I learned something irksome about my recently acquired PS2. Actually, it happens to be the second irksome thing since I got it, and the second to do with compatibility. Sony had the right idea when they released the PS2: people are going to want to play their old games without having to own two systems. More than that, by launching with the full force of the PSone library behind them, they were able to easily shoehorn their way into a greater number of homes. Unfortunately, as time drags on and they approach their third major iteration cracks are starting to appear in the thin veneer of backwards compatibility.
This isn’t a post about that, because retro and classic gamers get it. They know the problems and gnash their teeth at the stupidity of it, just as I do: games that don’t work with newer versions of the hardware, and requiring old memory cards to save old games. It was the idea of how consoles save games that got me to thinking…
First I had to think back through how video games have saved and tracked progress in the past. It started, as most things do, with not thinking about it. The first video games kept no records. That quickly became not good enough. Players wanted to be able to prove to their drunken buddies that they really had achieved some new, ridiculously pointless high score. Designers implemented, first in RAM (lost on power failure) then later with more permanent methods, high score tables. As games came to home systems via the cartridge, some of the same trickery was used, but often not. Most of these were arcade games anyway with only a few initials and numbers to be remembered.
If progress was to be saved, or games restored, programmers fell back on implementing level codes. Get to a milestone, get a code. Enter the code, jump to the milestone. With linear progression, this kind of thing worked just fine. But when Zelda came out it brought with it a new kind of play for consoles, and a new way to save. In many respects the cartridge save game hasn’t changed very much since that first one. The data stored has gotten more complex, larger, but the form remains. And so it is, even unto handhelds.
Other methods of saving have cropped up since then. Ignoring the computer, we have three primary methods in use today. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, especially when you start to look at social gaming and information sharing. We also have to think about more than just save games, there are also “unlockables” and other reward-based achievements available in most games. These too must be tracked and saved.
The cartridge save is still widely used, especially among the Nintendo handhelds. The advantages are that saving and unlocking is immediate, built-in, and intuitive. You don’t need extra hardware; you don’t need to plug anything in. Sometimes you don’t even have to think about it: it just happens. The drawbacks are more social. The only way to share or show something from your game is to share the physical cart. Sometimes (eg - Pokemon) you can trade or share via a connection. Actually, as the ability to connect handheld games wirelessly increases, the restriction to sharing becomes less of a problem as designers take the idea of social interaction into account (eg – Animal Crossing: Wild World). Despite this, the cartridge mentality lends itself to, “my game, my save”.
The memory card save was the initial choice of the optical generation. Developed because you can’t save to common optical media, the save card provides its own list of quirks. You can save many games (and many saves) to a single card. You can take the card with you. Even with someone else’s copy of a game your achievements can be present. You can copy and share data easily. Of course, you need to remember your card. And plug it in. And, with few exceptions, it is still an either-or system. Either his save or yours; never something shared. Chances are pretty good that if you have a memory card, you have your own system. You need to play alone before you can achieve something to share.
The hard drive save came along with the computer, but was adapted for the Xbox. This method allows for a lot of saving, a lot of tracking, and a lot of playing by yourself. Making it nearly impossible to take your achievements with you, short of relocating your system or falling back on a save card, this method is the most socially limiting. The only way to play with your achievements, and your friends’ achievements, is for each to play from their own system via a network. Good thing they developed Xbox Live! Your saves are yours, and they stay that way.
So what is the future? I think that Nintendo might just be on the right track. There are rumours that the Wii-mote will contain at least enough memory for a gamer profile. This means that you can pick up your controller and take your critical information with you to a game at your friend’s place. With more memory (say 16-64MB) it could even be a universal save card. Imagine taking your achievements in any and all games with you. Things you unlock available wherever you play. If you have some stuff unlocked and your friend has some other stuff, when you play together you have it all.
Nintendo could easily make the Wii controller the gateway drug to gaming. Imagine having a friend with a Wii. You, not being sure about all this “gaming stuff” have never bothered to buy in. Nor are you likely to. Except that he has a neat game, something physical and fun, and you get to playing. You visit regularly and start to play more often. Now you want to save your progress. And another friend has just gotten a Wii, providing more chances to play and share. So you go and drop a measly $60 on your very own Wii-mote. You’ve never bought a console, but now you own a controller, and in doing so are able to share common experiences and achievements with disparate social groups. Eventually this leads you to buying the system, the best part being that you don’t lose any progress because it is all there in the controller you bought six months ago.
Now, this is a bit of a pipe-dream. I don’t think that the Wii, or its controller, will do all of this. Not at first. We have to demand it. If you want to get the masses gaming, make it worth their while. Make it easy to play, easy to share, easy to keep: easy to save. Get them to buy in (just a controller!), and then get them to share the game.