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The Gristmill

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/05/12 at 04:07 PM CT

I have noticed a disturbing trend in games this-gen. Not just my favorite genre of RPGs, but many genres, including strategy and even FPS, have become increasingly focused on one gameplay mechanic: Grinding.

Grinding was introduced long ago in the first RPGs. Games like “Phantasy Star,” “Dragon Quest,” and “Final Fantasy” all involved grinding, but it was a side effect of the then-new mechanic of improving the character’s skills instead of the player’s. Grinding was a necessary evil as developers worked to find the right balance of challenge and playability in their games. If battles were too easy, players could blow through the game with no effort. If battles were too hard, a few hours of grinding would take care of it. It was ‘better,’ it seemed, to err on the side of challenge.

The 16-bit era brought us balanced RPGs, still the only genre to feature grinding, that could be completed using only the points accumulated from battles fought naturally through the progression of the game. The instances of taking a break from advancing the plot or fulfilling the main game objectives in order to grind for a few hours all but disappeared, but the option was still there for particularly unskilled or obsessive players.

But then something changed… and this change started in the foul breeding pits of PC games. Someone, somewhere discovered that people will do boring, mindless, repetitive tasks… as long as they are paying for the privilege. Thus the MMORPG was born, through a dark ritual that excised the worst aspect of RPGs and distilled this taint into an addictive substance. Suddenly there were no plot points or objectives aside from running the same raid over and over or grinding mobs for experience and rare drops. The parents of this monstrous new sub-genre were the Hack ‘n Slash sub-genre-defining “Diablo,” which introduced treasure acquisition as a primary goal, and the mainstreaming of gaming, which caused huge corporations to take interest in monetizing what had previously been a niche form of entertainment.

So what, exactly, is grinding? Grinding is a way to keep people playing a game even when their higher mental functions are no longer engaged in said game. Grinding is a substitute for meaningful design and storytelling. Instead of games being made by people who like making games for the sake of seeing people enjoy games, games are now made by committees who like making money for the sake of making money. Instead of expending the capital and effort to create an experience that engages gamers and keeps them interested until it ends, it’s easier and more profitable to create an addiction that hooks people and never ends.

Cases in point: Zynga and “Call of Duty.” While subscriptions have largely disappeared as part of grind-centric gaming, with ‘Free to Play’ having risen to power, these games still provide huge revenues for their makers thanks to online advertising. There is nothing wrong with advertising, in and of itself. It’s been around forever and it’s also how MeltedJoystick and FilmCrave make most of their operating budgets. Advertising goes wrong, though, when the advertisers attach their ads to something addicting, which ensures that the addicted users will see their ads over and over and over. All of Zynga’s games, like the infamous “FarmVille,” focus on keeping players coming back to grind, yet there is no ultimate goal outside of the grinding itself. “Call of Duty” is likewise a goalless, never-ending game, with players grinding for the experience required to unlock additional weapons for use in online deathmatches. Neither of these games remotely resembles the RPGs that originally employed this unfortunate gameplay mechanic, yet they use an identical model to keep players playing, though not necessarily engaged.

Another series that closely resembles RPGs and revels in grinding is “Monster Hunter,” in which loot drops are the order of the day. While, as I mentioned, loot grinding began with “Diablo,” “Monster Hunter” introduced loot crafting, in which enemies don’t drop weapons and armor, but body parts and bits of debris that can be made into weapons and armor. In this series, which is an Action/Adventure and not an RPG, the character never improves… but his equipment does.

And what of the RPGs themselves? They have devolved to revolve around grinding once again. However, now it is less about experience and money than it is about random bits of garbage that drop from enemies, but can be combined into equipment or used to enhance existing equipment, “Monster Hunter” style. The simple functionality of arriving at a new town and buying all-new weapons and armor has been replaced with hours of monster-slaying in order to accumulate enough junk to make better gear than what any shop sells. Recent offenders include such big-name titles as “Dragon Quest 9,” “Xenoblade Chronicles,” and “White Knight Chronicles.” The stain isn’t confined to niche titles, as it should be, but is spreading everywhere!

Why is grinding bad? While it wasn’t as much of an issue in 8-bit games that barely had characters or stories, modern games have the ability to be on-par with movies and pulp novels. Stopping to grind destroys the flow and pacing of the narrative. Not only that, but grinding is, and always has been, boring. There is nothing fun about doing the same task over and over – that’s called work, and most people do it every day of their adult lives. Games are meant to be fun, engaging, and entertaining – the opposite of work. Finally, if enemy drops weren’t random, it would take a lot of the pain out of grinding, but would also remove what makes it so addicting. In essence, grinding is like gambling. There’s always the chance that killing just one more enemy will provide the last piece of detritus required to make the Super Special Awesome Armor. Just like casino owners, online game developers want to keep users glued to the same game for as long as possible. It’s a gruesome form of profiteering that takes something that should cause joy and turns it into slavery.

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Chris

Wrote on02/26/12 at 11:06 AM CT

Yes - I don't mind choosing to grind (for trophies, for a new awesome weapon, just to kill things for the fun of it) but I hate when a game makes you grind - either by ramping up the difficulty for no good reason or requiring a specific thing be done that makes you run all over hell and back to accomplish.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on02/18/12 at 11:45 AM CT

But Chris didn't HAVE to run over 73000 zombies in order to progress, nor did he have to do it while online, so there isn't any hypocrisy in his statement.

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Nick

Wrote on02/17/12 at 11:27 PM CT

Chris, I find it hard to believe that's your true opinion, a person who did the complete, utterly, mindless act of running over 73000 zombies in Dead Rising 2 just to get a trophy.

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Chris

Wrote on02/12/12 at 10:17 AM CT

My opinion on grinding is that when it's presented as something that is just part of the game, and you can choose whether or not to grind on your own time (best example is Diablo, Borderlands and yes, Dungeon Defenders) it's not so bad. However, when it's presented as something you have to do in order to advance - often for hours at a time, then it's a nuisance. I love the idea of finding the next best weapon or armor, but only if I get to choose when to do it.

I also prefer games that do have a point/story to them, which is why I've avoided anything to do with Zynga and MMORPGs (Star Wars Old Republic may change that, but I haven't actually played it enough yet to know). Achievement/trophy farming seems just as bad if not worse. I may be labeled a trophy whore around here, but I actually hate the online component for games.

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Jonzor

Wrote on02/07/12 at 04:42 PM CT

Well, I'll admit I don't know much about Call of Duty leveling up, having never played a second of it, but I'm pretty sure that the amount of experience is tied directly to your performance in a round. More kills, more headshots, more... I dunno... derogatory gay/ethnic slurs... all that stuff equates to MORE XP! w00t!

So being better at the game, and playing better, gets you more rewards more quickly. Still not mundane busy work. Plus, the randomness of "Hopefully the next time I kill that dragon he'll actually drop the sword..." is gone because it's so by-the-book. You know what getting to level 15 gets you, and you know how much XP you need.

The PC versions of Call of Duty that have dedicated servers MAY have farming servers designed just to reap max XP, which I WOULD totally call grinding. I honestly don't care enough to investigate it. But since the console versions only use match-making, (I think...) I think the only way to get XP is just play.

Team Fortress 2 rewards that were tied to doing crap like:

"Kill 6 people with your axe in one life."
"Kill an enemy with a taunt."
"Be healing a teammate as he achieves an achievement of his own."

... almost BEGGED people to start achievement-farming on dedicated achievement servers. And boy, did they. There's your FPS multiplayer grind. Because Scouts hoping into a server just to ask if anyone will play Heavy so they can kill him and take his Sanvich to get the Dodgers 1, Giants 0 achievement... that's not fun. That's mundane. That's barely playing the game.

That's interesting about the Goldeneye multiplayer. I hadn't heard that.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on02/07/12 at 01:32 AM CT

Eh... When I see forums crammed with people wanting to "boost" for the sake of getting experience to unlock better weapons in CoD, it doesn't seem like they're doing it for fun.

The end goal with that game is to be able to use any load-out in deathmatches for fun. Being stuck with the CoD equivalent of the Klobb while everyone else has helicopters and nukes just seems to encourage skipping over the "fun" of low-level deathmatches in order to get to the "good stuff."

The fact that GoldenEye Wii has everything unlocked by default for local multi-player but requires experience grinding to unlock things for online play seems to be evidence of two competing mindsets here: The old school, who just want to play their games, and the new mainstream, who will eat whatever is drip-fed to them with an infusion of ads/subscriptions.

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Jonzor

Wrote on02/06/12 at 12:38 PM CT

I'm not sure I'm completely on board with your inclusion of Call of Duty. If you take the rewards/loot/gold/materials out of EverQuest grinding, all you have is killing boars for hours on end with no payoff and no promise of one. No one does that.

If you take the rewards/gear/upgrades out of Call of Duty... well... then you still have something people have been doing since even before I started playing Goldeneye multiplayer. Deathmatch, CTF, etc... these never needed "grinding" the way FarmVille or World of Warcraft did.

The point is that you speak of grinding as bland, uninteresting work-play. But the problem is that in games like Diablo or Monster Hunter the drops are the rewards, and in something like Call of Duty the play has always been the reward. It's just in the last few years that upgrades and experience have been tacked on. Granted, this opens up a whole new level reward-based addiction to the game. But merely getting rewards for your play doesn't mean grinding.

It's not grinding if people were doing it reward-free less than 10 years ago, which speaks to the level of engagement of the player. And when grinding needs to be mindless, funless, oceans of the video game equivalent of white-noise, including Call of Duty doesn't work on the basis of it's potential to BE fun and engaging.

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