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

    
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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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Schmidt.Capela

The game isn’t forcing you to do this;

Not exactly. The game is basically telling you, “if you want to get that reward you truly desire, you need to first do this activity you don’t really like for a very long time”.

Basically, whenever I see that, I’m out. Or, at least, I’m out as soon as I either run out of other things I want to do or else I get so frustrated by the knowledge achieving something I desire involves getting bored to death that I lose the will to play.

In other words, if there’s a grind gating my access to any content or reward that I want, then I will almost always hate that grind. On the other hand, a completely optional grind, one that might help you achieve your objectives but isn’t actually required in any shape or way, is something that I might enjoy.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I just recently free trialed ESO. I managed to hit level 10, and unlock mounts. Went to the stable person, to learn that they installed a system whereby you’re literally locked every RL DAY you can spend a smidge of gold to unlock 1 tick in one of your riding stats (Speed, Ability to withstand attacks, carrying capacity).

There’s ‘grind’ and then there’s ‘this is ridiculous and I’m not paying for this’. (Also, locking the crafting bag/doubling your inventory space behind a paid subscription?)

And to think, I was having SO MUCH FUN with the thieving system on there that I was considering throwing down for it…/sad

kajidourden
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kajidourden

While i understand the mount training being silly, I don’t get the crafting bag hate. It’s not like it existed before and they took it away, it was an addition to the sub that people eventually got as a bonus.

I guess it’s because I come from a time in MMOs where you bought a box and then paid a sub too though, so it’s never bothered me. That’s how I would want to play anyway, with everything unlocked because I’m paying my sub. You literally couldn’t even play a game without paying a sub before. The fact that there is a B2P option imo is a freebie and when people bitch about the crafting bag its like….ok would you rather not be able to play at all without a sub?

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Schmidt.Capela

If by paying the sub you effectively unlocked everything — every single skin, mount, house, expansion, etc — I wouldn’t mind that much. I still wouldn’t be likely to play, mind, but at least it wouldn’t push me into despising the company due to their greedy monetization.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

It’s more that companies are doing double, triple, even quadruple dipping now.

For example : Runescape, I went back over there and played for another paid bit, and as a paying member I didn’t gain access to the ‘Battle Pass’ type stuff they added. They wanted you to pay on top of paying the subscription another batch of money to gain access to that ‘battle pass’ stuff. Then on top of that, they had a ‘exclusive’ paid section that also couldn’t be accessed while paying a subscription.

With ESO, apparently they want you to B2P the original game + an expansion + they then charge you for each and every DLC (expansion) in the game + then do stuff like that mount stuff like ‘You have to be a loyal little *#*%( to us or else we won’t give you benefits that you’ll lose anyway if you don’t keep paying us!’.

That’s pure greed. That’s ridiculous. It’s not even about Pay2Win stuff, it’s the fact that they think we’re going to pay to gain access to every little thing. It’s about as bad as some games I used to see where they would charge you for access to mounts that were timered/would run out/would be taken back when the time expired.

We customers aren’t money trees. (Runescape literally is adding a money tree to their farming at 120 skill. As like a ‘thumb their nose at you’ thing.)

I’ve seen similar stuff in other games.

FFXIV cracked a similar ‘joke’…and it’s one of the things that turned me off that game…I did a paid year over there and their way of double dipping you is that you have to pay another $1 more on top of your sub per ‘retainer’ (Think of retainers as a NPC ‘person’ that can hold inventory space for you)…so each extra batch of storage they give you, they are charging you more on top of your regular subscription…when it doesn’t cost them more to add a little more to the game when it’s just a adjustment of variables. Meanwhile, they didn’t even give us ‘glamour’ storage (This was supposedly being worked on fixed/may have been adjusted when they released Shadowbringer or whatever…) which basically meant you had to keep 1 of each weapon/armor you used…If you did every job back then, that meant 13 x2 weapons + another 5x2x3 (Heavy/Medium/Light) armor worth of your space wasted…at minimum, and that wasn’t even including crafting stuff on top of it all. Games are getting ridiculous with their attempts to waste your space nowadays…

It’s like them doing the whole Bean flipping everyone the bird scene to you and chuckling about it, without realizing how rude it is. (Or not caring.)

That’s just a few examples too, I’ve seen worse in other games…

kajidourden
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kajidourden

All fair points. On an individual level though I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with the crafting bag itself. Which is the only thing I was referring to.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

With this new way of doing things, that should be something that you can buy for your whole account to use, in a B2P/F2P/Subscription model, so you gain permanent access. When they are making it obvious they are only giving it to you if you keep paying them for the rest of the game’s life, that’s not OK in my personal opinion.

Similar to how Path of Exile did their currency storage tab (Which I did throw money at them for…even though I only really putzed around with that game and wasn’t hardcore into, because they at least entertained me and I made so many characters and felt they deserved some money for that.)

kajidourden
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kajidourden

I like how you mention FFXI specifically because it was a long-term goal. Relic weapons were pretty far from a grind. The items you needed you got from raiding which was also netting you other drops, crafting items for other gear, merit points, etc etc. A grind would be if you had to do the same activity for a long period of time that only serves one purpose (as in your xp example in WoW). You could also purchase items for your relic weapon, meaning you could never step foot in Dynamis if you didn’t want to.

Also, it’s hilarious that you use FFXI as a standard here, considering how into FFXIV you are. It might only take you a week or two of consistently grinding it out each time a new relic step comes out in FFXIV but how many times have you done it? And how many more times will you do it? Is there any point to running the umpteen low-level FATEs for yet another RNG drop? At least in FFXI you had an ultimate goal to reach, and there were varied avenues of reaching it. In FFXIV all your work is invalidated on a quarterly basis.

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Peter Olsen

FFXI was always the anti-theme-park-mmo.

In fact it was before that.

So it’s much more about long-term payoff. In Medias Res.

AF was a trophy, not a requirement.

Horizontal progression.

ETC.

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Daniel Miller

I think you are clueless on ffxi reluc grinds. Ffxi is one of the few mmos thatvhas a very socail and helpful players. In chat and linkshells.

Now doing daily content with 2 3 4 5 or 6 others over a month, week or year bonds the players.
You get you item, they get theirs. And you strengthen your friends list.

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Anstalt

I can see where you are going with this article, but I disagree with the way you’ve presented it.

I feel like you are interchanging “grind” with “repetitive” incorrectly.

If something is a grind, it is bad, always. It’s axiomatic. However, repetitive content is not necessarily bad, using your terminology, repetitive content is value-neutral. It is only when we start viewing the repetitive content as bad that it becomes a grind. If you are having fun, it cannot be a grind.

Getting back to the point of the article…..

I would highly recommend reading Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow”, a work on achieving happiness. The book is full of examples of how to turn grind into fun. The main thing he says we need to do is to set personal challenges within the confines of the system, and for the system to provide us with meaningful feedback.

Using your elemental example from WoW

To turn that “grind” into fun (without resorting to outside distractions like you did), you would need to set challenges. Maybe it would be “how quickly can I kill a single elemental?”, or “can I kill 5 at once?”. The feedback comes from the game directly – you either succeed or fail. Once you’ve achieved that challenge, set yourself another one, then another. The content remains repetitive, but by challenging yourself within the limits of that grind, you change your attitude and it becomes fun. What’s really important here is that the challenge you set yourself is equal to your own skill level. If you set the challenge too high, you’ll get frustrated or anxious. Set it too low and you’ll get bored.

Where MMOs go wrong with repetitive content tends to be by making it forced (and humans will always resist outside pressures) or by making it so scripted and restrictive that there is little opportunity to set meaningful challenges.

For example, when I used to play SW:TOR, the combat system was so shallow and the effects of gear so strong that there was little opportunity for personal skill to make a difference. I wasn’t able to set myself challenges like “how many can I kill at once?” because that limit was set by the system, rather than my personal skill. I contrast this with LotRO which had a very deep combat system, in that game those sorts of challenges actually mattered. When I started out, I’d be able to kill one or two at a time, but as my personal skill increased, I was able to take on many enemies at once, even though gear stayed exactly the same.

This is also why I hate leveling up in MMORPGs and view leveling as a grind. The confines of the system (picking up quest, travelling, a few kills, a few bits of loot, repeat) do not offer many opportunities to challenge myself. There’s only one way to pick up a quest, when I’m riding on my horse there’s nothing else I can do expect ride. Most quests ask you to kill or visit different locations, so you can’t challenge yourself with the combat because you only do it once against that type of mob, or maybe just a few times, so you don’t get the feedback to let you know if you’re improving or not.

Conversely, this is also why I love games that let you level by just “grinding” mobs. When I’m just repeatedly killing enemies, I can constantly set myself challenges and can watch myself improving over time with each repetition. When an area or mob type starts to become too easy (and I therefore slip into boredom) I can go seek out stronger enemies and start to challenge myself there. It is still predicated on the combat mechanics being deep enough so that my player skill can actually improve and has an effect.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

Suffering through grindy parts of the game in order to get to stuff that really matters to us doesn’t mean we’re going to be happy with it even if we are choosing to do it rather than quit the game.

Everything gets bad and horrible after enough time of repeating it. Heck, an orgasm that won’t stop becomes something terrible after a fairly short while (it may sound fun, but for those that it happens to, it most certainly is not).

I’m never going to be happy with grind. I have other things to do. I really only grind when I have to. That is, when you need to be leveled up and can’t move on in the game without grinding. If I am able to skip grinding, I very much do. I don’t care about getting the top gear, the top reputations, etc. Normally I have a couple of hours of play I can squeeze in daily, I just don’t have time to waste grinding away.

Is it my choice? Yes and no. It’s my choice to try and get to the higher content in the game, but it is either that or quit. And really I do often quit once I get to the grind.

I’m in it for either the fun of play, action games that are difficult and twitchy, or the story of the game. Deep engaging interactive stories to play through. I simply don’t have time for grind. I will put up with it sometimes if it is required to move on in the game, but I never ever like it.

PS – If I had to listen to that awful Sandler comedy while grinding, that would just be needless extra suffering. That’s one of your favorite bits? Oomph. But hey I’m glad you found a wife that has the same sense of humor. Seriously I am. That’s pretty important, and if you both enjoy that torturous babble than you are truly made for each other.

(That really is not meant to be offensive. Humor is very subjective. I find that comedy to be fairly horrific. If you enjoy it and are married to someone else that enjoys it, that’s a great thing for you as a couple!)

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PanagiotisLial1

I may be wrong but he may want to say that what is consider grind depends on the person. For example I love storylines and its why I play games like STO and ESO but got a few friends that just click ok, ok, ok and esc on cutscenes because they find questing a needed grind to advanced their levels faster – they feel the storyline is a grind. Likewise I like SotA and its storyline but there were a small group of people a few months ago pushing for full storyline removal. Of course its hard to me to understand how people dont like storylines cause I love them but I found out there are those who rather just play direct.