Freshly Ground

So this is going up a day early as I’m taking my flight back to the US on Monday and will likely not have time to do anything more than finish packing and call for a taxi to the bus depot. I’ll be back on Monday updates next week, hopefully.

A friend and I got discussing the various MMOs we play, and in the end we were comparing the various types of grind involved in the gameplay. I doubt anyone reading this doesn’t know what gaming grind is, but for the benefit of those new to the genre, grind is where a player is required to perform repetitive actions for a particular reward. Many people have their own particular definitions; I prefer to think of it in terms of the phrase “the daily grind”: it’s work, it’s rarely any real fun when you’re doing it on your own, and despite that, it’s something you feel you have little choice but to participate in to progress further with an aspect of the game. It’s most prevalent in MMOS, although single-player games have it as well, in more moderate forms.

But, if it’s so dull, why do developers incorporate grind into their games? Because let’s face it: the amount and type of grind in games can actually turn players off to the game itself.

(N.B: I’m going to be speaking in horrifically generalised terms and not with regards to any one game in particular. There are some games that this won’t apply to at all, due to differences in game mechanics.)

Most of the time, grind is used as a means to an end: whether it’s a skill level, higher faction reputation, better gear or a coveted achievement title, there’s a reward at the end for engaging in repetitive activities. This is found in pretty much every online game, and takes a variety of forms from the classic “Kill Ten Rats” to helping designated NPCs with menial tasks and the occasional escort mission.

The less said about escort missions, the better.

Then there’s the challenge aspect. Certain rewards are more exclusive than others — maybe there’s a piece of gear with better stats or a more refined appearance, or a particularly uncommon skill. Having that reward is a status symbol, an indication that the player has dedicated an intensive amount of time and effort to playing the game. I’ve noticed a decline in this type of grind, however, with the introduction of Free To Play in online gaming — players are more inclined to pay a bit out of their pockets to have the exclusive cosmetic items than to show that they’ve spent two months running dailies.

There’s a third reason for grind which I hesitate to mention, but it kind of has to be said: At times, grind appears to be used because the designers have run out of ideas for extending gameplay.

I don’t like saying that, because it grossly misrepresents the situation. As the players, we do not know what’s happening behind the scenes within the studios. We don’t know if the developers slaved away on something amazing and were then told by the publisher that it wasn’t going to be used, or if they ran out of time, or if the person programming that one vital piece suddenly left halfway through for :reasons: and left the rest of the team scrambling. We don’t know, and I prefer to not jump to conclusions. I know how indie companies work; I can’t imagine what it must be like to have an outside publisher calling the shots. However there are definitely times where a new expansion has left the players wondering if the developers even tried, or if it’s just the publisher using the game like a golden-egg-laying goose. I dearly hope that this is NOT the case and that the developers simply don’t realise that their work isn’t projecting the best of impressions about the company, because the alternative is depressing.

I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to create a game without grind, or at least one where the grind is integrated so well that it doesn’t feel like, well, grind. Is it really necessary to run the same raid fifty times in order to acquire a good suit of armour? Is it necessary to do the same tasks as everyone else for the same contact over a dozen times in order to get one task which raises your faction standings? While it makes sense to level skills up through active use, Killing Ten Rats suffers when there are ten players all trying to kill the same local spawn at the same time.

Can this be done better?

Part of the answer to that requires a more in-depth look into the different ways players approach games than I’m prepared to go into here, but I can sum it up quickly so we can get on with things.

There are six different types of gamer. There are the Collectors, whose entire goal is the trophies and titles that come from participating in activities ingame. The RolePlayers attempt to create a coherent plotline for their characters within the game, making them an integral part of the game world rather than just a witness. The Stat-Hounds’ sole goal is to reach the top of whatever list they have determined is their priority. The Day-Tripper just wants to kill a bit of time and have fun, and may only log in once or twice a week. Socialisers can be a bit of all of the above, but generally use their online gaming time to have fun with friends in much the same way as friends might gather to shoot hoops (fun fact: one of my previous boyfriends and I would duo-team City of Heroes from our respective apartments when we didn’t have time for a date). And the Explorers just want to see what’s over there without much regard for levelling beyond what’s needed to get them over there.

These aren’t concrete groups, and can vary from game to game for individual players, but each has a different set of priorities which is affected by game grind. Collectors live for the grind; they have mastered it and take pride in it. RolePlayers find grind an annoying necessity at best and immersion-breaking at worst. Stat-Hounds, like Collectors, revel in the grind, but only with regards to their personal priorities within the game. Day-Trippers go wading, but rarely venture into the deeper waters; these are the players who are more likely to take advantage of Free To Play grind-avoidance options when they’re available. Socialisers may or may not notice the grind at all; it’s simply an aspect of playing the game with their friends. And Explorers will use the grind to their advantage if they’re too low-level for the place they want to get to, and ignore it the rest of the time.

Okay! Now that we’ve got that summary out of the way, back to the matter at hand.

In situations where it’s possible to earn rewards and levels through quest-line gameplay, the grind doesn’t technically exist, or at least it isn’t as obvious. However this typically only occurs at very low levels within the game, as at higher levels there are more variables to take into account. Players will have access to more areas and might run more than one of the possible quest lines at once; by the time they’re halfway through a questline progression, the player is too high-level for the area. Completing the quests for their own sake becomes grind, itself. The XP is by that point negligible, the reward gear doesn’t provide as much benefit and the task itself provides no challenge.

So what if everything is calculated moment by moment to the player’s character level, stats and achievements, rather than being a static level progression? Sounds great, huh? You go into a quest, slaughter your way through ten wolves to get to the door and BAM, your character’s strength stat goes up before you even get to the boss. In theory, this would work; and knowing certain players of my acquaintance (you know who you are) this would suit the micro-managers who love to do things by the numbers. However it would increase load on the servers, which would not only have to calculate for damage and resistances, but resistance and stat increases. This method works well in single-player games, but is (at this point in time) less than ideal for the MMO scale.

We’re risking going in circles, at this point, so let’s ask a more important question: WHY do players have to slay 100 wolves in Area One in order to earn Stat Module One? After five years and a million rookies all desperately needing Stat Module One’s stamina/mana boost, the wolves in that area ought to be extinct, but that’s beside the point. Why do we tie stat increases and titles to defeating NPCs? What’s the purpose of defeating NPCs, beyond stopping the enemy scourge?

Levelling skills, reputation boosts, and XP. The grind is intended to help players. Unfortunately, those who are put off by spending an hour brainlessly shooting wolves from atop a rock (no, I’m totally not referring to personal experience, nope, not at all) are being hindered by it. The game is defeating itself.

So let’s break it down. I’ve seen each of these used to good effect in various games over the years:

  • By tying stat bonuses and gear rewards to quest completion only, while the grind is reserved for titles which are purely cosmetic, the Collectors are catered to, while other players don’t get left behind.
  • Stat-Hounds love it when they can max out their preferred skills when there’s a choice of reward offered, tailored to the character’s class as opposed to a single unchanging item for everyone.
  • A wider selection of quests, rather then five variations on the same theme, repeated ad nauseum, provides more opportunity for the RolePlayers to decide what type of person their character is.
  • Offering players the opportunity to set an overall difficulty level helps the Day-Trippers: they may not level as fast or earn as much reputation, but the quests won’t eat their evenings and they can always change it up later if they have more time to spare. This also benefits the Explorers — who can dedicate a couple days to running harder quests in order to level rather than spending a week hunting wolves — and the Socialisers, who can get more challenge when working with their friends

I’m not holding this up as a step-by-step panacea for the gaming world’s grind woes, and there’s guaranteed to be a few negatives that I haven’t fully investigated. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love not having to spend days shooting grey-conning wolves.