The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Year 2014 just came to an end. It is time to lay the cards on the table.

First of all, everything I discuss here is based on my personal experiences from the past year. I’d like to point out that there are some excellent investors in Finland, who are quite different than those discussed here. Likewise, everything you’ve read/heard about the Finnish game industry as a community is true: industry veterans offer their help and guidance to new entrepreneurs to an astonishing level of detail and involvement. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. I’m trying to continue that same tradition.

I have been struggling with one not-so-simple-dilemma for the past year: funding. You’ve probably read from the papers how yet another million or so was raised by a Finnish gaming startup. Yes, there has been plenty of those around, which is great for the industry itself here in Finland. However, for all the dreamers over there who are planning on launching their own game startup in the future, here is the harsh behind-the-scenes reality we’ve been bashing our head into. And sadly this reality is the truth on most of the cases currently in the Finnish game industry.

As most of us already know, you need a few things to get the investors even remotely interested:

• A team with a competitive edge (usually experience)
• A product
• A market
• A scalable business plan

Looking at us, we definitely have them. The first version of our product has been launched, and as you can see from the launch trailer below, the reviews have been excellent. The product sells on a daily basis still, two months after launch, starting to trend upward thanks to our hard work in solving the discoverability issue. There is still a lot to improve upon, but for a debut title it is decent enough.

We have a market. A huge market. Telltale Games has sold over 28 million episodes (by July 2014, the current figure is probably closer to 40 million) of their The Waking Dead. That is well over 100 Million in revenue with a single franchise, probably with a return rate of 10+ times the initial development costs. They have created a market demand for deep emotional dramas, where the core gameplay is branching narrative. However, currently they are the only one answering that demand. Especially on mobile, where the few-second-core-loop is the only “right” way to go according to most.

We have a scalable business plan, one that focuses on creating value through our own IPs as well as well-known international franchises being development into interactive dramas. Our first episode of The Detail was made for a mere fraction of the budget of The Walking Dead, yet is capable of standing on its own in comparison. Here is a quote from the most recent user review from Steam (reviews are just reviews, user are the ones who buy the games):

“With all the games made in the graphic novel vein (walking dead, wolf among us, etc.) one wonders if the next one will be just a bandwagon jumper or something truely inspired.
Well, ‘The Detail’ is a true CLASSIC in the making if the next parts are up to the level that this one has.
Beautiful drawings, inspired storytelling, great conversations, music fits like a glove, what more is there to say???
For the price it is now this is not a recommendation…. it is a MUST buy!”

Neither of these would have been possible without the magnificent team that we have: they share the passion that the founders have for storytelling, and bring more than enough talent to make that passion into reality. Sadly, the issue we have faced yet again, is the constant questioning of our competitive edge.

The experience issue: are we inexperienced?

The trend in the industry seems to be summing up the years each founder has in the industry. Well, we have been working on Rival Games for the past 33 months and there is four of us. So the total would be around 11 years of combined experience from the industry. During that time, we have:

• gone through a startup accelerator
• an internationally awarded startup incubator
• raised angel funding
• raised a variety of government funding
• been chosen as the finalist for Game Connection America from 350+ applicants
• negotiated with multiple international partners for mutual interests
• built an extremely experienced Board of Directors
• built a vast network of international advisors
• clarified the vision of what Rival Games will become, and how

We aren’t “young, non-educated dreamers” anymore: turning thirty next year with different M.Sc. level degrees from Universities on business, productization and entrepreneurship. Additionally, if we add our current multitalented team members into the experience pool, another 20+ years can easily be added from the games industry. Together, we have:

• launched the first episode of The Detail with a review average over 80
• achieved 97% positive user feedback on Steam (exceptionally high)
• built tools and pipelines to allow fast scale up
• a team capable of creating everything we need in-house

Still, in the eyes of the investors, we are inexperienced. For them, a few years of drawing birds as a graphic artist means more than building a product from scratch to finish and commercially launching it, while developing the company from an idea to a reality people enjoy working in. Thankfully, this is not the case between developers: we are receiving tons of applications from the major game studios in Finland and neighboring countries, because they see something they like and want to be a part of.

Personally, I still see us as inexperienced. Hell, the whole industry is rapidly changing so basically everyone is inexperienced for the things to come. There are always new things to learn, old things to improve on, forgotten things to innovate on. But compared to hundreds of other gaming startups, we’ve already learned most of the lessons that are needed for the next steps.

The funny thing is that I’m not sure if we are going to have the chance to take those steps. The game industry in Finland is constantly growing, tens of millions in funding is being raised by various experienced founders, and the media is addressing the gaming industry as the savior of the Finnish economy. I truly hope it is, but at the same time I’m scared: when the next radical innovation hits the mobile industry, can these companies adapt? The ones who have all the funding and pretty much compete in all the same markets?

If they can’t, we are up the creek without a paddle.

So the lesson here today is quite simple. If you’re dreaming of founding your own game studio, make sure to match your dreams with reality: Tekes (the Finnish government) and a few industry angels might fund you, but the larger venture capitalist seen in media won’t. Your only option is to go work for another company for at least a few years (10+ recommended) and then perhaps one day dream again about founding your own company. Additionally, you are not allowed to explore new opportunities as an entrepreneur in the current Finnish gaming industry: the safe bet is to copy the Top 100 Grossing list on AppStore, pick the one with the least copycats available, introduce a “new innovation” for it and start developing.

Don’t take me wrong, there are companies which I respect a great deal, thinking outside of this box, some of them even doing pretty well. I have faith in them being the future. The industry has and will keep changing rapidly, and these companies have the guts to try and hit the next big wave before it even begins. That is what I call an innovative company, and will do everything I can to make sure Rival Games is one of them.

If you feel like you could do a better job, why don’t you give it try in our:

Game Investment Simulator


The Journey Past the Top 100 in Greenlight

As some of you have already noticed, we were Greenlit on Steam a week ago. Thanks for your support and spreading the word!

We wanted to show our support back and decided to share some of the insights we gathered from the whole process itself. Our fellow developers at Shark Punch wrote already about their experiences in getting The Masterplan Greenlit in their Devlog, where they sum up nicely a lot of the same theories we found out to be true, so we will take a little different approach in our blog.

The first logo, which doesn't really catch your attention

The first logo, which doesn’t really catch your attention

First of all, we know from the beginning that getting a game like ours through Greenlight would prove a challenge. The game focuses on narrative and is quite dialogue-heavy, so creating an action trailer showing off the gameplay wasn’t an option. So we decided to go with our earlier teaser, logo and screenshots. We also included quite a sales pitch in the Greenlight page which, looking back now, was far too long and not interesting enough to grab your immediate interest. However, due to our unique visual style of mixing graphic novels, we attracted a decent amount of traffic from within Steam during the first few days. Below is a picture of our overall progress, and as you can see, the first few days are the most important. They clearly judge the amount of traffic Steam will channel to your Greenlight page.

Screenshot 2014-08-08 14.29.10

After the first few days, we soon realized that the traffic was starting to die off completely. So something had to be done. First, we changed the logo towards a more personal one with Reggie staring directly towards the screen. Secondly, we ditched the long sales pitch and went with a much simpler version. These gained a little spike in user traffic but nothing special.

No animations, but captures the style of the game better

No animations, but captures the style of the game better

The next step was the logical one, bringing the press up to speed on us being in Greenlight. We started this by sending out over 100 press releases through MailChimp using our unique visual design. The package included a brand new trailer showing gameplay and a professionally drafted press release for an easy copy-paste article. We thought it was enough to get their attention.

Nope. Lessons learned: First, nobody cares about a new trailer by a random new game studio. Unless you’ve got something technologically marvelous or industry icons working on it. Second, there are tens of new games submitted into Greenlight daily, so they probably have their mailbox already full of various games begging for some time in the spotlight. Even though we got some attention on various smaller game websites, the traffic they generated wasn’t enough.

So clearly this wasn’t the way to go. After talking this with our advisors, we realized where our error lay: our targeting was completely off. Instead of just approaching the given contact emails on various websites, we should carefully choose the right reporters behind the websites. This actually proved to be quite easy: just think of similar games, check their reviews from Metacritic, and there you have it, the reporters responsible for reviewing games similar to The Detail.

An animated logo, where you've got a pair of piercing eyes staring at you from the screen

An animated logo, where you’ve got a pair of piercing eyes staring at you from the screen

So next I started reading their reviews and wrote them personal emails, where we granted an access to an early demo of The Detail. After a few days, it payed off. The first bigger article was in Hardcore Gamer, which generated the first spike of traffic in late June seen above. Then Rock, Paper, Shotgun checked us out and included some of the most epic scenes from HBO’s The Wire. This resulted in a much larger spike, the highest one after the first few days in our journey so far in Greenlight. Still, this was not enough. We needed more traffic. At this point we also had already changed the logo to a detailed animated black and white face staring right through you, with the game’s name in yellow below it to break from our normal color palette.

We were constantly reading the comments on forums, the Greenlight page itself as well as the different comments section on various press articles regarding The Detail. They all had one thing in common: what is the gameplay like? This was a question we needed to answer as effectively as possible. We started to think about the traditional YouTube gameplay videos and felt like it wasn’t the right way to go. Then we remembered a couple great examples of interactive videos, where the “players” were given the possibility make their own choices within the video itself. Perfect fit for a game evolving around choices, right? The next days were spent working on the video itself and on YouTube’s own linking system. On July 3rd we launched The Detail Interactive Trailer. It worked out well, got some coverage on the sites that had previously talked about our game, and gave the players some idea of the initial gameplay itself.

However after a few days, once again, the traffic on our Greenlight page died off almost completely. We released the early demo through Alpha Beta Gamer for the public to test out a week later. It generated some traffic but still not nearly enough. We weren’t even in the Top100 list in Greenlight. At this point we looked back at the data, realized that we have done everything possible, and now we could only wait. Steam directed some daily traffic into the page but it wasn’t gonna get us greenlit anywhere in the near future. So we focused in working on the game and just let the Greenlight run on its own course.

So you can color me surprised, when our Lead Writer sent me a text on a late Friday evening on August 1st, with just a one simple word in it: “Greenlit“. It caught us completely by surprise, since we weren’t even in the Top100 and only 50 titles had been greenlit in the batch. Actually, we are even still a little confused about the whole thing, and even more thankful for getting picked over a lot of other promising titles still fighting for attention in Steam Greenlight.

As for a conclusion, like so many others have said it before me, it seems getting greenlit isn’t just about the numbers. Getting the attention of the press, the players and the community is as important as the amount of “yes” votes generated at the end of the day. From here on, our journey continues towards preparing the first episode for launch later this fall. Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest on The Detail.

Thank you for our support! Much obliged

Recording the Piano Parts for The Detail – Episode 1

Ready to start setting up and recording

Ready to start setting up and recording

We at Rival Games are in the process of creating an interactive storytelling product that’s heavy on the dialogue but without actual voice acting (heavily stylized audio design decision back up by obvious mobile platform restrictions). It might have something to do with my focus as the lead audio designer/composer/music producer, but I consider music to be our dialogue track. That is why it needs to be overflowing with resolution, natural feel, depth and – above all – it needs to enhance immersion in the gaming experience. That is why the piano-laden soundtrack needs to make its presence felt. That is why we accept no substitute for the real thing. That is also why my piano skills, ranging from “frustrating” to “get by with”, now also receive a little help from my friends.

There really weren’t that many options for a good sounding room/hall with a sufficiently grand grand piano available for rent in our region. Turned out I needed to get back to my roots and return to Turku Conservatory. In order to  capture the exceedingly lush Steinway and Crichton Hall’s beautiful natural reverb matching that of a much larger space, but to also gracefully handle the slightly troublesome early reflections, I decided to tread safely and go with close miked small diaphragm condensers and an XY small diaphragm condenser matched pair to include a bit more room. As a sort of a practical perfectionist, I also placed a backup- stereo pair in the form of Rival Games’ handy lil’ ol’ portable Sony recorder in a sweet spot in the hall.

Ilmari, a duo of Steinways and some mics in the Crichton Hall of Turku Conservatory

Ilmari, a duo of Steinways and some mics in the Crichton Hall of Turku Conservatory

Piano is nothing (insert dramatic delay here) without a capable player…or a professional-level tuner, but that being already sorted out, Ilmari Aitoaho – my go-to-guy when it comes to all-around piano stuff – was ready to hit the keys in a musical way, ie. in accordance to the pre-meditated, specific pitch, order, relation to time and dynamic instructions provided printed on paper by yours truly.

A beautiful instrument!

A beautiful instrument!

He did swimmingly, providing some additional vision into the very essence of the instrument and also some dramatic sound effects. We even finished all songs – including variations and modular bits – early enough for an additional cup of coffee before calling it a day. We both took it straight up, needless to say. Black as the black keys on an accordion.

Done and done!

Done and done!

It’s called the mixing stage for a reason, people, not the “tricksy”- stage. When endowed with punchy yet balanced, clean and well phase-aligned tracks with a nice natural space, there is little need for gimmickry – just a natural polish and a bit of looping here and there. This is as it should be.

We have in fact included a wide variety of other acoustic instruments in the game for added colour in the soundscapes. Besides the piano- which is often linked to player choices and actions in the comic frames or the story itself – The Detail’s explorable screens often feature electric guitar- parts (created, performed and recorded by Ville Ojala), that associate with explorability. There’s also music and sound effects featuring acoustic guitar, electric bass, lapsteel, mandolin, drums, percussion and cello, among other things, that I’ve thrown in for good measure. Some associate with certain characters, places, events or in-game mechanics – some tell the story. Because that is what we’re here to do.

The Journey of Thousand Miles

A month ago we had an anniversary: Rival Games is now a one-year-old company. This is the story of how we moved from being grad students in the University to a professional game studio employing over 10 people and continuing to grow fast.

Let us go back 25 months, to the early winter of 2012. I was sitting at a lecture in the Turku School of Economics, thinking that this is some of the most boring stuff I’ve ever heard. Something that will never ever be useful for me in the future. I barely passed the exam few weeks later, just by remembering by heart the few basic topics that were traditionally asked every time on the exam. The course was called “Entrepreneurship”. Funny, how things change in life.

About two months later, I realized while watching the final episode of The Shield, that why the heck hasn’t anyone done a game out of this? Okay, I know that there is a game made of The Shield, but I’m talking about a game where the player plays the characters and not just the action. A game where there are consequences for the player’s choices and he is morally challenged with the realistic approach to the problems existing in every culture: drugs, violence and gangs. There had been games with similar themes for years, but they were almost always either sci-fi or fantasy (exceptions do exist, like Heavy Rain). Still, police dramas had been among the most watched movies and TV series for decades.

Few days later I was having a pint with a good friend and introduced the idea to him. Sadly, he wasn’t that interested (he ended up later working at Nokia). Thankfully another friend from school happened to be there. He got immediately excited about the idea of making a childhood dream true: designing your own game. We started thinking about the mechanics, built an ugly-ass prototype and implemented a few lines of dialogue. But by far the biggest thing we did, was asking two other good friends about joining our crazy idea. Between the four of us, we realized that we had a designer, programmer, graphic artist and a musician. So we could do a much better prototype.

However, the big step for us was an advertisement my wife noticed in the newspaper back in September 2012. A startup accelerator program named Boost Turku was searching for new applicants for their Startup Journey. We quickly talked about applying and decided to give it a try. We were actually pretty sure that we will never get accepted since we where just working on something minor in our “garage”. But for some reason, they decided to accept us.

During the late fall of 2012 we worked hard on creating a business idea around the game. Due to our inspirations being great TV police dramas, we decided to test out an episodic approach to the market. TellTale Games’ had already proven that it could be done, so they were a solid cornerstone for us to relate to. We also networked a lot within Finland and managed to attract a professional writer (who was also a game journalist) to join our team as a freelancer. Back then he just mostly gave us feedback (and now he has a writing team to work with). All in all, we were actually crowned as the winner of the whole Startup Journey and won a trip to GDC 2013 for the founders. We also got our first office located in the space provided by Boost Turku. It wasn’t big nor fancy but it was ours.

We expanded our team by getting a programmer to help us with making a port of the prototype for Android tablet. He has also been a crucial part of the team ever since. In March 2013, a week before GDC 2013 started, we founded the company and registered it under the name Rival Games Ltd. The name just somehow resonated for all of the four friends who became entrepreneurs that day. Just 12 months earlier I had sworn never to become an entrepreneur. Like I said, it is funny how the human mind works.

Game Developer Conference 2013 was a big eye-opener for us. I was also awarded the IGDA Scholarship for the conference, which meant that I was fortunate to meet some of the iconic figures of the international game industry. Or how else would you describe having a two-hour private lunch with Louis Castle, the co-founder of the legendary Westwood Studios? I also had a personal mentor, a board member of the IGDA helping me to get the best experience out of the enormous conference. I’m proud to say that she is still mentoring me and is an advisor for our company. And a good friend.

All the experience and advices gathered from GDC 2013 and other meetings during the spring of 2013 also gave us a lot of tools for developing the game itself. We had an office at Boost Turku and recruited two trainees from a cross-educational study program aimed for developed professional graphic artists and programmers for the industry. They have been with us ever since. That also meant that we needed a bigger office. Thankfully a space opened just right next door to us, a three times larger office space still located within Boost Turku.

We soon realized that we’d have to push harder if we really wanted to become a serious company. We negotiated with few angel investors, declined their offer (probably the best decision we have ever made) and networked as much as we could to gather feedback and advice. Then we saw another great opportunity to take the next crucial step deeper into the Death Valley. An internationally awarded business incubator program named Startup Sauna.

We applied, I pitched us on stage and we got accepted as one of the 15 international teams. The program was like the older brother of Startup Jouney: bigger, harder and more challenging. But at the same time, the rewards grew alongside the expectations. The feedback on our prototype was harsh: “The game looks like total crap”, was the exact words from one of the oldest Finnish industry veterans. But to my surprise, the team took that as personal achievement for making it better. It took them a week, and suddenly we had a game that actually looked unique and appealing.

The big stuff we ended up with from the Startup Sauna Program was our first official investment (made by Startup Sauna itself) and a government grant to tag along with it. This gave us to opportunity to hire the first programmer who had been with us for months already, and the trainees later on when their training period ended. The other big thing we got from Startup Sauna was meeting our next advisor, who became an investor later on, a co-founder of the legendary Remedy Entertainment. This guy is really a wizard when it comes to anything technical. We still haven’t figured out a question he can’t answer or at least point us to the person who can.

So after the summer of 2013, we continued to develop the game. Even though we where told about a billion times to ditch the episodic approach and make it free-to-play, we decided to keep it as it were. The reason for this was simple: our core principle is interactive storytelling and free-to-play mechanics would annihilate that. It is like Jonathan Blow said in a presentation he gave a while back, free-to-play is like the TV series of the 80s: commercial breaks decided the story structure. So the monetization mechanics were more important than the content of the show itself. At the end of the day, you always knew that Spock is going to save the day. All that changed when TV series matured. Today they are unpredictable and tell much deeper and more complex stories than movies. So why not in games?

One of the most important things I have realized along the journey, the same one I told at SLUSH 13 on a panel I attended on, is that you should always listen to experienced people, but remember that those experiences are defined by their own backgrounds. So they are more opinions rather than advices. So get used to hearing completely different views and pick the best ones suited for your company. But now back to the story.

We opened up lines of communication towards various venture capitalists, but we had one major problem: the lack of experience. We hadn’t actually shipped anything ever before. So we weren’t ready for the big money yet. I had a long talk with an expert in funding a startup company and a man I respect a lot, and he suggested that I should try to raise a small angel round, use that to gain access to a much larger government grant and validate the business case through professionals. It took me less than 24 hours to get three angel investors abroad, including the co-founder of Remedy Entertainment. With their minor investments and the government grant, we were able to employ 10 people starting from January this year.

We also finally left the overcrowded office space back at Boost Turku and after a long search, rented a reasonably priced space from the center of Turku. I’m honestly quite proud of how that turned out: we have created a office that reflects us perfectly. The interior is covered with all sorts of inspirational material, we have our own white-screen to enjoy episodes of The Wire, and enough personal room for everyone to work with. See the pictures below how the office has evolved during the last 12 months.

This pre-seed round also allowed us to participate at GDC again. We even applied to the Selected Projects competition at Game Connection America 2014, due to it being held at San Francisco during the same week as GDC 2014. From the over 200 applicants, we were chosen as one of the top 5 finalist for the mobile and handheld category. Being one of the finalists gave me a huge opportunity to meet, network and pitch us on stage (Teaser made for it: ). I was actually told later that the pitch I made was a brilliant one. Let me tell you a secret: I’ve been using the same structure since the demo day of Startup Journey in late 2012. Of course I’ve changed a lot of the content, the slides and the way I present it, but the idea is still the same. If you focus in storytelling in games, you have to pitch it as a story!

Another interesting notice about the whole 8 day long trip to San Francisco this year: it was a completely different experience than a year ago. Last year it was just listening, learning and sniffing around the professional circles. This time it was business. Tons of interesting meetings, which might prove useful later on. A lot of new friends and contacts who will definitely prove useful in the future. For example, Game Connection felt like a three day long speed-dating marathon: you run from a meeting to meeting every 30 minutes, but you never know if that special one is the next one.

That was less than a month ago. However, a lot has happened even since. If you haven’t guessed it yet, the story is still ongoing. The Detail is still in development and we are testing it to make it the best possible crime experience for you to enjoy. We have some really interesting future projects that we are currently starting to work with. I’m also beginning to sense that especially mobile gamers are starting to demand a much deeper story experience from their games in the future. Games have the potential to become the next storytelling medium. It is about time we stop copying Hollywood and start developing storytelling much further. Check out the pictures below to see how the game became to life.

A quick thought on why I believe we have been able to grow and attract talent along the way so efficiently, is the simple reason I recently learned, while participating at Aalto Executive Education’s Game Executive Program, that we function really well as a company. My role as a CEO provides me the opportunity to take the company to the next level, mostly thanks to my CTO who takes care of all the boring stuff I would hate to do. If you know anything about MBTI personality types (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), we are almost the complete opposites. Same goes for all the team members: our talents and personalities create a highly functioning mix. I think the pictures below summarize them brilliantly.

Just as the final note, I can honestly say that with all the things I have so far experienced in the game industry, I can say I truly love what I do. The team we have working at Rival Games is passionate about what we do, and the astonishing atmosphere at the office can be felt a mile away. So even if it requires a lot of work, sweat and tears, it has been worth the ride.

Much obliged!

Happy Valentine’s Day from Rival Games!

Since the beginning of this year, we have been working extremely hard at our new office in the heart of Turku, Finland. The atmosphere here has been amazing since day one, and now that we finally got the rest of the needed equipment, the progress during each week is amazing. People working in the game industry certainly do love what they are doing.

Big thanks also goes to Jimm’s PC-Store ( ) for fast, reliable and professional help in getting all the necessary gadgets and machines for the new office. They sure do have everything a game developer needs in almost a heartbeat. I’m sure our new partnership will be fruitful in the future for both.

As a little gift for the Valentine’s Day, here is a quick glance at how our graphic artists build that unique graphic novel style of The Detail. In the first set, you can see how one of the backgrounds of the “to serve and protect” department is starting to shape up. The second part shows the same thing with our character design. The character in question is one of the members of the notorious Northside 13 gang. These images are still work-in-progress from the alpha version, so they do not reflect the quality of the end product.

Next time I’ll give you a tour around the new office and some info about becoming a beta tester for the first episode of The Detail.

Pitching up!

East met west at Pocketgamer’s Very Big Indie Pitch in London, where Rival Games was fortunate enough to attend an event combining talent from around the globe. Fifty indie developers, having already passed a scrutinous first-round screening of their games last year, pitched their hardest at a hectic meet-and-greet with top mobile industry professionals, journalists, and publishers – where the three highest-rated would advance to the final round and compete for the grand prize package worth $25,000 in promotion and services.

Very Big Indie Pitch #1

Indie developers and industry professionals gathered from around the world

While Rival Games was on excellent form during the manic ”three-minute speed date”dash with five tables of judges (ducking between waiters’ proferred canapes like seasoned pros) we regrettably were not shortlisted for the final round. However, the feedback was extremely positive from everyone who tested our game, and players seemed genuinely enthused to be sampling a brand new adventure game – especially one also coming to tablets and mobiles! Overall we made a variety of new contacts and friends across the mobile development scene, and considering that The Detail is not the usual mobile app fare, this – and the chance to soak in some local London culture – was enough of a win for us.

Very Big Indie Pitch #2

The venue and schedule were both packed

Free Saving Under Scrutiny

Free saving is being prosecuted for crimes against playerhood. The prosecution is pressing for a sentence of second-degree murder of the players’ enjoyment of their games.

The prosecutor’s seat will be taken by Timo Naskali, while Sami Pesola will be standing for the defense. Both shall have their say.

We will start with the prosecution, who will offer their evidence against the defendant, piece by piece, and the defense will have a chance to counter after each point.

Let us begin.

#1. Ludonarrative Dissonance

Timo: Replaying sections of a game increases ludonarrative dissonance (one of my pet peeves with games). For example, the player can experience hundreds of deaths while playing but the player-character reaches the end of the narrative alive.

Sami: Games are meant to be replayed. Savegames only decrease the time to repeat an earlier section to get back to the part you want to play again. Ludonarrative dissonance may be annoying, but it’s not nearly as mood-breaking as having to replay the entire game because of a minor slip-up!

Timo: But replaying sections of a game upon failure is not a necessity. It is possible to design games so that the story keeps moving forward even if the player fails in a challenge. If that is not an option, a well-designed checkpoint system that saves often can minimize the need for replaying without having as many downsides as free saving.

Sami: But why remove that option from the player? Having checkpoints determined automatically by the game and leaving it to the player to decide essentially amount to the same thing, the latter just has greater application than that determined by the designer alone.

#2. Greatly Diminishes Tension

Timo: It can decrease tension immensely, when losing is not an option. It is not a question of if the PC will win, but when (discounting scripted failures).

Sami: Should games not attempt to offer the player a heroic experience? Doesn’t the hero always win in most adventures, be it books, movies, or games? While it’s true that you can only feel like a hero if you’ve conquered a terrible threat, and that implies some possibility of failure, players still need the occasional leg-up to overcome the hurdles thrown at them since they are not, in actual fact, infallible heroes in real life.

Timo: Heroes usually do prevail at the end of most stories, but they also usually go through some setbacks before that. If there’s basically zero possibility of failure for the hero at any point in the story, I think that tends to lower the tension of the story.

Sami: Perhaps, but it does at least avoid the frustration that a player might not see the end of the story they are invested in, or at least not achieve the ending they were hoping for.

#3. Undermines Importance of Consequences of Player’s Actions

Timo: It decreases the importance of planning ahead and considering the consequences of your actions, when you can just wait and see what the future holds, rewind time, and adjust accordingly. E.g. there’s no reason to be wary of traps in Fallout: New Vegas; it’s a waste of time given of your ability to undo consequences so easily. So being smart, careful or perceptive usually isn’t as rewarding as it could be in games with free loading.

Sami: This seems more like a problem of overall game design, rather than saving mechanisms alone. Being able to save does not necessarily make a game easier, it just gives the player a chance to retry without resorting to needless tedium (such as replaying an entire game to get back to the same point.) Moreover, it gives the player an opportunity to learn how to get good at the game in the first place: quick repetition of a familiar scenario is one of the best ways to experiment and develop the best possible strategy.

#4. Turns the Player Into a Fortune Teller

Timo: Reloading allows the player to have knowledge which the player-character (PC) should not yet possess, and this can lead to narratively absurd situations. E.g. the PC gets betrayed by a non-player character (NPC), but then the player reloads an earlier save and shoots the traitor before he even has a chance to betray the PC – an act that only makes sense to the player who has explored the future. It’s worth mentioning though that this problem does rear its head even without free saving, when a player is replaying the game, unless randomization of these story elements is used.

Sami: There are games which are built to accommodate this behaviour, since it’s essentially no different to playing a game through for a second time altogether. Max Payne 2, for example, has an early scene where Max is being led into a trap, but the player can choose to eliminate the traitor before the ambush is sprung, with Max then remarking that “something felt fishy” – in this sense, the players precognisance is a type of “superpower” and only serves to empower the player to feel like the hero of the story.

#5. Turns the Player-Character Into a God

Timo: It can lead to a bland experience when the player-character never fails any (surmountable) challenges. Good drama demands some setbacks, but in games with free loading the player-character usually just walks from one victory to another. Only through cutscenes and “playable” sections with predestined outcomes – i.e. not actual challenges, but illusionary ones – can the player-character be forced to go through failure. But these usually ring hollow after all the gameplay before that has established the player-character as an unstoppable force.

Sami: Here is the question: should the game narrative be determined by a player’s actions, or should the narrative twists occur independent of the player’s choices? Take a player who never fails any engagement simply because they are that good: should they win the game outright in the opening minutes of the story, based on talent or even pure luck? Obviously the game must dictate some degree of pacing, regardless of the outcomes driven by the player: if the story demands that the player is brought to a low point in a narrative arc, then that outcome must be inevitable. Of course, the player should be led down that path through gameplay where feasible, but that itself could feel restrictive. I’m all for allowing as much player freedom as possible.

#6. Breaks Some Game Mechanics

Timo: It can totally break certain types of gameplay challenges, like gambling, quizzes and riddles. Sure you can still have them in a game with free loading, but it would be incredibly easy (and oh so tempting!) for the player to use save scumming to break the challenges.

Sami: I think you need to have a little more faith in the player’s integrity! Players ought to be allowed to determine for themselves the degree of challenge (or cheating) they want in the game. These are after all single-player games, and what the player decides is for their own personal enjoyment alone. If that means “breaking” the game to get a perfect score, so be it! I don’t think it’s the developers place to put pointless barriers on what the player can and can’t do. At best, it can only stop a player from cheating himself out of some experience, and at worst it can hamstring them with a situation where freely saving would be downright useful (navigating a frustratingly difficult and/or tedious segment, for example.)

Timo: I don’t think not having free saving is a pointless barrier, because the “at best” scenario can greatly hurt players’ enjoyment of challenges, while the “at worst” scenario can be avoided through good game design (why not fix that tedious segment in your game instead of adding free saving?).

Sami: It’s not tedious because it’s poorly designed, but rather that the player is being forced to play a certain way, when they might enjoy the game more in their own way. It’s a matter of more options versus less options.

#7. Forces the Player Into the Game Designer’s Seat

Timo: As a player it can be hard to figure out the line between usage of the save system that benefits one’s game experience and usage that hurts one’s game experience. It places a lot of responsibility on the player, expecting them to use the feature just often enough (as not to lose too much progress upon death or feel unsatisfied with any consequences of their actions), but never too often (as to make the game feel too easy or start feeling like a cheater). I think it could almost be likened to giving the player an over-powered weapon that could take out any opponent in one shot, and expecting them to use it just enough to not ruin their own fun.

Sami: Perhaps… but many games have outright cheat codes (or at least a developer mode) that can allow certain players to make modifications to their game experience if they so choose. Savegames are just another tool in that regard. Removing it to “protect” the player’s experience causes more problems than it solves – it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater! As I said previously, there’s nothing wrong with allowing a player to determine the level of challenge and gameplay experience they want. They could always choose not to abuse it.

Timo: Indeed, I think that with many games free saving would be better categorized as a cheat, so as to highlight how it’s not part of the official core-mechanics of the game, and to discourage players from using it. It is true that allowing the player to tailor the game’s challenge level to their abilities is usually desirable, but I think there are better ways to do that besides the ability to save freely. Health potions come to mind.

Sami: Why stop there, then? Should we disallow the player from changing gamma settings to better see in dark scenes, or the ability to pause the game to think or simply go to the bathroom? Maybe we should only allow a player to play a game once, never to be repeated again! (There is at least one game that attempts this, I believe…) I’m more in favor of rewarding players who play a game “true and honestly” how it’s meant to be played – that’s obviously in the spirit of the design – rather than punishing those who choose to go a different route.

Closing Remarks

Timo: I would like to see more games where I’m going to lose some battles, and it’s okay! I don’t always want to just effortlessly pick my preferred story outcomes using save scumming, I want some games to demand I earn them. I want more tough love!

Heavy Rain is a good example of an alternative: no redoing failed challenges, the story goes on whether the player succeeds or not, but failing can result in story-branching. And you feel that much prouder of your achievements as a result.

Sami: I agree, actually. Like I said, I’m all for player freedom – freedom to play as you want, and the freedom to fail as well. More games should indeed carry on even if the player “fails” in a certain segment, although accommodating so many branching storylines without them becoming meaningless is a tall order… but that’s a debate for another time! Suffice it to say, savegames can be abused to the detriment of a player’s experience, but so can modding and using cheat codes, and the freedom they allow I think outweighs the potential for harm.


That’s it for this inquest, court is adjourned!

Feel free to voice your opinion on the matter in the comments section, and what you judge the verdict to be, whether in favor of Timo or Sami!