Sunset Overdrive is a game that focuses on the enjoyment of the player. Just moving around the in-game world can be a joyful experience as you grind and jump and string combos together to unlock in-game bonuses.
It’s a game that knows how to cut out much of the bullshit that can hurt the enjoyment of that sort of game, and one of the things Insomniac Games handled nearly perfectly are the checkpoints.
"We wanted them to be forgiving. We knew pretty early on that this was a game centered around fun," Drew Murray, Insomniac’s game director, told Polygon. "And frankly, replaying the same thing over and over tends to not be that much fun."
Checkpoints can be very hard to do well, and the technical challenges of enjoyable checkpoints are many. The trick in the case of Sunset Overdrive was to keep the player from taking unnecessary steps to move the game along. They kept the challenge in the missions — you won’t find a checkpoint inside a firefight allowing you to win via attrition — but when you die, you’ll be sure to be able to leap right back into the action.
"I think the truth is most people won’t come back later.""The easy [example] is you have to go a few hundred meters across the city and then get into a fight; we should definitely have the checkpoint at the end of that couple hundred meters," Murray explained. "Having to redo that before you start the fight every time, or having to re-watch a cutscene over and over, after a few times it adds frustration to something that’s already difficult for the player."
Murray talked about instances where even cutting away 30 or 40 seconds from the beginning of a checkpoint added to the game’s sense of fun. It's not a big deal to go through 30 seconds of a boring interaction before getting to the more interesting combat or movement, but if you have to repeat those 30 seconds multiple times you're more likely to put the game down and walk away.
"You’re always looking for the awesome parts of your game, but you’re also asking yourself: What are those quit-moments?" Murray said "Those ‘yeah, it’s not quite worth spending those three minutes, I’ll come back later,’ because I think the truth is most people won’t come back later… spending your time minimizing those moments can have a huge impact on the game."
Breaking the rules
"There are a few places that act inconsistently in the world," Murray explained as we talked about the checkpoint system. One example would be missions where you're asked to climb a tall structure, often taken breaks to fight your way through a mob or to solve a puzzle
According to the "rules" of Sunset Overdrive, you can survive long falls, which means if you've spent 20 minutes fighting your way up a structure and miss a jump you'll find yourself back at the bottom, having to repeat the whole process. This isn't a big deal if you're just exploring, but during a mission this frustrating loop will keep you from moving the story forward.
"We had to solve this problem in a way that won’t drive people crazy."
"We first had it where you just fall, and even if you killed everything you would have to re-traverse your way back up," Murray said. "Traversal is really fun in the game, but those particular traversals, you’re just trying to get from point A to point B, you’re just trying to get back to keep moving on. It was really irritating. So we put in death planes that just killed you."
But that doesn't make sense either. Why would this fall kill you when others don't? "We had to solve this problem in a way that won’t drive people crazy," Murray said.
The solution was simple, and it involved a trick that already existed. One of the game's many humorous spawn animations included a joke where you fell out of a portal, and this was added to climbing missions. If you fall you simple fall into a portal, and are put back near to where you fell off. Your in-game avatar may even say they're glad they don't have to restart at the bottom.
"That's probably our biggest inconsistency," Murray said.
The act of falling into a portal instead of continuing down to the bottom isn't explained in the game's world, it just happens. You can still climb up structures and fall off as you play the game, but the annoyance of missing a jump and re-playing the climbing sequence is removed if you're in a mission. It's one of the many ways the game subtly invites you to keep playing, and removes the frustration that may have caused players to quit.
"In those places I fall off the edge sometimes, and I get frustrated, and it feels cheap," Murray said. You still have to master the skills to get up there, but you won't have to repeat that action over and over if you experiment and explore near the top. The challenge is kept, only the frustration is removed."