Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Roguelike Trap, or "Why savepoints matter"

First, let me give a quick definition of what I mean by the two kinds of savepoints:
1- The "pick up where you left off/overnight" kind. This is so you can continue playing the game when you get back from school, or when you wake up the next morning, or whatever, without having to turn the console/pc off.
2- The "checkpoint" kind. This is where you go back to when you die, but not necessarily a permanent save.

The best example games I can think of that demonstrate the difference between the two would be the Final Fantasy remakes on the Playstation 1. They had a "quicksave" feature that let you save anywhere and resume there if you died in addition to the normal save feature that would only let you save at a save point or on the world map (but was persistent- it saved to the memory card so you could turn the system off).

The "overnight" savepoints showed up in the early roguelikes, such as Hack, and one of the defining traits of the roguelike genre is that they don't have any checkpoints- only savepoints, and the game deletes the save when you die. In short, death is permanent.
The next major savepoint mentality is basically the same thing- you save the game, and if you die you simply load from your last save. This shows up a lot in modern RPGs.
The third major mentality that you see in games is that there will be two "classes" of savepoints- one that's more permanent and one that's more temporary. A mild form of this is visible in the recent RPG Final Fantasy XII- where there are actually three kinds of savepoints- the orange ones (which let you teleport with a fairly cheap item). These are the best place to leave the game overnight as they enable you to go basically anywhere when you start the game up the next day. They don't really serve the purpose of a checkpoint because they're never in the middle of a quest- they're usually at the end of a quest or in a town center. There are also blue ones in some places, which allow you to save, but not teleport- these serve the purpose of allowing you to stop what you're doing in the middle of a quest and set it aside, and also allow you to return there when you die. The third kind is also blue, but the game warns you that you're at a point of no return- you can't go backwards and return to a town to stock up, so the game warns you to suggest that you save it in a different file slot. These almost exclusively serve the purpose of checkpoints so you can return there when you die, but if you need to turn the console off you can pick up there.

They all function the same way- saving to the memory card- so they all allow for the overnight save, but this is more of a bonus for the player than anything else.
Let's go back to the roguelikes for a minute. The Hack/Nethack line of roguelikes are all fairly long games, lasting upwards of 10 hours. If you die, you have to start over completely, making playing these games an extremely frustrating experience. Despite that, plenty of persistent people have beat the games (I personally have beat Nethack) but they're definitely not for the faint of heart.
While hardcore Nethack players will vilify me for this statement, I am of the opinion that the "you die you start over" mentality is a terrible, antiquated design. Nobody wants to put 10 or more hours into a game only to have it wiped out by a death to something that they didn't even know could kill them- such as falling down a pit while holding a cockatrice corpse (even if you're wearing gloves!) - and have to start completely over. ADOM (Ancient Domains of Mystery) is an even worse offender in this regard, in large part due to the longer length of the game.
ADOM is a perfect example of a roguelike that could benefit from checkpoints, as it (unlike Nethack) is split up into multiple quests and dungeons. Having the game save your progress permanently after each dungeon would vastly improve the long-term playability of ADOM. (However, ADOM suffers from enough game design flaws to fill up multiple entries, so I'm not going to talk about it any more here.)
Advocates of the "permanent death" viewpoint claim it makes the game harder, and often point out that making a game save a true checkpoint can be done by copying the save file to a different folder, then restoring it if you die. However, if someone does this, they cry "cheater!" and refer to that player as a "savescummer". While it's possible to abuse the system (ie: save the game, kill a monster, see if it made a rare item drop, if not reset) simply doing it so that you don't have to start over after death is not abuse- it's compensating for a horrible game design.
There's a reason roguelikes have next to zero mainstream appeal- and that reason is not the graphics. It's the horrible game design prevalent in so many of them.

However, the modern RPG concept of savepoints is often flawed as well. It is undeniably true that death flat-out doesn't matter in modern RPGs- the savepoint is often placed right before the boss of a dungeon so that players don't have to repeatedly slog through the dungeon if they die to the boss. If you load up Final Fantasy XII, you can notice that every boss (and many, if not all of the hunt enemies) have a save point a very short distance preceding them. In short, you are free to restart and try again until you get it right, with no penalty other than wasting the 10 or 15 minutes it took you to die. While this is a much more tasteful proposition to people who play infrequently, it means that a hard boss results in nothing more than "Well, I've gained two levels and have a better weapon on all my characters, let's try that again."

Furthermore, the concept of "savepoints" often results in people being between savepoints when they have to leave somewhere, forcing them to either rush to the next savepoint (possibly skipping storyline events to do so) or give up what they've done in the interim. This isn't so bad if it's only 15 minutes of fairly easy stuff, but if it's something hard or time-consuming, this is a major annoyance to the player and shouldn't happen.

It seems that the best compromise would be to allow the player to save anywhere and resume from there overnight, but if they die, to throw them back to a predetermined checkpoint based on dungeon difficulty. This would require deleting the overnight save file so that people couldn't simply restart to use the save-anywhere feature. However, this poses its own complications unless a way around it is implemented.

Therefore, I propose the following savepoint system for future RPGs-
Every major town, dungeon entrance, etc has a save point that the player can use to save permanently. The player is allowed to save at any time for the purpose of turning the game off, but that non-permanent save file is deleted after it's loaded to prevent abuse. Dungeons, quests, and similar have checkpoints that they return the player to after they die- possibly even invisible so that players can't use them as cues to know a boss is upcoming or take excessive risks knowing that they don't lose anything after hitting the checkpoint.
Dying should have some form of penalty, though it must be carefully balanced so that the player does not merely restart at the previous "permanent" savepoint location- the player losing all his weapon and armor is obviously taking it too far- not only is the player losing stuff he likely spent a long time acquiring, it also makes him even more likely to die again. A better solution may be the simple death counter, which the serious player would insist upon keeping at 0 (perhaps for some reward at the end of the game) even if it does result in wasting the time of going back. Alternatively, the player taking a financial hit ingame (such as losing half his gold) may be a sufficient penalty to be annoying without being so severe that the average player is essentially forced to restart upon death.

The important part is that players are allowed to save anywhere so they can leave the game whenever they need to, while the game still penalizes somewhat for dying and doesn't allow them to use the save mechanism for abuse.


justin said...

Hmm, I thought this was very good overall. An excelelnt point that I always noticed (just never bothered putting it into words) and a good solution. Perhaps single player RPG's could take an idea from MMO's, and perhaps have something like rez sickness, where if you die, you're penalized by having some sort of penalty, such as -5% HP or something along those lines for an hour or so. That would be fair, because it's not permanent, can be easily delt with, and goes away. It also makes it so you can't just die after trying to kill that super hard boss you just fought right off the bat.

Eidolos said...

If your NetHack games are taking over ten hours, then play faster!

sh said...

While it's possible to abuse the system (ie: save the game, kill a monster, see if it made a rare item drop, if not reset) simply doing it so that you don't have to start over after death is not abuse- it's compensating for a horrible game design.

It's not that simple, unfortunately. A critical point in many roguelikes is that there's certain Information the character doesn't have, and can only achieve through expensive means. A typical example is the identification of items.

Nethack example: If I have a puce potion, I can just drink it; OTOH, that might be a bad idea if it turns out to be a potiont of blindness. It might turn out to be an even worse idea if it's in fact a non-blessed potion of gain ability, since in that case it probably would have been a better use of my resources to bless it first.
I can read a scroll of identify on the potion, but that will use up the scroll, and I won't be able to use it to identify some other item.
If I'm a high level spellcaster I can use the identify spell from a book, but that possibility really only exists after a lot of the game is over, and even then many of the character classes won't be able to do it.

It's not just identification of items, of course. The same thing applies to the magicness of fountains, and that one cannot even be determined by nondestructive means in-game.

If I die and load a savegame, all of that information will still be the same. Chances are I'll have picked some of it up, and remember it, if vaguely. What am I supposed to do about it?
The in-character thing would be to forget I ever knew what the puce potion was, but that's gonna be hard to do for many players.
Burning a scroll of identify for every item I have unjustified knowledge about doesn't work, either; I may not even have had that scroll of identify when I saved.

The other big point is that a significant part of playing roguelikes is risk-management. If I have an early wish I can burn it on SDSM, but if I don't have magic resistance already that leaves me vulnerable to things like polymorph traps and force bolt-type attacks. I can wish for GDSM, but then I don't get reflection, and may want to procure a SDSM later anyway.
If I'm feeling really cocky and there aren't many artifacts yet, I can go for Grayswandir or a cool quest artifact from another class - risky in the medium run, but if I do survive long enough, that gamble will pay off in the late game.
That kind of motivation breaks down if death becomes significantly less destructive then it currently is in NH.

Broken or not, a lot of the flavor of roguelikes is based on the assumption of death being final. Adding ressurection-type saves simply makes these games less interesting in several fundamental ways, which is why that practice is frequently condemned by players.

That said, I do agree that some roguelikes are arguably a bit to large for the genre. NH is short enough, imho, but games like ToME (which is great, in many respects) are freaking hard, largely because there's so many things one can fatally fail at, and getting to a point in a static quest (to try again) can take hours of preparatory playing.