There’s an unsung hero powering the current generation of video games. While the graphics engines, gameplay design and overly complex controller schemes get all the attention, this little guy humbly sits in the background, quietly doing his job. He’ll never be mentioned in the bullet points for why you should buy a particular game. And in most cases, if he’s doing his job correctly, he’ll never even register with the gamer — beyond the small, hardly noticeable spinning indicator that appears whenever he’s doing his job. I’m talking about the auto-save system.
How do I justify declaring auto-save a hero to gamers everywhere? Simple. When a game doesn’t auto-save, or if the auto-save system is fundamentally broken (finger pointed at you Mass Effect), it stands out like a 350 pound defensive linemen taking a ballet class in nothing but his jock strap.
Speaking of jock straps, recently I purchased Madden NFL 11 for the Xbox 360. As everyone knows, Madden is an annual release for EA Sports. Every August it makes its way to the shelves of Best Buy and Gamestop and a number other retailers. And every year, millions upon millions of copies of Madden are sold to its enthusiastic fan base.
Almost as consistently as the annual release of Madden is the chorus of jeers from the critics tasked with reviewing the game. Sure, it always gets decent scores, but even with good scores comes the same discontent every year. The gist of the Madden critic’s complaints are as follows:
“Man, every year they release the same game and steal $60 from the consumer… They only marginally improve the overall experience, but they never do anything interesting or groundbreaking with the IP… The exclusivity agreement EA has with the NFL has allowed EA to just print money over the years, without having to invest in making the overall experience better… NFL 2K5!”
It goes something like that, over and over again. And I’m not saying that any of these points are invalid. They’re plenty valid, save the one about stealing the $60 from the consumer. Most Madden fans know what they’re getting and love what they’re getting. There’s a huge percentage of Madden fans that are not gamers. They buy Madden and console and that’s it. Nothing else. For the amount of time and enjoyment that they get from Madden each year, $60 is a bargain. But, I digress.
With all the complaining that reviewers have to make each year about the Madden franchise, they tend to miss, or ignore, the most blatant shortcomings that the title has. And, in my humble opinion, the lack of an auto-save system is the top dog of shortcomings that Madden has to offer. I would go as far as to say that, relative to the expectation of gamers playing on the current generation of consoles, the Madden save system is flat out broken.
I only play Madden for the franchise mode. So, I can’t speak for the other modes that Madden offers. However, I would assume that the save system is consistent across all facets of the game. And with that stipulation in place, there are two major problems that I have with the system. The first is the “Quick Save” system. You press the select key from the franchise mode’s main menu and it kicks off the process. The save process includes a handful of prompts that you must supply answers to in order to complete the process. Relative to a save system during the PS2 generation of consoles, this system is fairly streamlined. It works well. But, the functionality is not the problem. The problem is the fact that I have to do anything at all. Auto-save is the norm. Anything else is antiquated. I don’t want to have to think about it. I just want it done.
The other problem is the lack of ability to save during an actual game. Now, I know this existed in the last version of Madden I bought. That was five years ago, on the PS2. How the hell do you have this feature on the PS2 and not on the Xbox 360? Huh? The only rationalization I could come up with was the increase in complexity that comes with the current generation of game play. There’s probably more nuance to the game that would need to be persisted in order to make sure that when the user picks the game back up, everything is exactly the way they left it. However, I don’t buy this. Not really. It’s now been six years since the release of the Xbox 360. EA Tiburon should have been able to figure this out by now.
These shortcomings in the Madden save system are so obvious that it was one of the first things I noticed — at least within the first half hour of gameplay. Actually, the second game I attempted to play I only made it through three quarters. My wife then asked me to fire up grill and throw some chicken on it. This is when I first noticed that I couldn’t save in game. So, I left it paused. As I prepared the chicken I could hear the rumbling of thunder in the background. A little voice in the back of my head muttered, “oh shit.” I knew it was coming. It doesn’t happen every time during a storm, but it happens often enough that I know on this day that the power was going to flicker, and my three quarters of gameplay was going to be lost. There was nothing I could do, but pray to the gaming gods. But the praying didn’t help (the gaming gods don’t have that much pull in the big scheme of things). The power flickered. My game was lost.
The developers have to be aware of the experience they are providing the user. They must’ve just decided to ignore it. Or maybe it was deemed a lower priority. I can’t believe that they consider what they have acceptable, relative to the rest of the industry. Save systems shouldn’t be neglected. They’re too important to the core experience to be put on the back burner. Make it work, EA, like the rest of the industry has.