Friday, December 10, 2010

The Opposite of Grind

In this article, MMO blogger Zach Best wonders if replayable story content will successfully divert player attention away from the endless grind in MMOs.

Timeless MMO topics are worming their way, yet again, around the ‘sphere. Oh, I can definitely take part of the blame since I strongly dislike subscription games, and what I feel they entail. Clearly, I am neither alone, nor am I objectively correct. Julian, KTR lurker in the threshold, threw down an excellent comment, which in part reads:
The question is why are we seemingly unable to, after 10+ years of designing these things, to avoid the grind? It is generally accepted as un-fun. It’s been a major player complaint since forever. Why are we still operating under the design assumption that grind is somehow “needed” or “part of the flavor of the genre”? Why are we unable to come up with something better?
Which made me think, okay, grind equates to gameplay, but we hate it (mostly). So, what else is there?

“Content,” is what one of my little resident voices said. If defined in such a way, content is the opposite of grind. (Random Google’d website Wordhippo tells me the opposite of “grind” is “joy.”) Yet, from another standpoint grind is content. Our blog would have a completely different name if that weren’t the case.

Let’s back up a second. What is “grind”? I view it as an artificial lengthening of the duration of active gameplay. It is completely subjective. Some people love grinding for nickels by killing hundreds of enemies. Others hate all kill ten rats quests. Some people love crafting dozens of items and using it as a social downtime; while others see it as a huge time-wasting hurdle to jump. There is gray everywhere.

For an example, suppose MMO designer Bob wants to create a quest to teach players about the local mobs, Candlehat Rats. The Candlehat Rats are a common line throughout the zone, which culminates in to a wax-making dungeon where the rats get their candle… hats. They have one trick: when they lose 66% of their life, their candle goes out, and they become enraged. So, before the player finds himself in a candle-unlit dark filled with a handful of enraged rats, Bob wants to make sure the player understands this lil’ trick. Go kill ten Candlehat Rats, Bob writes. (Later on Rob, the writer, will turn this in to some prolific quest text…. unread by thousands.)

Is that grind? A smart player will understand the trick within 1-3 Candlehat Rats. A dumb player will likely not learn it after killing 100 Candlehat Rats. A casual player might see the simple quest as substantial content; while, a jaded MMO veteran sees it as poorly designed filler. No one can agree. Still there must be some opposite, and I told myself “think, think, think, think,” while putting honey in my tea.

If grind represents an artificial stalling of advancement, then its opposite must be ever-advancing. Story! Story always advances, even if the plot doesn’t. Story isn’t artificial. Yet, story is barely gameplay in many MMOs. Story can be a loss of control of our character (“my character would never!”). Story is expensive. And, story can be just as boring as grind. Rarely, I think, do many players go for an MMO based on story.

Yet, the two big MMOs on the horizon, Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, are touting story as a pillar of the games. In both MMOs, players will be making decisions that will affect their own personal story (and any gameplay stemming from it). ArenaNet and BioWare are making story core gameplay.

Furthermore, they are making the story very replayable. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, not only will each class have its own story, but there will be two wholly different sides of the story depending on whether the character is allied with the Sith or Republic. In Guild Wars 2, each race has their own prologue, and ArenaNet is heavily emphasizing that hard decisions will have to be made.

Is this the antidote for grind? Can we truly avoid grind by emphasizing an MMO so heavily on story? I do not imagine that this will destroy menial tasks, like killing ten rats, which can be considered grind. But, will this focus the developer’s attention away from so much of the combat-oriented gameplay that grind seems to originate from? Those in Star Wars: The Old Republic’s beta might already have the answer; those waiting on Guild Wars 2… are still waiting.

[This article originally appeared on Kill Ten Rats.]
Zach Best writes at the blogomerate Kill Ten Rats under the moniker of Ravious. He has written about MMOs, lesser games, and food analogies at Kill Ten Rats for over a year with Ethic, Zubon, and friends.


thequickbrownfox said...

Grinding is often criticised and yet it appears so often. I have a theory why, and it boils down to the following: we need to feel pain of a challenge initially to experience the pleasure of overcoming it later.

Grinding can be a games way of telling you that you have low abilities and you must suffer through repetitive tasks before you are good enough to do them effortlessly. Think of the arc of films that are uplifting. Let's look at The Shawkshank Redemption. The film ends leaving you happy and full of hope, yet the majority of events in the film are simply bad things happening to a nice guy. He is wrongfully imprisoned, used, beaten, raped etc. None of this is "fun" or "enjoyable" to watch. It is painful. But without it the ending would not have the same impact. And despite all the injustice, most people look back on their experience with the film as very positive.

In a similar way, a game's repetitive grind can be the pain you have to endure before you are rewarded with abilities, content etc. If you give the player these things for free then they will be perceived as being worthless and won't provide any joy. One of the pleasures of grinding for character progression is the ability to later go back to the early enemies that gave you so much difficulty and deal with them effortlessly.

In some sense, every game has an aspect of grind, but it can be used excessively or not enough. There is merit in trying to find a balance and player skill should be a factor too, but it can be frustrating if it is the only factor, because a single human's abilities naturally varies over time.

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