS – it automatically saves when you begin a new level in the campaign. Fair enough. It creates only one autosave, presuming that the player is unlikely to find themselves stuck in an unsolvable situation at the beginning of a new mission. Again, fair enough. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t take into account is the incredibly poorly-designed menu system.

To continue where they left off, a player must: 

  • Boot up the game (which takes a distressing amount of time, on this machine at least)
  • Click on the Campaign option
  • Then click on either Continue Campaign or Load.

Again, reasonable enough – what isn’t so sensible, is the functionality of the ‘Campaign’ menu. Upon clicking it, you are greeted with this:

Don't click on any of those top options, whatever you do!

Don't click on any of the 'Play...' options, whatever you do!

 

The three options after ‘Play Prelude’ represent the three races, all of whom have their own campaign. You may note that in this screenshot, the ‘Play Masari’ option is greyed out, as they haven’t been unlocked. So what happens if you click on the, clearly incomplete, Hierarchy option? Does the game bring up a list of unlocked missions from within the campaign? No. Does it resume where you left off? No. In fact, it starts a new campaign – without warning – and immediately overwrites the autosave with a new one, meaning that should you not have manually backed up your saves, you’ll be stuck playing the campaign from the very start.

Oops.

This is not a sensible design decision. It makes it all-too-easy for a player to find themselves having to replay hours of gameplay simply because they clicked on the wrong menu item – worse, a menu item that gives no clue as to its actual purpose. Were they labelled ‘Start New [insert race here] Campaign’ then at least their usage would be clear – if they gave a warning upon selecting them that doing so would overwrite your autosave, all the better. Or, best of all, they could have made their usage clear and included a backup autosave or two. And it’s here that the issue becomes much more widespread.

Just don't forget to use multiple save slots.

Stay safe - use multiple save slots.

 

While some games do take precautions, and have multiple autosaves (the Total War series, for example), many still fail to do so, and this is never a good thing. Increasing the odds that a player can find themselves having to replay swathes of game – at worst, all of it – due to an autosave taking place at a poor time (e.g. in a situation where the player is unable to progress, or as above), or becoming in some way damaged (exacerbated when the game has a habit of corrupting its saves all on its own – e.g. Far Cry 2*), is never a good thing. While saving disk space may seem a noble goal, in an age where over 90% of Steam-using gamers have at least 10gb of free space† it would seem something of a mistake to assume most gamers would choose to save a few megabytes at the risk of their progress being lost.

This isn’t to say that there is no call for games to attribute permanence to the player’s actions – games designed with this premise in mind can be highly effective. Many role-playing-games achieve it not through enforcing a single-save-system, but through pacing: when the result of a player’s action takes a significant amount of time to become apparent, it discourages quick-reloading and trying again – in fact, it encourages complete new playthroughs once the player has completed the route they’ve set themselves on. Then there are games like Fire Emblem, which only allow for saves between battles – battles which feature persistent characters who, should they die, stay dead. With missions running to nearly an hour long, losing a character towards the end of one can make for a hard choice: spend a good deal of time replaying the mission to save your soldier, or play through the rest of the game without them. Again, a core part of the game’s design, it makes the player concentrate on their battleplan all the more closely. And short-form games can take an even more direct approach, overtly limit the player to a single, overwritable save, making them consider their actions throughout: the Way of the Samurai games derive much of their appeal from this method. It’s the fact that this mechanic is worked into the game, and made clear to the player from the off, which distinguishes this approach from that of UAW (see also: Rogue-likes).

 

Something

Unforgiving, but that's rather the point.

 

So what am I trying to say here?

I’m not trying to say that all games should have multiple autosaves. Hell, I’m not even trying to say that all games should allow for saves midway through play (most shmups and fighting games wouldn’t benefit from this, for example). What I am saying, is that before implementing any autosave, developers should think long and hard about how easily it can: be accidentally overwritten with an earlier state; occur in a no-win situation; be corrupted – and then decide whether it needs a backup system in place to protect players against such issues.

If I could, I would visit every developer whose games have failed to make such consideration and poke them until they mended their ways. As it is, I’ll just stick this rant up here in the hope it makes even one person sit up and think: “y’know, I should sort out my half-arsed autosave system before it pisses off a whole bunch of players!”. And with that done, I may just go back and play through the Hierarchy campaign in UAE for the second time.

Pass it on.

 

 

*Though this has been fixed by Ubi-Soft. Only took them a little over half a year.

†Taken from the Steam Hardware Survey, April 2009

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