In doing some research for a future article, I have been pondering the history of save games in the arcade and how the implementation of save games has fundamentally changed contemporary arcade design. This article is an overview of my research in to the history of “save games” specifically in the context of the arcade. It’s not an exhaustive list, however I wanted to understand the main contributing technologies and design techniques that have influenced the contemporary arcade market and their use of save games.
1990 – The Neo Geo MVS
In 1990, the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System (AES) was widely available to the public, so long as you had deep pockets. The Neo Geo was great (and expensive) because it brought the arcade experience home. This is because the home and arcade hardware were identical apart from different cartridge pin-outs. (to avoid abuse of the comparably inexpensive home cartridges on arcade machines.)
The AES and Neo Geo MVS (Multi Video System) used 64Kbit PCMIA cards to save game progress. You could continue your AES game in the arcade on the MVS and vice versa.
So how did the Neo Geo save game system impact on game design?
by 1990, saving a game’s progress was hardly revolutionary concept. Computer games had been doing it for some time. Where the Neo Geo differed was that to save a game, came at additional cost. Computers and Console games did this for free. To do the same on the Neo Geo, you needed to invest in the card itself and then hope that each arcade operator had also invested in the additional hardware that was required. In Australia, the card hardware was very rare, even when the Neo Geo was a relatively new platform.
Early in the life of the MVS there were a range of games that were more “console” in nature. I.e. games that more “sequential” and relied on linear level progression. Some games that come to mind are Magician Lord, Blues Journey and Top Hunter. These platformers came early in the life of the Neo Geo and would work well with a save game system as it allowed for linear games to be longer in duration.
As time went on, we started to see the platform dominated more by multiplayer competitive games as opposed to multiplayer cooperative games. The multiplayer cooperative games that we did see were based on the “1CC” mantra of shooters; One-Credit-Complete. Games like Metal Slug, Aero Fighters 2 and could benefit from the save game system but purists to the genre would argue that merely completing a shooter is not enough. It needs to be completed with one credit.
1996 – Warzard, Red Earth
By the time 1996 had rolled around, memory cards and save games had become ubiquitous in console and computer gaming. From a game design perspective, games were becoming more and more reliant on the ability to save a players progress. Coupled with the widespread use of optical media and the massive storage space it had in comparison to Mask ROMS and EPROMS it was becoming harder and harder to find any home game that didn’t use save games in one way or another. The medium of arcade gaming on the other hand was still heavily reliant on Mask Roms and EPROMS so games tended to be smaller, less linear in their design and hence less reliant on save games.
A challenge for the arcade was many arcade games used ‘dedicated hardware’. I.e. for every game that you played in the arcade, the hardware could be different, even if it was from the same manufacturer and in the same year! Compare this to something like the Playstaion with more than 2000 games on the one hardware platform, you can understand why coming up with a standard form of arcade memory card was difficult and unlikely to gain traction.
In 1996, Capcom got around the need for hardware based memory solutions by using an old concept, taken from consoles – the “Password”. A password is a string of letters and numbers which can be used to retrieve certain game features when re-entered in to any machine with the same software. As the logic that defined the password was common to the software, it meant that these strings of letters and numbers were transportable to any other instance of that game.
Warzard made use of the password system to add a unqiue spin on a genre that was becoming a bit tired. In the game, you could level up your fighter and unlock better, more powerful moves. With only four select-able characters, the password system was meant to fill the gap and provide and RPG-like fighting game experience.
So how did this change game design?
Being able to level up a player in a competitive genre like fighters contravenes some of the design rules which make them great for tight, competitive play. Although fighting games all have a design skeleton which provides symmetry in character design, the asymmetry element is what keeps players coming back. Slow characters, fast characters, characters that are better in the air, characters that are better on the ground etc.. All of the various permutations can offset low tier characters deficiencies in competitive play. As Warzard only had four selectable characters, that diversity was not there to start off with. Adding character improvements unbalanced the game to the point of frustration. Frustration occurs when players believe a game is not fair and Warzards save system was not fair for novice players.
Most importantly, Warzard’s save system was not fair to players in that they had to remember a string of 16 characters to save their games and this changed every time!
As a result, save passwords in the arcade never became widespread and more importantly the notion of being able to upgrade a characters ability in a competitive fighting game went against the mainstream.
2001 – Virtua Fighter 4
The “Character Access Card” used for Sega’s Virtua Fighter 4 was one of the first, modern IC solutions to enter the market. Unlike Warzard, Virtua Fighter 4 only allowed the player to save their stats and visual customizations – i.e. no character upgrading.
The IC card was a magnetic card that could be written and read by arcade machines equipped with the card reader device. Players could retrieve their character designs in any arcade with the software and hardware so long as they had their card. No need to remember long password strings. Unlike Warzard, Virtua Fighter 4 only allowed the player to save their stats and visual customizations – i.e. no character upgrading.
So how did Virtua Fighter 4 change arcade game design?
What Virtua Fighter 4 contributed to arcade game design was a clever new technology which was based on some fairly old technologies and concepts. Bear with me while I tie this together…
Magnetic storage of data is an old concept and became ubiquitous with the rise of the “floppy disc.” They had poor capacity and a limited lifespan and were no where near as sophisticated as the Saturn and PSX memory cards that came before them but they had one main advantage, they were cheap. In Japan, the IC cards had a cost of between 200 to 500 yen each with a manufacturing cost which would be just a fraction of this.
Further to this, because they were cheap to produce it meant that companies like Sega and Namco could print different variations of the cards artwork, hence making the IC cards collectable in and of themselves.
From a game design perspective, Virtua Fighter 4 demonstrated that character /avatar customization was just as important to players in the arcade, even though it had no tangible impact on the rules, systems or mechanics of the games. Being able to save and recall avatar customizations in terms of aesthetics alone is now a fairly standard element of most game designs, especially those in the AAA space.
Maximum Tune & Initial D
From a western (at least Australian) arcade perspective, Maximum Tune (MT) and Initial D (ID)were the first games which made IC cards, and arcade save games popular. I acknowledge that historically there were many games from Sega and Namco especially that used IC cards, but for various reasons it took these two driving games to make them a common feature in this part of the world
The secret to these games success was that they managed to tie a number of technologies and game design techniques together. Let me summarize;
- They used the cheap IC card format, with multiple artwork variations. (Card become collectable take aways of your arcade experience)
- Both MT and IT allow players to save their progress in the games narrative / story mode and resume on any machine running the same version.
- Avatar aesthetic customization was available in each, using a range of fictional and licensed products.
- Being able to tranfer your save game to newer versions of the software when it came out.
- Upgrading the cars ability (power & handling) was part of the save system.
It is this last point that is perhaps most significant. No longer was the memory card a nice, optional extra but rather a necessity.
This was also very good for operators financially and unlike the Neo Geo MVS save system, the more players used the IC cards, the more revenue an operator would get. This meant that the IC cards were always stocked up and the card readers attached to the machines were always working!
To put this operator, financial element in to perspective I’ll give you some of the math based on Australian figure.
- An IC card for Maximum Tune 3 would cost between $5 to $8AUD.
- Each card would last 60 games, an arbitrary number enforced by the machine.
- An IC card would cost an operator between $1.60 to $3.20 depending on the quantity they buy.
- Each game would cost $2 to play, in addition to the price of the card.
- To maximize your car in Max Tune, it would take more than 60 plays.
- So, that’s at least $125 to get one car in Max tune to semi-competitive state.
But the clever thing about Maximum Tune especially was that even if you had the maximum tune for your car, you still did not have all of the cosmetic enhancements and colours possible. For example, a new colour for your car would become available every 60 plays ($120)… $120 for a new colour!
Games like Maximum Tune 3DX+ and Initial D made the memory card a compulsory part of being a successful competitive player in arcades. Player’s could improve their avatar’s abilities far beyond what a player without a card could. Not only did this lead to a massive problem in competitive play, but is also ensured better revenue for arcade operators and loyalty to each game for the developer’s titles.
How did MT and ID change game design?
The arcade had always moentized player time, but now an effective (addictive) method of monetizing save games was at hand. The save game served a number of elements in the game and each element had a different way of “upgrading” it – forcing players to interact with different modes and ensure re-playability of the title.
Some look at monetization as a negative, however the revenue generated from the game for both Sega and Namco respectively have ensured that the title remains up to date and maintained. The number of sequels and expansion of the in-game options and customization are testament to this. In terms of the ethics of monetization, how many ID or MT players have you heard complain?
The Current Era of Save Game Tech
The downside the IC card systems would come in the form of hacked or bought cards. For example, a Maximum Tune 3 IC card with maximum player stats could be bought from eBay for much less that if a player were to reach the same level of player stats through legitimate means.
Once these exploits were found and propagated globally, a new system needed to be devised to get rid of the grey area “cheating” which was become far more common in these games.
Although many arcade hardware developers had used various forms of internet enabled hardware, the concept of tying player save data to a global, server backed profile was something new. In this model, a player still had a save card that would identify them, however all key player data was centrally located on servers owned by the developer. This system means less fraudulent / duplicated cards in the wild and much better data analytics of player behaviors and play patterns.
Sega, Namco and Konami all have some form of network backed save system now for their games with Maximum Tune 5 being one of the best known examples outside of Japan. Maximum Tune and Initial D now take advantage of these systems as well.
One of the odd consequences of the new network backed saved systems is that machines can no longer be bought, but rather only leased by operators. (Maximum Tune 4 and above fit this category – comment if you know more). From a Namco perspective, this is almost a return to the glory days of the early 90s with the “Medium Size Attraction” and Galaxian 3 platforms but it seems that there approach is a pragmatic one. By controlling the hardware they can limit hacking of their platform and keep players attracted to the highly lucrative competively play modes of these games.
Feel free to give me some more pointers for my research via the comments.
More Research Notes:
- Hydro Thunder and Gauntlet Legends also used password systems for player saves, so too did NBA Jam.
- Sega released a special control panel for Marvel versus Capcom 2 which allowed players to use a Dreamcast VMU to save their games.
- Some versions of DDR allowed players to save game data and customization by using a PSX memory card. The Konami arcade hardware was based off the original PSX hardware.
- The importance of allowing for continuation of experience
- IC Cards in Japan (references for this article)