I am generally a big fan of Clear Data Bonuses.
The skinny on Clear Data Bonuses, for those who don’t already know: Sometimes, when a sequel is made to a game, that sequel will provide a bonus to the player if the player has a saved file from the game’s predecessor. Baldur’s Gate 2, for example, can be played using a saved game from Baldur’s Gate 1, which will allow you to use the same character (or characters) in BG2 as you played in BG1, and start the game with higher levels and the opportunity to pick up a few of the items you had in BG1 again (in fact, one of BG2’s best pieces of equipment can only be created by using items carried over in this way). A few of the player’s decisions in BG1 will be reflected over the course of BG2’s plot, as well, if I recall correctly, although only in minor ways. In this way, players who put the time and effort into playing the first Baldur’s Gate to its finish are rewarded with bonuses that reflect their efforts (more experienced characters and their previous actions reflected). A surprising number of games have Clear Data Bonuses in one way or another, too. Arc the Lad, Xenosaga, Suikoden, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate, and many more series utilize this idea. I think Suikoden 2 was the first to come up with it, but I can’t honestly say I know that for sure.
It’s a great idea, really, one that generally benefits both the game’s players AND its creators. The positives for the players are obvious--a gratifying bonus to their new game experience that rewards them for playing previously, vindicating the dozens of hours they invested in the previous game. Not only are the bonuses typically enjoyable, but it makes the gamers feel like their patronage and dedication* mattered, and were appreciated by the game’s makers. And on the other side, it benefits the developers because it fosters a bit of good will between them and their audience,** and more immediately relevant to a company’s interests, it provides that little extra incentive that might just encourage some newcomers to the series to pick up the previous title. It’s also beneficial often to the product itself. Many RPGs have a least a couple moments which are non-linear, where a player’s actions and/or skills cause a deviation in potential plots, and having these potentialities be addressed according to what actually happened instead of simply an assumption*** of what was done improves the product as a whole. Doesn’t it make more sense that the characters of Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 would start off more powerful if they were super beefed-up in the first game? Doesn’t it make sense that Humphrey wouldn’t just throw away the ultimate armor he’s equipped with in Suikoden 1 by the time Suikoden 2 starts? It doesn’t have to be too much (in fact, it really shouldn’t be--more on that in a moment), so it shouldn’t be much work for the developers to set up, and so I think there’s always reason to make use of Clear Data Bonus options.
That said, there ARE a few guidelines to Clear Data Bonuses that I think should reasonably be followed. The first is that they have to come in moderation, to keep things fair. I don’t think it’s right to give a previous game’s Clear Data too huge a bonus, particularly regarding the current game’s story and characters. What I mean here is that if a gamer’s choices in the previous game are going to make an impact on what happens in the new game, that impact has to be mildly limited. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 and Dragon Age 2 are good examples of this, I think. In addition to giving the player a few special accessories for each optional boss beaten in SMTDDS1 and some stat bonuses and such according to the strength of the characters in the SMTDDS1’s Clear Data save file, SMTDDS2 reflects the dialogue choices of SMTDDS1 by having, at the end of the game, the character of Roland replaced with Heat instead, if the player chose certain statements during the course of both games.**** Dragon Age 2 uses DA1’s save files in much bigger ways, often referencing the events of DA1 in its main plot and using many of the player’s choices in DA1 to unlock/alter several sidequests. These changes and additions are significant enough to be enjoyable and worthwhile to the game’s story, but they ultimately don’t have any real bearing on DA2’s main story--its core plot proceeds basically as it would without that save file. So what you have with Dragon Age 2 and Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 is a great balance--the storytelling aspects of the games are beneficially added to for the player who gets a Clear Data Bonus, but not to the point where a new player who doesn’t have that bonus is unfairly stuck with an incomplete experience.
The next guideline I’d recommend for Clear Data Bonuses is on the other side of the equation--just as it’s not a great idea to have too MUCH of a bonus, one should also be careful not to have too trivial a bonus, as well. Xenosaga 2 and 3’s Clear Data Bonus, for example, is such a complete joke that I originally planned to make a rant specifically about it. You know what your reward in Xenosaga 2 is for having a cleared Xenosaga 1 save game? You get the option to have KOS-MOS and Ziggy wear swimsuits. That’s it. That’s ALL. If the only reward you’re going to give a player for busting their hump for 40+ hours in your last game is some stupid, completely pointless, incredibly lame semi-fanservice, don’t fucking bother! To make it known that you think THIS is what your audience wants and will appreciate...it’s not just disappointing, it’s insulting! And yeah, I realize there probably WERE some people who liked it, but just because a FEW fans are hormonally-driven morons who apparently don’t know that they could find ACTUAL porn of KOS-MOS very readily available to them with a single Google search, that doesn’t mean that ALL of your audience are easily-amused, slack-jawed drooling fucktards! And then there’s the Clear Data Bonus in Xenosaga 3. While it’s not as insulting to its audience in its nature, it is, believe it or not, even LESS than Xenosaga 2’s. For playing Xenosaga 2 from start to finish, for inflicting on yourself such viciously boring torment as to actually sit through the nonsensical, insane gibberish that comprises its entire plot, you know what your reward in Xenosaga 3 will be? The option to have Shion wear her costume from Xenosaga 1. And that’s it. I mean, that’s IT. There is NOTHING else that is given or changed in Xenosaga 3 other than that one utterly insignificant detail. Again, why did they even BOTHER?*****
Hell, it doesn’t even really make sense. Shouldn’t Xenosaga 2’s Clear Data give an item to change Shion’s clothes to the ones she wore in that game, not its predecessor? Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather see her in the first game’s outfit, as it’s slightly less dumb, but given that Xenosaga 3 has several other appearance-altering clothing, they could’ve just stuck the first game’s clothing item into the game later, or something, and have Xenosaga 2’s save file unlock that game’s awful outfit instead, have it be more appropriate. I know it doesn’t matter much, but it still doesn’t make that much sense.
Hey, you know what might have been a much better Clear Data Bonus for Xenosaga 3? Clothing for Shion that DIDN’T look stupid.
One last guideline I’d give to any company looking to inject a Clear Data Bonus into their sequel: Actually make it work right. Really, basic functionality should be an obvious necessity for ANY aspect of a game, but stupid programming mistakes do sometimes happen regardless. On this guideline, my angry gaze descends, as it has so often in the last year, once more on Bioware. In Mass Effect 2, one of the many sidequests that were unlocked by a saved game from ME1 was glitched. In ME1, Commander Shepard may come across an NPC named Conrad Verner, who is an amusing, yet also annoying, fanboy of Shepard. Shepard has the option to either gently encourage Verner away from getting himself killed by trying to emulate Shepard, or to shove a gun in his face and insult him. Mass Effect 2 is glitched in that it won’t read the save data right, and always concludes that Shepard went with the latter option. Thus, no matter what happened in ME1, Conrad will always mention in ME2 that Shepard shoved a gun in his face and made him feel pathetic, even if that wasn’t the case. It kinda invalidates the entire idea of having a previous game’s save data make a difference if a programming error keeps the save data from making a difference, wouldn’t you say?
Does that example seem small and unimportant? It is! Which is why I have another one. And whaddaya know, it’s another error by Bioware. Apparently lacking the basic human trait of being intelligent enough to learn from past mistakes, Bioware accidentally programmed Dragon Age 2 in such a way that if the main character of DA1 romanced Leliana, DA2 would never recognize it and instead proceed under the assumption that Leliana and the Grey Warden never hooked up. In fact, the game wouldn’t recognize the romance flags for any of the DA1 love interests! This is definitely more than some NPC sidequest, here. The romantic subplots of DA1 were pretty major aspects of character interactions, and let’s face it, most Dragon Age players really enjoy and get invested in the love stories that they have their main character pursue. You certainly may recall that I thought the romances involving Zevran and Alistair in DA1 were worthwhile, and that I really enjoyed the one for Leliana. In fact, the romance between the Grey Warden and Leliana is, at the time of writing this, on my Top 10 RPG Romances list! So because of a careless glitch, the entire romance of DA1, so personally important to so many players, is erased from existence in DA2. It’s especially bad for Leliana, at least to me, which is why I mention her specifically. She just shows up in DA2, with no explanation of why she’s fooling around as a church spy ninja instead of being with the DA1 protagonist, as the end of the game SAID was the case. And what makes it worse for her than for the others is because unlike other returning DA1 characters in DA2, Leliana’s also a part of Dragon Age 2’s (horrible) ending, which means that on top of all the other lousy crap the player’s had to go through during DA2’s finale, said player also then gets a quick reminder that he or she still has no earthly idea what Leliana’s doing here.
Anyway, that’s about it for the guidelines for Clear Data Bonuses I’d give. Don’t give so much as to be unfair to new players, don’t make the bonus so small as to be trivial, and for Arek the Absolute’s sake, make sure it actually works. Despite the few bad apples I’ve mentioned here, though, the majority of cases where an RPG includes Clear Data Bonuses that I’ve encountered have been very positive, and I give a big round of kudos to the RPG genre and its many developers for coming up with and almost always properly executing this very cool idea.
* Yes, dedication. Yeah, it’s only a video game, but we’re still talking (in the case of RPGs, at least) literal days’ worth of time put into it. We’re not talking about some platformer you can power through in 6 or fewer hours.
** And make no mistake, good will IS important--you foster enough of it early on one way or another, and you’ll have a customer for life. There is a significant number of people on the Bioware forums, for example, that are as angry about Bioware’s failures with The Old Republic, Dragon Age 2, and Mass Effect 3’s ending as anyone else, yet STILL say they’re sticking with the company and pre-ordering its next title (Dragon Age 3) because they have faith that Bioware’ll turn it all around and stop being arrogant, incompetent nitwits. A lot of these optimistic fools are the hardcore, entrenched fans that Bioware earned in its distant-to-middling past, when the development of products like the Baldur’s Gate games, Knights of the Old Republic 1, and Mass Effect 1, among others, showed that the company actually gave a shit about its art and its audience. Every indication of the past few years suggests that these days of Bioware’s humble dignity are gone forever, but these fans’re still there, weathering the shitstorm. That is the power of good will.
*** Example: Game A has a secret, optional character. Without Clear Data Bonus use, Game B, a sequel to Game A, will likely just assume that the secret character was recruited, and tell its story under that assumption. But if Game B uses Clear Data from Game A, Game B may be able to set up 2 separate paths of storytelling, showing what differences, if any, it makes to the plot for Game A’s secret character to have been recruited. Game B then becomes a more complete storytelling experience, accounting for a continuation of Game A’s story in ALL aspects.
**** Why you would WANT this, of course, is beyond me. While I have a certain sympathy for Heat’s character given the origin of his flaws, he’s still a huge jerk.
***** Okay, actually, according to Television Tropes, there IS one extra benefit of a previous save file for Xenosaga 2 and 3. Apparently, it can give the characters in the new game a few extra levels, but it’s barely anything. I never even noticed it myself, in either game, and if Television Tropes is reliable (and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be; I don’t think that many people care enough to give misinformation about something this unimportant), it appears that you only got like 4 or 5 extra levels in Xenosaga 2 and 3 for maxed levels in the previous game. Frankly, a ratio of 1 extra level to every 20 or so in the previous game is so small that I’m still gonna stand by my statement that it’s nothing.