Sunday, January 15, 2012

Save Scumming and Incentivization

In my previous article, I examined different methods used by developers to combat save scumming.  Among them were the use of checkpoint saves, limited save slots/numbers, and punishments for repeated saving/reloading.  Although all of those systems have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes down to save scumming, I feel that usually the best choice is to work to design your game in a way where the motivation to save scum in the first place is diminished, or doesn't exist at all.

A few remaining thoughts were left on my mind, however, and there was a big topic that I skipped over in the original piece that I'd like to take some time to address.  Specifically, it's incentivization, which I feel is related to punishments but deserves its own discussion due to the different ways it can be accomplished, and the way in which it can interact with punishments.

Incentives vs. Punishments

The first thing to consider is what differentiates an incentive from a punishment.  This might sound obvious at first - punishments are bad, incentives are good - but the reality behind the situation is a little bit more complex.  In many cases the difference between the two is a matter of perspective - is locking the player out of computer systems in Fallout: New Vegas an incentive to play the mini-game properly (and thus get an XP reward), or is it a punishment for not playing as the developer intended (you have to wait to try again)?

The reasonable answer is that the distinction between incentives and punishments is one of opinion, and that in almost every case you have to have a mix of an incentive and a punishment for either one to really make sense.  It's definitely possible to express something as primarily positive or negative, especially to the player ("don't do this" vs. "do this"), but there's always going to be a downside to every upside.  The job of a game designer (at least, one concerned with eliminating save scumming) is to frame the outcomes in a way that comes across as generally positive to the player, rather than punitive.

This can be easier said than done, especially because the ways in which players experience games can be very different from one another.  Some players might love to get rewarded, while others think that missing out on rewards because they aren't as skilled as others isn't very much fun.  Similarly, there are those who love a great challenge, and others who stop playing after losing no more than two or three times in a row; for them, the motivation to save scum is both situational and personal.

With that in mind, what are some of the ways in which developers can provide incentives to keep playing the game without resorting to save scumming or other forms of related abuse?

Understanding the Decline of Attrition

As I've written about before, if there is one trend covering just about all modern game design, it has been the reduction of attrition.  This is something both enforced within gameplay and which often forms the entire basis of a game's mechanics (regenerating health), as well as something which stems less explicitly out of the structure of a game itself (the tendency towards shorter game levels or goals, with obvious break points).  I'm not here to talk about whether I think this is a good or bad thing, but it's clear that it's defined many games released in the last console generation especially, and doesn't show any sign of disappearing as developers move towards the mobile market.

What tends to be lost with this reduction of attrition, however, is the incentive for players to keep playing a game for longer sessions.  Whereas many past games were heavily focused on keeping the player in the action and moving forward at all times - strategy games like Command & Conquer with lengthy missions requiring long-term planning, or shooters like Half-Life refusing to break gameplay up into distinct levels - these days the challenges players face are immediate, the risks and rewards occurring within the same repeated 30-second cycle of gameplay rather than over the long term.

Many games used to emphasize long-term strategy more than they do now - making save scumming less viable then, and more essential now.
Instead of long-term goals being the default, now other types of goals have been superimposed upon this smaller cycle of short-term goals.  Completing the level may now be a fairly trivial task, but can you get the achievement for completing the game in 5 hours?  How about collecting all the hidden objects throughout the game?  Gaining a high score on the leaderboards?  Do you spend your superweapon's ammo now, or later on?  Long-term goals exist nowadays primarily to satisfy the hardcore completionist players, and thus the motivations for save scumming tend towards meta-gaming and power-gaming.

Why do I go into this?  It's important, I think, to understand how modern game design has changed and how and why save scumming now manifests.  If developers are to create important incentives for players, they need to be able to know why players are save scumming in the first place, the sorts of functions it serves for them, and how those problems in gameplay can be remedied.  Attrition, or rather, its decline, is at the heart of this problem.

Rewarding Consistent Play

While you can't really change the nature of players, you can reward them to keep them in the game, rather than reloading every five minutes to get ideal outcomes.  One of the best ways to do this is by providing players a reward for avoiding reloads (specifically reloads done to avoid bad outcomes).  Though this isn't going to be appropriate to every game for the reasons I've discussed above, I think it has a lot of potential in getting players to keep going.

The best recent example of this I can think of is in Jay Barnson's indie RPG Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon.  In Frayed Knights, the player gains Drama Stars for opening doors, solving quests, defeating enemies, and so on.  Drama Stars are obtained at a fairly fixed rate, with the distinction being that most of them are achieved for new accomplishments rather than old ones, so opening the same old door obviously won't reward the player like opening a new, unknown door will.  When you save and quit the game, your Drama Stars are saved, but if you reload a save, they disappear and need to be re-earned.

Frayed Knights' Drama Stars reward players for sticking with it and surviving by the skin of their teeth, rather than loading up a previous save file.
Drama Stars can then be spent on special abilities used both in and out of combat.  Some of these are pretty mundane and have small effects, like a temporary damage boost, but as the player accumulates more Drama Stars, the potential abilities become game-changing, up to and including a full party revive and restoration, turning a losing battle into a winning one instantly (provided the player has played consistently up until that point, of course).  Although this doesn't eliminate save scumming entirely, it does a lot to encourage players to avoid reloading.

Another hypothetical example might be found in an action game, where the player gains a long-term bonus for killing enemies (i.e. 30 kills = +5% damage bonus), and which persists until the player either completes the current level or challenge, or reloads the game.  Players aren't punished, per se, by reloading, but by continuing with the current challenge, they'll have an easier time in the long run for it.  Admittedly, the nature of the game design would need to reflect this (avoiding instant death scenarios, giving the player a large supply of health rather than a small, regenerating one), but of course, these sorts of incentives are going to be different for every type of game.  Frayed Knights' Drama Stars wouldn't work in a shooter, for example.

Additional Objectives & Bonuses

A related but different mechanic for encouraging the player to avoid save scumming involves providing the player with larger or extra rewards for completing tasks in an ideal manner, or for completing secondary tasks.  This could be anything from bonus experience points and gold, to extra items, to a simple congratulations from a character in the game.  Balancing these sorts of rewards is a challenge, as they'd have to be proportionate to the risks involved, as well as not being so significant that the player feels it's a good idea to reload the game if the demands aren't met.

Though I haven't seen this implemented on a universal level in recent games, the one that springs to mind the most for me is Fable: The Lost Chapters.  In Fable, the player can take on different quests during the game, both required and optional, and choose to boast about them.  Boasting effectively unlocks a set of secondary objectives for the player to complete during the mission, in exchange for a greater reward (usually money and experience), but also requires an investment cost, so it's not a sure-fire way to make tons of money easily.

Fable's boasting gave optional incentive for hardcore gamers to challenge themselves - indirectly encouraging them to avoid the save/reload cycle.
 Combined with Fable's checkpoint saving system, it's more or less impossible (certainly inconvenient) to load up a previous save upon failing a boast, and the ability to take multiple boasts on any given quest also means that failing one still leaves the others open.  This gives more options for the hardcore players to show off their skills or get the challenge they want, but still ensures that everyone will be able to move on in the game, without losing anything.  While not specifically designed to prevent save scumming, this sort of mechanic once again encourages players to stick with the results they've got.  Because of the investment required to boast in the first place, it's not a simple matter of "do it right and get a bigger bonus"; rather, it's directly tied to the player's own choice to undertake the additional challenge.

When talking about secondary or optional objectives, it's worth clarifying their importance in the game.  If an optional task feels too important to the player - it has been given a lot of importance in the story, or the rewards for completing it are huge, or the player will miss game content by not completing it - then in my opinion it's hard to even really consider it optional at all, from a save scumming perspective.  Since players who resort to save scumming are usually meta-gamers or power-gamers to begin with, they're going to want to complete just about every secondary task available before moving on in the game.  Therefore, it's fair to say that rewarding an extra health potion or a 5% experience bonus for completing a secondary task incentivizes consistent play... but giving the player a whole new level to explore, or a new weapon or set of armour, only adds to the problem.

Meta-Game Incentives

Last, it'd be hard to talk about giving players incentives without talking about meta-game rewards.  Though meta-game rewards aren't always available depending on a given game's platform, genre, etc., it does tie in quite nicely with the hardcore player mindset of "100%ing" a game that often fuels save scumming in the first place.  Moreover, because so many games are geared towards long-term goals, and which are themselves often meta-game goals, it only makes sense to use those features to one's advantage.

The first and most obvious meta-game system to highlight is achievements.  Most major gaming platforms have some sort of achievement system, regardless of the name, and a similar type of functionality can be added into a game even if it doesn't tie into any sort of meta-game system (the Mass Effect series does this on the PC).  While an anti-scumming achievement might be a little too blatant for some players, the same sorts of problems can be solved by using achievements in conjunction with other goals - for instance, rewarding an achievement for saving all the peasants from an attack, which itself might only possible without save scumming.  A more brute-force method of "no achievements for you, save-scummer!" can also be used, but again, being this blatant about it might turn some players away.

Rewarding achievements for fair and consistent play could encourage players to avoid exploits.
Another option is to cut save-scummers off from leaderboard rankings, or include some sort of high-score penalty for repeated reloads. Even games that don't have explicit scoring systems can have some sort of leaderboard compatibility, whether that's being able to track the progress and accomplishments of friends who are also playing, or listing completion speed, accuracy, and so on rather than high score.  For single-player games this might be a little more out of place, but it's still certainly possible to integrate such functionality.

It's worth noting that these solutions start to border on punishments again.  As I described above, I don't think the distinction between the two is quite as absolute as some might suggest, and when players aren't really missing out on any game features when save-scumming, I think it's a non-issue.  Just as the Grand Theft Auto games disable achievements when players activate cheat codes, I think it's fair to do the same when players begin to abuse the save system - though care must be taken about the particulars.  So long as a game isn't broken enough to actually require the use of save scumming to complete, I interpret achievements and leaderboards as rewards on top of the core game experience, rather than features all players should be privileged to.


Once again, I'm forced to admit that there is no sure-fire way to deal with save scumming.  As many incentives as you throw at the problem, players are probably still going to continue to do so, and without outright restricting the player's ability to save and load the game in the first place (the hallmark of some genres, but not most), all a developer can do is push players in the right direction and hope they take the cues.

There are still some unanswered questions about save scumming that I'd like to get into at a later time.  I realize that these articles can occasionally come across as very anti-player, punitive, and generally one-sided.  I fully admit to this, but it's not a result of my personal opinion on save scumming, on the nature of the discussion's tone.  There are plenty of arguments to be made for save scumming as well, as not all games are created equally and not all players are willing to subject themselves to the limitations imposed by developers.  I'll be getting into that myself soon, but better yet, if you have a strong opinion about save scumming one way or the other, I'd love to hear it as well.


  1. I'm sorry to ask this, but who said Save Scumming was a problem?

    Couldn't I throw it right back at the developers and ask them why they designed a game where optimal play is only achieved by the player improvising a reset button?

    Look at the problems that lead to save-scumming:
    -Annoying or repetitive mini-games that the player can guess at.
    -Giving the player a lack of information about critical choices.
    -Making special attacks have a chance of "missing" and by consequence, sabotaging the entire combat encounter.
    -Chaining important events where a stumble at any time costs the player their accumulated momentum.

    Scumming is a technique for players to overcome bad game design.

    If you want to remove save scumming then you need to provide the player ways to bounce back from failures, to make failures less painful, or to not present failures as failures.

    For example, the Total War franchise features singular characters in the form of Generals. Generally speaking, losing a general sucks. But you can always spend gold to recruit another one. AND, even though a 10 star General will beat a 1 star General, ANY General will beat any other unit.

    So losing a high-ranking General isn't that big a deal because you can always get it back.

    Now, I grew up with a NES and SNES, so I'm familiar with Nintendo-hard, but where did this prejudice against save scumming come from? It creates a dichotomy where a player is either a walking-god or a total noob - is there no room for the moderate players who feel the game cheated and wanted to reload for a second bite at the apple?

  2. @David Armstrong:

    That's exactly what I plan to go into in another piece, hopefully within the next few days (I'm on a roll!). The short of it is that developers go to a lot of trouble to properly balance their games and make quality of play both in the short- and long-term important.

    Save scumming is often a response to poor game design, I agree, a symptom that something hasn't been balanced properly... and while I will argue it's within the player's rights to save scum, it's not an ideal situation.

    I also want to clarify that I address many of those points within my articles. As I mention at the end of this one, I am not against save scumming, and I do it myself - but it does represent a design challenge nonetheless, and completely ignoring the problem probably isn't a good idea, just as you don't ignore obvious exploits and assume players won't use them.

  3. My first thought was "I have no problem with save scumming!" But I also think that if players are too obsessed with playing perfectly that they might not enjoy the game as much as if they just kept going. But maybe I'm under-estimating the pleasure of a perfect play.

  4. I was knee-deep in a thought trying to restate the conversation, that no it's not about seeking a perfect play-through!

    But yea, it totally is. Especially when it comes to RPGs, it's about completing every side-quest, exploring every area, meeting every character, and optimizing your character. If you can't do this, if you don't have that golden 100% complete saved game on your console, then you haven't beaten the game. That's the mindset, that's the bug that I and many players have.

    And the concept of having all this effort sabotaged by some thing - it really doesn't matter how or what - is abhorrent. Yes, I will reload and replay the last hour, the last two hours, the last five hours, if need be, because this is too important to mess up.

    Case in point, I replayed the entire planet of Manaan in KotOR once I saw the direction the planet was going in, the court case, so that I could thoroughly investigate the matter before trial and ensure a rare acquittal.

    And sure enough, checking online, it is possible to fully exonerate your client, but it is very difficult and exists only to reward the hardcore gamer. Which I am.

    And in this example, Bioware didn't exactly keep it a secret, but I was caught unawares and in the initial play through (I replayed the game several times) my client was convicted, and this just shocked me, that I would fail in any task in the game. My thought process was, "The game allows for failure and by consequence, my character will continue in the game without the bonus award for "winning" the mini-game."

    But I will not tolerate playing the game without that bonus - I want to know what it is and I want to have it - because it's there.

    Optional content is not optional - it's just more game.

  5. One reason for save scumming (why isn't it save scamming? since scam is a cheat which is sort of what save scumming does) at least in RPG's is the usually binary options you get in dialogs.

    Usually when confronted with a problem via conversation with an NPC, most games will give you 2 or 3 options: the "good" and the "bad" option (and sometimes a neutral choice). There's very little subtlety in the choices, all white, all black (or no opinion). This railroads the player into a set path that may or may not express where the player wants to go.

    Usually when confronted by these decision points, I know the end result I want to achieve but unless I'm playing "goody-two-shoes" or "evil-douche" the decision trees don't match what I would want to say. As a result I may have to save scum to make sure I reach the choice I'd like to make (or closest to). Some gaming is necessary by the binary nature of current RPG's.