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Save scumming: reviled exploit or useful mechanic?

Why some games encourage this consequence-avoiding exploit

Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

Saving your game is such a mundane part of video games that we don’t think too much about it. For game developers, that’s not at all the case. They put a ton of thought into how their games save, because it can affect everything from the difficulty to the narrative to even the gameplay itself.

In the early arcade years of video games, the technology to save games was costly, not to mention gigantic. That wasn’t a problem, though, since arcade games had a way to continue your game: Just insert another quarter! Once games became home entertainment, the need for convenience became paramount. Eventually, developers engineered ways for players to save their progress, including sticking batteries inside game cartridges in order to power solid-state memory chips.

Pretty soon, saving became a standard feature. Checkpoints, autosaving, quick saving: There are many ways a developer can choose to save their game. In some cases, like in Resident Evil and Dead Rising, the developer made the act of saving a part of the narrative, forcing players to find typewriters and toilets to save their game.

Eventually, the freedom to save created a new “problem”: save scumming. This consequence-avoiding exploit came about because developers were focused on providing convenience first and foremost. The ability to save anytime, anywhere, meant that players could simply retcon anything bad that happened to their character. This style of play was considered so antithetical to the idea of role-playing that the developers of The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall included a whole section in their game manual imploring players to roll with their mistakes.

When it comes to save scumming, few games are as controversial as XCOM. The series’ combination of permadeath and weapons with a percentage chance of hitting their target is a perfect recipe for sending gamers to the loading screen. Instead of merely encouraging players to roll with their failures, the developers of the series have come up with some more subtle ways of pushing the player away from save scumming. Or, in the case of Ironman mode, a way to take away the temptation.

Save scumming may be used as an exploit in some games, but for others, it’s a feature, not a bug. Desperados 3 and the series it traces its lineage from, Commandos, are built around this idea. These tactical stealth games require carefully laid plans and precise timing, and actually encourage the use of frequent quick saving and reloading. This trial-and-error style makes the genre almost feel puzzle-like in the way it lets players experiment with different solutions to a problem, and it wouldn’t be possible with a game designed to literally encourage save scumming.

You can learn more about how game saves affect the way games are designed in the video above. If you enjoy it, we’ve got a ton of great videos exploring how video games are designed and the cultural forces that influence them on our YouTube channel.

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