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.
Pacing is important in any work of fiction with a story, but it’s also important in gameplay as well. You remember an awesome boss fight even if you killed a hundred little enemies on the way there because they were just in your way. In an RPG, grinding spaces out the larger rewards – leveling up, fighting a cool boss or completing a major quest chain – so that they feel more special and memorable when the time comes. I can tell you exactly what I was doing when I reached the level caps of 60, 70 and 80 in WoW and its expansions – would I have been able to do that if it had taken me merely an hour or two to do so?
It Teaches Players How to Play: There’s a reason that there’s a stigma against gamers who illegally buy pre-leveled characters on sites like eBay, and it isn’t just that they’re cheating. They’re usually bad players. Over the course of leveling a character in an MMOG, the game introduces elements and abilities to you one at a time. Here’s where you spend your first skill point, this is a new ability that lets you turn invisible and here’s how you use it, etc. These points are all hammered home through repetition, to the point that a gamer should have some idea what they’re doing by the time that they get the next upgrade.
Now imagine that you just bought a level 60 character in LotRO. You have dozens of abilities to learn how to use, you have magical weaponry with special stats and attributes that levels up on its own, you have eighty bajillion things all thrown at you at once. Unless you’ve got the mind of Lex Luthor, you’ll jump into this mental juggling act and fail superbly compared with someone who’s been playing their character for 60 levels.
Sometimes, You Just Need a Break: This one is admittedly subjective, but there are times when you just want to play a game and you don’t want to think about anything. You don’t want to spend time enraptured in the Uncharted plot and characters, and you don’t want to worry about where to plant those sticky bombs in TF2. You want to sit down, turn your brain off, and do something that requires next to no thought.
Grinding is great for that. It’s not something you want to do all the time, but it’s nice every now and then. There are few cures for insomnia more effective than just sitting in bed, picking up your copy of Pokémon Platinum and going to level your team. No, this isn’t the sort of decision you want to base entire game design on, but let’s be honest here: Sometimes, we feel like doing something mindless.
Nobody wants a game that’s all grind, all the time. If that’s the case, you get all of the tedium of grinding but none of the rewards or the benefits that come with it when smartly used. If the entirety of gaming is a giant Chinese food buffet, grinding is the rice. It’ll fill you up, it’s easy and cost-effective to make, and it complements other dishes surprisingly well, but you wouldn’t want to make it a three-course meal in itself.
John Funk plays Pokémon at night to help fall asleep. Actually, he’d probably play Pokémon at night anyway.