Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 May, 2009

Examining the Grind
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:06 PM
(This post has been viewed 10537 times.)

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".

Repetition, eh?

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.

Repetition, eh?

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.

Repetition, eh?

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.

Repetition, eh?

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?

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15 Comments »

  1. Actually, I'd like to point out your very last sentence: "are modern MMO players too ADD-influenced to want to do anything besides solo their character?". Unfortunately, for some of us, that is really the only way to go. We don't have the time or inclination to participate in five hour raids.

    But on to the bigger issue you talk about, the grind. I found LoTROs deed system fun, even if it was a grind. I haven't played WoW since WotLK came out, but I heard they have something similar. Yea, bash on X number of the same monsters and you get a spiffy title. But it is something to do with you get bored sitting in town LFGing.

    It all depends on the type of grind I think. I've been playing this free game called Destiny Online. You go to down, he sends you out to kill XX. Go back, rinse, repeat. All the mobs are in the same zone, but it takes 12 minutes to walk back (or you can burn a teleport). That is boring.

    Or the type of grind where "bring me X doodads", where the doodads drop 1 in every 10 kill, or something. That gets old.

    But it is a "one man's treasure..." type of syndrome. What is fun to me is boring to others, and vice verse. You can't really design for all possible scenarios, and I think that is kind of a downfall of games now. They need to appeal to the lowest-common-denominator to draw the biggest number of subscribers. Not everyone can, or will, experience epic end-game raiding, and for those people willing to dedicate 5 hours a day to prepare for those raids, that is their choice. I liked getting the Omnivore title in LoTRO, which meant grinding up a ridiculous number of meat-based foods, and that is my choice.

    Comment by Bill — 23 May, 2009 @ 3:52 PM

  2. Part of the grind problem is that in many games where you have a grind (which I see as "forced" repetitive content) is due the level structure used in the game and that the time for reaching max level is generally quite long.

    There is often so much in terms of different rewards or incentives attached to levels that players do feel forced to level up to experience or enjoy large parts of the game.

    One exception is Guild Wars, where people pretty much reach max level as part of an extended newbie experience. After that pretty much the whole game is open to go to in terms of character advancement requiements. And a very large part of the game is at max level. There are other means of advancement after that, but the important thing there is the choice what to do is pretty much left to the player.

    This is a much better model I think. While other games would not have to do it in the same way I think it could be healthy to drop the view that players need to be guided through some progression path for a long time for them to stick around.

    Comment by Sente — 23 May, 2009 @ 4:11 PM

  3. "I think it could be healthy to drop the view that players need to be guided through some progression path for a long time for them to stick around"

    Indeed, especially as the genre has matured, and veterans trying out new games learn very quickly. For instance, I learned my LOTRO's Champion abilities and nailed down an optimal "rotation" (combat approach) after a couple of fights, but gaining the next level (or five) that gave me new tools (verbs?) to play with had me doing the exact same thing several dozen more times.

    If you want me to stick around in a game, give me things to do, but don't *make me* do them over and over *unless I want to do so*. I loathed busywork going through school, and it's certainly not something I'm going to put up with when I'm paying to play a *game*.

    Maybe that means alternate advancement, maybe that means a very narrow level band (the GW solution), maybe that means abandoning classes and many other DIKU mechanics. Whatever the case, artificially extending play time to make the sub model work is extraordinarily annoying.

    Comment by Tesh — 23 May, 2009 @ 7:19 PM

  4. Oh, and my comment about "veterans" doesn't just mean MMO vets. WoW was the first DIKU MMO I tried out, and I understood how to play it within five minutes. Yes, there's more to it than that initial experience, but it really doesn't take me long to understand how a relatively simple game like WoW (or any other DIKU game) works. I like wandering around and trying out new things, but doing the same thing over and over again because I "need" to spend more time with it (either to extend play time or to "teach" me something) never sits well with me. I understand it quickly, let me move on.

    Not coincidentally, the best math teacher I ever had let us take pretests on upcoming chapters. If we scored 90% or better, we could skip all the homework for that chapter. We didn't have to do the busywork because we knew what we had to learn. Interestingly, I learned more in that class than any other math class I've ever taken, including college courses.

    Comment by Tesh — 23 May, 2009 @ 7:23 PM

  5. The only problem I have when it comes to "the grind" is that games change. And I don't mean "going from EQ to WoW", but if you log into EQ now, in many ways it now resembles WoW. Its chock full of quest-grinding, and the old mob-grinding is gone. As a result, EQ has lost a good bit of the social interaction that made it great. I really dislike the quest-grind of WoW, and actually enjoyed the group-mob-grind of EQ, but it doesn't exist anymore. WoW "beat" EQ, and until someone "beats" WoW most new games are going to be cloning WoW in the same way other games were cloning EQ before WoW.

    Comment by Jason — 23 May, 2009 @ 8:11 PM

  6. I liked the article but I think you missed one other solution that's important...

    Reduce vertical progression

    Many traditional MMOs like EQ and WoW give you a strictly vertical progression in power. You replace fireball A with fireball B that does more damage. This creates a treadmill effect as you end up fighting monsters with more hit points. But besides just the treadmill effect this worsens the grind for a few important reasons. A level 80 in WoW is several thousand times stronger than a level 1. They have 10,000% more hitpoints than a level one for example. The difference even between a 79 and an 80 is huge. This makes the game feel like you aren't anywhere until you're at the end.

    Now compare that to a horizontal progression system like EvE Online. Granted EvE Online has no skill grind because of offline skill progression but just play along for a moment. In EvE Online you start training skills that you're going to use forever. They aren't replaced, only enhanced. While you may progress from a Frigate to a Battle Cruiser or beyond your frigate training is still relevant too as all ship types are needed for different purposes. That means even though you're progressing along the ship sizes each stop on the way gives you some end-game usable power. Effectively you are choosing your own grind rather than the game telling you to go through it. Likewise in other horizontal based games like Darkfall you don't see as much of an increase in power. Every skill you gain in Darkfall helps your strength but a new character compared to an established one is an order of magnitude smaller than in WoW. At most you'll maybe gain 100% to 150% more hit points.

    In these systems you typically end up feeling more free to explore around or complete things because you want to. There's not as much of a force pushing you from your current situation to a more end game one. You may still decide to go and grind skills or money but it's a less compelling force.

    Comment by Logo — 23 May, 2009 @ 8:46 PM

  7. I'd go a bit in the same way as Sente...

    Part of the grind problem is that in many games where you have a grind (which I see as "forced" repetitive content) is due the level structure used in the game and that the time for reaching max level is generally quite long.

    ... without the level part.

    What do players want to do? They want to do X. How are they able to do X? By doing Y over and over. That Y then becomes grind.

    I feel like I'm that old guy in his chair always rumbling about the same things... Anyway, here we go again about SWG.

    There's 2 things I really wanted to do in SWG. The first one was to be that doc that would boost and heal everyone before and during combat, mostly because I was quite bad at combat in MMOs. The problem: You're of no use if you're not a master doctor. Here's go the grind to master doc. It was grind because that wasn't what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be a good doc for combat situation but I couldn't be unless I was a master.

    Sure I had fun chatting with people while I was macroing but that wasn't what I was aiming for.

    The second thing was to hunt jedi (I had learned some tricks since my doc time). First problem, you can't track one effectively if you're not a master bounty hunter. Second problem, you need to fill some other skills in some weapons because even with the best strategy, it all comes down to numbers. So what do we get? Grind to get master bounty hunter because you can't do what you want before reaching it (or else you will always fail).

    So to earn the right to hunt jedi, I had to grind my way up to master bounty hunter. Grind because the path wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to get to the destination! Sure, I could have tried before... But numbers against numbers, that wasn't just possible. So grind I did.

    WoW was a bit different. I enjoyed playing WoW solo with occasional "social" interaction. My motivation to play WoW was that "hey, I'll be able to visit that zone and kick some ...". Sure it's fun for the first 2-3 levels you get in a zone. But when you realize that you'll have to do this 10 more times to get to that next cool zone, it gets old quick. "Ok I get it, I know what is the theme of that zone, I've learn how to use my new skills can I move on now?" No! I still have to do 20 missions in that same zone to get to the next one!!!

    So where are we? Grind is part of the game unless you allow players to do right away what they want. So the trick would be to let players what they want to do right away and let the player skills have an influence on the success... (that sounds like an FPS). So I'm wondering, unless you provide equal ground to everyone, can you really remove grind? Because in the end, grind is not defined by what system you add to the game but what players are aiming to do. Heck, some would probably even consider the improvement of player skills as grind (ever heard of that complaint about kids being able to play a game all day long while you have to deal with a job, wife, dog... and not able to invest as much time in X game to improve your skill?).

    Comment by Over00 — 23 May, 2009 @ 10:12 PM

  8. Nice post. I'd add a couple more things:

    (1) Introduce more variety into the combat system. As others have pointed out, solo combat in MMOs often consists of identifying an optimal "skill rotation" and using it in every single fight. That mean that every fight is pretty much identical. In Klondike, in contrast, the initial setup of the cards is different every time you play, so there is some variety.

    I thought Wizard 101 had an interesting way of handling this. Combat plays like a collectible card game: You construct a deck and are dealt seven cards as a starting hand. So every fight is a little bit different, especially given that you can change your deck around between battles.

    (2) To echo Sente's point, don't require one type of gameplay as a prerequisite for a different kind of gameplay. In WoW, anyone who wanted to raid, PvP, or be dedicated crafter had to complete hundreds of hours of mostly solo questing beforehand.

    One thing that I like a lot about both Eve Online and Free Realms is that different aspects of the game are more or less independent of one another. So a player who enjoys, for example, crafting can enjoy that without having to complete a level grind.

    Comment by Scott — 25 May, 2009 @ 4:37 AM

  9. Daily Blogroll 5/26 — Back to the Grind edition

    [...] “Psychochild” Green wonders if all grinds are bad grinds? After all, people play Solitaire for hours on end, and in fact most casual games are the same [...]

    Pingback by West Karana — 26 May, 2009 @ 5:39 AM

  10. As touched on by the article, links, and commenters, I think grinding is feeling forced by the game to do something you don't want to do. Thus, I doubt developers design grind a game. They certainly design with pacing concerns, in mind, but that is not the same as grind.

    My pet theory is that grind arises because the MMO endgame is different from the leveling game. People don't complain about the grind, usually, until the game matures and the endgame is established. Suddenly people that were okay with the leveling game are grinding so that they can play the endgame with everyone else. It's a fatal flaw in MMOs that few have been able to overcome.

    Comment by Anjin — 26 May, 2009 @ 12:24 PM

  11. I think you are totally right that directing all the hate towards "repetition" and "grind" is not the way to go. I actually enjoy grinding mobs in MMOs. Do I enjoy grinding mobs for 30 hours with no noticeable gain/effect on my character? Heck no. But I do enjoy the actual process of grinding (assuming the combat is fun and well designed). For me, figuring out how to maximize my time and be as efficient as possible is an entertaining form of gameplay.

    My big gripe with the "new grind" we get from questing is that:

    1) It is no better, functionally, than the "old grind."

    2) It is actually worse in a lot of ways (see the article, I don't want to be spammy and rehash).

    3) It gets far too much of a pass for not being a grind, when it really is.

    4) Because of this deceit, games are leaning too heavily (imho) on quest based advancement, and ignoring other forms of advancement that are still enjoyable to a lot of people and don't have the same negatives that quest-heavy advancement has.

    I totally respect that different people like different things. What makes me stand up and say "WAIT A SECOND!" is when people delude themselves about what a feature really is, and what effects it has. That was why I felt the need to expose some of the problems with quest heavy advancement.

    Great post Brian. Thanks!

    Comment by Michael "Muckbeast" Hartman — 28 May, 2009 @ 1:29 AM

  12. Muckbeast wrote:
    What makes me stand up and say "WAIT A SECOND!" is when people delude themselves about what a feature really is, and what effects it has.

    What I tried to do here is see why people don't view questing as such a grind when they did for monster slaying. I think the main thing is that the quests involve moving around and a wider variety of actions for optimal rewards. EQ's style of camping a location involved a lot less variety for maximum efficiency. As you point out, though, that lack of variety lead to a lot more social interaction between people.

    I had an interesting experience in LotRO the other night. My GF and I decided we wanted to do a group quest, so we got together 4 other people. Waiting around for the group to form was less exciting than going out and doing quests ourselves. When we finally did get the group together, we did the quest and the group almost immediately split apart. What you predicted was exactly what happened: few of the group had similar quests besides the one we did, so they had no incentive to help us with other group quests. A bit of a disappointment after doing what was a pretty cool quest that only worked with a group.

    Comment by Psychochild — 28 May, 2009 @ 7:29 PM

  13. That's a shame, and unfortunately all too common.

    I like quests, I really do. I just think my mass producing them, and letting them become their own grind, what is special and fun about them goes away.

    In DAoC, people actually worked together OFTEN on people's class based epic quest. I probably did other people's level 50 epic weapon quest at least 30 or 40 times. The quest was challenging and interesting and meaningful to your character (or your friend's character). So people helped each other.

    But when you are going to be doing 50 quests a day, it isn't meaningful. When someone asks you for help, unless they are a close friend, many people think "dude, look it up on wowhead, or just move on to one of the other 200 quests."

    Comment by Michael "Muckbeast" Hartman — 29 May, 2009 @ 3:36 AM

  14. Quests are the new grind in social games, and that is why they are a good idea

    [...] examines the grind in light of these perspectives and finds something to like about the grind of questing. Firstly, [...]

    Pingback by Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog — 1 June, 2009 @ 6:59 PM

  15. When fun becomes a grind

    [...] As I've written before, the core of the grind is repetition. But, as I wrote in that article: all games are repetition. The grind settles in when you're done learning the game's patterns and everything is just an exercise in executing a known plan. Especially when you just want to get the goal and know how to get there, but all that remains is the hours of activity that you've come to see as a grind. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 20 January, 2013 @ 3:43 PM

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