Monday, June 30, 2008

Get Ready To Grind Yourself Retarded

One of my current favorite web video series at the moment is The Escapist's Zero Punctuation. Ben Croshaw definitely has his own brand of humor, but I feel the need to comment on one of his common criticisms: grinding for inordinate amounts of time. First, a definition.

Grind (v): To repeatedly perform an identical action or sequence of actions in a game solely for the purposes of advancement otherwise unreachable.

Being forced by a game to perform the same action or actions over and over again is actually what gaming is usually about. Take any game you can think of. FPS, RTS, casual games especially, they're just an endless repetition of doing the same thing over and over and over, until you either fail to perform that action correctly a certain number of times, or you get bored/tired, and go to do something else. This isn't necessarily bad. Can you imagine a game where controls changed every two minutes, along with the perspective, goals, and game mechanics? It would be horrible and confusing. It could be intriguing to some (see: masochists,) but for most people, it would something that would be set aside almost instantly.

So, assuming that almost all games are a set of repeated actions, what makes some mechanics fun, while others are more boring and tedious than de-lousing your grandpa? Why is it that battling 500 rats or goblins to level up is mind-numbingly sloggy, whereas blasting your way through the Combine, Covenant, or NOD fun?

Pardon me for using programmer-speak if you're not into that, but the answer is shifting arguments. If you're the Ruby or Python interpreter, you don't mind seeing the same function called with the same values 500 times. You're a computer program, you don't even have feelings. In fact, why are you reading my blog? Get back to work, damnit.


As I was saying, people are not computers. We like things to change frequently, but in small and occasionally medium-sized ways. For example, most JRPGs I've played are basically big grinders wrapped in a tissue-thin container of plot. You encounter some bad guys, you have to hit "Attack" or "Magic," and direct death towards your enemies. Occasionally, there's a cool cut scene thrown in. This could be fun for a while, but eventually you know the key controls that you could be a blind vegetable (personally, I like carrots, but some people are partial to broccoli) and achieve the same results. The original Pokemon games (Red and Blue, for you youngsters) realized this, and also realized one of the potential ways to fix it. If you have so many different enemies that you only counter the same one every once in a while, it isn't that monotonous. Eventually, that will get boring, but before it does, they let you advance onto a new area with a new set of creatures to brutalize and enslave.

Causal games are the kings of grinding. In fact, it's pretty much their modus operandi. You take one concept, one mechanic, and apply it ad nauseum until the player is either comatose or victorious. Why are they still ridiculously fun (and addictive)? Variation. Bubble bobble and Sudoku wouldn't be fun if they had the exact same patterns every single time. Even before computer games were invented, we had crossword puzzles that had the exact same concept. Do a thing, change the parameters, do the thing again, etc.

So how does fun repetition become painful grinding?

  1. When you want to advance in the storyline, but can't because you have to grind some more. This is almost more of a pacing issue than it is a game mechanic issue. Of course, you don't want to just shuffle the player from cutscene to cutscene, with barely any gameplay (unless you're Devil May Cry 4, of course) but at the same time, you don't want the player to be so bored that they turn off the game before they get to the next plot point.
  2. When the challenges don't change at all. This should really be a no-brainer. It's why Postal workers used to go crazy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. If you don't want your players to be bored, than switch things up a bit. Vary the enemies somehow. Difficulty, color, tactics, numbers, whatever, just try to throw a wrench in the player's grind machine every once in a while. They'll be surprised, possibly angry at first, but hey, angry beats bored.
  3. When the types of challenges don't change. This is subtly different from #2, but important. It's actually the reason why the concept of "boss battles" has done so well throughout the course of video game history. This is the "medium-sized" shift I was talking about earlier. The game mechanics can still be the same here, but there has to be a significant shift in what the player is doing with them. Instead of slicing through hordes of little enemies, they're fighting one very difficult one. Instead of building up a base and defenses, building an army and attacking, the player is given an army, and shoved out the door to complete an objective. Minor changes like the ones mentioned in #2 will hold off the feelings of grinding, but nothing abates them faster then having their usual plans rendered temporarily useless.
Whenever I design a game, or even a game mechanic, I always have to ask myself "would this still be fun after two hours?" I think that if more game designers did the same thing, then we wouldn't have to hear about how someone had to grind all night to get the items necessary to get up to level Y so they could make beef stew.

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