Roguelike Save Systems

The concept of permadeath is a simple enough one in games where you play a single character that can actually die. But how can we, as game developers, extend that concept to game genres that don't fit around the classic rogue template, such as strategy games, or arcade games? And what's the big attraction of permadeath anyway?

In this post we'll be talking about traditional roguelike approaches to save systems, and the alternative solutions we at VoxelStorm have developed for our games.

Permadeath

The concept of permadeath is tied closely to the concept of savegames, or the idea that you can save your game progress, character progression or other state to return to later. Normal save systems allow you to close the game, and return later to continue playing where you left off. But unrestricted user-controlled saving also allows the player to come back and re-load to try a scenario over and over again, until they get a favourable result.

Roguelike save systems typically restrict this in two different ways:

Limiting the game to a single save slot

Offering only a single save slot streamlines the saving and resuming process a lot. As well as reducing the obvious temptation to make multiple simultaneous saves to test different branches of gameplay progression, it can make the entire process of saving and loading transparent to the user.

Instead of letting the player save and load through menu options, the game is saved automatically when the player exits the game, and their progress is loaded at game start. It can also auto-save at various intervals, to avoid losing progress in the case of a crash or unexpected power loss. This pattern is by no means unique to roguelike games - it's been common on many consoles for a long time, as it simplifies the gameplay flow and makes it quicker for a player to jump into the game, without having to remember to manage their savegames.

Of course it can also make the game a little bit more difficult - you no longer have the luxury of exploring multiple directions and choosing after the fact the one that worked out best. This is good, because it encourages the player to think more carefully about the decisions they make in the game - exploration feels more risky, and the player takes more time to consider the long-term ramifications of their choices. This is the reason it's popular in roguelike games, as well as games in which high difficulty is a feature.

Savegame deletion

This is another common feature of roguelike save systems, and one that is basically key to the concept of permadeath. When your character is killed in battle, you lose the ability to reload your previous save game; that character is permanently dead, and you lose all progress made with that character. A delightfully brutal method of enforcing this is to literally delete the savegame file from the player's disk at the moment of death.

This sounds harsh, and in some ways player-unfriendly, but it's an excellent technique to encourage much deeper association between the player and their character. The player knows they won't get a second chance if they get their character killed, so they take fewer blind risks, think much more carefully about strategic decisions, plan further ahead, and generally become far more intimately involved with and invested in their character. In short, they are drawn much more deeply into the game.

Procedural generation

Savegame deletion works especially well in games with procedurally generated worlds, where every play-through offers new opportunities. Rather than running over the same challenge again and again by reloading a single savegame, death in these kinds of games can be a positive exploratory experience in itself - for instance in Dwarf Fortress, losing is generally inevitable (and fun). In this case, your procedural story has a beginning, middle and a clear end. It provides a self-contained narrative, that can be shared to regale other members of the community. Finally, it opens a new opportunity, by "forcing" the player to start again.

Save-scumming

I put "forcing" in scare quotes in the paragraph above, because another feature common to almost all roguelike save systems is that permadeath is really just a kind of charade. You don't have to be especially computer-savvy to understand that if you really wanted not to lose your progress, or to try a section of the game again, you can simply back up the savegame before it gets deleted.

Although it isn't by any means encouraged, or usually officially supported, very few roguelike games take steps to actually prevent a player from copying their savegame, and restoring it to get to play through a tricky section again if that's what they want to do. Although not officially supported, it's something so commonly understood that it has a common name that jokingly expresses the common disdain for the practice - "save-scumming", the act of circumventing a roguelike save system's limitations.

If a player is really invested in their character, ironically they may find themselves more likely to "savescum" in order to make sure they survive a particularly challenging encounter. And that's made possible by the extra immersion offered by deleting the player's save by default. But the extra work required to do this makes it an extra step in investment again.

The savegame file itself becomes something precious, not to be taken for granted, and saving it from obliteration really does feel like cheating death for your character, rather than simply cheating at the game. Rather than letting you off the hook, it actually brings you deeper into the game again - so we can consider save-scumming to be a core feature of the roguelike save system.

Bones

When death finally does take your character, on a subsequent play-through, you'll often find that they left some sort of legacy behind them that your new character can encounter. Sometimes this will be in-game lore, or a spoken legend passed by NPCs, it could be a tombstone you can visit, or it could appear in the form of useful items your new character can collect and benefit from.

This last form is one of the most interesting, and is epitomised by Nethack's "bone files". The idea is that when you die, your possessions are stored in a file on the computer, and available to load in later games; in the case of a large shared computer as were common in the 80s, it's possible to encounter the bones of many other past adventurers, not just your own.

Not everything is as it seems, however, with items sometimes being cursed, or otherwise altered from how you remembered them - and they may be guarded by more ferocious enemies. This is another way of softening player death slightly, as an alternative to save-scumming. Although you've lost your adventurer, if you work hard, you have a chance to reclaim some of the loot you valued so much in your past life - and this gives you a goal to pursue in its own right.

But as with all things roguelike, this is tempered and limited harshly. You often only get one chance to reclaim your past adventurer's bones - if you fail to find them on the playthrough immediately subsequent, you are likely never to see them again, and the bones file itself may be deleted after being instantiated in the game world once. Again, it becomes something valuable and worth pursuing, a treasure that draws you deeper into the immersive game.

Roguelike saving in AdvertCity

The goal in using a roguelike save system in AdvertCity was to increase the level of investment a player feels for their role in a given game. The city is procedurally generated, and no two play-throughs will be the same - different relationships arise between the megacorporations, and a strategy that works in one city may not work as well in another.

However, AdvertCity is a tycoon game; exploration is carried out over an "inner space" of possibilities, rather than an extrinsic space of traditional roguelike dungeons composed of tunnels and rooms. You cannot "die" in AdvertCity (although you can certainly lose the game), and you have no inventory or stats (although you have a technology tree, and assets and debts), so many of the roguelike concepts above needed to be looked at in a different way.

We chose to implement a single save system in AdvertCity, giving you a choice at startup whether to resume your last game, or to start a new one - but no choice as to whether to save the game or not on exit, "forcing" you to live with the consequences of your decisions. And if you play badly, at the moment of bankruptcy, this single savegame is deleted, "forcing" you to start again.

We also intentionally chose to disallow pausing in AdvertCity. Of course if you switch away from the game, it will pause automatically - we're not monsters, after all! But we don't give you any respite from the flow of time, as in many other tycoon and strategy games, where you have the luxury of pausing to make your decisions. AdvertCity encourages you to be fully present in the moment, plan carefully before committing to an expensive course of action - and reap the benefits of that planning, or be punished by the loss of the savegame.

Of course, save-scumming is possible, and we do nothing to either encourage or discourage the practice, beyond making it simple with a single portable AdvertCity.save file. It's up to you as a player to decide whether save-scumming suits your play style or not.

Roguelike saving in sphereFACE

We wanted to make gameplay instant and immediate in sphereFACE. There is no installer, no initial setup menu, no launch menu - as soon as you run the game, you are unceremoniously dumped straight into gameplay. It's not possible to save the game at all in the first sphere - this is basically a starting room. Only once you progress through the first hyperspace portal does the "Quit" menu button turn into a "Save and Quit" button. The game also automatically saves every time you pass through another portal. Subsequently, when you launch the game, you immediately resume play where you last left off.

Until, of course, you die. Which happens very frequently in sphereFACE. Frequently and often suddenly.

sphereFACE is not a traditional roguelike, either. The core gameplay feel is more of a fast-paced arcade game. However, you do have an inventory. You progress through a procedurally generated network of spheres and tunnels, going deeper to meet harder challenges... not entirely dissimilar to Rogue's dungeons. You can collect and level up weapons. All in all, there is scope to apply many of the same ideas as in traditional roguelikes.

The world is procedurally generated and there are many different paths through the world; you may have spent some time collecting weapons, or levelling up one particular favourite. It's a shame to suddenly lose all of that equipment! Fortunately, sphereFACE implements a roguelike boneSPHERE system; if you search the sphereSPACE after dying (but before reloading or restarting the game), you may come across an eerily purple sphere, scattered with the debris from your predecessor's demise. It may be guarded by a higher than average number of enemies.

And if you fail to reach it, all that good stuff is gone forever. But at least you have the one extra chance, if you try really hard, to get it all back. And this all makes you value the weapons you collect so much more - you're more likely to think carefully before taking risks, and consider and plan a strategy before acting.

Of course, as always, nothing stops you from save-scumming, with the single portable sphereFACE.save file. But you wouldn't need to do that... right?