Vague Patch Notes: MMO grind is good (except when it isn’t)


Some of my fondest memories of World of Warcraft involve Adam Sandler and the Badlands.

My wife and I had a pretty steady tradition made out of the reality that as you approach level 40, you need money for your first mount and you’re starting to hit that point wherein quests become a very finite resource. There was a cluster of rock elementals near Kargath that’s pretty accessible for both factions, and you could easily go to town on them from level 37 until around 40 for decent experience. They weren’t hard to kill, their drops were lucrative in batches, and most people ignored that area.

So we would head out there, listen to Adam Sandler’s comedy albums (which are still hilarious, showing the sketch comedy punchlines that display his real comedic chops that do exist beyond his much less amusing later output), and grind for three levels or so. Elementals died, we laughed, we would recite lines along with our favorite routines, and we had a grand old time grinding away.

This seems like as good a segue as any to talk about that most hated of all terms in MMOs, grinding, and how it’s not actually all that bad.

Let’s be clear about something: There’s a reason people hate to hear that something is a grind. Even the word itself is unpleasant; it brings to mind rasping surfaces, crunching noises, and general misery as you wear away at something large and imposing. Returning to work after a weekend means it’s back to the grind, you might describe yourself as being ground down when you’re tired, and most of the terms we associate with it (meat grinder, grindstone, the daily grind) are not considered positive.

And a grind in MMOs is usually associated with things being bad even beyond that because grinds tend to denote the most tedious part of any MMO: an experience that is slow but not even remotely difficult. YouTuber Dan Olson once discussed how WoW Classic isn’t challenging in terms of reflexes or memorization but patience, and this is true of all grinds.

My favorite reference point is the high-end relic weapons in Final Fantasy XI, year-long projects at a minimum not because you’ll face difficult fights but because even clearing all the content just earns you tiny, incremental progress. Grind away, wear it down, little by little as you forget why you’re even doing it in the first place. It’s content gated simply by your patience, preventing universal access not by drumming players out but by boring them away.

It’s this sort of thing that has made grinds a dirty word for MMO players. We hate grinds. Advertise your game with no grinding and people will be delighted. Even games going for throwback level grinding don’t put it quite that way any more, instead framing it as slow and meaningful leveling in a group context or something similar.

A lot of RP involves a different sort of grinding, but let's not get into that.

Of course, it’s still grinding. Lots of things are still grinding. Leveling every job up to the cap in Final Fantasy XIV involves grinding, however you choose to accomplish it. Reputations in current WoW tend to be grinds. Reputations in Star Wars: The Old Republic are certainly grinds. Grinding still comes in all shapes and sizes, across the genre.

It even extends past MMORPGs. Trying to improve your competitive rank in Overwatch is grinding away, for example. I’ve described in the past that all games have a certain “time to grind,” and I stand by that. Once you get past the connotations and execution, grind just means doing the same thing over and over for incremental progress.

There are a lot of ways to disguise the grind or make it feel less identical. Dungeon roulettes in FFXIV, for example, give you one of several randomly selected bits of content for the same net time investment and reward. But it’s still a grind, a repetition of the stuff that you’ve been doing from the start of the day. Time to grind is about the point when you’ve seen all the new things and now you’re just repeating the same actions.

Here’s the thing, though: Grinds like that are also fun, or at least they can be.

Let’s pop back to Overwatch. If you care about your competitive rank at all, this is not because you really want a particular skin; it’s because you enjoy the game. You like the game’s maps and how its shooting feels; you like what you’re doing in any given match. You’re playing the game because it’s fun. So you’re having fun playing the game, and thus the grind doesn’t register as a grind to the same degree because, again, it’s playing the game.

Go back to my starter example. Was slaughtering stone elementals for three levels a singular delight? Definitely not. But it wasn’t unpleasant, and my wife and I did it while listening to things that made us laugh, sharing jokes, and having fun through other means. Good company makes almost anything better.

The grind itself isn’t necessarily bad. In many ways it’s almost value-neutral; it’s just the way that you play the game for a while. What matters much more than the grind itself is whether or not you feel as if you’re making progress in a way you can measure and whether or not the way that you’re grinding is fun in the first place.

Fun, of course, is highly subjective. But the thing about the games we find fun is that we can generally grind away in them to a nearly endless degree. Star Wars Galaxies has never sounded even remotely fun to me, but people who are having fun in it doubtlessly don’t really see managing harvesters and factories as a grind like, say, leveling reputations in WoW. Or getting competitive wins in League of Legends. It may be a grind, but the fun you’re having with the process tends to obscure a lot of it.

In my grasp.

This subjective fun is unfortunate because it obscures some of what we’re actually talking about in these situations. I might look at something and say that it’s not really much of a grind because it takes about a month of doing something I’d be inclined to do anyway. Someone else might look at that and see an activity that’s utterly loathesome and required for an entire month, and it’s a horrible grind. The activity is the same either way, but what we both want is different.

It also doesn’t help that we tend to use “grind” as both a verb and a noun; the verb refers to an action we recognize as grinding, which is itself value-neutral, and the noun refers to the process and is broadly negative. “I’m just grinding for Seals of Honor” vs. “We’ve got to deal with the Seals of Honor grind,” by way of example.

Grinding is not, in and of itself, a good thing. In some ways, it’s an admission that the original and novel stuff has run out, and now you’re stuck doing the same thing for your own ends. But it’s also self-directed play. The game isn’t forcing you to do this; it’s something you’re choosing to do as part of your overall progress toward the goals that matter to you. You could do other things. Grind is at once the flattening of the game and the broadening of options.

So let’s give it up for grinds. Yeah, even the stuff you don’t think of as grinding but kind of is just the same. Let’s pay more attention to the moments of grinding and asking ourselves why we’re doing it and whether we’re having fun, both for good and ill. And let’s also listen to one of my favorite Sandler bits about joining the religious cult.

It has some cussing, but it’s funny. “What do you gotta do that’s so important you can’t join the religious cult with me?!”

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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