Friday, May 6, 2011

Back to the Grind – Repetitive Tasks in RPGs

Roleplaying Games, from a video gaming perspective, share a lot of features with their tabletop progenitors. There are experience points, levels, typically there is something like a character class (even if the “class” is unique to a character) and skills improve over time. Increasing the relative power of a character or group of characters is one of the primary motivations for roleplaying gamers in general, whether with friends around a table, at the controls of a console or keyboard of a PC, single player or MMORPG. Players love to level up.

But what about grinding? Most players talk about “level grind” or “money grind” as a distasteful part of the game that has to be endured in order to experience the “good stuff”. In single-player RPGs, grinding was once an overwhelming percentage of a game's entire content. The grind WAS the game, with story elements and even boss fights that seemed tacked on almost as an afterthought. As years went on, grinding in RPGs became less common in the single-player western and JRPGs on consoles and PCs. This is not, however, to suggest that it went away.

In this context "Epic RPG" means "killing lots of slimes."

In 1986, Western audiences got their first taste of the Japanese style of console RPG (JRPG) gaming with the release of Dragon Warrior for the NES. The story was very simplistic, save the princess, slay the dragon, marry the princess. Player choice is nonexistent, at one point the princess gives you a choice of whether or not you wish to have her accompany you, which leads you to marriage. Selecting “No” prompts the response “But Thou Must!” and sends you back to the Yes/No options until “Yes” is selected. The vast majority of the game, in fact, is walking back and forth in a field or forest until attacked randomly by a level-appropriate monster and then killing them, and repeating until you have to move on to find harder monsters to slay.

Long before the androgynous heroes
 with big swords.

A year later, the first game in the Final Fantasy series came out for the NES, and while it had more varied environments, and there was a lot of improvement with regard to story, there was still the grind. Each town had equipment and spells which needed to be purchased before moving on, so in order to level up and gain the gold coins needed to buy everything the group needed to move on... walk back and forth, looking for random battles. This trend continued to Super NES console games, but typically the experience/gold grind got shorter, and stories became more important and a larger part of the overall game experience.

In the PC world, single player RPGs tackled grinding more subtly, still requiring massive amounts of low level monsters to be killed, but eschewing the “walk back and forth for a random encounter” element of the JRPGs. Instead, low level dungeons filled with rats to be cleared out, endless fetch quests requiring travel through potentially dangerous places, and lots of filler “content” that served the same purpose as Final Fantasy's goblins or Dragon Warrior's slimes while providing more of a feeling that something was getting accomplished, despite the complete lack of advancement of a story in these areas beyond “the hero(es) found the monsters, killed them and took their stuff.”

Today, the single player RPG released by any major game publisher has all but eliminated the grind, though typically the first generation of this style of game for any new platform (mobile/smartphone, tablet PC, PDA) may use the technique to “pad” game length. The grind itself, however, has not died. It has found itself a new home where it thrives today and is more pervasive than ever. Grinding experience points, gold pieces, skills, crafting materials and any number of other in-game resources is the basis of the treadmill found in the MMORPG.

"Just another 10 miles and I can equip the Pants of Fitting."

Though different MMORPGs have easier or more difficult grinds to increase levels, skills and acquire the best possible equipment for a character, most of them follow the same formula. Repeat simple task for incremental reward, hit a milestone as those rewards accumulate, achieve specific new ability or item. Whatever the particular systems in building and preparing a character for whatever sort of “endgame” the developers have in mind for characters that are at or near the level cap (or with maximized skills,) it is safe to say that in most of these kinds of games some grinding was involved in getting there. This aspect of these games, “I don't want to kill 20 rats and bring back the tails” is often one of the reasons cited for players who find this style of gaming dull and/or tedious.

Why do we grind? The “perform task, get reward” cycle has been compared to the conditioning found in Pavlov's experiments with animals, and even gamers aware of this trained psychological response may not be immune to it. I personally fall into this category of gamer. Even if, intellectually, I know that I'm just ringing a bell to get a treat... I like treats. Some players find repetition with strictly defined rewards (i.e. “if I catch 12 fish, I gain a point in fishing skill”) relaxing. Grinding with an element of randomness, such as killing monsters for a particular rare item or crafting items that may on rare occasion produce something more valuable or powerful, has been shown to stimulate the same areas of the brain that are active while gambling. Many aspects of MMORPG grinding combine both strictly defined rewards with the possibility of a random “special” reward for a powerful psychological draw for a wide variety of players.

Almost every MMORPG has a fishing mini-game.
Every time I play them I fish, and I don't know why. I don't even like fishing.

How do you feel about grinding? Hate it when it pops up in games? Don't mind it because the reward for your efforts is typically satisfying? Refuse to play games that feature it? Some combination of these, or maybe something else entirely? Let me know.
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Dave said...

Thanks for all the info. Of the above games I liked the Final Fantasy games a lot. Cheers.

The Angry Lurker said...

I don't get much grinding in miniature gaming but I can see the tedious elements it involves being a pain.

Electric Addict said...

i used to play a lot of rpgs but the grinding lately has turned me off to it. Although one of my favorite games is defined as an action RPG because it is an RTS game that lasts about an hour and you can get up to level 25.

Astronomy Pirate said...

Grinding can be a pain, probably one of the worst parts about RPGs. Guild Wars was probably the best game to avoid that. Once you reached level 20, that was it, it was all skill after that.

Monty said...

Depends how subtle it is, take 'Crackdown' for instance, the grind/reward system is very...well, rewarding :)

=dgrphx= said...

damn someone took a picture of me at the gym

Alpha said...

Grinding in (severe) moderation is acceptable.

Rob said...

Grinding can be okay, but its hard to tolerate when you're stuck at a boss.

Jessica Thompson said...

RPG is meant to be repetitive!

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