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Saving in video games - A brief history

Whenever we start up a game, we can always continue from where we left off. However that wasn't always the case. Here is a brief history of how saving became what it is today.



Although not appreciated enough, saving is an essential part of playing a game. It not only lets us pick up where we left off if we need to leave but also gives us pieces of mind, because if we get a game over we know we can start back right from the checkpoint. However, this wasn't always the case, so let's take a look back at how saving a game became what it is today.


To begin we must first look at arcade games. These games did not have anything like a save feature to begin with, so if you lost you would have to restart from the beginning by inserting another coin or token. However, something similar to save games was introduced around 1979 in games such as Lunar Lander, where players could simply insert another token to continue where they left off. This idea was later expanded upon with the introduction of countdowns after you died, giving the player more time to decide if they wanted to continue playing or move onto a different machine.


Lambie, Ryan. “The Origins of the Video Game Continue Screen.” Den of Geek, 29 Mar. 2018, https://www.denofgeek.com/games/the-origins-of-the-video-game-continue-screen/.

Moving on to home consoles, due to the fact that cartridge games are stored in ROM chips (read only memory) games were unable to be saved, as when they were turned off any progress made would be reset. Therefore initially console games were fairly similar to the early arcade games. However, starting on the Atari 2600 and popularizing itself on the Nintendo Entertainment System, developers started including a password system on games. This system was a code that allowed players to start the game from a predetermined point with the same items that they had before. One downside to this was that passwords would break the flow of the game and depending on the data needed to be stored on them, could become extremely long and difficult.


With games improving and becoming more complicated, developers had to find a solution for saving in more complicated games, and in 1985-1986 they finally found an answer. The answer came in the form of including a small long lasting battery in the cartridge that would trick the game into thinking it was on forever. Thus, allowing players to keep their progress intact even when the console was turned off or the game was removed. During the early generations both passwords and battery saves were used, with a change to battery saves as time went on, but with the jump to using CD-ROMs a new problem arose.


“Complete List of Nintendo NES Games with Save Batteries.” DKOldies, 29 Apr. 2014, https://www.dkoldies.com/blog/-complete-list-of-nintendo-nes-games-with-save-batteries/.

Unlike cartridges, CD’s do not have a plastic shell and therefore a battery save system could not be implemented. This meant companies had to innovate in order to keep this feature so many gamers enjoyed. Thus, they decided that, similarly to computers, they would save the game to the console's memory. Once again, this posed an issue, as a console's memories were extremely small and thus keeping all the players save games in it would be impossible. This eventually led to the creation of memory cards, small cartridges that served as external memory for the console and were made to store a player's save games. Not only are memory cards saving systems fairly similar to the current method, but by taking your memory cards and attaching it to other consoles you could access your save games on another system and memory cards where a lot less prone to failing them battery saves. One downside was that, just like flash drives, memory cards used flash storage, which was fairly expensive. This meant that memory cards were very expensive or had fairly little storage, either way, many gamers had to constantly delete their saved data in order to make space for new save data.

“Jogo Salvo.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Dec. 2021, https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jogo_salvo.

With the release of the original Xbox the era of the memory card ended and the hard drive era started. This system had 10gb of hard drive space included in the console, solving the storage problems of memory cards and also beginning to open the door for downloadable games and content. The only downside to this change was that save games could be easily transported to other consoles, but this was later solved by cloud saves and bringing us to the current state of saving in video games.


In conclusion, saving your game is a staple feature of the modern video game experience that many gamers take for granted. Saving has had a long journey to arrive at the form it is today, from a simple password feature to being able to store your progress on the console itself, and without the constant improvement and evolution of the industry we wouldn't be where we are today. Thus, I believe that even though saving has become commonplace, we should still be thankful that the feature has become what it is today, and we are not stuck having to constantly restart whenever we lose.



References


Christian, Mark. “Saved Game History: Battery Backups, Memory Cards, and the Cloud.” Tedium, 21 Feb. 2019, https://tedium.co/2019/02/21/video-game-save-state-history/.

“Complete List of Nintendo NES Games with Save Batteries.” DKOldies, 29 Apr. 2014, https://www.dkoldies.com/blog/-complete-list-of-nintendo-nes-games-with-save-batteries/.


“Jogo Salvo.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Dec. 2021, https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jogo_salvo.

Lambie, Ryan. “The Origins of the Video Game Continue Screen.” Den of Geek, 29 Mar. 2018, https://www.denofgeek.com/games/the-origins-of-the-video-game-continue-screen/.


“Saving in Video Games.” The Strong National Museum of Play, 14 July 2011, https://www.museumofplay.org/2011/07/14/saving-in-video-games/.


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