View From the Road: An Axe to Grind, Part 1

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I suppose in a sense, any online game is the same which involved lvl and such...when it comes to gaining exp, and grinding...taken donw to its basics..its all the same

What I see as a problem though is that people will "find" grinding in any game they play, no matter how well constructed the game is.

I mean I hear a lot of people complaining that WoW is grindy, just because they HAVE to do quests over and over again to reach the highest level.

In my mind grinding is only the act of mindlessly killing mobs in order to get stronger so that you can continue with the game. (FFXI sort of fits this bill too, since it had other queste etc. that was doable now and then)

[WoT]

Mr. Funk seems to be oversimplifying things, not to mention coming across as somewhat biased.

While I will agree that grinding (being repeated actions or a repeated series of action to obtain a specific goal) can be tedious, the question of timeframe and difficulty is completely ignored. There are some RPGs that are brutally unforgiving with character death, while simultaneously requiring the player to assemble certain elements in order to progress their character forward with XP, money and equipment with rapidly increasing time requirements as opposed to games with little penalty for character death in combination with advancing quite rapidly. He is correct in saying that one of WoW's more notable features was the questing and quest incentives (which hopefully applied to the class you were playing at the time). However, if a mage in WoW wanted to obtain a Staff of Jordan at lv 40 or a Glowing Brightwood Staff at 54 (I am pre-Burning Legion so bear that in mind), they would need to repeatedly kill a specific enemy type in hopes of obtaining the drop or acquiring enough gold in order to purchase it from the AH from people who had done the same or just gotten insanely lucky. The player could alternatively run instances to obtain comparable or superior items, but regardless of other factors they would need the luck for a particular enemy to drop said item, otherwise they would have to rerun the instance again. Barring incredible strokes of luck, repeated action for the purpose of reaching a specific objective. While the individual quest's flavor text is nice, few quests rise above the overly used formula of bring item to this person or kill those guys.

In a similar omission, there are some inherent difficulties in comparing a large number of FPS games to MMORPGs, the central one being that when playing an FPS the player starts and ends each match in essentially the same condition. You'll always begin the match with just a knife and a pistol, and you will always end the match with just a knife and a pistol. The reason so many game modes have a central objective, time limit or point cap to the match is because otherwise it would become boring. Certainly the human element of your opponents is noteworthy in regards to combating tedium, but the one dimensional character played in an FPS really shouldn't be compared to the multi-faceted MMO avatar. The main issue with RPGs is the question of how far the character has to go in order to reach their next achievement and how much resistance the player can endure before the process becomes less enjoyable. The main obstacle for the developer to overcome is to ensure that the player is fittingly rewarded for their achievements, and that is where the trouble lies. I would suspect that when the proverbial Batman proclaims that the game is "Just a grind!" that they merely felt that the invested time and effort were not well rewarded and of course the level of accomplishment each player feels from the same achievement will vary person to person. This is also omitting the impact of having PCs contest against any computer opponent: the cpu characters will always react the same, and more often than not become formulaic.

On a similar note, Mr Funk makes the comparison between story driven games such as Drake's Fortune or Mass Effect(s) and MMORPGs and it is the intent of the developer where most of the frustration seems to be coming from. In ME the intent of the developers was to allow the player to experience a story through someone they had a fair yet limited amount of control over. While it was nice obtaining weapon upgrades, the fighting was indeed a means by which the character would advance and experience more of the story, which in that context amounts to a linear series of intents or objectives. MMOs on the other hand deal more with the spectacle of what the individual player themselves can do and the setting they can perform in, particularly in regards to other players. While the player does need to obtain levels in order to equip better weapons or spells, at the same time the player is advancing for the sake of those abilities or equipment as part of defining what their character is and what they are capable of. One mage may wish to obtain the AoE ice effect in order to control crowds. Another may wish to obtain the distanced AoE ice effect in order to bring down multiple enemies at once. In each example the player's intents are different, but they will both have to kill 100 mandragora to obtain it. In ME the intent of different player's are the same; to get the next tasty vittle of story which will be exactly the same for all of them, but how they approach the path leading to it is left to their own discretion.

I realize that next week's article will counterpoint most of what he has said in regards to "grinding", I just felt the need to address what I felt to be omissions and inconsistencies in what he wrote.

[/WoT]

I think you're wrong on the count of WoW about it being fine because of the narrative context. I mean, does anyone actually read the quest text? I thought not. That's why I liked DDO, the game was made and advertised as a dungeon crawler. No dicking around with pretending to be more. It came out and said, if you want to run dungeons constantly with your bros, play me.

GamesB2:
My generally accepted definition of "grind" is doing something tedious over and over again.

It's what puts me off MMOs the most... those hours where you know you're doing arbitrary quests and killings low level enimies so you can kill slightly less-low level enemies.

APB is looking pretty good... too bad my PC doesn't get used for gaming enough to warrant me paying for subscription.

And how many thousands I must have killed in Halo so far...

This^. What defines grind is how fun the act of combat itself is. If combat is fun, it is not a grind.

Oh and as for APB:

APB isn't working very well. You constantly go up against MULTIPLE high level enemies and get slaughtered as a newb.

I think you've completely missed the point of what grinding is in this article. The difference between TF2 and Pokemon is that in TF2 your opponents can adapt and do interesting things. You always have to be prepared and that makes things interesting. In single player games you have a progression where the enemies gain new abilities and you fight in new terrain. There are constantly new things being thrown in, and so the combat stays interesting, even mostly in a game like Pokemon. However, when you have to stay in one place and fight the same enemies for extended periods of time, you figure them out. They stop being interesting and become a repetitive chore. That is grinding.

The problem with MMOs is that they have to offer thousands of hours of gameplay, but it becomes boring to do something you've turned into a simple process for hours at a time. Unfortunately there simply isn't enough time and money to make every hour of an MMO substantially different from the previous hours. That means they have to rely on other methods of keeping the game interesting. The earliest games simply relied on the gamers to keep each other entertain while they where grinding, which works okay for some people, but the rest of us would prefer to do our socializing while doing something that's actually fun. That leads to games where they have enough unique content to get people into it, and to have them set some goals of their own for the game, then find a way to provide interesting challenges through the people playing the game. In a cooperative game, that means that the challenge comes simply from trying to coordinate large numbers of people. Unfortunately that means the best players will be scheduled and restricted until it reaches the point where, frankly, I personally believe there is absolutely zero fun involved.

So okay, maybe WoW isn't really a grind. After all, there always interesting things happening. However, while interesting is a necessity for fun, it is not the same thing as fun. MMOs are doomed to be okay while you're leveling up, if somewhat overpriced for the experience if you don't rush through it, but as far as I'm concerned they quickly devolve into the unpleasant end of interesting once you've gotten to the highest level and seen what there is to see. It tends to feel like both work and a grind if you're not really super into it. I don't see anything happening to change that.

Yar im in agreement. I love MMO's in general, Lifetimer in LOTRO and STO, and have played a bunch of different ones. When its quest based i don't mind doing the kill quests cause at the end of it is the nice big bonus XP for finishing the quest.

my gripe are the quests that make u kill mobs with LOW DROP RATES for items >.< Those are the real grinds in a quest. But even those are ok in the end, since u do get to complete it eventually with a nice fat chunk of XP.

The WORST is what Funk mention, 1/2 - 3/4 of the way to your max lvl, you run out of quests and u literally just have to kill mindlessly to lvl up with no bonus XP at the end of the tunnel is a sin and abomination to all that is good in MMO! >.<

Dailies, now that is an insidious yet brilliant idea of a grind! As a supplemental to your regular quest lines, im ok with. But if its the only way to lvl up, I am totally against it!

I know the feeling in Pokemon, Funk.

I've been stuck in Soul Silver since about 2 weeks after the game launched.

I'm at the Elite Four. And don't have a single ice type attack. And now I have to grind my Seel from lvl 15 to at least the "Fightin' Forties". And just can't bring myself to do it...Wild Pokemon give crap EXP, and trainers don't want to rebattle. I get VERY rare rematch calls.

The difference between TF2 and Grindquest MMO is in my opinion not that I'm motivated by an objective in my "grinding" of headshotting heavies or whatever. Rather it's because like someone said earlier headshotting heavies is not tedious.
It's the fact that killing an enemy normally involves besting another player who by being a person presents a challenge. Killing a boar in WoW 10 times is boring as hell because all it takes to do so is time. Killing 10 other players is exhilarating and requires not only time but personal skill, luck and intelligence.

That being said, there is some enjoyment to be had in the process of grinding. I play Pardus which unarguably requires a hell of a lot of "bar pushing" to get to some of the more interesting stuff. After more than 6 months I still haven't really gotten there yet. However I actually enjoy refining the grinding down to the point where I'm getting the greatest gains for the lowest possible amount of "Action Points" spent. However again this kind of grinding required not only time but intelligence, again transcending boar stabbing.

Repetitive play is doing the same thing over and over for the experience.
Grinding is doing the same thing over and over for the experience points.

Shamus discourse on how WoW was addictive showed how Blizzard layered the targets of grinding so they never appeared far away, I don't think it ever showed how they were fun.

The way I see it is Grinding is a problem by definition, if an action is enjoyable it ceases to be grinding.

Grey_Focks:

It's also why I liked Oblivion more than Morrowind
*runs away*

Wait, what? People consider Morrowind grind now?

RelexCryo:

GamesB2:
My generally accepted definition of "grind" is doing something tedious over and over again.

It's what puts me off MMOs the most... those hours where you know you're doing arbitrary quests and killings low level enimies so you can kill slightly less-low level enemies.

APB is looking pretty good... too bad my PC doesn't get used for gaming enough to warrant me paying for subscription.

And how many thousands I must have killed in Halo so far...

This^. What defines grind is how fun the act of combat itself is. If combat is fun, it is not a grind.

Oh and as for APB:

APB isn't working very well. You constantly go up against MULTIPLE high level enemies and get slaughtered as a newb.

Ahhh that sucks... I was hoping for a console release but it'll probably be even worse over Live.

I'll just have to play Kane and Lynch 2 a lot...

I think grind more of a doing the same thing over and over for XP or better items, and thats what mmos are almost all about even if u call it a quest if that quest is just go out kill X ammount of Monster Y just because a quest u almost 99% of the time dident read its just a grind that rewards u after u stop grinding for about 1 min to go back to town and get another reason to grind

snowman6251:
You know what the most obnoxious quests in MMO's are? Go fetch me 10 wolf hearts.

Seems straightforward enough. Kill ten wolves, loot their corpses, collect reward. Except apparently some wolves do not have hearts.

I'm sorry MMO you're right. A mammal having a heart is a recessive trait. How could I be so stupid?

I heard an interesting comment on this; perhaps our avatars are picky about what they loot? Maybe the heart in question is a bit too mangled to be used for the potion or stew the questgiver wants it for. I do remember sometimes reading fetch quests in WoW and it says "Make sure (insert item) is in pristine condition!" After all, if you sling fireballs or cut something in half with an axe, chances are not everything will be in perfect condition when you go to loot the corpse, regardless of how it actually looks on our screen.

An interesting look on the grind, John, though some people actually enjoy the grind because of the end result of actually levelling up, getting new skills or armour. Can you explain that? For example, people who'll raid (insert dungeon) for weeks on end until they get that new helm that will provide the barely noticeable +4 strength stat difference. Maybe having a tangible 'ultimate goal' to work towards isn't exactly what people differentiate between 'lame grind' and 'barely noticeable grind'. I think the player has to care about what they're doing. I want to get stronger, so i care about spending forever killing X amount of kobolds in order to level up, so i don't care about the grind. Story doesn't come into it; i just want the end result. People who don't see the point in levelling up or getting that shiny new gear are the ones who always complain about grinding.

As a side note, the reason killing stuff in MMORPGs like WoW is so damn tedious is because it's repetitive. You get a rotation and it never changes. There is no skill involved. Monsters are not unpredictable, they have a set pattern of attacks and that's that. You spend an hour pressing your action buttons in the exact same order: 2, 3, 5, 2, eat. 2, 3, 5- and so on. That's the MMORPG. Now take a game like, as you suggested, Singularity or Team Fortress 2. The enemy is unpredictable, even more so in TF2 against human opponents. But there is challenge and skill, not a matter of spamming a button and lazily keeping tabs on your health and when you should chow down on some food to top it up. The enemy is dynamic and you must think on your feet; this even goes for AI mooks. Not only that, but mobs in MMORPGs can take a while to kill and you can suffer considerable downtime. In a shooter or other type of game, enemies tend to go down fast. Whether it's by a backstab or a headshot; there is no major effort or downtime involved in the battle itself. Even in TF2 when you go down, you instantly respawn and jump right back into the thick of it. With WoW for example, death is a bitch - you have to run all the way back to where you started, and even if you don't die, you have to spend a minute buffing and drinking and eating and people just cannot be bothered with all that.

I agree with you almost entirely, except that I don't find most of the quests in WoW any less of a grind than just murdering random things.

Now, if you are working on a quest that is part of the main story line, or one that is in anyway interesting, then pursuing that quest can be interesting. Infiltrating an enemy camp, finding secret plans, interrogating the enemy -- this all makes for an interesting story that gives you a reason to fight the hordes of enemies that lie between you and the next step in the quest.

But many of the quests are entirely inane. How many times did you have to kill spiders/boars/birds so that some lazy bastard could make sausage/a hat/new shoes/wings or any other of a number of pointless endeavors? I'm the most powerful warrior in this area -- I will soon be bringing down Arthas himself -- why am I slaughtering boars to make soup for some random nobody? Oh, right, because it gives me XP and a trinket that is worthless to use or sell. At that point, all sense of immersion is lost; you aren't fighting boars to save the Blasted Lands from ruin, you're clicking buttons to gain XP so you can continue to the next area. It doesn't even present a challenge: you find a spawn, press the button, and wait for it to die. Unless you are a sociopath, where is the fun in that?

To me, the fundamental difference between playing and grinding is whether you are doing it for enjoyment or to get to the part that you do enjoy. Shooting at REDs and BLUs in TF2 is always fun (unless you are dying, in which case it's aggravating), but killing boars to get tusks (especially when only 10% of boars seem to have tusks) is not fun, it's just between you and the fun part.

MMOs can be fun for many reasons: social interaction, role-playing, exploring, acquiring new items and skills, and the fun of overcoming a challenge like an instance or world boss. Killing boars just for the sake of gaining XP doesn't fit into any of these categories.

The upside is, it's easy for MMOs to have less grind; they just need to give you more interesting and rewarding quests. If a quest is challenging, gives a useful reward, or has a meaningful effect on the progression of your character or the storyline, you will find it fun. The problem for developers is that it takes time and effort to make any of these things work. It requires a long story with lots of character involvement (and triggers, and state, and a changing world). It requires competent writers to come up with interesting situations and captivating narrative. It's difficult to keep the economy sane and the power curve reigned in if players are always getting better stuff. And it's exceedingly expensive and time-consuming to do enough of this to keep a 12-hour-a-day player happy for months on end.

Perhaps we expect too much of MMOGs, or perhaps we're getting exactly what we asked for, but fun has more to do with the quality of the experience than with its quantity. Unfortunately for us, that runs counter to the bottom line of every MMO developer.

Gralian:

snowman6251:
You know what the most obnoxious quests in MMO's are? Go fetch me 10 wolf hearts.

Seems straightforward enough. Kill ten wolves, loot their corpses, collect reward. Except apparently some wolves do not have hearts.

I'm sorry MMO you're right. A mammal having a heart is a recessive trait. How could I be so stupid?

I heard an interesting comment on this; perhaps our avatars are picky about what they loot? Maybe the heart in question is a bit too mangled to be used for the potion or stew the questgiver wants it for. I do remember sometimes reading fetch quests in WoW and it says "Make sure (insert item) is in pristine condition!" After all, if you sling fireballs or cut something in half with an axe, chances are not everything will be in perfect condition when you go to loot the corpse, regardless of how it actually looks on our screen.

That actually makes a frightening amount of sense. It's a little surprising then that no designers have made systems relating to that, as it might be a good way to encourage diversity while playing.

If the aforementioned quest giver also mentioned "I need the hearts in one piece, so hacking the wolves to bits might not be a great idea", the player might be able to deduce that killing the wolves with bludgeoning damage would be the way to go, and that they either need to befriend a mace wielder or train in the weapon themselves.

Nice post altogether, well done.

I feel like part 2 of Funk's 'An Axe To Grind' series is going to bring us into a larger perspective, following this week's theme on the Escapist: Casual gaming. I'd like to see what John thinks about if casual gaming and grinding can be symbiotic terms. I don't know much about any Zynga games, but from the outside-looking-in these games seem like a fun way to burn less than 20 minutes without having to invest much brainpower, similar to the good feeling quest grinding in WoW can give you.

I'm afraid I have to partly disagree with you, Mr Funk. Perhaps I'm just being picky but after playing FFXI, WOW, and LOTRO the only evolution I've seen is this. FFXI was find a group, kill this monster over and over, level up, and repeat. But I see no difference between that and WOW or LOTRO NPC's crying, "My pig's been stolen! Please save her (by killing 10 bears)!", kill 10 bears, level up, repeat (similar quest). So far all MMOs I've played focus on killing monsters to the exclusion of any and all other types of gameplay.

Telling Sisyphus that he'll save the princess only if he rolls that boulder up that hill 100 more times won't making rolling that damn rock any easier or more fun.

Half the people I know who bash MMO's use this word a lot. Funny how they never actually stop to think about the connotations of it.

Very nice article master Funk, and quite though-provoking.

I'll present my definition of grind by an example: you go to a nice isolated spot away from the interference of other players, plant your feet in that spot, and, like a turret, spin about killing mob after mob. Then you go loot the corpses, return to your spot, wait for the respawns, and then repeat. Interruptions to this routine only occur when you need to unload the copious amounts of swag you have collected(or you need to perform any number of biological functions in real life) by going to a nearby town to sell the junk or mail items to an alt that you use to place items on the auction house. With your bags now empty, you return to your spot and resume being a turret of death for any mob that has the temerity to exist within your range of fire. The point of such an exercise? Nothing more than to hit the level cap, and that's honestly how a lot of people actually play MMORPGs, for hours on end, for days on end. Then, they have the nerve to complain that the game is boring and that there is nothing to do.

Addendum: just had an additional thought. I feel that part of the problem of grind in MMORPGs comes as a result of the over-emphasis of the end-game. If you have relegated everything prior to then as being useless/worthless because it is nit usable at the end-game, then the entire game becomes nothing but tedious grind because of the amount of time it takes to level-up to the end-game. A lot of people, as far as I know, simply level-grind their way to end-game in precisely the manner I describe above, doing few, if any, quests at all and very little dungeon running. Of course, often these people get to the end-game raiding content and perform poorly because they lack the precise skills they would have developed in the earlier content had they done more questing and dungeon running, instead of just grinding. Also, they sometimes will be lacking prerequisite gear that would have been obtained either on the quest or in the dungeons they skipped.

I'm not sure what is the answer to this dilemma, but I think if game developers could find a way to make the MMORPG more progressively connected rather than singularly focused on reaching the end-game, the game as a whole may feel less like grind; in other words, make the fun be in the journey, not the destination. All too often with an MMORPG, once you complete a level, achievement, or obtain an item, your accomplishment is almost immediately devalued by the need to achieve a higher level or obtain better gear to deal with the next set of circumstances. You don't get enough time to bask in your own glory (and gamers love basking in their own glory) before you are impressed with the fact that everything you've just done is useless for dealing with the next set of challenges.

One thing I hated about Champions and Star Trek, both from Cryptic, was that the only way to earn enough XP to level was doing quests. If you did not have any quests at the time, due to a very poor system for locating level appropriate quests in Champions, you could not earn enough experience in a week of killing enemies to level once your level was in the double digits. Star Trek made finding quests easier, but you were essentially doing the same quests over and over again. They did not remove grinding, they simply switched from grinding mobs to grinding quests. City of Heroes, done by a team that included the people that latter formed Cryptic, had a much better balance between the benefits of killing enemies and finishing quests.

Everyone seems to have missed the one thing that is always guaranteed to kill the feeling of grind:

The unexpected.

Shooters very rarely feel like a grind, because something unexpected is happening almost every second. To run with the TF2 example: when I come around this corner, am I going to run into enemies? How many? What class(es) will I face? How skilled are these players? What weapons will they be carrying? Is that next shot going to crit? How will they be positioned -- will I have the terrain advantage? If I make a grab for this objective, will they mob me, be distracted by my teammates, or pull back to a better-defended area? Oh god is there a spy behind me RIGHT NOW?!

If you asked a TF2 player a couple of months ago what the grindiest class was, the answer would be the Engineer, without a moment's hesitation. That's because build spots, build times, and methods used to attack sentry nests were all predictable, and make up the majority of the Engi's play time. (The update has done a lot to ameliorate this, by making Engi tactics and their counters a lot more variable.)

In single-player shooters, the designers make sure to mix things up so that each fight is different. Each encounter in the game will keep you on your toes with some mix of new terrain, different enemies, and new weapons. Even on replays, generally the AI has enough leeway to surprise you from time to time.

Grindy RPGs suffer from a lack of surprise. You can predict what enemies you'll face, and in what numbers, based on your location or level. The same tactics will work on every instance of a given enemy. Many attempts to introduce the unexpected (FF's "back attacks," for one) don't even affect your strategy, just how soon you get to implement it. Even in MMO PvP, a huge amount of a player's value amounts to how quickly they can activate a preordained series of spells.

Grinding itself (the action; think rare drops) epitomizes the absence of surprise. You're in the same spot killing the same baddies and overloading on the same useless junk for ages. Even when you finally get whatever phat lewt was your goal, it's a relief rather than a surprise; if you didn't know what the item was and what it did, you wouldn't be grinding these mobs in the first place.

Grind is a concept peculiar to RPGs, MMO or not. It is done simply for the sake of statistical improvement. Team Fortress 2 doesn't have grind, becuase the player simply kills whoever stands between point A and point B.

I'd say it's less a matter of whether you've got a reason to be doing it - although this is certainly a large part - and more a matter of whether the act of doing the same basic thing over and over again is literally the same few actions repeated. Each frag in an FPS plays out differently, because the possibility space is so large in an action game. Similarly, in a well-designed RPG, each encounter plays out a bit differently as the different configurations of the enemies and your powers at your current level means that the optimal solution is different every time.

If this possibility space is too small, or the optimal solution is, for some other reason, found too quickly, then as long as you're required to execute that solution, it's still boring, whether or not it can be called grind. You're not performing the same ultimate actions, but the same proximate actions, which is hardly any kind of gameplay I want any part of.

On the Intent of grinding:
[Non]-MMORPG games like Mass Effect, Singularity, etc., have us killing things for a story purpose (hopefully) as you mentioned. But if the devs over at Blizz had their way their fantasy world would be so compelling we'd actually read the quest text and think to ourselves: "Hey, by killing these 10 Crag Boars I'm bettering this area for the local dwarves".
Of course very few people do this since the gameplay of WoW and other MMORPGs seems level and/or endgame driven.

On the Manner of grinding:
You noted that combat is a major aspect of an MMORPG. I can't really disagree, but I will contend that it is terribly watered down in comparison to single player games (in general). A game that has to have as many aspects as WoW or other MMORPGs has to water it down:
A. to save on latency
B. to have room for other stuff
The original World of Roguecraft pointed out how rogue PVP [the more advanced of the 2; PvE/PvP] combat could be achieved with merely 2 buttons. This is an extreme, but claiming that the combat systems in MMOs compare well to single player games is silly because the single player game is generally selling itself largely based on the interesting method of combat. Warcraft can sell itself based on constantly expanding content, social aspects, etc.

On Time:
MMOs make money (again, generally) based on how long you play the game. Ideally you play the game forever and they get their monthly fee ad infinitum. So they HAVE to have ways to keep you playing. And in a world where some people go from 70 to 80 in a week, they have no recourse but to create grinds. They can't afford to put up enough people developing content for that kind of crowd.

-And you said that 'innovators' like WoW are more quest based. While there are a lot of quests, I believe the first level 80 worldwide achieved it via grinding, not questing. So if you're 'in it to win it' as it were, grinding is the way to go. Quests are merely a brightly lit side show.

That has always been how I defined grinding. Going to some corner of the world and killing the same mobs over and over. I will never understand how people can find that fun as opposed to questing. I'm aware that in both cases you're still just running around killing monsters but a big factor in it is that when questing you don't have to go find the optimal place to grind and then sit there for hours on end. You go to the quest area, get the job done, and go back for your reward.

Although tbh I wish I could just skip it all and start out at endgame, because that's where I think the game really gets interesting.

You'll probably deal with ideas like this in the next article, but in certain circumstances, I love grinding. I get this feeling on older games, ones that I am very familiar with. There's a Zen-like peace that comes from running back and forth in a single area, killing the same monsters in the same way. It's not entirely the reason I play games, but it's a kind of meditative repetition that gets me very relaxed and takes away stress.

Example: dusting off my old SNES and popping in The Secret of Mana, I know I'll need to do a lot of grinding, running back and forth between Pandora and Gaia's Navel in order to get enough XP to max out each weapon for each player. I enjoy advancing the story, but in between those events I will, sometimes for hours, grind for the pleasure of it all. My muscle memory still knows that game, and I can perform the kills almost without thinking. This sounds boring, and, in truth it's not terribly exciting, but it gives me a transcendent feeling that prayer beads or chanting must give to others.

Psychologists talk about "flow state," athletes talk about "the zone," and religious folks meditate, and my gaming experience with grinding is similar to all of these: my reflexes and reactions become automatic, leaving my higher awareness free to work things out or just rest.

I don't think you could sell a game on these ideas, but they're part of games, I think for a lot of people. How else could games that involve so much repetition feel neither boring nor exciting, but still generally good enough for people to continue spending so much time and money on them?

Then again, these might just be excuses to keep me playing Secret of Mana...

I would say a game becomes a grind the moment you start thinking in terms of how many more opponents you have to kill to get to your next milestone. A good game keeps you entertained enough that it takes you a long time to think in those terms. A bad game causes you to think in those terms almost right away (I have played some MMORPG's where I felt like I was grinding on day one).

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