Grinding to Valhalla*

(*with special thanks to Randolph Carter’s perfectly-named project!)

Most games are repetitive by their very nature. You never go up the ladders and down the snakes in Monopoly, for instance, or try to make words in Ludo. I’ve played dozens of games over the years and it doesn’t bother me that they’re always the same — after all, when I sit down to play Monopoly, I know what to expect and that’s part of the fun.

MMOs are repetitive too. How you kill something doesn’t change all that much whether you’re level 1 or 100, and of course the fact of killing (or “defeating”) stuff to advance is common to most. You can’t suddenly go to catching butterflies as a method of advancement.

Most of us are fine with repetition. We do a lot of it in real life, and we do a lot of it in games. Sometimes it’s a little tedious, but most of the time we do it without thinking, or even with pleasure.

So when does repetition become the dreaded grind?

While I don’t seriously believe it, one does have to wonder if some well-meaning devs (or marketing staff) sat down one day and said “Hey, let’s see how long we can stretch out an activity before players become disgusted and leave! Longer play = more subs. We’re so win!” It would be almost comforting if they had, but sadly I doubt there’s any such pernicious conspiracy afoot. The conspiracy, if it is one, is to keep us paying subscriptions, so the longer an activity can or must be maintained before achieving a given goal, the more likely we are to keep paying.

Is the flaw, then, in the subscription model? In order to keep us shelling out the goalposts have to recede ever so slightly all the time, and we remain like greyhounds forever chasing that not-quite-reachable rabbit. I’m not sure the payment model is the only culprit there, because achieving goals is part of the basic structure of games, and if we achieve those goals too rapidly we’ll leave a game no matter how we’re paying for it — or so, presumably, the common wisdom goes. This assumes that only achievers play MMOs, or that we play primarily to achieve, but for all I know that’s accurate and I’m the weirdo over in the corner of the demographic room.

I think the flaw lies in the fact that we all, achievers or slackers, like to get stuff done, and there’s only so much stuff an MMO can offer for consumption in a given timeframe. So there’s this idea that our consumption somehow has to be slowed down, to prevent us from becoming content locusts and, of course, to give us a feeling of achievement.

Ahhhh yes. Because it’s meaningless if it didn’t take me eleventy-zillion hours to do. That’s right. This is the land where time invested in a brainless activity becomes a substitute for more meaningful, if shorter, activity. Which probably feeds the subscription conspiracy. This is a bit of a digression, but when did time spent become a measure of skill? I may have spent seventy thousand hours in the pool as a kid, but that doesn’t make me Michael Phelps.

What’s all this got to do with the price of fish, or even the price of grind, you ask? Because most of these repetitive and supposedly meaningful achievement milestones (or rather, the act of getting to them) are what MMO players generally refer to as the grind. There’s no foolproof or even particularly common definition (though Nerfbat attempted one some time ago), but one thing we all seem to agree on is that a grind is, by definition, tedious or downright boring. If it’s not tedious, then I’d argue it’s not a grind: it’s just repetitive. That’s rather a grey area, in fact, since I see a lot of people equating the two. For me, repetitive isn’t necessarily equal to grindy, and I’d also say that something can be tedious without being a grind — it’s the tedious repetition that gets you there. (Doing laundry is tedious, but it’s usually not repetitious enough to be called a grind, since I don’t have to do 10 loads a day.)

If you’re looking for a point here, you may be disappointed. I’m just pondering the issue. The problem with labeling this or that activity as a grind is that what’s tedious differs for most people, though admittedly there are many MMO activities that can quite clearly and accurately be labelled grinds (faction work, in most cases, can be a massive grind if you decide to do it in large single-focus chunks).

All the same, there are grinds in MMOs and it surely does seem as though many of them are there by design. Whether they’re there as part of a shadowy conspiracy to part us fools from our money, or whether they’re a daft but initially well-meaning attempt to make achievement more meaningful is irrelevant. Most developers really are trying to make fun games, even if in some cases they’re too distanced from the actual playing of their game to realise that something that looks like fun doesn’t necessarily play so well. At the very worst they don’t give a stuff — but to actively and Macchiavellishly go about making games more grindy is a little too far down the TinFoil Hat Road.

Either way though, the Grind is there. It may differ for each individual, but in so many games these days, achievements seem to come at the price of at least some tedium and a lot of repetition. Is that inevitable? I don’t remember being bored titless when playing Monopoly — if we got bored of the game, we’d stop playing. Then again, getting that hotel on Park Row isn’t quite the same draw as getting {insert MMO mega-goal of your choosing}.

Does that mean we have to go through tedious repetition in order to gain a sense of achievement? I’d say no. But it’s a damn sight easier to design a crapton of repetition than it is to design 18 varied activities to keep players happy and active. Also, repetition has been the name of the game from tabletop RPGs onward… but we played those in 4-6 hour chunks every week or so at most (okay, except for college), rather than 2-4 hour chunks almost every day. At least part of the problem comes from how much we play these MMOs: something that is repetitive but fun in smaller chunks will amost inevitably be repetitive and boring if you do it every day. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just The Box, and we’re in it.

Remember: if it bores you to tears, consider logging off.


13 responses to “Grinding to Valhalla*

  1. I find the grind sometimes very zen. If I’m dealing with alot of guild drama, real life stress and just don’t want to be social. I just go on an alt and mindlessly kill a few hundred mobs.


    • But then by my definition, if you’re having fun doing it, it’s not a grind.

      I happen to find chaining crafting writs similarly zen-inducing some days… whereas I know that for others, that would be head-exploding grindiness.


  2. Oh head exploding grindiness! Yeah, when the anger and frustration starts building in my head I log off for 3 to 6 months. I’m very excited with WoWs new phasing tech. I hope they expand on it like a choose your path kind of thing.

    PS I deleted Scary’s Box. I promise is my last home for blogging. And AWoT of course


  3. I totally keep forgetting to comment here – love the blog, we should trade links.

    I think grind is definitely subjective. There are a lot of people who will call something a grind but in reality they are saying that what they are doing just isn’t enjoyable at all. By contrast, someone could be saying they are having fun doing the exact same thing.

    Every MMO has a treadmill – it’s just a matter of whether or not you see you’re on it while you’re logged in.


  4. Grind is like obscenity: I know it when I see it. That’s a real problem if you’re trying to define the term. Personally, I believe people call something a grind when a player feels that one game system is unfairly preventing access to a reward. For instance, quest grinds preventing endgame content, Radiance Gear grinds preventing raid access, or reputation grinds preventing access to rewards. Trying to define grind by repetition is folly is all games are about their repetitive elements. Grind occurs when the player is not sufficiently rewarded for those elements.


  5. So, if we *are* grinding in some sort of Norse heaven (or purgatory, depending on how you look at it)… what exactly is our Ragnarok? And, what skills will be bring to the table for having spent all those hours preparing?

    And, in finest Valkyrie Profile tradition, what about those left behind?

    …more and more, I believe that MMOs should be designed with an end in mind. Perhaps not an end of the world itself, though that’s one option. No, I think that they should have a definite beginning, middle and end for each player.

    And yes, the subscription model is antithetical to that notion. I’d also argue that it’s antithetical to good game design, but I’ve done that already several times over the last year. 😉


  6. @Tesh

    “This is a bit of a digression, but when did time spent become a measure of skill? I may have spent seventy thousand hours in the pool as a kid, but that doesn’t make me Michael Phelps.”

    I’ve been pondering this, skill, and time-based systems recently, especially after reading another blog post, and the reply to that post on time-based vs skill-based systems. The names of those posts escape me at the moment though. 😦 *bad nugget* I will append them if/when I remember them.

    Basically, what I drew from the argument/discussion both parties were having was that one preferred skill-based rewards systems over time-based rewards systems, while the other argued that there was no such thing as a skill-based rewards system. (I may be oversimplifying/mangling what they said, but this is what I read into it.)

    The bottom line was something like – even skill-based systems reward time investment, and thus even skill-based systems are time-based.

    I found that I couldn’t agree with this. To me, a time-based rewards system means if you put in X no. of hours, you get Y shiny, same as everyone else. True, a skill-based system still rewards time spent in ‘practice’, but you’re not guaranteed Y shiny for X amount of time.

    Which sort of brings me to your statement of seventy thousand hours in the pool as a kid. 😄

    I don’t think it’s quite right there either. You (or I, let’s make it I, so it can’t be interpreted as trolly, cause I don’t mean to be) – I doubt I have the base Phelpness that makes Michael Phelps who he is, but if I had spent seventy-thousand (give or take a few -ty thousand!) hours training in the pool as a kid, I would at least hope to be an exceedingly good swimmer!

    Time does matter. Time spent doing something will always factor into the measure of skill. On another tangential thing, I was remarking to another ‘creative’ type that the leannan sidhe is/was actually a very archetype for a ‘muse’. She inspires poets and stuff, but she eats them up and burns them out and they die young. *SPLAT* But looked at another way, the leannan sidhe “gifts” them with inspiration, with skill, with talent, etc. What she asks in return? *Years of her artists’ lives*.

    Time spent is an integral part in determination of skill. But how that fits into a WoW-like MMO model, I have no idea. =)

    Rambly nugget r rambly! (again)


    • Damn you for catching the flaw in my analogy. 😀 However, you do make an assumption that I was sort of trying to elicit (go me!) which is that those seventy thousand hours were spent training. Being a kid, of course, they weren’t. So while I could expect to be a pretty good swimmer after that much time, I still couldn’t expect to be a competition-grade one if all I’d done was fart about and have fun.

      I really just wanted to use Michael Phelps’ name in vain.

      And yes, any skill involves a time investment to perfect (otherwise I guess you could call it a talent), so any skill-based system does reward time spent practicing. But it does still require skill. Sitting in a chair at a desk and then hitting 1,3,2,5,4,1,3,2,5,4 when whatever it is spawns — and then rinse-repeating that — is *not* a show of skill. If it’s anything at all it’s a show of patience and/or a waste of free time.

      But that’s probably another fish for another discussion.


  7. Oops! Obviously time hasn’t made a nugget less senile.

    *Apologises to tesh* I meant @Ysharros!

    …which obviously was a talent for observation that Ysharros has that I didn’t pick. (lol)


  8. *chuckle* It looks like Ysh and I both knew what you were talking about. 🙂 No worries.

    A tangent, though… I’m a fan of Puzzle Pirates, a player-skill based game. Since I’ve played plenty of puzzle games in the past, and have a natural knack for them, I jumped into PP feet first and wound up pretty successful. I didn’t need to practice *in that game* to beef up my skills, and I certainly didn’t need to practice as much as someone who didn’t have a natural affinity for puzzle games or the manual dexterity I have. I suspect there are FPS players who have a similar “inborn” knack for playing those dang things.

    And y’know, I’m totally happy with a game that caters to that by allowing player skill to shine from day one. Similarly, I don’t think that a game should have a learning curve that lasts longer than a couple of weeks, tops, to get 90% of the game systems *grokked*. Again, looking at Puzzle Pirates, it’s the “minute to learn, lifetime to master” approach; I can pick up Sailing in just a minute or two (90% of the way to being useful as a Sailor), but learning how the scoring works and how to get my timing and long term planning *just right* takes a bit longer (the remaining 10% that is just personal bragging rights on the scoring charts). Of course, that underlines another tangent; player skill should be important, but almost everyone should be able to contribute and/or have fun, even if their skill is still on the weak side of the bell curve.


  9. @Tesh (YES! TESH!)

    Ooh yah. The last part

    “player skill should be important, but almost everyone should be able to contribute and/or have fun, even if their skill is still on the weak side of the bell curve.”

    is a very good bit! And a very important bit which seems often missed once there are situations where people play *together* rather than against each other. (Or play together, to play against others.)

    I’m hitting weird kind of miniwall (dorf wall? knee high wall? hobbitwall?) in Guild Wars at the moment. It seems that PvE-wise (I still need to get into PvP properly), I’m at that stage where I’m either carrying people, or talking to people who have refined their tactics so much that I either have to play like a coglike automaton to fit within their tactics, or else they have to carry me by changing their tactics so I don’t have to be an automaton.

    …and one of my principle dislikes when it came to WoW raids, in terms of mechanics is that *waaaaaaaaaaah* *super childish stomp* I didn’t want to be a cog! I wanted to be a unique snowflake! Just like everyone else! But in WoW raids, boy did I feel like a cog. And hence, no more WoW.

    In GW, if I go with more experienced folk (see tactics above), I can run the setup they ask me to, and I can do it decently. But I’m not having FUN. 😦 Although at least in GW, when I’m not having fun, the gamer in me doesn’t feel I ‘have’ to do it repeatedly… since there’s no gaming power involved, just pretty item skins. I like pretty item skins, but I can live without them. Dangle a gaming carrot in my face however, and I’m terminally unable to resist it. *lol*

    So that bit of your comment really hit home cause it’s something that’s been bugging me lately.

    I don’t mind carrying people, I don’t mind helping. But … it feels like they’re not learning anything when I carry them. Because they haven’t explored enough, they don’t know why what I do works. Even if what I’m doing is a very ‘standard’ thing.

    Oh noes, rambly nugget rambles again!

    At least this time nugget rambles at the RIGHT PERSON!


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