Bottom-Up Strategies for Addressing Grinding

This post is part of a series on grinding in games. The first post discusses what grinding is and takes a look at a few games as case studies for how it is. After that, we discussed some top down strategies you can employ while planning out the content in your game to keep things moving along. Finally in this post, we’ll discuss some things you can look for while playtesting and trying to jump into the player’s shoes.

Content Pacing

So your game’s got an elegant and various possibility space, and you’ve balanced the abilities so that they’re not crowding each other out. Great! Now you just need to make sure players can understand everything you’re throwing at them. Content pacing is the idea of adjusting rate at which you introduce new things to your players so that it’s juuuuust right. If it’s too infrequent, things become boring and players may feel forced to grind for their next reward. On the other hand, if it’s too quick, players may feel overwhelmed or zoom through your content without a chance to slow down and smell the flowers you’ve carefully plotted out for them.

One of the difficulties of content pacing (and by extension game design in general) is that people are instinctively good at learning and even predicting future obstacles. As it turns out, players often learn how to learn the game better as they play, making their increase in skill a much closer match to an exponential growth (up to a certain plateau) than a linear one. But that’s only to remark on making sure the game remains challenging and hasn’t really gotten into the realm of being “fun”, which is far more complex. In fact, it’s so complex that you mostly have to do it by intuition. There are a few studies related to how to structure those things empirically (further reading keywords: chaos theory and white noise), but unfortunately many of those things are either really expensive to model or just plain non-deterministic.

Here’s a few basic concepts though:

Interruptions

It’s really hard to explain this to the uninitiated, but when you’re gaming, there’s this type of focus where you feel immersed in playing that game. Whether it be because there’s a wondrous world for you to explore, or because you’re trying to think of any possible solution to the puzzle set out in front of you, or because you’re trying to figure out what you’re human opponent across the internet is going to do next, there’s a sort of flow where you’re focused on the game. In theater, this is called “Suspension of Disbelief”.

As a designer, you should be asking yourself: when does this flow get interrupted? Does the wacky rag dolling from the physics engine remind the player that real life physics works differently? Is the process of “corpse-running” to pick up your items that you dropped too much of an unexpected intrusion in the planning of the tower you’re building (coughMinecraftcough)? DO YOU SUSPECT THAT THE GAME YOU ARE PLAYING IS TRYING TO TRICK YOU INTO BREAKING OUT YOUR WALLET FOR THE UMPTEEN-MILLIONTH TIME?

I WAS looking for wolves, but I guess I’m going to spend the next ~5 minutes looking for where I died instead…

It’s important to note that interruptions aren’t all bad though! Some games even use them in a way that has a positive effect on their play experience, but some of the most commonly noticed interruptions are the unforeseen ones that have negative consequences.

Break points

When does it “feel right” to stop playing? When does it feel like you should switch tasks in game?

While it may seem tempting to try to make your game be “so fun and addicting that no one can put it down” as the marketing goes, practically this plays out poorly in the real world. Breaks also help players ration out your content and even appreciate it. Instead of binging it all in one sitting, giving them the chance to set it down and sleep on it or eat dinner or whatever means they’ll be able to come back with fresh eyes to appreciate the content you’ve made for them.

Also, even if your players are absolutely riveted with your game, the reality is: people get tired. When people are tired they’re more irritable and they’re less likely to succeed at tasks requiring fine motor skills or careful consideration. These two facts combine to increase the likelihood that your players will make frustrating mistakes as they get more and more tired. You definitely don’t want your player’s last moments with your game to be rage quitting because they can’t make a jump that they’d normally be able to if they weren’t tired from playing for so long!

Finally, as long as your game doesn’t force your players to stop playing at your break points, you have nothing to lose by placing in some places were it feels good to set the game down for a bit! Players that want to keep going past your break points can just move on!

Some good breakpoints (off the top of my head) may include: save points, completion of a story arc, beating a boss, or even getting into the safety of town.

Content Pacing and Narrative Pacing

Content pacing is related to but distinct from narrative pacing in that even if there’s a new aspect of the story for players to think about, if they’re doing the same thing in between the cutscenes (per say), it can still become monotonous. You’ll want to carefully plan out your content pacing and narrative pacing with respect to each other for a number of reasons. For example, having an increase in both at the same time can have the great side-effect of narrative “explaining” new mechanics for you (a practical example might be gaining a new tool explaining the acquisition of a new ability). At the same time, it can have negative side-effects if the content and narrative are locked too closely in step, since when both are at a high it might be too much to take in at once and while both are at lows, there may be nothing to keep the player engaged.

Learning

This second mentality really turns grinding on its head. In games, character progression is usually an abstract representation of characters improving and becoming more skilled. If my warrior increases her Strength, the thematic explanation behind it is that she’s been training and conditioning herself. If my mage increases his Intelligence, it’s because he’s been studying and learning more. However, it’s not only the avatars that can improve over time.

While certainly difficult to design, it is a great solution to instead of making the player’s avatar more powerful, allowing enemies to have weakness that can be learned and exploited, thus allowing the player to learn and improve themselves. This avoids many of the downsides of character progression such as trivializing early content. Further, the goal of “master this new skill” is usually more engaging than “collect enough experience”.

However, it can be an easy pitfall to assume that players will be as familiar with your game as you are and thus not have enemies give enough tells for the player to adequately learn and adapt. Because of this, it’s often best to create a space for players to play around with and learn new mechanics or enemies while stakes are lower. Many great designs also require that the player achieve a certain level of mastery before they are enabled to escape back into the rest of the game.

Finally, even though learning is a great draw for some people, self-directed learning is a somewhat bigger ask (see also: getting kids to do homework). While it’s very possible to go overboard with this concept and make your players feel like you’re holding their hands too much, most players won’t take the initiative to learn or deduce anything about your game. In order to balance those two, it’s really helpful to know how to communicate things through subtler clues. Arranging a level’s lighting or color scheme to draw a player’s attention to something of import or communicate that something is explosive are examples of applying these subtler clues.

Conclusion

So to finish this series up, let’s summarize:

  • Grinding is a player response to problems with a game’s pacing where short term play is sacrificed for long term goals
  • Players behavior will tend towards grinding, as it’s simpler, and randomness on its own doesn’t solve it
  • Having short term variety will give players something to do while working toward their long term goals
  • Underpowered content is usually ignored, reducing the practical possibility space of a game
  • Having well placed break points and matching the narrative to the mechanics keeps a game’s pace interesting
  • Asking a player to learn a new mechanic instead of improve their character’s stats is more work, but often more fun for the player.
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