23 May, 2009
A few months ago, when I was really busy organizing a conference, a group of bloggers started talking about quests and how the relate to the dreaded grind. The discussion lead to an interesting discussion but Michael "Muckbeast" Hartman: New Grind, Just like the Old Grind: Quest Heavy Advancement.
Better late than never, so I'm going to take a look at questing and "grinding" from my own point of view.
The topic was originally a post on Michael's blog. Wolfshead also linked to a discussion he had last year, which he later updated.
The point of all these articles is pretty simple: quests have replaced monster bashing as the grind for working up your character.
What is grinding?
What is this horrible beast called "grinding" that seems to be the core of the complaining?
For the most part, it's the repetition of content. As Muckbeast's article points out, the old form of grinding was finding some mobs and killing them over and over. Now the grinding comes from running to do one quest, then doing hundreds upon hundreds more. Even though quest content can change, there are only a few archetypes for quests and they can seem to blur together after a while: go collect N of this, go visit that waypoint, go kill X of those, etc. The same way that all those monsters in games eventually seemed come down to "killing rats".
But, we come to a problem: games are all about repetition. Playing a simple game of Klondike Solitaire is pretty much all about repetition: looking for place to play a card, flipping over more cards, finding more places to play cards, eventually trying to win. Boring, right? Except people are eager to point out that solitaire is likely the most played games in Windows.
The truth is that most games are about repetition, even offline and non-computer games. Games usually have a set of rules that intentionally limit the options in the game. Klondike wouldn't really be much of a game if you could just go through the piles and pick out the cards you need. So, you apply the rules repeatedly in the game to reach the eventual goal. From this perspective, "repetitive" describes 95% of games out there.
Let me tell a little story about how I played The Legend of Zelda when I was younger. I loved finding secrets in games, so when I figured out that I could burn down the trees I wanted to find all the secret doors in the game. Unfortunately, I made that decision when I had the "one use per screen" blue candle instead of the "use it repeatedly, even twice in a row" red candle. That meant that finding secrets in the game required me to:
1. Kill any enemies in my way.
2. Find a tree I hadn't burned yet.
3. Use my candle once on that tree.
4. Probably be disappointed in not finding a secret door.
5. Go to the next screen over.
6. Go back and repeat the process.
It probably took me a few minutes to test all the trees in a single screen. I got quicker once I realized there was only ever one secret on a screen, but it was still a time-consuming process.
But, and here's the kicker: I loved it! I enjoyed the process because I would find the secrets (and I could brag to my friends about finding it). I was a bit disappointed when I learned about the red candle, because now other people could find secrets more efficiently than I could.
But, I've had this same experience in many games since then. I like going into the far corners of a game and seeing finding the secrets, even though this sometimes requires me to engage in non-optimal behavior. Now, I don't think I'm as eager to repeat the process of finding secrets in Zelda with the blue candle, but I find that aspect of a game fun. I'm sure other people would find it a tedious grind.
Part of the secret to avoiding "the grind" is making the repetition interesting somehow. Novelty is one way the grind can become interesting. Before WoW launched, there was a lot of discussion about "grinding" in online RPGs like EverQuest. People were tired of having to kill something dozens if not hundreds of times to get the item they needed for their item. Going and "grinding out" monsters was boring and people were tired of it.
WoW came along and gave us quests. Quests were new! They weren't the same old "find a camp and grind them out" type gameplay people had experienced in previous MMOs. Even though people were basically doing the same basic activity over and over again while questing, it was a new type of activity in a new game. As pointed out in Muckbeast's article (and Wolfshead's post), the inclusion of daily quests drove home the point that you're doing the same thing over and over again by literally having you do the same thing over and over again once a day.
Yeah, I know, that heading wasn't funny the second time, let alone this time.
The content problem
One major problem is that MMOs already have a lot of repetition in them because players are expected to play them for much longer than other types of games. Content is one of the more expensive parts of the game, so players are going to have to repeat some content. One of the problems with newer MMOs is that if they compete on content, they have to compete with all the content existing games have added over the years. it seemed impossible to dethrone EQ as king of the hill until WoW came around.
One of the reasons why Blizzard was able to introduce quests as an alternative to monster-bashing was because they could produce so much high-quality content. The quests were written and designed very well, making them a lot of fun to experience. Of course, Blizzard was in a unique position to produce the masses of content for quests given their reputation and the company's situation that gave them a very flexible schedule and guaranteed funding. Most of the rest of us aren't so lucky. So, while throwing more content at the problem seems to be one possible solution, there are very few companies able to do just that.
Grinding as a state of mind
The problem is that you can't make universal proclamations about what is or isn't fun. My young Zelda-obsessed self didn't mind what most people would find tedious. If The Legend of Zelda were an MMO, people would be clamoring for the game to give players the red candle sooner, and I would have been disappointed all that much sooner.
It's also interesting that players tend to inflict the grind on themselves. Players tend to take the path of least resistance, even if that path is boring as watching paint dry. There was nothing in the rules that explicitly made people camp a spot and kill those monsters over and over again, but it was the most effective way to kill things while reducing the chance that your group would get killed. So, people camped and then complained because it was boring.
Can people actually like "grinding"? My better half, who plays LotRO, actually got upset when they adjusted the experience curve and effectively bumped up her characters up 3 levels. It turned a lot of the quests she was working on gray (trivial), thereby disrupting her experience. For her, the fun was in doing the quests and exploring more of the world with some reward thrown in as a bonus. Even as we play and our advancement has slowed down, she still enjoys finding new quests and new areas to explore. To her, the end goal isn't to get to the top level as fast as possible. Therefore, gaining levels, either through killing monsters or doing quest, isn't seen as a grind.
But, when it comes to things like the kill deeds, it gets different. She gets frustrated when she's killed several dozen Trolls and then has to kill several dozen more to get the virtue reward. What's the difference between the deed and getting xp for advancement?
The first thought that comes to mind might be the reward: she doesn't see higher level content (raiding or Pv(M)P) as a goal, so she doesn't mind getting up levels. But, when the thing standing between you and a bonus is killing 100 more trolls, things feel more like a grind. I'm not sure that's exactly the case here, though.
Bored from not learning
Drawing from Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun, I think we might be able to explain this in terms of pattern mastery. Gaining levels on her character is still interesting because she's doing different things to gain the experience. New zones and new cities give her more opportunities to do quests and search out points of interest, which keeps her from feeling like she's mastered the pattern of the game.
Deeds, on the other hand, boil down to one simple thing: killing a monster you've already killed a dozens of times before many more times. I've I've killed 60 trolls, I'm pretty sure I can kill 90 more. The pattern here is not new, especially if the monsters are located in a relatively small area in the zone, so a player may feel as if they have mastered that pattern already by the time they have a few dozen notches in their weapon.
I think this also explains why monster-bashing got old fairly quickly, whereas questing has stayed relatively fresh for a while longer. By their nature, quests have people moving around and doing different things to satisfy the requirements, whereas the path of least resistance for killing monsters is to camp one location and kill the same group over and over again. It's easy to feel as if you've mastered the pattern and that you're getting bored.
Can the grind be good for you?
In a lot of the discussion, people have been nostalgic for the "bad old days" of camping monsters. And, to be honest, there are some good things about it. As people point out, there was a lot more social interaction in the older games by necessity. I think that even though EQ forced people to group together to be most efficient, people who had mastered the pattern had less distraction when it came to socializing. It's easier to shoot the breeze (especially in typed conversations like in EQ before voice chat became common) if you didn't have to learn to play your part in the encounter.
Another thing people bring up is exploration in older games. Part of grinding out monsters required you to search around for a good place to camp. If your favorite spot was already camped out, then you had to find another one. Finding a spot that was convenient but far enough away not to be fighting with another group was important, so someone had to know the area pretty well to know the prime spots. Without quests to lead you around by the nose
Designing away grind
So, can game designers do to combat fears of the grind? A few things come to mind.
Encourage players to do varied things. As I pointed out, quests don't seem as grindy because you're doing different things in different areas for different characters and getting different rewards for your trouble. As long as things appear to be changing, the pattern mastery aspect won't kick in quite so fast, so the frustration of simply having to grind isn't there. On the other hand, having "daily quests" where the player is encouraged to repeat the same behavior on a daily basis will probably lead to "grind" frustration faster.
Discourage boring behavior. Dark Age of Camelot did pretty well by copying EQ's core gameplay with many changes change. One of the ways it delivered "EQ without the suck" was by offering an "anti-camping" bonus for killing monsters that hadn't been killed recently. This encouraged players to move around when the bonus ran out instead of just pulling and killing the same monsters repeatedly. A good designer needs to identify potentially boring-but-profitable areas of gameplay and try to make that less enticing to players, ideally by making fun behavior more profitable.
Provide alternative gameplay. DAoC also had RvR gameplay. So, if you got tired of camping monsters you could go get your ass kicked by other players. Monsters in disputed areas were also a little more profitable to kill, so there was encouragement to do something a bit more risky but still completely optional. Even though it could lead to some frustration, it was a break from the usual grind.
Encourage socialization. A lot of people complain about how questing ruined a lot of the social experience in games in the posts I linked at the start of this post. Sometimes questing seems hostile to the player that prefers to get into a group, because it can seem to slow down the collection of rwards. Even though some people prefer to "play alone together" with other people inhabiting the world, the best experiences for most people come from interesting interactions. One goal has to be to make it as easy as possible for people to play together, especially if they're not in the same game-defined party/group.
So, what do you think? Is the grind as horrible as people say? Is it a fact of life in games that have lots of repetition in them, or is it something that can be designed around? Or, are modern MMO players too ADD-influenced to want to do anything besides solo their character?