View From the Road

View From the Road
View from the Road: An Axe to Grind, Part 2

John Funk | 2 Aug 2010 17:36
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Last week, we here at The Escapist dug into the topic of the scourge of RPGs: the grind. I looked at what made a grind a grind, and Shamus Young illustrated what was wrong with the idea and made a few suggestions on how grinding could be improved.

But forget all of that. We all know why grinding is a bad thing. If it's such a bad idea, though, why do game developers keep making games that center on the concept?

How can grinding be a good thing?

It's an Equalizer: Let's get abstract for a moment - imagine that every videogame ever made is a kind of economic transaction. The primary resource at the player's fingertips is skill: accuracy, twitch reflexes, the ability to recognize new elements and adapt on the fly. If the player has enough skill to meet the asking price, transaction complete - you win. Difficulty settings raise or lower the price accordingly.

Now, let's assume that most game designers want their games to be beaten. If a gamer does not complete a game, then they've wasted time, money, and design resources on content that the player never sees. Having a very scalable difficulty setting is one way to get around this, but grinding is another. Grinding adds another potential resource to the pile: time. You may not be the most skilled gamer in the world, but if you put as much time into the game as someone else, you'll still be able to beat it nonetheless.

This levels the playing field. Sure, an experienced Pokémon player might be able to defeat the final leaders while ten levels below the recommended strength, which an unskilled player can't do. But once the newbie has five levels on the Champion's team, he'll be able to beat them - and the end result is the same either way. The player has beaten the game, and the developer has done its job.

Some people might balk at the idea that the skilled and unskilled are lumped together - after all, what is skill for if not to make you better than people? While that's understandable to a point, grinding can only get a player so far. If there are optional side challenges that can't be completed by grinding (encounters designed to be hard even if you're at the level cap, for instance) then the skilled still have something to hold over the heads of the others.

If I'm not a skilled player in an MMOG like WoW or LotRO, I know I'm already a second-class citizen. Maybe I can do a high-level dungeon here and there, but I'd never be able to raid or see challenging and difficult endgame content that requires skill. If I'm that kind of player, grinding offers accomplishments of its own that still leave me feeling fulfilled. I reached the level cap, I increased my standing with a given faction, and I saved up to craft myself a nice piece of gear. I still feel like I'm progressing even if I never scale the loftiest heights the game has to offer.

It's a Pacing Tool: There are parts in games that everybody remembers, because they're so thrilling. Everyone remembers the nuke scene in Call of Duty 4, the climactic escape from the Pillar of Autumn in the first Halo, or Sephiroth introducing Aeris to his sword in Final Fantasy VII. Climaxes and crescendos are our favorite parts of any story or game, but they're only so effective because of the downtime between them. An endless series of climaxes would be exhausting and end up devaluing their impact.

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