As you may know, I am primarily a PC gamer, largely by choice – the only console I own is the Nintendo DS handheld, and that’s primarily because a full-fledged computer won’t fit in my pocket.

Generally speaking, I don’t talk about consoles, primarily to avoid the heated debates on the virtues of specific console systems from their zealous advocates, but also because I used to think that, for the most part, consoles didn’t affect the way I wanted to game.  PCs and consoles are different, and cater to different needs, and I’ve never been interested in debating which one is superior – if the device you’re using works for you and suits your needs, then it’s none of my business to dictate to you what I think the superior system is.

However, in recent years, the line between consoles and the PC has begun to blur, and as a result, decisions that are made on the consoles are bleeding over into the world of PC gaming as well.  Many PC games are ports originally programmed for consoles, and occasionally vice versa.  This makes sense, as PC and console hardware is not all that different, and so developing for multiple platforms at once is generally more efficient.  Unfortunately, it does mean that games which are ported from console to PC often carry the limitations of console games along with them.

To address these issues, I’m starting a series of short articles where I discuss some of the issues that I see with the “consolization” of games being ported to the PC, why I find them to be concerning as a PC gamer, and (hopefully) brainstorm some solutions.


To start with, let me address one of the most immediate differences between many console and PC games, and perhaps one of the most glaring for PC gamers: the use of checkpoints to save progress in a game, rather than a global save/load game command that allows for the saving of current progress at any point in the game.  I have discussed this a bit previously under frustrating game design, so please bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.

Most PC gamers are familiar with the standard save system:  when you need to save, pop back out to the menu, choose to save your game, and it’s saved – you can quit, come back, and load it up again, and you’re right back where you were before, with all of your progress saved.  Most console ports, on the other hand, do away with this system because it’s more awkward to navigate menus on a console, and so the less you have to do, the better – so, instead, they simply opt for the game to automatically save your progress at certain points.  This also has an advantage of making save files smaller, for consoles with limited storage space – all you need to do is store the players character stats and the checkpoint number, rather than the specific coordinates and geometry of a player’s arbitrary location, screenshots to identify the area of the save, etc.

However, the use of checkpoint systems carries a rather significant disadvantage: if you want to stop playing, you can’t simply save your game and come back to it later.  Instead, you have to keep playing until you reach the next checkpoint, or whatever progress you made past the last one is lost.  In certain games, this can set you back quite a bit – for example, if you’re in the middle of invading a regular base in Just Cause 2 and have to leave your game, your “save” will restore you at the nearest regional headquarters, often a good ways away from where you were, and you will have to travel all the way back to your objective and begin all over again.  And it can get even worse than that.  Take FUEL, for example: ostensibly a racing game, but with a huge explorable environment the size of an entire continent.  Problem is, if you do feel like exploring, good luck getting too far – every time you quit, you end up getting bumped back to your base camp location, even if it’s on the opposite side of the map – and unless you’re very good at the racing part, the available base camps are located in only one corner of the map, making exploration beyond that zone limited to the amount of time you can play at a sitting.

If placed properly, in certain games, checkpoints can just be tolerable – you still may have to play a few minutes more before you can quit out without losing any progress, but they can generally keep pace if they are placed well enough.  However, many games place the checkpoints quite poorly – for example, from one checkpoint, there’s a five-minute hike, and then two difficult, pitched battles, before the game saves itself again.  Fail either one of the battles, and you must begin all over again, including that long, monotonous walk.  With a proper save system, you could save after the walk, and before each battle, allowing you to jump back in quickly after each failure – take that away, and the poor checkpoint system can quickly become an exercise in frustration.

Another fault with the checkpoint system is that it is not particularly fault-tolerant.  Generally, only one checkpoint is saved, with the only other option reverting to starting again at the beginning of an entire level, or sometimes even starting from the beginning of the game itself.  Of course, this is a problem if the checkpoint saves at an importune time.  Say you’re playing an FPS, you’ve made it through one battle, but you’re critically low on health and ammo.  The checkpoint saves, and a moment later, an enemy pops out and finishes you off.  You can’t go back to an earlier save and try to conserve your rounds or retry the battle to come out of it in better shape – you just keep respawning at that checkpoint, with no time to recover, and get taken out again and again.  Essentially, the checkpoint save has trapped you in a situation where you are always doomed to failure, and since there are no previous saves to fall back on, you’re stuck at that point, unless you want to start the level or game over again, something that could represent over an hour of additional unenjoyable time just getting back to the point you were at before, with no guarantee of not getting locked into an impossible situation by a badly placed checkpoint once again.

From a PC gaming standpoint, being limited to checkpoints feels very restricting – it feels like a lot of the control you have over how you play the game is stripped away.  A good PC game allows you to play according to how you want, and a save-anywhere system is a linchpin of that flexibility, and when you don’t have it, the game feels much more limiting.  In a strictly linear game, you might not feel this quite as much, unless the checkpoints are poorly placed, but in an open-world game, the problems crop up rapidly.  I mean, imagine if a game like Fallout 3 was a checkpointed console port – you only get to save at each change in the level (entering a building/subway/etc), and if you get killed or have to quit while in transit, you start back at, say, Megaton and have to do the long and perilous hike all over again.  It would make for a much different, much more limiting, and much more frustrating game.

Ideally, the best solution would be to bring proper save systems back to PC games, including console ports.  Unfortunately, this is not always technically feasible, or the teams creating the games are not inclined to add that as a PC “enhancement.”  At the very least, though, gamers should be informed whether the game they are purchasing is restricted to checkpoint saves, so that they can consider for themselves whether the restriction of a checkpoint system, and the possible problems that it brings, is worth the price of the game.  For me, it generally is not – with few exceptions, games with checkpoint systems only garner my interest once they’ve been marked down into the virtual bargain bin.