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


It’s a safe bet that in almost any discussion about an MMOG (any MMOG) on the internet, there will invariably be somebody who jumps in to the thread, complains about the game being a “grind,” and then leaves like the proverbial internet Batman. Some have even suggested that “grind” is just something central to the MMOG concept, and that trying to remove it from a Massive title would be excising the very core of the game.

It’s true that many MMOGs – particularly older ones – are built around the idea of the grind, but that doesn’t mean they all are. The modern MMOG is steadily moving away from this core concept, though some games are quicker to pick up on it than others. In other words, just because some RTSes are about building a bunch of tanks and sending them at your enemy, that doesn’t mean that all of them are. Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in discussing the idea of the grind is that it may have a different meaning for people who don’t play MMOGs. Or, in the words of Inigo Montoya: You keep on using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.

How do you define grind? For all we complain about the idea, it’s an awfully nebulous concept. The most obvious definition – and one that I think most people default to – is “to do something over and over.” If you are repeating one particular action over and over, the idea goes, you are grinding. Ergo, since in MMOGs you repeat the act of killing any number of monsters over and over, it is a grind.

Hang on a minute. Yes, you’re killing enemies over and over again. Don’t you do that in every game where combat is a major element of the experience? I must have killed hundreds of enemy soldiers and evil mutants in playing Singularity for our review the other week, but I haven’t heard anyone calling that a grind. The entire point of TF2 is to kill members of the other team; I haven’t done anything but kill REDs and BLUs since 2008 … but that’s not a grind, is it? (The crafting, on the other hand…)

The perceived difference between killing thousands of enemies in an MMOG and killing tons of enemies in Uncharted 2, of course, is that Nate Drake is murdering with a purpose in order to advance the story. He’s not killing thugs to reach the next level, he’s slaughtering them by the bucketload because they’re after a mythical treasure or whatever, and letting them get the treasure would be vaguely unpleasant. Likewise, in TF2, the objective is to capture the flag or push the bomb-kart – killing the other team just happens to be something you do in the process.

Last night, I was stonewalled in my replay of Pokémon Platinum by the Fighting-type Gym Leader, whose final battler was simply too much for my underleveled team to handle. So off I went to the wilderness around the city, knocking out wild Pokémon one at a time to slowly build my team up to the level they needed to be in order to stand a chance. Everyone here would probably agree that that is grinding, no? So what’s the difference?

The difference comes down to a matter of intent. True, my ultimate goal in Pokémon was to face and defeat the Gym Leader, but the immediate goal I was working toward was simply to make that little blue bar fill up enough times to have the numbers that I needed to have. In other games, the combat and killing is what you do on your way to an objective; grinding is when the combat and killing is the objective. Or, to put it in a more pithy, concise statement: Grinding is the action of systematically repeating a particular action or series of actions in order to accomplish a larger goal.

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“But wait,” I can hear you saying through the internet, “Isn’t that what an MMOG is?” Many of them, sure. This idea was most central in many earlier MMOGs, which were as much about just hanging out in a fantasy world as they were about reaching the level cap. When I last saw Final Fantasy XI years ago, leveling up involved finding a group, going to a small corner of a level-specific zone, and pulling the same monsters over and over again, killing them, and repeating as they respawned. That was just what you did, and that is the very essence of grinding.

But these days, if the developers do their job, it doesn’t have to be that way. WoW really marked the turning point of MMOGs moving to a more quest-based system, where killing monsters was something that you just did on your way to a goal. Completing those missions gave you a healthy boost of experience, and while you could just sit and grind away all day, it was often faster to follow the quest storylines – you were getting bonus XP, you were getting items, and your actions actually had some sort of narrative context to them.

In this case, context is everything. Instead of just sitting in a corner of a desert in FFXI, games like Warcraft and LotRO have a narrative structure that makes the “grind” simply part of the journey from point A to point B – it isn’t the end goal in itself. There’s a world of difference between “kill twenty orcs to reach the next level” and “go rescue my daughter from bandits, and in the process of saving her you’ll probably happen to kill around twenty to thirty enemies.”

Of course, this does wholly depend on the limitations of the developers. Even in a quest-based game, you’ll still run into quests that just ask you to kill fifteen wolves. It’s still better than mindlessly killing over and over just for the purpose of filling up that bar, but not by much. It’s even worse when games tease the player with the promise that they’ll be able to level up as they progress through a quest-based narrative only to run out of steam halfway through because the developers were simply out of time, money, or resources – and the player is forced to grind to make up the difference (see also: Aion; Conan, Age of).

As long as there’s a purpose to your actions, though, whatever you’re doing rarely feels like a grind. You’ll still be killing enemies – as you will in pretty much any game ever made that features combat – but it’s the goal and context that matters the most. It’s why you can slaughter your way through a game like Mass Effect 2 or Assassin’s Creed II and never feel like you’ve been grinding a thing, because it’s been in the pursuit of some greater goal. It’s why you don’t care that you’ve been just killing the same ten people on the other team over and over in Team Fortress 2, because dammit you are not going to let them push that cart into your base.

Of course, all of this is assuming that the grind in itself is a failing of the game designer – and that isn’t always the case. Though some MMOGs seem to be trending away from the idea of the grind, many games – massive or not – still purposefully make that concept central to their gameplay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either: As Shamus Young said more than a year ago, a well-designed grind is more like a health club or gym rather than a mere treadmill. There is a wide variety of activities to partake in, and though any one of them might be repetitious in itself, it will mix things up so it never feels like a slog.

Come back next week when we look at why the grind isn’t necessarily something to be demonized.

John Funk always winds up underleveled in Pokémon every single play-through.

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