Progress Erasing and Respecting the Player’s Time

Hey, look at me, blogging again. I’ll be trying to make it a more regular thing. Anyway, I want to write about something that has long been a pet peeve of mine in games: progress erasing, and disrespecting the player’s time.

Failing at a challenge can be frustrating, but I find this is made all the worse when doing so causes a loss of progress. Say I die on a boss battle in a side-scroller. If I begin again at that boss battle, no harm done. I’m still in the mindset of that challenge, ready to give it another shot. But if I have to do the platforming sequence that precedes the battle all over, that’s really irritating. Not only does that break the flow of that battle, it feels like my time investment wasn’t meaningful. It feels like the game doesn’t respect my time.

This is why I never finish classic Sonic and Mega Man games, despite generally quite enjoying them. When you get a game over, you don’t just get to start back at the challenge you failed on. You have to redo the whole level- or even set of levels- you’re in. Your progress if effectively being erased. In the face of being made to redo things I’ve already successfully completed, eventually I quit. Not because I feel I can’t succeed- but because I feel it’s just not worth the time.

I understand why designers do this, ostensibly. It makes the challenge of the game feel greater, and heightens the risk associated with failure. And it lengthens the necessary play time to complete the game. My issue it that it is doing all these things in an arbitrary way: what you’re actually playing isn’t more engaging or difficult, it’s just threatening to cost you your real time. You’re not playing longer because you don’t want to put the game down, but because you’re being forced to in order to reach your goal. I think players would generally be better served by getting to keep their progress, even upon failure. It may make the game feel shorter and easier, but at least the time spent and challenge had will be coming more from the actual gameplay itself.

The answer is of course obvious: checkpoints. I think checkpoint design should be considered a hugely important part of any level design process. Designers should consider all the points in a level where a player will feel victorious, and put a checkpoint right after it. Otherwise, the player will be frustrated by feeling like that victory is ripped away. Obviously this all depends on the size and overall design goals of the levels in question, but I think that’s a good general rule of thumb.

Once when playing a game I had just downloaded, I spent roughly 10 minutes doing a particular mission. I completed the final objective, effectively winning, but was killed on the way to the level exit. None of that progress was saved. I would have had to redo the entire mission I had already essentially won. That was the last time I played that game. In this day when so much engaging media is accessible at any moment, it’s more crucial than ever to respect your player’s time. I’d strongly suggest you not devalue it for the sake of arbitrarily lengthening your game or increasing its difficulty.