(Getting Back Into the Game, Part Two)
by Steven Croop
Beyond the immediate ramifications of playing a game in a massively multiplayer mode, it is the exoticism of the grind that draws, repels, and fascinates. Those that dismiss MMORPGs as addictive, money-drudging wastes of time point to the grind as the root of all masochism, while those that devote themselves to the genre take pleasure in sharing a common goal with other players through competition and cooperation. The grind is present in any game where new abilities must be earned; experience points have become the standard measure of progress in a grind, but it can take indirect forms – just cutting a swath through a gang of tough enemies in a first-person shooter to get a new gun or the next level can be construed as a grind.
However, the term “grind” exists in a separate connotative sense outside of just playing the game. It suggests playing the game for a reason outside of its express purpose, that the game has taken the player on an unrelated detour and force him to deal with the matter at hand before allowing him back on the main path. But not just MMORPGs have this element, and it is not always a negative element. Strictly linear storytelling is no longer in vogue, simply because gamers believe games can do more now than they could then. Games are expected to be more sophisticated, and sidestories, backstories, upwards and downwards stories, and inside-out stories are the fast track to sophistication. And don’t forget the sand for the sandbox.
A grind is that speedbump in story progression that is just too painfully obvious to bear, the unsuccessful attempt to tell the player “why don’t you do this for a little while instead.” Grinds tend to be quantitative, a strict line that must be crossed. They can be enforced explicitly – get 3000 gold pieces for this new sword-or indirect – being forced to backtrack to an easier section of the game to build up a character enough that he can survive the next boss fight. Games implement these basic ideas in complicated webs that necessitate grinding, requiring that multiple quantitative goals be fulfilled before qualitative progress is attained.
The desire to foreshorten or circumvent the pursuit of a number led to the rise of online peer support communities for these offline games, where players could ask questions of others with prior experience of the grind particular to a certain game, creating a playerbase that could deal with the grind in an ever more informed and efficient manner. The coalition of players sought to hasten the quantitative means to the qualitative end as a way to outsmart the game. MMORPGs kept this online community intact but transplanted the game itself to the internet. As the integral purpose of the community, the grind accompanied the RPG in its foray into the online world, and became an end in and of itself.
While MMORPGs deliver endgame content, they can never come to an end like offline games can. Their storylines must remain perpetual, as a function of the writing and mechanics. As the end of the game dissolved, the grind took on new importance as the point of the game. The shift from RPG to MMORPG was also a shift from the qualitative to the quantitative. The grind became perpetual, and success was measured by who could get the most the fastest. Gamers thus entered a new age of gaming masochism, as exemplified by the MMORPG.
When it comes to the grind, EVE Online is the Great Deceiver. At first glance, there is no grind. This presumption is automatic because most MMORPGs center their grind around experience points, which the gaming populace at large has come to understand as the standard measure of a character. Experience points translate into levels, which is the first stage in the strata of character comparison; before wealth, before gear, before reputation – what level? In EVE, there is no direct grind for experience points – skill points, as they’re called – as they are instead generated from thin air, without player action, whether the player is logged on or not. While the number of skill points a character has is still the primary consideration for comparison, character advancement is hands-off. The first reaction most new players have is enthusiasm about the lack of a grind. This is compounded by the near-immediate accessibility of EVE‘s endgame, giving the impression that EVE is an MMORPG that anyone can jump right into and instantly experience the full game.
The reality is that EVE is as grind-heavy as any other MMORPG, even when it comes to skill points. The primary grind is automated, so auxiliary grinds become more important. While players wait for their skill training to finish, they have to grind for Interstellar Kredits, faction standing, security standing (positive or negative), loyalty points, and myriad components for infinite industrial production. The acquisition of implants, which increase the speed of skill training, even add a grinding component to the otherwise grind-free skill training.
My grind, for the moment, is for security standing. It is the perfect example of a grind that forces the player onto another path so he can continue with his primary path. My -5.0 security status makes me an outlaw, which prevents me from moving any ship larger than a frigate through Empire space without being blown to pieces. Without extensive cost-ineffective carrier support, I am unable to bring any substantial ships from my former base of operations in the southern reaches of Amarr space to my corporation’s new base of operations in the far north. The most straightforward way to rectify this is to make nice with CONCORD, which means hours of scouring asteroid belts for sufficiently dangerous NPCs to impale myself upon. Martyrdom is the quickest way to CONCORD’s heart.
Quick tip: Actually, the quickest way to CONCORD’s heart is to kill a battleship, jump to the next system, kill another battleship, and so on. There is a cap on the security status increase per session change (oh, session changes, you destroyer of dreams and ships), so taking the time to kill every battleship in a system before moving on is a waste of effort.
Because it was close by and far more likely to get me killed, I set my course for the Curse region. I have a fond but long-suffering relationship with the Curse region – it’s one of those precious nuggets of 0.0 space owned by NPCs, effectively transforming it into a permanent no-man’s land with a steady rotation of highly destructive free radicals. Jumping from Sendaya into Doril – from marginal safety into the free-for-all – is always thrilling; it’s impossible to be sure of what lays on the other side, or what surreptitious scout was holding his own breath, waiting to see if you disappear from Sendaya’s local channel to rematerializes in the midst of his gang of friends on the other side. Uncontrollable and unpredictable, Curse kills indiscriminately.
My first time through, an avatar named Dutch Schaeffer was waiting for me on the other side. He was friendly, and his one-man gatecamp became two-man as I sat and chatted with him. He was relatively new to Curse, but my experiences in the tempestuous region had given me more of an expectancy to die than any wisdom I could pass on; indeed, when his Pilgrim-class recon cruiser fell prey to a swarm of interceptors – a buzzing hive of jabbing small-caliber weapons that reminded me of the Bees of Mutually Assured Distraction, the pirate corporation that had made me an outlaw – I fled back to Sendaya and waited for calmer hours. The Bozos – it just had to be clown pirates – that had destroyed my friend didn’t have the system locked down as well as 0utbreak did when they harassed IAC from Curse. Differences in philosophy, perhaps – occupation versus banditry.
Angel Cartel Machariel-class battleships disintegrated underneath a hail of autocannon fire, and my Wolf-class assault frigate lifted me from an even -5.0 to -4.93. The grind must go on.
Steven Croop plays EVE Online under the moniker “Cyberflayer.” He enjoys Stabbers, having bounties placed on his head, and long walks in the drone regions. He has written for The Escapist and occasionally posts techno-political pieces on his Open Salon blog where he makes up words like techno-political.