Cloudy With A Chance of Backups

By the time the seventh generation of home consoles landed in 2005, both hard disks and network connectivity were standard features. At first, that connectivity was focused on online multiplayer gaming, but over time, more and more network-aware features appeared in consoles. Sony and Microsoft both added cloud saves to their consoles within the span of a few months in 2011[8][9], untethering save games from physical hardware and giving gamers the freedom to pretty much stop thinking about them.

Putting saved games on the cloud had a number of advantages, the most obvious being safety. If your console met some unpleasant fate—a very real possibility for Xbox 360 users—at least you wouldn’t lose your precious saved games. And on a more upbeat note, you were also free to sign in to your account on a friend’s console and pick up where you left off (assuming you had a copy of the game with you). After a decade of being trapped inside of memory cards and hard disks, saved games were untethered and free for the first time.

What’s Next?

Over the past three decades, saved games have moved from scraps of paper to cartridges to memory cards to hard drives to…somewhere out on the internet. With the move to the cloud, save games have probably achieved their ultimate form. Storage and connectivity are so commonplace that many games just continuously save progress in the background.

At the same time, we may all have lost something special. Kids in the 80s traded passwords on scraps of paper. Kids in the 90s stuffed memory cards in their backpacks and brought their games over to friend’s houses. Kids in the 2000s gained the amazing ability to play against each other no matter where they were, but lost that little bit of magic that came from taking care of a precious physical thing.

No one would want to go back to the way things were, but it’s still worth remembering. Next time you notice a “saving…” animation in the corner of your screen, take a moment to think about how far we’ve come. It’s really pretty amazing.

Here’s hoping Paul Huban’s grandmother’s new 3DS is good for another 3,000 hours of Animal Crossing.

Footnotes

1. The first microprocessors went on the market in 1971, about a year before the release of Pong, so it’s not surprising that early games weren’t using microprocessors from the very start.

2. CES: Nintendo Shows Off Password Pak Technology 

3. Nintendo themselves got in on the action, publishing a book called Top Secret Passwords in 1992.

4. Nintendo had first used the concept with a programming environment called Family BASIC for their Japanese console in 1984. 

5. That honour belongs to a 1985 game called Pop & Chips, released on an obscure console called the Super Cassette Vision. You can see a photograph of the cartridge (which required two AA batteries) in this comment from a user named Pirate Dragon.

6. Sega wasn’t the first to bring the idea of memory cards to home console—SNK’s 1990 release of their Neo-Geo AES beat them to market by more than a year. Although the AES was a cartridge-based system (and theoretically could’ve used battery-backed saves like other consoles), it used memory cards in order to support interoperability with their arcade cabinets.

7. Most of the MegaMan Battle Network games auto-save the game before revealing the result of a trading minigame, preventing players from resetting if they don’t like the result. (Source)

8. IGN, March 9, 2011: PS3 Game Saves Move to the Cloud

9. The Next Web, July 5, 2011: Microsoft begins moving Xbox 360 profiles and saved games to the Cloud 

See also

Atari Mania: Survival Island
Cart Wars: The Evolution of the Cartridge
Wikipedia: Dance Dance Revolution hardware
Wikipedia: Family Computer Disk System
Wikipedia: Memory cards
Wikipedia: PlayStation (console)
Wikipedia: PlayStation 2
Wikipedia: PocketStation
Wikipedia: VMU
Wikipedia: Xbox (console)

Image sources

Dreamcast VMU
Neo-Geo memory card
Nintendo 64 Controller Pak
Sega CD Back Up RAM Cart
Sega Saturn Backup cartridge
Sony PlayStation 2 hard drive with network adaptor
Sony PlayStation memory card
Sony PocketStation memory card