I don’t remember what I did wrong when the bullet hit the back of my head.
There are ten things going on at once, and I suppose that the cover I was relying on wasn’t quite as effective as I had assumed. I died, the game took a second to find my last checkpoint and it placed me back in the world.
That’s when I noticed that I had lost close to 30 minutes of progress in the game. I would have to fight across two large sections of the map, climb into the tank again and slowly retake the building to get to where I was. Instead I turned off the system, put down the controller and went to bed.
Bad checkpoints kill any and all interest I have in games, and replaying large sections of a level due to the developer’s inability to use them well is infuriating.
It’s 2014, why aren’t checkpoints a solved problem? Why does this keep happening?
What makes a bad checkpoint
"I cannot tell you how many times something has seemed simple to me, and I’ve talked to my engineering department and discovered it’s drastically more complicated," Brianna Wu, the head of development for Giant Spacekat, told Polygon.
"Checkpointing is one of these things that’s simpler in theory than it is in implementation. The reality is, you’re trying to balance many competing interests," she said.
Bad checkpoints ask players to replay large parts of the game due to their death or failure in some task, and this can lead to frustration and anger, up to and including someone putting the game down for the evening. They may or may not come back to it. Many developers look for checkpoints during testing.
"So we’ll focus test a game and we put in enough checkpoints that we feel are good for us, but sometimes we’ll test and be like, ‘Oh, someone got stuck here a little bit extra longer,’ or ‘They lost some progress a few too many times, let’s see if we can put one in there.’ That’s kind of the rule of thumb I think we go by," Benson Russell, senior game designer at Naughty Dog told Polygon.
Andrew Dovichi is a level designer at Crystal Dynamics and he echoed that feeling. A good checkpoint should be invisible. The players don't think about them when they work and allow for forward momentum. We only pay attention to checkpoints when we're frustrated or we feel as though they've failed to save enough of our progress.
"One of the most important goals that we all strive for is making the game as enjoyable as possible. This obviously means not giving the player a reason to throw the controller down in frustration. Not many people are willing to dive back into a game after they’ve lost an hour of progress," he explained. "For this reason we spend a great deal of time testing our checkpoints."
Developers know why some checkpoints are bad: They cause you to lose progress, replay a part of the game you’ve already finished and cause frustration and anger on the part of the player. Everyone I asked was clear on what makes a bad checkpoint, and they're easy to spot when playing. The next question is much more complicated, and it gets very technical, very quickly.
Why do games have poor checkpoints?
Why this isn’t easy
Checkpoints are a part of game development that players take almost entirely for granted. Every badly designed checkpoint leads to frustration, and then we wonder why the designers behind the game decided to make the checkpoints bad. It’s 2014, surely they know where and when to place a checkpoint to avoid these situations, right?
It turns out checkpoints are both a creative and technical problem, and using them well takes time, effort and budget.
"On the creative side, it is extremely important for the checkpoints to be set up as early as possible in the development of a level. We drive a lot of our events and behind-the-scenes loading using checkpoints," Dovichi said.
"By bookending each level beat with a checkpoint, it keeps our levels more organized and helps ensure that everything loads in as expected. Our in-house tools are fantastic, some of the best I’ve ever used, and adjusting checkpoints at the most basic level is incredibly easy," he continued. "As development goes on however, checkpoints have a lot more dependencies tied to them than when first created. A seemingly innocent change could break the entire level, so you always have to check your work."
Dovichi said there were two hard rules when creating checkpoints for the latest Tomb Raider: There would never be a save point when Lara Croft was in a combat state, to avoid loading a game only to be killed instantly, and there should be a checkpoint at the beginning of each area so players wouldn’t have to replay a portion of the game they had just finished, or an area they had just left.
Once those two conditions were met, checkpoints were left up to the discretion of the level designer. Crafting checkpoints by hand leads to interesting notes about the rhythm of the game play, including the idea that cinematic sections of the game require more checkpoints, not fewer.
"A seemingly innocent change could break the entire level, so you always have to check your work"
"While large parts of Tomb Raider were more expansive with multiple routes to a destination, we also built a number of high action, cinematic style set-pieces that were linear," he said. "They are very exciting the first time you play them, but the thrill can drop off sharply if you have to play them repeatedly. We were very liberal with our checkpoint usage in those spaces specifically."
Cinematics also play into the spacing and use of checkpoints. A well-done animation can be thrilling the first time, but it loses impact if you have to watch it again and again. The worst result is a player jamming on the buttons to try to skip the video. These sections should be enjoyable to watch and move the story along; bad checkpoints can turn them into annoyances.
Crystal Dynamics also took pains to make sure the player didn’t lose much progress when they died, so any collectibles and relics Croft picked up would cause the previous check point to be updated. If you died and had to go back to a time before you picked up the relic, you still kept it to avoid having the player make the side journey over and over. The checkpoint, it turns out, isn't static. It can be updated and changed to avoid frustration on the part of the player.
Constant checkpoints, and adding them by hand
...more at the break
Interesting to hear what actually goes into creating some of the things we take for granted in games.