Halfway through this post, I realized that I actually had a lot to say on the topic. So I’m going to split it again. Hopefully this is a little less intimidating and better matches attention spans.
In my last post, we discussed some causes and case studies on the occurrence of grinding in games. In short, it’s usually an unintended negative side-effect of adding content to a game. This post is devoted to discussing some top-down (from the designer’s perspective of the whole game at once) general mindsets that can help find solutions to make your game feel less grindy. Next time, we’ll discuss some bottom-up (player’s perspective) strategies.
The problem with grinding is that it’s monotonous and boring. In other words, your game’s variety isn’t being experienced by your players. Sometimes that’s a problem with players not experiencing the content in the game (for example: if there’s an exploit that allows players to skip content).
Other times it’s a problem with the type of variety that is available. Ideally, you want the different options to affect the way that the content is played, not just visuals. For example, Final Fantasy’s Fire vs Blizzard vs Thunder is actually less interesting than considering Pokemon’s Pursuit vs Quick Attack. Imagine leveling up a character in Final Fantasy, and they learn Fire, then Blizzard, then Thunder. After looking at the visual effects for each of the new spells, having each of those new spells isn’t going to change much about how you play; you’ll probably just pick an element by default and then use that (unless you encounter an enemy with a specific weakness, but hitting the weaknesses was always the plan in the first place).
Let’s compare that another situation: you’re playing Pokemon and your pokemon learns Quick Attack and Pursuit. In this case, not only do you get to keep the type coverage gameplay, but having the next move now changes the way that you play. Instead of only looking for type coverage, you now have the option of trying to secure kills on a switch and edging out faster opponents.
What does all of this have to do with grinding? Well, assuming there are spells or moves that get learned later on that the player wants even more, learning Blizzard and Thunder being less interesting than learning Pursuit means the first hypothetical game would feel more grindy than the second one. Of course, both have their own ways of addressing this problem, and I’m not saying one game is better or worse than the other, just using context that people (mostly) already know to make a point: creating differences in gameplay helps to mitigate grindyness.
So if a game needs to have variety, why not just add every option that can ever be thought of? That’d give a game tons of variety! Plus, with all those different options, that lets players customize their builds and express their own personality in the way they play! This couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, right?
While those effects of adding lots of content are certainly good, unfortunately adding variety thoughtlessly usually doesn’t even solve the problem of variety in the first place. If the effectiveness of your spells or moves aren’t balanced, or their introduction doesn’t break players from their rut of “doing what works”, all those other options might as well not exist. Your abilities are essentially crowding each other out, and you’re really just offering calculations instead of choice anyways! Why use Fire when Fire II is just better?
Think of it this way: most people don’t like risking experimenting with strategies that may be less effective, and even fewer people are willing to take handicaps to make a game more fun to play. This isn’t always because no one values enjoying their time over winning, since it can also be caused by people not knowing game design and thus just settling for what nets them the most wins.
Further, on a philosophical level, every spell that you add to a game makes it take longer to learn. It also makes more things to keep in mind while playing. But as we’ve discussed, this doesn’t always make the game more fun. This is the idea of game design elegance. Creating a game that is just as engaging (also called “depth”), by using a smaller playing field (aka “complexity”) is improving the elegance of that game.
Finally, on the practical level, implementing every idea that comes your way is a great way to run up your game’s budget and development time. Traditional JRPGs have all but disappeared because brute forcing novelty in this way has become too expensive.
Addressing grinding often comes down to offering a diverse enough variety of content, and balancing it so that it’s all accessible. Next time, we’ll discuss some solutions that require putting yourself in the player’s shoes.