Only 9998 more levels to go!
If you’ve played a lot of RPGs or MMOs you know the term well. What makes the idea of grinding so well-known? Why do we loathe (or perhaps even love) it? Tonight the Inverseman investigates.
Back in the ancient days of D&D 1e and other ye olden RPGs, it would be up to the dungeon master to guide and survey the party’s progress and keep them on track to leveling and being appropriately skilled to take on the campaign. If struggles arose, the DM could easily fix issues behind the scenes, like accelerate the leveling of underleveled party members. With the advent of the video game however, the DM was no longer a mind that could adjust and adapt but an artificial intelligence built upon mechanical algorithms. Should the player be underleveled or poorly equipped to handle the next chapter of the story, he or she could not rely on the AI DM to adapt or adjust the campaign. Instead the player would have to engage in non story related encounters to amass the experience needed, and on that note the idea of grinding was born.
Grinding is a curious thing. Since the next boss is going to be a lot harder, you’re going to have to put in more work, which means beating up common enemies, doing fetch-quests, etc. After many more encounters, the effort pays off with sweet victory over something seemingly impossible before. Unlike the old pen and paper RPGs, the grind in a video game RPG converts battling from something inherently fun and engaging into something that could be monotonous. Isn’t battle, item collection, or generic questing supposed to be the draw of the game? When did combat become a chore?
Human minds want constant stimulation and engagement. We don’t enjoy mundane or repetitive tasks that don’t seem to have a worthy payout- it’s a lot of why we don’t like normal chores: cleaning, washing, filing, etc. If the grind gets longer, our sight of the reward, advancing the story, becomes less shiny and less stimulating with each additional fetch-quest. Fickle as we are, even the pulse of battle can become another form of doing the dishes if it overstays its welcome. With just the right amount, when players work hard and see the efficacy of their contributions, they see their effort rightly rewarded, which gives personal meaning to the next major victory in the story. An RPG handles grinding well if the experience distribution is proper and can continually provide diverse stimulation to the player in-between the major events.
It should be noted though that the “right amount” of grinding is no hard rule. Perhaps in this day and age of bright and flashing lights and handy tutorials, one kind of player has fallen to the wayside – the player who loves difficulty. As I’ve stated in an earlier piece, the lover of the hard game appreciates grinding and wants to work his or her tail off for the next reward. The Etrian Odyssey series pays due service to these kinds of players with its challenging dungeons; one wrong move and your party will lose everything to its name. Then there are games like Dark Souls with its notorious difficulty. Every ounce of progress matters to the players. There are no handouts and the fans would have it no other way.
Okay, so it seems like grinding isn’t much of a bad thing? With the development of an RPG handled by a machine rather than a man, we see a new type of player emerge: the one that relishes and loves the grind. These players see a challenge in the game beyond the story, a challenge in the numbers. How high can a raise my damage output? What is the fastest and most efficient way to gain experience? How much of a rush do you get when death is always at your heels? A challenge like this is rather unique to the video game RPG. Unlike trying to “beat” a real human DM, the grind-lover needs not worry about the feelings of a machine and just sees it and the world it creates as an opponent. After all, no NIS game will cry foul-play if you reach damage output in the trillions (in fact, you’ll be rewarded with even harder battles), and no system will close your account in Tera Online for finding just the right spots to level up. While these optimizations did happen in traditional RPGs and some parties frowned on them, in a video game, as long as it exists in the system, how could it be considered cheating? You might know lovers of the grind in real life, abounding in MMOs where their battle-forged and mathematically-tested builds become pillars of the game’s community. Depending on the kind of player you are, grinding isn’t a means to progress the game, it is the game.
While admittedly not for everyone and catering sometimes to niche players, the introduction of grinding, be it experience, item farming, or some third thing opened up avenues for types of play oft-overlooked to shine through and for new types to emerge. Grinding itself is a byproduct of the machine, and along with it all the baggage it comes with: the sheer power trip from “cracking” the system, the frustration from constant losses, enjoyment from hard work, and boredom from possible monotony. The grind can be a device used for great good or great evil, but as long as the players find their efforts will not be in vain and that there is engagement and meaning to their actions, gameplay -no matter what form it takes- will be relevant and fun to the audience. Join me next time when I enter a moeblob utopia.
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