As archaic a notion as it might be, there seems to be little alternative to the level grind in MMOs
To paraphrase an old Jim Stafford song: “I don’t like spiders and snakes, but that is what it takes to level me …”
Or let’s add a little vermin to the recipe and put a Wizard of Oz spin on it – “Spiders and snakes and rats, oh my!”
If you have played any number of MMOs, you’ve had more than your fill of grinding through inconsequential insects, reptiles and vermin in the early stages of the game. Grinds and MMOs are the co-joined twins from the same genre-defining mother, it seems, and have been around as long as the modern age of the category. A necessary evil? Perhaps, and maybe there is a bit more to it than merely requiring players to labor through the early game. The grind can be the forge that makes players earn their skills and qualify through the effort for end-game content. It also serves to familiarize players with the interface and combat mechanics and slowly dips the toe into the water that is the foundation of the game itself.
Every MMO has a grind – what marks the good ones from the not-so-good titles is how well that grind is disguised.
“When you say ‘grind,’ I'm going to assume you're equating that with ‘the process of leveling your character up,’ ” said EverQuest II Producer Dave Georgeson. “I personally consider ‘leveling up’ to be entirely separate from ‘grinding.’ Grinding is an entirely negative concept that implies you are doing something that is NOT fun because you feel that you have to do it in order to succeed within the game. Whereas ‘leveling up’ is something that's a cool reward for playing a game well and being entertained by it for a good chunk of time.
“Grinding has become a de facto part of MMO experiences because, quite frankly, most MMOs don't take the time to innovate and come up with interesting and entertaining game mechanics and/or they are risk averse, thinking that any change to the MMO formula will result in commercial failure so they just copy what's been done before without being original about it. Since Ultima Online and EverQuest (original) did it a certain way in their original offerings most folks have just copied the same model over and over without trying to deviate. Essentially, developers need to shake loose from that fear of originality. Players are paying to be entertained, to make social contacts, and ultimately, to be able to brag about their accomplishments in-game. I'm over-simplifying, but those are the base fundamental reasons to play any game. Developers need to step back and take a good long look at what works and doesn't work.”
Jesse King, a senior designer at Turbine, offered some ideas on how to alleviate the repetitious elements of the game mechanics, or the grind. He said that, “There are three things I would do to try and make ‘the grind’ more palatable:
“One – The minute-to-minute gameplay should be as entertaining as possible. This mainly rests on the movement and combat systems. By providing a mix of some Challenge (mistakes can hurt you), Mastery (it is possible to become very good/efficient), and a very smooth, responsive UI you can make the moment to moment play amusing enough that it doesn’t grate as much over time.
“Two – the incentives should reflect the effort required. If the effort is extensive, then rewards should be parceled out in parts so that the player doesn’t have to go many hours without some return for their effort. Players hate feeling like they’re being asked to put in a lot more effort than they’ll be rewarded for.
“And three – vary the experience. Offer a number of different flavors of grind. Instances, crafting, collections, kills, daily quests. If a player gets to the point where they are really burned out on one, they can go do something else for a while. Also, whenever they can multi-task (collect crafting components WHILE achieving kills), players generally feel a lot better about the process.”
“I think ‘grind’ is in the eye of the beholder,” said Laralyn McWilliams, a senior producer at SOE San Diego, “one player’s grind is another player’s favorite part of the game. Most modern MMOs have a variety of activities, like traditional MMO combat, solo versus group, social activities versus leveling, raids versus regular play, crafting versus combat, battlegrounds versus PvE … Each one of those activities has rewards per action and rewards that only come after you’ve performed the activity for a while. It’s performing the activity for a while that gets labeled as ‘grind,’ but we don’t label other games that way. Playing Bejeweled Blitz to beat your friend’s high score isn’t called ‘grinding.’
“I don’t think the real question is how to disguise the grind, but is actually how to create multiple paths to success so players can choose the path they prefer to play. The path you prefer can even vary from session to session: some days I log in and feel like committing to several hours playing with my guild, and some days I log in to check out my sales at the auction house and kill a few wandering mobs. Variety really is the key — a single path of repetitive gameplay that leads to a coveted (or even essential) reward is what creates the feeling of ‘grind.’”
Of course, there are other factors involved that steer clear of the ‘kill X number of mobs’ or ‘run here and fetch that, or deliver this,’ but for the most part, massively multiplayer games have embraced the grind and those playing the games accept it as part of the experience.
But what specifically can be done to disguise the grind aspect?
“To address the need for variety in play styles, I think MMO developers sometimes try too hard to be clever, and add so much complexity that the game starts to feel like work,” said McWilliams. “There’s a fine line between simple and repetitive, and there’s a certain relaxing quality to performing a simple interaction that leads to a reward. It’s the sense of Zen you get in platforming games when you make a series of simple jumps to collect floating coins, the act of matching gems in untimed matches of Bejeweled, and the nice feeling of completion you get when you mine ore in EQII or WoW. Jeff Vogel once called that “whittling” gameplay—the process of performing the action can sometimes be more pleasing than the reward you get when you’re done.
“When MMO developers talk about removing the grind, we sometimes mean making every element of an MMO completely interactive and engrossing, with meaningful decisions and including player reaction time as a factor. That sounds great on paper, but in a game it’s pretty stressful and it goes against the reason many people play MMOs in the first place: to have a casual, social environment where you can hang out with friends, defeat some enemies to earn advancement and items, decorate yourself or your house, and sometimes settle in for intense sessions of quick-reaction gameplay (like battlegrounds or raids). If we start to make the intense sessions of battlegrounds and raids the norm to try to avoid ‘grind,’ we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Age of Conan has, arguably, the best first 20 levels of any MMO published in the modern age of gaming. The night-time Tortage quest series is personal, evolves depending on the class played and helps created an immersive element that entertains. Where the game begins to falter is when players emerge from Tortage and venture into the bigger world. But even Funcom recognized that more involved questing was needed and with the additional lands in the Rise of the Godslayer expansion, the dev team is making a concerted effort to offer content that keeps the players distracted from the grind while it drives them down the leveling path toward the end-game content.
Other games have revamped starting zones completely. EverQuest II’s recent update discarded the Queen’s Colony entry zone with a new beginning area and quest series in New Halas. The new zone offers an involved quest line and some new eye candy in terms of armor choices while expanding on the lore of the world in the bright but frozen northern area.
“Psychologically, placing a grind in a dank pit will drive many players crazy,” said King. “Place your grinds in places that are interesting or beautiful to look at when possible. Don’t place grinds in places where navigation is particularly difficult, or where players will have to constantly compete for spawns. These are needless frustrations to put on top of a process that players may need to repeat a lot. When possible, allow other avenues for players to get similar rewards elsewhere, either from high-challenge or group play. If a player doesn’t like one approach, they can try another. You can create meta-games around the grind. Have a kill leader board that updates each day, or other mechanics that challenge players to push themselves to do it faster, smarter, or more efficiently. Turning a grind into a semi-competitive experience can add some flavor – but it has hazards as well.”
In the months and year ahead, new MMOs like Rift: Planes of Telara, TERA Online, DC Universe Online, The Agency and Final Fantasy XIV will be released and will mark the next generation of the genre. But will these games revisit the formula of the current generation of games or will they evolve so that the grind is either non-existent or less pervasive to the gaming experience?
“The genre as a whole doesn't need a massive overhaul,” said Georgeson. “I mean, there's plenty of room for innovation, but even using the existing game model, it doesn't all need to be thrown out and started from scratch. You can only do so many fetch and carry quests before they get old. You can only grind in a specific dungeon before it becomes annoying. You can only camp after a specific rare mob for so long before you get bored and quit. MMOs need to give that stuff up as ‘old school’ and start coming up with solutions that entertain players and stop feeding 80% filler content to players. Players want/need variety, they want heroic moments, and most of all, they want to tell unique stories and brag about their accomplishments. We need to start letting them have those experiences.”
“I really believe the best approach is to create multiple gameplay styles,” McWilliams said, “and make all of those styles related, available, equally valid, and equally rewarded. It was the foundation of Free Realms—if you feel tired of combat, level your Miner for a while (and play Match 3). If you’re tired of Match 3, go race your car. I don’t think mini-games are the only way to accomplish that goal, though: you could create the same variety through different combat modes or different crafting styles. You see the beginning of that in the difference between traditional combat, raids and battlegrounds in MMOs and I think the trend will be to continue to add diversity. It’s tricky from a development perspective to be sure — if you thought balancing classes was difficult try balancing classes with completely different play styles! The end result for players is worth it, though, because it really puts the choice in their hands. We’re making a promise as game developers, saying to players, ‘Do what you think is fun, and you’ll find it rewarding.’ As soon as that’s really true, across the board — so players who like to socialize are rewarded equally (albeit differently) versus players who like to raid—then we’ll truly be rid of the grind.”
“Evolve? Yes,” said King. “We should always be looking for new ways to present interesting variations in play. Game play is a little like fashion – any truly static element will be quickly discarded by a decidedly finicky audience that is looking for the next cool thing.
“Eliminate? No. Grinding has its own important place in MMO ecology. A large number of players clearly enjoy grinding in various forms. I mean, let’s face it – all of Farmville is nothing but a relaxing form of grind. For many players, grinding appears to serve as an almost meditative task that can be readily mastered and exercised in a relaxing, familiar pattern. Basically it’s the MMO version of Sudoku. Needless to say, we do not achieve all of these goals whenever we create a particular ‘grind.’ Sometimes we get one right, other times we don’t; some of the grinds in MMO’s are simply about creating additional hours of game play as inexpensively as possible. A necessary evil perhaps, but one we should always put in some extra effort to dress up whenever possible.”
Some games grind on several levels – the adventuring level and crafting. If not careful, the latter can create an atmosphere that begins to feel like work and the tenure of MMOs, the opportunity to step beyond the concerns of the real world and be part of something imaginative, can be lost when it begins to feel like work.
“Basically, if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again because there aren't any other choices that are actually fun, then it's a grind,” said Georgeson. “Get rid of it and do something else. Grind is all about perception. If you're not having fun, then I'm sorry .. .the game's a grind. It's not rocket science. You just need to figure out what *is* fun and do that instead.”