Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lossy Loading

Saved games are never loaded perfectly. There is no game with a perfect load system, because memory degrades very quickly.

I'm not talking about hardware memory. I'm talking wetware. Your hard drive doesn't really degrade, but your brain can't remember what you had for breakfast yesterday.

So when a player takes a few days off and then returns to their game, their brains don't load the state perfectly. They forget the details. The longer they spend away, the fewer details they remember. It doesn't matter how perfectly the game loads from the computer's hard drive: the player doesn't remember with that level of clarity.

My favorite games are tactical games and RPGs. Things like Civ IV, Disgaea, Eternal Sonata, Brigandine. These games are "RAM heavy": they have a very complex state. You've got a lot of characters all advancing in different ways, you've got a complicated map where certain areas are critical, you've got half a dozen plans in the works.

Unfortunately, this level of detail is also quickly forgotten, especially by me. It's so bad that I literally cannot come back to a game of Civilization. I totally lose the feeling of connection I had: although I understand the overall situation, there's no real feeling of being involved. It takes longer with RPGs and tactical games for some reason, perhaps because my memory for people is better than my memory for cities. But it only takes me a few days to completely forget where I was and what I was doing.

It's possible to reacquaint yourself with your game, of course. Study the map for a few minutes, figure out the important elements and so forth. But it takes a long time to get re-immersed: there are too many pieces moving in too many directions.

I think this is probably a serious issue that many people have. In fact, I would guess that many of the people who don't play games don't play games specifically because they have a poor memory for this kind of thing. It's not a general dislike of games: the casual game industry shows that virtually everyone is willing to waste time matching colors and picking out words. But those people rarely make the transition to games with a complex, persistent state.

Their memories are probably as bad as mine. So if they load a game they were playing yesterday, they're lost.

The only reason things are like this is because game designers design games to be played straight through. That really doesn't make a lot of sense for any game over an hour long.

Any prolonged game will be saved and put aside for some length of time. The bizarre assumption we make is that when someone comes back to the game, they'll pick up where they left off. Why do we assume that?

With today's games, we're perfectly capable of determining how long it's been since someone played our game. We can treat the game as if knowledge had a half life of, say, a week. You've been away for a week? You've forgotten half the situation. You've been away for a month? You'll only remember 1/16th the situation.

Therefore, we should at least offer a slow reintroduction. If we're worried about upsetting the game balance, it could be something which has absolutely no effect on the game world.

For example, if you're playing Disgaea and we know it's been a few days since you last played, we can run a quick recap. These are the last few things you did.

If it's been a few weeks, you'll need to go more broad-scale. These are the characters you use most and their general capabilities... here's a plot recap...

There's a reason that TV shows frequently have a "Previously on Useless TV Show..." segment. People have shitty memories.

In order to do this recapping, you would need the game to understand (or at least keep a record of) the situation. The game needs to mark what details you're likely to forget, so that it can run a recap, a recentering scene, or a "semi-tutorial" that reintroduces you.

Of course, that's not likely to happen. It's not in the budget. So when you see a persistent world marketed to the "casual" audience, it's usually only surface-deep. Who cares if you forget that you were planting flowers in Animal Crossing? It doesn't matter. But forget that you can cast fireball in an RPG, you're in for some trouble.

Thoughts? Is this a problem for you? Do you think it's a significant reason people don't play persistent games?


Adrian Lopez said...

I think so too, although it never occurred to me to tie the reminder to the time that's elapsed since the player last saved the game. I like it.

Chill said...

I have the same problem, as I do tend to prefer the same kind of games: Tactical Games and RPGs. Coming back to saved game is sometimes really hard if I spend a lot time away. I, in fact, make it more complicated for myself by having multiple saved games, so I don't always remember which one I want to go back to.

The idea of re-immersion is interesting tho. Perhaps a sort of dream sequence for RPGs where you go over the previous plot points and current quests or something. For tactical games, I imagine some kind of newsreel or newspaper, that has a bunch of relevant details and such. Course you need a way to figure out what's relevant...

You know, I think if you just nail a enough of the facts, just by process of association it'll jog the memory and allow reimmersion to happen easier.

Craig Perko said...

That's the idea. I kind of like the idea of taking it a step further, though. I'll discuss that soon.

Eric Poulton said...

Just this week I went back to Metroid Prime 3 after putting it aside for a month to play Mass Effect. Although my immediate goals were easy to get a reminder on, I found myself hopelessly stuck in a room for twenty minutes before I remembered I could double jump. A refresher definitely would have been nice.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post... I also have this issue but had never really thought to apply it to casual gamers as a possible reason why they don't 'get' these types of games. I'm not sure if you've outlined an optimal solution here, but either way I sincerely think you've identified a problem. The solution you're suggesting could be really interesting in what other effects it could have as well. If, for example, an SRPG kept a lot of metadata concerning your usage of weapon/armor types, spell classes, skills etc and adjusted the stuff you've not used much to make it more attractive... there's a bit of overlap here with your previous posts regarding choice in games. This could also be put to use in eliminating the 'dominant strategy' gameplay issue you mentioned before, where people find one strategy that works and then they flog it for the next n hours of game time.

Jojo said...

Oops, that was me. Sorry I missed the name field!

Textual Harassment said...

Yeah, if I quit a civ-type strategy game, I can pretty much count on not loading that game again. Not only is there so much stuff to remember, one session looks so much like another one that it's easier just to start fresh.

A bigger problem I have with most games is remembering *why* I was playing. Maybe all I can remember is that I was in the middle of a lame stealth mission when I quit. In this case a recap wouldn't do any good (because I wouldn't even boot up the game). I think a "tune in next time" montage that plays when you quit the game would help. It could remind you of the plot and even give you a preview of things to come. If I remember that instead of a few bits of gameplay it would make it easier to come back.

Craig Perko said...

Jojo: Wait until my next post. :)

Textual: I like the idea - like teasers for a TV show. It could be used in computer games, but consoles tend to just get shut off instantly, so you'd have to be clever there...

Mory said...

The only game I've ever played that reminded players what was going on was Sonic Adventure. But you're describing a more comprehensive system. It's an important idea, to be sure.

For most games, it really wouldn't be so hard to do the whole thing by hand, considering how many games have totally linear stories. If you're gone a week, it shows you a recap written for that section of the game, and if you're gone for a few weeks it first shows a general paragraph describing the plot of the entire game, and then that other recap. And it's really not hard to keep track of which abilities the player's gotten so far, and put 'em in a list with the new stuff on top.

Peter Bessman said...

You are so absolutely right, and this is such a forehead slapper now that you've made me see it. I definitely have the same problem, however, being inclined to binge-playing as I am, it manifests itself in strange ways. Specifically, take a game like StarCraft. Did that game have a save-anywhere feature? Because if I did, I never used it, and hence, don't recall it. Probably this is because I instinctively knew that there was no way I was going to be coming back to an epic battle. In fact, I wouldn't start the game if I didn't have time to finish it. I remember wondering why I felt like that. "Well, I've got an hour of free time, I could play some SC, but... I dunno, I don't wanna." Now it makes perfect sense. I would have played the game for an hour, then come back the next day with no clue about the state and probably gotten stomped.

I think this is also why certain kinds of "big" games fare better commercially than others. Take Halo 3 --- definitely the levels are huge, but the actual state as such is pretty small. Sure, you have objectives, but their more like meta-objectives there to provide a sense of narrative. Your only real objective at any point in time is to kill all the enemies.

Contrast that with something like Deus Ex, which is an extremely stateful shooter. I binged through that one as well, but I did find myself needing sleep here and there. And whenever I came back to the game, I spent quite a bit of time wondering WTF I was trying to do again.

This has huge implications. It could be one of the key things that keeps critical acclaimed games from getting a similar level of commercial success. BioShock tried pretty hard to deal with the phenomenon by giving you easy access to all the state information at all times. Perhaps that was a silent contributor to its success? I was able to play it in much more of a stop-and-go fashion than I usually get away with. And contrast that against HL2, which I played after BioShock and, once again, was playing in binge sessions.

Even so, compared to your idea of graduated re-introduction based on wetware memory half lives, BioShock's approach is pretty crude. Yet, for me at least, it had a huge effect on the practical playability of the game --- i.e., how well the game integrated into life a that doesn't center around the game. I'd love to see your idea in action, I could seriously see it having a large impact on the size of the impact that gaming has on society (pardon the overuse of "impact").

Craig Perko said...

Sounds like everyone's got the idea. I'm glad people seem so positive.

The thing is that this doesn't even have to be very cumbersome. It could be plastered on the loading screen: see your character going through the actions you're likely to forget.

He's double-jumping, he's throwing a fireball, he's getting his butt kicked by the plot bad guy... and the game is loaded!

Olick said...

Oddly enough, the more recent pokemons have things like this in them. At least some of the GBA games had this. Every time you loaded a game, it had a quick recap of what you did (this wavered from useful things like: "you beat X gym leader, and your pokemon evolved", to rather mundane things like "you left your house. You picked up an ultra ball on route 23")
I don't personally have much of a recollection problem unless I've been away for a long time, but I won't load RTS's. I'd much rather start at the beginning of a mission than in the middle of one.

Brian Shurtleff said...

I posted somewhat of a response to this in the end of one of my entries here.

Craig Perko said...

Sounds like you agree... thanks for the link!