Behind the Grind

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Behind the Grind

The better you get at a game, the less rewarding the grinding becomes.

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A great article and a good explanation why I can't stay interested in MMOs forever. I am looking forward to trying the Old Republic though, hopefully it can bring something new to the table

The thing about the boring battles is my biggest problem. Glad to see somebody agrees with me that that kind of battle is not interesting.

MMO combat is what is keeping me from DCU Online. Is it a sacrifice that has to be made in order to support the player count, or just a system that has fallen behind? Because if I could have an MMO where you do all the regular stuff: run about, talk, accept quests, gain XP, but the fights were like Arkham Asylum, I'd be more willing to play them. I don't understand why they have to be so simple as just clicking on stuff.

One day the infrastructure is going to be in place, or a netcode will be invented, that will allow proper "twitch" gameplay on any scale without lag. Until we get there, MMOs are not going to be exciting in terms of gameplay.

Actually... come to think of it, I would like to see an MMO with FFXIII's gameplay...

All excellent points, and as good a definition for Grinding as I've ever heard.

This is going to sound like a really terrible thing to say, especially on this particular website, but this seems like a limitation for all video games. Not a lack of positive feedback or interesting combat mechanics, but to be limited by the need to keep gameplay streamlined and simplified. To keep a lowest common denominator. This is about to make me sound like an old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn, but how can ANY virtual RPG expect to compete with tabletop?

Tabletop games have literally no limits, no repetition and no learning curve. At all.

Some might fight me on the learning curve thing, since you usually need about three rulebooks to even get started with say, a DnD or Star Wars roleplaying game. But once everyone understands the basic premise (ie. Dice represent the randomness of events, your stats help you influence the probability involved), it's really just a matter how much rule lawyering you really want to do.

Ah, yes. Grinding. I'm too good at math to play MMORPGs. Time needed to get stuff just adds up too quickly. On the two occasions I've tried getting into one or another, I managed the foresight to see just how long it would take to get to the next reward. I think I stopped playing within five minutes both times.

Crunchy English:
This is about to make me sound like an old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn, but how can ANY virtual RPG expect to compete with tabletop?

I'm not saying you're wrong on any points; but I think the appeal is in the visuals. Tabletop, you might have little plastic or die-cast metal figurines that you paint by hand, but that's about it. The rest, you imagine. The videogames just look pretty, and do all the number-crunching for you. Also, with the "MMO" aspect, you can play with friends all around the world. So, there's a certain appeal to, well, the masses. I still have a decent-functioning imagination, I like the models, and I'm an accountant, so I see your point; but reality is most people don't like to "work" (as most of them view it) for their fun.

OT: Good points all around. I will say, however, that dungeon and raid encounters generally involve much more than "push 1-5 until dead". Yes, that is the "bread and butter" of it, especially if you're a damage class. There are times when you need to stop, times when alternate abilities are need, times when you need to move to cover, or at least out of the fire, and various other things, changing from boss to boss. I will concede, however, that out in the regular "world" of Warcraft, most fights consist of "1-5, repeat until dead"; and with that as the bulk of the content most users experience, it is something to be addressed.

Not a fair comparison due to the massive differance in game generes.

MMORPGS are out to do something a lot more evolved than a game like "Team Fortress 2", and involve concepts like relying on stats to indirectly resolve things rather than the relfex/twitch based enviroment of a shooter.

Grind becomes a problem in MMORPGs because no matter how big the game is, your going to run out of new content, and it takes time to develop more of it. The long term rewards that you grind for, and the puzzle-like raid boss fights and "loot farming" excist largely to keep people playing while more new stuff is created.

Team Fortress 2 relies on the "human factor" far more for it's appeal, while there are social elements of MMORPGs, except in PVP (which is usually only one facet of the game) you are generally pitting yourself against the game, rather than other people. In Team Fotress 2 the experience varies as differant people with differant levels of skill and reflexes get involved. It also plays very quickly, and doesn't require much in the way of thought in how to tweak the numbers of your character for the best effect, all that matters in the end in a game of TF2 is you.

Both games appeal on a differant level, which can overlap but doesn't always. There are people who are going to absolutly loathe the very concept/play style of one of those games without even getting into issues like "grind" or the lack thereof.

The long term appeal of TF2 with very limited amounts of actual content (despite some gradual expansions by Valve over the years) has not gone unnoticed. You find plenty of action/twitch based games that try and use a multiplayer component as an excuse for skimping on single player content. Yahtzee goes off on this all the time... multiplayer is a neat extra feature, but games should be able to stand on single player alone. I happen to agree with him entirely on this point, and without any qualifiers (which is fairly rare given our differant tastes).

I think Team Fortress 2 and other "competitive deathmatch" games represent a genere which addresses the problems your talking about for SOME people, but it's hardly a solution that applies to everyone. What's more I'd also argue that "Team Fortress 2" has arguably become a blight on the landscape of gaming, because I think it's actually been dragging down games by convincing devleopers making things like "Crackdown 2" that they can skimp on actual content as long as they insert some kind of multiplayer aspect "Oh yeah, people will play for thousands of hours if they can just run around and shoot each other or do missions in co-op".

In absolute terms though I think World Of Warcraft is also a far more ambitious game, that tries to do more things, and probably appeals (conceptually) to more people, though I have never seen it's number of players compared directly to "Team Fortress 2". In the end, with rare exception, all online games are going to suffer from the lack of being able to produce content as fast as people beat it.

Perhaps at some point, an MMO will be created that will be flexible enough to allow the designers to constantly be building content as people play the game. Solving the problem much the same way certain MUDs did (which inspired MMORPGs). I remember back in the days of Mudding when you used to have teams of coders and builders on with some of the more wellt travelled games, and something new was appearing constantly.

Really, when something becomes a 'grind' I think is up to the individual in the end. But, at the risk of sounding overtly melodramatic, it really is akin to taking drugs. The first hit is all pleasure, but the more and more you do it the more and more tired you get of it, because it's the same chemical, firing off the same neurological pleasure sensations, but travelling through a weaker and weaker blood artery. And eventually the pleasure is all but gone and all that's left is the pain that we know as 'the grind'. :P

Yahtzee mentioned in one of his ZPs that grinding is in fact probably the only thing that keeps people going in MMOs as of right now and he was probably right too, save for the fact that he couldn't comprehend the social community aspect of MMOs, which is also truly important for the longevity of any MMO. But that doesn't mean that you can't lessen the grind and replace it with something else. Both Guild Wars 2 and TOR are hoping to replace some of that grind with meaningful context within their worlds (i.e. story) so...I'm genuinely interested in how their different approaches will pan out in the future. Lead System Designer behind TOR also mentioned, in one of his dev dispatches, how critical community is to maintaining an MMO and how important it would be to capture that for the project so...as I said, I am interested in how this will all evolve.

Excellent article and I couldn't agree more. Reasons like that keep me away from games like WoW, to me it's on the same scale as Mafia Wars or something of its ilk.

Crunchy English:
This is about to make me sound like an old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn, but how can ANY virtual RPG expect to compete with tabletop?

Tabletop games have literally no limits, no repetition and no learning curve. At all.

I have to agree here. This is also why RPGs (MMO or Single Player) really come to life on PC. Have you ever played Fallout 3 or Oblivion on a console? How dull and limited the world becomes once the side quests are out of the way, all locations are explored and those last few main story quests are stuck in your log until you complete them. On the PC with fan patches and mods, you can tailor the games to suit you.

Whilst this doesn't even begin to touch on tabletop RPGs, it's one step closer. As much as I can complain about Bethesda and the direction they took Fallout 3 in... well the fact that they hand over so much control to the fan base makes up for it.

Being able to download a few new quests (hell, practically importing the entire Morrowind quest log doubled gameplay) or items or NPCs or companions; I managed to fight off any weariness when playing Oblivion.

Therumancer:
Yahtzee goes off on this all the time... multiplayer is a neat extra feature, but games should be able to stand on single player alone.

I think Team Fortress 2 and other "competitive deathmatch" games represent a genere which addresses the problems your talking about for SOME people, but it's hardly a solution that applies to everyone. What's more I'd also argue that "Team Fortress 2" has arguably become a blight on the landscape of gaming, because I think it's actually been dragging down games by convincing devleopers making things like "Crackdown 2" that they can skimp on actual content as long as they insert some kind of multiplayer aspect "Oh yeah, people will play for thousands of hours if they can just run around and shoot each other or do missions in co-op".

Ah, but here we have a difference. When you buy Crackdown 2 you are expecting a Single Player Story (as it is sold) and the nice addition of a Multiplayer. However Team Fortress 2 is SOLD as a MULTIPLAYER game, not a single player. When you buy it, you know that you're getting some online action and not a campaign.

Not a single point I disagree with, great article Samus! I'm sure there will be a massive surge of WoW players coming in to justify their crack habits and call you a liar though (funny how they all act like drug addicts when you call them out on the crap they do).

Two great articles regarding grinding. Can't comment too much on it, rather sick lately.

Either way, WoW is the only MMORPG I can personally stand. The rest are just..failure. Maybe it's because I know the lore, maybe that makes it exciting.

The problem with innovative combat is that, whenever a dev comes up with a good idea, they fail to execute it well. APB, for example, was an awesome idea. Horrifically eexecuted.

I supposes its very true...once you reach a certain point, the grind no longer holds purpose, or reason...and, you just grind...for, well its sake of doing it

Great article. It's interesting how you posted this on the same day ArenaNet made an announcement on the same subject. (link)

In WoW, when I used to play, I grinded enough ore and stone to build my own city and castle. As a herbalist I grinded enough potions to fill the sea twice over. I killed enough boars to guarantee their place on the endangered species watchlist. I fished the oceans dry.

It was mind numbing fun.

If MMOs had gameplay like Samurai Warriors and only about seven actual people on a map at once (if you've played SW you'd know why) then an MMO could be some kickass fun, divide battlefields and towns into different sections, and, well, I could explain the whole idea but it would take hours to nail it all down for everyone, sufficed to say, it could be epic, but people prefer the safe bet to the wild chance.

Nuke_em_05:

Crunchy English:
This is about to make me sound like an old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn, but how can ANY virtual RPG expect to compete with tabletop?

I'm not saying you're wrong on any points; but I think the appeal is in the visuals. Tabletop, you might have little plastic or die-cast metal figurines that you paint by hand, but that's about it. The rest, you imagine.

If the Microsoft Surface/Surfacescapes project ever came together in some affordable fashion tabletop games might enjoy some of that visual appeal, although figuring out where to put the snacks could induce a crisis...

I play both tabletop & computer RPGs and enjoy them both. Sure, Dragon Age and Mass Effect are like a beach read compared to a really intricate D&D campaign, but there's nothing wrong with a little fluff now and then. WoW, on the other hand...I've been playing for four years now, have five level 80 characters, and do sometimes think that if I wasn't part of a guild of friends spanning Los Angeles to Canada with whom I'd otherwise enjoy little social interaction I'd have long since quit. But chatting with people you like over a relatively undemanding common activity has a venerable history from quilting to bridge to watching baseball - I love games like Left for Dead but when I play those with friends we're generally too busy to talk. Maybe in the end that's part of the appeal of the "simpler" MMO mechanics; and if you want to get more serious, go raid.

My solution to this has always been the same: flatten the curve, make the increase in effort steady. Not too much, but still. Make it closer to a line, instead of a exponential curve. Sure, it'll take a little longer at first, but near the end you'll shave so much time it's not even funny, while still spending 20 times as much time to get to lvl 50 as you did getting to level 5 (numbers random, point unaffected)

Quests also mitigate this, which is why I barely slowed down with my trial of WoW, and I got to lvl 20. (The dungeons helped too. I swear I could level up in about an hour that way.) The quests give you motivation, and every quest should give you SOMETHING useful, whether it be a new item or a bunch of gold. Most quests should give you something just a tiny bit better than what you have-not so much that you'll be skyrocketing the stats up, but enough that you feel that you're getting better.

"insultingly simple" about covers all problems with mmo gameplay. I have to hate the DC universe online for only having batmobile for Batman and no other vehicles for anyone. it kinda gives away the fact of the gameplay itself being the filler. The Who do you trust CGI trailer is the best thing you'll ever want to experience from this game. And it is the outintro in case neither side wins the game. The game footage itself just feels more letdown than Letdown 2(crackdown 2), many (if not all) agree on that.

Flying-Emu:
The problem with innovative combat is that, whenever a dev comes up with a good idea, they fail to execute it well. APB, for example, was an awesome idea. Horrifically eexecuted.

that is problem with all innovations. look at Assassins Crees 2 and the controls, it's complete opposite pole of other games trying to innovate. Having multiple uses per button is the philoshophy I had since before I saw it in games.

I feel the need for replayability in online levelup games topic for next time. Go play alien swarm(which is free game on steam) and you will see some people going 4th playthrough(=3rd promotion).

I made a similar observation not long ago when I was loading up my save for Monster Hunter Tri, to see I had 180 hours on it, and still hadn't hit high rank quests (though was about to knock out the last bit of offline content). And yet it never feels like grinding to me, despite having killed about 50 Great Jaggis and who knows how many of everything else.

What is it about that game that, even though I'm doing the same missions over and over, it never really feels like I'm grinding? Is it the carves and rewards after each quest? You're always getting more materials to make new stuff. Or maybe hitting higher hunter Ranks, or perhaps getting those nice silver and gold crowns for fighting especially large (or small!) monsters.

Errickfoxy: See, to me, all the Monster Hunters are the very definition of annoying grind. I have tried over and over to play them, and just never enjoy it.

Shamus: [insert obligatory EVE sandbox player-generated content is the bestestest evar type comment].

But in this case, I kinda agree with the EVE fanatics - sometimes just giving people free reign can result in a lot of emergent gameplay. Sometimes it just results in boring suck without even a grind to rely on.

Psydney:

Nuke_em_05:

Crunchy English:
This is about to make me sound like an old man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn, but how can ANY virtual RPG expect to compete with tabletop?

I'm not saying you're wrong on any points; but I think the appeal is in the visuals. Tabletop, you might have little plastic or die-cast metal figurines that you paint by hand, but that's about it. The rest, you imagine.

If the Microsoft Surface/Surfacescapes project ever came together in some affordable fashion tabletop games might enjoy some of that visual appeal, although figuring out where to put the snacks could induce a crisis...

Well, then is Surface still tabletop or now virtual? Or a mix of both? And who says once it moves to Surface they won't have it take care of the calculations for you? We could have visuals on a computer screen right now with the rest still done on pad, much like scene it games where the mechanics are still outside, but visuals on the TV.

As for playing with your friends online, I think the idea is you can still go adventuring with your friends on other continents, or on the couch next to you. Regardless, it generates visuals for you, rather than having to imagine it all, which some people like. If it is just an expensive chat client to you (not a direct assumption, just a hypothetical extreme), that's simply how you choose to play. Yes, your adventures are pre-defined to a point, but there can still be challenge. As you said, raiding is one such challenge, heroic dungeons, regular dungeons, and even world bosses; or non-battle related achievements (official or not). So I think it comes down to tabletop vs virtual (though in the strictest of definitions, tabletop is still virtual, LARP-ing would probably come closest to non-"virtual", I digress), it is just a matter of preference.

I ran into the exact same problem you're describing with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. At first the game was fun because it was new and everything you did had a reward, but later on everything was pointless. I had gotten the best weapons I could currently buy, I was sitting on a boat-load of money, and it took nearly 5 hours of straight-up combat to even get close to leveling up my character.

I don't play MMO's. I should start out with that, but I still play a lot of games with lots of grinding in them.

To me, grinding is when a single mechanic comes in the way of advancing, wether it's crafting, or combat, or whatever. A game should allow you the freedom to keep going with the story, or the interesting bits, or whatever, without forcing an arbitrary barrier on you to extend playing time or whatever. I'll use Bioware games (since they're all pretty much identical, in structure) and the old goldie freelancer as examples here.

In Freelancer (and almost sequel Darkstar One), you can have lots of fun just flying around, doing missions, killing people, getting money, buying new stuff. Or just explore new systems, or trade. It might be grinding, but it's still fun, because it's voluntary. On the other hand, between story missions you're FORCED into doing it. You must reach a certain wealth for the story to advance. That's where it turns into grinding for real, because it's not your choice anymore, and you can't skip it (without cheating, I guess).

Some games allows skipping dialogue, and story parts. Neverwinter nights, for example, allows you to choose which chapter you want to start in. Many games allow you to skip cutscenes, or already played levels. I don't think I've ever seen a game that allows you to skip combat you're already done with. Many story-based games, like all of Bioware's games have too much combat. It might be a matter of opinion, in some cases, but the combat will almost always turn stale in the first playthrough, whatever tactics there are get dull, there are too many battles to keep the concentration up all the way through, and you just can't be bothered going through with it all, every time. On a second playthrough it's even worse.

The interesting parts, the parts that change, are how you deal with conversations, how you choose to conduct yourself, and how you choose to build your characters. The changes are intersting in a few fights, but after the 250:th encounter you've seen it all, and even if one of those were really special, like a fight against a big dragon, or boss might have been cooler, it doesn't stick out, it just blends with the rest.

The grinding part there is also involuntary, and present inside the story quests.

What I'd like to see is a button to skip the annoying, endless, identical fights instead of the conversation that I can influence the end outcome of.

Or, if I'm daydreaming, see an rpg (which are most guilty of the grinding stuff) turn every combat situation into something interesting. Spread them out more, work more on atmosphere, and make every battle count, every battle be an experience to remember. Make them unique, with the environment mattering a lot more, give each battle it's own distinct feel. Here a lesson can really be learned from movies. After watching a movie (well, most movies, that are at least decent), something can be said about every action scene, every battle. They have their own individual flair. They weren't all the same, over and over.

Cut out as much of the filler as possible from the quests, and make it voluntary outside of them. There are often some battles that attempt to be that way, boss fights, first encounter with a new enemy type, a scripted ambush, whatever, but in all the mud from the ton of other battles, they drown.

Grinding is when something becomes a chore, becomes work, instead of being fun.

Yeah, its called "randomly generated content" IE roguelike games.

One day, an AI will extrapolate IP based on previous IP, as mentioned in star ocean: till the end of time. (ever notice how sci-fi writers always invent things first?)

Unfortunately, I don't expect combat in The Old Republic to be anything more than just a massive grind quest (for the Jedi class at least). I just don't see any way they could implement Force powers and not have you just standing still and babysitting cooldowns until the mob falls over.

We shall see though.

MMOs aren't the only realm of grinding though. Some competitive shooters get that way, namely, in my opinion, Bioshock 2 multiplayer (though Transformers multiplayer is starting to feel that way to me). Sure, no match is entirely the same, but some point the amount of XP to get from level to level is too great, and those dangling carrots are not enough to keep you going when everyone uses the same handful of weapons and tactics gained/earned in those first few XP levels.

[quote="Psydney" post="6.221460.7452984"]

I'm not saying you're wrong on any points; but I think the appeal is in the visuals. Tabletop, you might have little plastic or die-cast metal figurines that you paint by hand, but that's about it. The rest, you imagine.

Well, then is Surface still tabletop or now virtual? Or a mix of both? And who says once it moves to Surface they won't have it take care of the calculations for you? We could have visuals on a computer screen right now with the rest still done on pad, much like scene it games where the mechanics are still outside, but visuals on the TV.

As for playing with your friends online, I think the idea is you can still go adventuring with your friends on other continents, or on the couch next to you.

I definitely agree with you re: online play - I guess my point was that the Surface could add an eye-candy dimension that is perhaps currently lacking with figurines. And from what I've seen of the demos they are moving toward making some of the tabletop calculations - although anyone I've known who plays tabletop *hates* the virtual die rolls and wants to do that themselves with their own dice :)

Just being a little fanboyish, but DDO have an awesome combat system that isn't "stand still and press 1 to 5"

Ironicaly, while WoW is this on leveling and the endgame is a bit more action-related; DDO is agile, and the endgame is "stand still and smack everything as hard as you can". But it deserve a note anyway.

Shamus, I love your article, and I read your blog from time to time as well, so this is coming from a loving place.

No one who doesn't have at least one level 80 character should review WoW. You really haven't played the game yet. Not to mention that with your highest level character at level 40, you haven't played ANY content that was made after 2004. It's not fair to Blizzard to only play a third of the game (actually far less, just a third of the leveling) and dismiss it all as a grind.

Play through the expansions and then the end game content before judging it. WoW is far more than pressing five buttons.

samwise970:
It's not fair to Blizzard to only play a third of the game (actually far less, just a third of the leveling) and dismiss it all as a grind.

Play through the expansions and then the end game content before judging it. WoW is far more than pressing five buttons.

Then it's not fair that they charge me $15 a month for three months before I get to those "fun" parts.

I mean, if it sucks, and you have to do it to get to the good parts, then it SHOULD get mentioned. It's part of the game. Time-wise, it's a big part of the game.

Here read this, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design.php?page=1

its not that blizzard dont have the money to fill the time in between rewards, rather its how the game was designed

This was focused on MMOs but it made me think on the grinding games I play - Final Fantasy in particular but even games like Assassin's Creed (The races, feather/flag-finding, rescues, treasures etc) can get very aggravating in the second or third play-through. The first time around the grinding has purpose - whether a tangible increase in levels or an intangible increase in the efficiency of the player. It can also make the game feel deeper because there are so many things you can do. But once you've finished it 100% and just want to play again to get the highlights... Grinding becomes a chore and worse - a chore you've done before.

Chrono Cross had the right idea. It let you play New Game +, with all of your strength and items remaining from your previous play-through. It enabled you to breeze through the mini battles and just enjoy the revisit.

For MMOs, one thing I know I would love to be able to do is pimp out my nest - let my grinding also supply ingredients that can be used to furnish my home! I can chop trees for wood and then go kill an monster whose skin I think would look nice as upholstry. Both get me XP and maybe tradable items, but I get something lasting out of it too. Not a weapon I wont use because I already have a box full. Not potions that aren't needed because my healing magics are freakin' awesome. Just... stuff.

I'm from the stuff generation. I like stuff. Having somewhere in-world where I can store, display (for at least myself and friends), and re-arrange it is enough to keep me hooked.

Oh, and I'm not talking achievements or trophies that people collect but nobody really cares about - I want my avatar to be able to see and touch and interact with it. Give me some land and let me build my own house - not Sims-Level detail, just the shape and set-up of rooms. And maybe a garden. And a spot where I can put a fountain. And a surfboard. And an outdoor fridge for when I can't be stuffed going inside....

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