Reading Savedata ... Loading Save Systems Part Two.
Now that I've delved a little into the history of how game saves came about it's on to the meat of the discussion: the implementation of save systems within a game. There are actually a few choices, and making an incorrect one can hurt a game more than you'd think. So let's go over some of the different systems and how they are best used.
First and perhaps the most widespread is save anywhere, anytime system. As I mentioned yesterday this type of save system isn't perfect: if you save in the middle of a firefight and then have to turn the system off it's very likely not going to dump you back into the same firefight with everything saved down to the number of bullets in your clip. Odds are that you'll be dumped back at roughly the last in game checkpoint with the same weapons and ammo that you had when you arrived there the first time. It's not always great -- especially if you'd made some good progress but couldn't reach the next designated checkpoint -- but it's often better than forgetting that you were, say, in the middle of a giant firefight then spawning and getting killed because it turns out there was an incoming rocket while you were saving your progress.
The anytime anywhere system is the most used for good reason. Players prefer flexibility in most cases, and we've all been in situations where we have to stop playing regardless of whether or not we'd actually like to. Most games that have any sort of length and don't have a level based system -- things like say, Angry Birds, or most Mario games -- have this option in order to avoid the frustration of huge chunks of lost progress should the need to quickly disengage arise. Saving this way also allows the player to use the system in strategic fashion: saving before entering an area, scouting, and then rolling back to the prior state if anything gets terribly out of hand. This is a double edged sword though, in that it becomes a safety net that can take some of the challenge out of a game and tends to turn more difficult segments into large, frustrating games of trial and error; muddling through each section and saving after each obstacle. That's why there are other options.
One rather interesting variant I've seen is the limited save system. Perhaps the most famous example of this are the early Resident Evil games and their Ink Ribbons. Ink Ribbons where an item that you needed to use at specific locations in order to actually save your game. The item was only found in limited numbers, and never from a random drop. Thus you could only save so many times each game and had to be careful when, where, and under what conditions you did so. This was a good system for a survival horror game, and helped capture some of the tension that a series like Resident Evil wants to convey. However, I think it goes without saying that it is not the correct system for most games. Certainly there are games that give bonuses or penalties based upon the number of times a player saves, but a lot of players would find the notion of a limited amount of saves arbitrary and frustrating. Especially in more difficult games, it runs into the exact opposite problem of the anytime anywhere system in that sometimes it can result in nearly unwinnable situations occurring and the difficulty being artificially ramped up far beyond what was expected. This might be why even the RE series eventually abandoned the limited save system entirely, allowing unlimited saves in four, and finally just doing an auto-save style in five.
Still, I believe that if used right, that a game can be rewarding if the saves are treated like a resource. Of course it's important to make the player realize this as soon as possible, and not trick the player or promise something else then not deliver. For example, the third example: old school, little to no saving at all. People are rarely inclined to want this system, but I can think of a perfect recent example: The Binding of Issac goes through each entire game (which consists of a handful of randomly made dungeons) without the advantage of saving at all. It's a clear choice: the game is meant to be short and brutal, so having a save system to fall back on between each level would be counter to the point. It's supposed to be like that, and was advertised as such.
Sometimes it's good to try a different save system, but in all cases it must be made clear to the player just how things are going to work. If the amount of saves is going to be used for something non-cosmetic, then the player should know it. Likewise, it should be made clear early on just where and when the player can save, and also whether saves are going to be a valuable commodity in the game or not. In the end though, a save system is something that we all rely on and fall back on, sometimes literally, sometime figuratively. As such a cornerstone it only makes sense to talk about them, and I hope that I've thrown out some food for thought.