Article – The Ironman Save Mechanic

In our podcast (Episode 2 – Achievements), we discuss the achievements system in video games and how and when they are implemented well and enhance a game experience. The podcast and the detailed summary of this topic will be available this weekend and early next week, respecitvely. As part of this discussion, we briefly touched upon the topic of the ironman save mechanic, and decided that this was such an interesting concept in gaming that it deserved its own write-up as well.

What does Ironman mode mean?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the ironman save mode (also sometimes known as hardcore mode) essentially means that the number of times, and the moments when, you can save your game is purposefully limited by the designers. Examples of this include the ironman mode of the X-COM games, which constantly overwrite your one save per playthrough, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which saves your game each time you quit and then deletes the save each time it is loaded, and the ironman mode in Europa Universalis IV, which saves the game at specified intervals (once per in-game month).

As video games grew in length and complexity (some time around the 80s) and were no longer played in one single sitting, it became necessary to store your game progress to allow continued play at a later time. Originally intended to allow players to play a game over a longer period of time, the ability to save a game’s state and then reload it at will eventually led to a different and probably unintended implementation of storing game states: the quicksave / quickload feature.

From progress saving to quicksaving

Being able to save the current instance of your game with one simple hotkey and then equally easily revert to that instance with a different hotkey made it very easy for gamers to act with complete impunity and to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t consider for fear of losing their progress. The classic example we all know is of course quicksaving before a boss fight, or before challenging an NPC to a duel in which you are uncertain of the likely outcome. The system is in fact so ubiquitous in video game design that all of us are probably guilty of spamming this mechanic in order to safeguard our progress and avoid any kind of unwanted failure.

While this clearly allows and encourages gamers to make decisions they would not otherwise consider and to explore gameplay aspects they might otherwise be too nervous to approach, it also has the consequence of greatly removing any aspect of risk to your decision making and vastly reduces the difficulty of any game in which it exists.

Enter the “ironman” save mode.

It is perhaps ironic that the ironman save mechanic shares its name with a seemingly invincible superhero; though we often wish to feel like a superhero while playing games, it is exactly the quicksave/quickload function which allows us to have our “perfect” playthroughs and superhero status. The ironman mode, on the contrary, is a very humbling and often fearful experience. Where quicksaving will allow you to essentially enter a “total impunity” mode at the press of a button, the ironman mode will make you painfully conscious of your vulnerability and the fragility of your progress at all times. If you have quicksaved before a boss fight, then performing poorly or losing against the boss will at most be a slight annoyance, and will in any case teach you how to perform better once you quickload to try again. In an ironman game, doing poorly in a boss fight will spike your heart rate, force you to the edge of your seat, heighten your reaction speed and may cause you to shout expletives that your partner or roommates will never let you forget.

Also ironic is how it seems to be the most punishing and unforgiving of games which choose to implement this system, surely to further enhance the sense of difficulty (and conversely the sense of reward) of the game. And while there is no doubt that the ironman functionality increases the difficulty of a game, we found that there is a much more interesting consequence of “going ironman” – namely the freedom to fuck up. Or put more mildly, the ability to create far more interesting narratives than are available in a game which grants you a perfect run through with quicksaves.

More compelling narrative from Ironman mode

The example which came up during our podcast, is that of Mount & Blade. This is precisely one of those particularly harsh and punishing games which has chosen to adopt the ironman mode, and it is all the more punishing for the janky gameplay and overall unpolished game mechanics (but this is an aside). The game has you maraud a fictional landscape, scrapping with bandits and raiders, all the while enlisting the aid of mercenaries and peasants in an effort to build an army, join the nobility, gain a fiefdom and ultimately be crowned ruler of all the kingdom.

A run through of this game with a quicksave feature would surely display an entirely linear narrative, what we referred to as the “Alexander the Great” way of gaming: You would quicksave before and after any difficult encounter, quickload if you were injured or captured or if too large a part of your army was taken out of action, quicksave before accepting difficult, time-based quests, and quick load if your tardiness caused your relations to sour with a noble you had spent tens of hours buttering up in the hope that he would promote you to marshal of the army. And eventually, of course, you would inevitably achieve all of the game’s objectives as you are essentially invulnerable and can quickload away any mistakes or unwanted consequences of your actions.

The narrative of this same game with the ironman mode is a completely different story. As an initially scruffy peasant and solitary wanderer you are constantly chased around by larger groups of enemies, you are frequently defeated and must flee or be ransomed for money, you may spend a whole game session drafting troops, training them and upgrading them, only to have all of them crushed by a superior army, you may forget whose wife you are flirting with and inadvertently fall foul of the most powerful lord in the realm who now stands in your way of promotion, you may be returning from a crusade to claim your just rewards, only to be kidnapped by a large group of bandits who have noticed how fatigued your soldiers are. Yet at the end, you may still prevail and isn’t the success all the more rewarding for it?

Hopefully the point we are making is clear – that the narrative of a playthrough where you are forced to embrace mistakes and struggle to achieve success is far richer and that the game experience can be much more rewarding as a result.

Auto-enforced ironman?

This topic has been on our collective mind for some time, as we were recently in a situation where the number of players and the extended save and load durations of Divinity: Original Sin II made us decide to self-enforce the ironman save mode, i.e., none of us had the right to request a quicksave or a quickload simply because things didn’t turn out as we had intended.

As it transpires, this type of playthrough lead to a much richer and more dynamic game experience, as our mistakes and impulsive actions lead to some really compelling and exciting role playing scenarios that we would never have otherwise experienced. Likewise the quick reactions, strategic moves and last-minute, battle clinches became all the more rewarding and impressive for it. Granted, Divinity Original Sin II is a particularly good game in which to experiment with this play style (the game excels in offering choice for players and providing a multitude of approaches and plot lines), however it did remind us of something we knew but had forgotten: That a game which allows everything to go to plan and offers a perfect playthrough will never be quite as engaging or delightful as a game in which nothing goes to plan and mistakes are allowed to happen.

In this instance, we auto-elected this ironman mode, so this does raise the question: What about being able to choose between ironman and quicksave? Must the ironman mode be mandatory for it to be an effective or rewarding game mechanic? Although we did choose in the above example to voluntarily adopt the ironman approach, in reality it was essentially out of necessity more than a real choice. Had we each been playing solo, we have no doubt we would have all used and abused the quicksave and quickload functionality.

Why is it always the difficult games which make you go ironman?

One could draw the parallel with Dark Souls – the game has a checkpoint save system, which is not exactly the same as an ironman mode, however it is similar in that you can’t save between the checkpoints. If the Dark Souls series introduced the ability to quicksave and quickload, would this diminish the sense of prestige which the difficulty of the game creates, and would it therefore reduce the enjoyment and pride many get from playing and completing the game. Or would the choice simply create two types of players, the more casual quicksavers and the hardcore ironmen? And if you do offer this choice, should there be different rewards for those who choose to go Ironman, rather than have the easy option? Is this perhaps one of the areas where the achievements system really shines (the topic of our podcast episode 2)!?

It would be interesting to consider what an ironman mode would look like if adopted by more forgiving or casual games. In Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a cruel and punishing game, making mistakes is costly and dangerous and so with the ironman functionality, the sense of risk is greatly heightened. However, in a more casual game, where making mistakes could be simply mildly problematic or perhaps even enjoyable, an ironman functionality may be a way of “liberating” a player from demanding or expecting a perfect playthrough and embracing unintended or unplanned events.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption II give us a taste of what this could be like, particularly with some of the side missions, where doing what is obviously a bad idea (such as having a drink of suspicious hooch with some creepy siblings..!) creates a very funny game experience, even if it isn’t “winning” at the game in the classical sense. However these are unfortunately always heavily scripted incidences where the amount of choice and numbers of outcomes is very limited.

Similar save modes

It’s worth noting that a different approach in some games is to remove the quicksave or save feature entirely to limit your ability to “bank” good gameplay or “cancel” your mistakes, and to instead rely on an autosave feature to ensure that your overall progress isn’t lost. The reboot of God of War, for example, employed this feature; although you entered each combat encounter in an ironman state – that is to say you could not save during combat if it looked like things were going particularly well – the overall progression of your game was constantly being autosaved between encounters, meaning that your “save risk” in a playthrough was essentially only a small portion of very recent gameplay. This kind of limited implementation of the ironman mechanic is not uncommon in RPG and action-adventure games where you cannot save when enemies are near.

Ironman mode in strategy games

Of course it is in strategy games that ironman mode perhaps shines its brightest. Strategy games are usually structured in such a way that they involve a large amount of time and a high number of interacting systems and mechanics. This means that decisions you make early on or minor ones that may not seem so important initially will have knock-on effects many turns or a long time in the future that you may not be able to reliably predict. This structure is very synergistic with the philosophy of ironman mentioned above – rather than playing perfectly, part of the goals in the game are managing and coping with prior suboptimal decisions or even mistakes.

The first games of the X-COM series were early adopters of this philosophy in game design, manifest also in the franchise’s more recent releases as well as in spiritual successors such as the UFO series. These games put you in command of humanity’s last defence against overwhelmingly technologically advanced and (if my childhood memory serves me well) terrifying alien adversaries. You fought against these aliens in turn-based squad combat while managing a pausable real-time map of the world and your bases in between combat. The soldiers in your squads started as recruits and would only slowly grow into more capable warriors. What X-COM did was to make the loss of these soldiers highly unpredictable and surprisingly frequent. A stray plasma shot from an alien sharpshooter or a wrong step into a room full of lobstermen often meant immediate death to soldiers that you may have grown very fond of over the course of the game.

This aspect of the game became a centerpiece of the series and was accentuated by such mechanics as permitting you to name and, in more recent games, customize the appearance of your soldiers. In a game set up in this manner, it goes without saying that ironman raised the experience of the game from tense to outright brutal. Particularly considering the often mocked ability of X-COM soldiers to regularly miss shots that the game claimed were 95% likely to hit!

Ironman in style, not in name

But beyond fighting aliens, the strategy genre is very broad in theme and design. Sub-genres of strategy games not often considered as iron man, but which we hope to show are not too far removed, are city-builders, such as Cities: Skylines and the SimCity games, and tycoon games like Transport Tycoon, for example. In these games you are tasked with designing and building a city, transport network, etc. Part of the game is the challenge that emerges to reconcile gameplay and strategy with the outcome of old decisions, leading to the need to either plan a long way into the future or to rebuild and redesign when road networks become insufficient or traffic becomes too congested.

Although ironman modes are not commonplace in this genre, in a way the game experience still builds towards the same philosophy. Building your power plant in between two parts of your town might seem like a decent idea for whatever reason early on in Cities: Skylines, but will pose a problem if residential or commercial areas need to grow towards the intermediate area. Few players will restart a game or reload a save from a long time ago and try to build in a new way from scratch to avoid this problem – most players have to cope or manage these design problems as they go along.

Where games would benefit from Ironman mode

Given that ironman mode is a suitable choice for strategy games, it is somewhat odd to note its glaring absence from some of the genres biggest names. Why don’t games in the Civilization series offer an ironman mode, for example? Of course self-imposed ironman-like conditions are an option, in the same way we mentioned above when playing Divinity Original Sin II, yet here the same problem emerges – the prospect of reverting to an earlier game state to avoid bad decisions or unexpected outcomes is perhaps too great for this to be realistic. Ironman’s absence in the Civilization games truly is remarkable the more you think about it – adding this would elevate the suspense of the game and offer a new challenge to experienced players. The same is true of the Total War games, which we will discuss more in our in-depth analysis in the future. Consider the effect of adding ironman mode as a game option in these games – each decision on the strategy map would carry that much more weight and the suspense of each battle would be massively increased!

The likeliest reason for ironman’s non-inclusion is perhaps that these games are targeted at an increasingly broad audience, and to include this kind of challenging and punishing game mechanic, even as an option, would not align with their marketing decisions. It is only really in the sub-genre of grand strategy games, such as Stellaris and Europa Universalis IV that ironman mechanics are implemented with the abovementioned one save file that overwrites itself every month in-game. Grand strategy games are a more niche market and let’s face it – anyone investing the time to learn how e.g. Victoria II works isn’t going to be deterred by the challenge introduced by ironman mode.

Ironman mode in indie games

Perhaps it’s unsurprising then that the indie strategy scene, where more niche games flourish, frequently features ironman-like mechanics as central game features. The entire genre of roguelike strategy games revolves around the marriage of procedurally generated content and permanent character death. Permanent character death is invariably cemented through ironman-like controls over save files. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light and Battle Brothers thrive on the suspense created by total defeat being only a few mistakes away.

Ironman and player frustration

It is worth noting the delicate nature of these mistakes, though. Not only in roguelikes but across all implementations of ironman mode, it goes without saying that ironman poorly implemented is one of the quickest routes to player frustration. If you enforce ironman saving mechanics you need to make sure that the kinds of mistakes a player can make are avoidable with sufficient skill and also not disproportionate for the context. This is why grand strategy games such as Europa Universalis IV usually limit the amount of territory you can lose in a single war, why Mount & Blade has your character captured rather than killed when battle is lost and why the death of your best squad in X-COM games doesn’t necessarily mean total game loss (even though it often does!); these designs open the potential for revenge and righteous retribution on those that harmed the player – an aspect of game interaction otherwise not experienced by players who may simply quickload to avoid a challenging loss.

Of course there are still some games that thrive on the permanence of the slightest failure. Completing DOOM unlocks its Ultra Nightmare Mode, a very challenging difficulty setting coupled with permanent death – if you die you needs to restart the game from the beginning, regardless of how close you were to the game’s final boss! The Diablo series’ hardcore mode is another one of our favourites where your character upon death disappears forever (into the Hall of Fallen Heroes in Diablo III). You can no longer play with them again, regardless of however many scores of hours were put into the character, or however lag- or connection-related were their deaths. They are consigned to the stuff of legend patiently waiting for the player to review and reminisce. Yet this hardcore sense of ironman is the ultimate in its unforgiving nature, and forcing players to completely restart a game upon death remains a rarity in the industry, roguelikes aside where this is usually a core aspect of the game, albeit usually a lot less jarring one as roguelikes overall are more designed with this structure in mind than e.g. Diablo III.

In conclusion

Ultimately, our closing remarks on this topic are to remember that some of our favorite and most profound heroes and protagonists, and the rise and fall of our favourite nations and empires, all have shortcomings, failures, scars as well as a rich and compelling past, which make them feel that much more real and their story so much more engaging. They did not get scars by running a perfect playthrough with the ability to act with impunity when danger reared its ugly head, or stand the test of time by quickloading to perfection, rather these heroes and legendary empires were forged from the fires of their mistakes and grew when faced with adversity and disaster.

Perhaps we gamers have become too accustomed to the quicksave mechanic and in so doing lost a sense of freedom, challenge and reward. When implemented correctly ironman mode gives us a chance to create more riveting narratives for our avatars and a more challenging game experience for ourselves.