Grinding the Time Away

This is my 50th blog post and I’m pretty happy to have been at this for almost 3 years now! That’s a fair amount of time to put into a blog that covers something as niche as game design! Today, while looking for inspiration for a post worthy of my 50th post, I found 3 different drafts commenting on grinding in games. Since we’re vaguely thinking about time management right now, and the topic was clearly important to me in the past, I decided to hunker down and finally finish articulating what I had wanted to say.

What is this “grinding” you speak of?

Gamers will often refer to the gameplay of doing the same thing in a game over and over to progress as grinding. A prime example of this, is fighting the same monsters that have zero chance of wiping your party repeatedly to level up. Grinding is most often seen in RPGs (and it’s subgenres), where players’ characters grow and become more skillful.

#punsofdamage

There is a difference between a game having a progression system and a game “needing grinding to complete” however. A game becomes a grind when the mechanics of the game in question ceases to be something fun to play now, and become obstacles to obtaining a reward. This is the big misconception: grinding is a play pattern, not a mechanic; after all, it’s totally possible for a game to let players feel like it there is “meaningful progress” to be made.

Mario 64 – You’ll get there eventually, right?

Here’s a few more assertions I’m going to make about grinding:

  1. Grinding is most damaging when it has players that acting in ways that are unintuitive or that contradict the theme of a game.
  2. Grinding is most often introduced when attempting to increase playtime, or by adding content.
    • We can apply Hanlon’s Razor to conclude that no significant number of developers intends for their games to be boring and repetitive.
    • On their own, the above endeavors are not necessarily malicious, further one might argue that the push to increase playtime stems from consumers demanding more value for their money.
  3. Players will opt into boring themselves by grinding. It’s not their job to make games fun, that’s the game designer’s responsibility.
    • In many cases, players will opt into boring gameplay (choose the grindy-er option) because it seems less expensive than the other options in some way (actions per minute, “what am I supposed to do next?”, “how much am I willing to risk losing?”, actual money, etc.).
  4. Randomness is not a silver bullet.
    • For example, trying to get perfect stats on a randomized piece of equipment actually increases a game’s grindiness.

Case Studies

Here’s some games I thought had interesting interactions with grinding. Feel free to comment on your own stories with grinding in games.

Final Fantasy Tactics (series)

In each subsequent game in the Final Fantasy Tactics series, tweaks are made to mechanics to reduce the grindiness. In Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions (first game), characters gained Job Points (JP – these dictate learning new abilities) when they, or their allies to a lesser extent, acted in battle. Acting in battle also granted Experience Points (EXP – these dictate increasing stats). Fighting as a certain job allowed that unit access to more abilities from that job and caused them to gain stats specific to that job when leveling up.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced (second game) improved upon this by awarding JP (renamed Ability Points, or AP) after battle so that slower acting jobs progressed as quickly as the quicker ones and it wasn’t rewarding to stall out a battle to grind job points.

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 (third game) improved upon this further by moving EXP acquisition to the end of battle as well, along with awarding AP to the entire clan instead of just battle participants. Rewarding AP the the entire clan ended up working out because doing missions to train the party members that you aren’t able to deploy every time isn’t something people are interested in (and also because they rebalanced AP thresholds, but that happened in every game).

Guild Wars 2

GW2-logo

These next two observations can be made in almost any MMO, but I just happen to play Guild Wars 2.

Looking at the items that are in high demand, it can be observed that many of them don’t confer any gameplay advantages. Indeed, many items are sought for purely aesthetic reasons, or even simply because they are rare. This shows us that grinding only requires a perception of value.

A further observation that can be made is the psychological effects of UI design. Just having a visible EXP bar prompts players to “just get that last level” by showing how much further there is to go. Putting Daily Quests on screen is another way to prompt the player to do something. People like “the feeling of completion” so giving them a list of things to do can both help them power through grinding (if there’s a good break point) and prompt them to keep going (if there isn’t).

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Between me and my group of friends no one has ever felt the need to grind levels in their primary offensive skill (usually One-Handed, Two-Handed, Destruction, or Archery). Other skills essentially felt like they were always a grind (Alchemy, Enchanting, Smithing, Illusion). Leveling up your Two-Handed for killing bandits is a bonus to being able to go where you want without being attacked; compare: leveling up Alchemy so that you can make better potions being the focus of brewing potions.

That said, Skyrim made significant improvements over Morrowind by requiring skills to have effects to gain EXP. This was successful in allowing players to play Skyrim and not look ridiculous by jumping everywhere while casting Minor Heal on themselves (a practice that used travel time to train Acrobatics and Restoration).

Torchlight 2

Unfortunately, Torchlight 2 is a pretty grindy game, even moreso than some contemporaries in its genre like Path of Exile and Diablo 3 (although I can’t comment on pre-Reaper of Souls content). The factor that makes it so tragic is that the mechanics show intention from the developer to try to reduce gridiness, but an oversight prevented those mechanics from working to full effectiveness.

In Torchlight 2, there’s three ways to get stronger: Level Up (EXP), Drop better items (gear), and become better Renowned (fame). In theory, working on one of those arenas or the other would allow players to change up their gameplay and avoid the game feeling too grindy. Tired of looking for better items? Hunt down a famous monster to kill. Tired of that? Spend some time tinkering with your gear. In practice, this was unsuccessful because all three of those methods of getting stronger coincided: killing monsters. In addition to granting EXP, killing monsters was the chief way of obtaining better items (indeed, many of the best items were only obtainable as drops) and there were so few quests that most of your fame came from killing boss monsters anyway.

See you in Part 2!

Hopefully, it’s now clear that grinding is a play pattern that usually happens due to oversight when trying to space out or add more content to a game. Since this post has already gone on super long, I’m going to save my discussion on some general ideas of how to avoid or reduce grinding for another post.

Anyways, thanks for all of your readership! I probably wouldn’t still be writing these otherwise!

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