Grinding Games: How Do They Keep it Engaging?
Cast an eye over any MMO forum, YouTube comment section, or game-centric Reddit section, and you will see people complaining about or defending the idea of grinding in video games.
The definition of grinding is to perform a repetitive task to gain gameplay advantages. In short, grinding in games is repeatedly performing an action will increase your character stats to make them a more powerful adversary.
Some players refer to this as “treadmilling” or less often “pushing the bar”, mainly due to the similarities that grinding has with regular exercise. You go to the gym; you sprint on the running machine, you do some weights, rinse and repeat.
In MMO games, those repetitive actions can be mining ore or fighting low-level bad guys to achieve the same results. Rinse and repeat.
Sound familiar? That is because a vast amount of games now include a significant amount of grinding. But is it really such a bad thing that to gain results we have to work for it?
We’ve Been Grinding Games for Years
Interestingly enough, grinding in video games is not a new thing. Although we associate it with modern MMORPGs in particular, it doesn’t differ too much from practicing in Super Mario Brothers on the NES and becoming good enough to master that tricky level over your summer holiday.
While you may not ‘level up’ in the same way you would expect in an MMO, you are still repeatedly trying to do something until your skill level has improved enough to facilitate your progress. Your ‘levelling up’ just happens to be noticeable in your physical skill, rather than in a number on a character stats screen.
In essence, we have been grinding for years without even noticing it, and most of the time it has been good fun, mixed with a little frustration. Frustration isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as waltzing through a game that is far too easy will irk players even more than one that is on the verge of being too difficult. An example would be something like Bloodborne, or the recently released platformer Celeste. Both games are noted for their extreme difficulty levels, but fans nonetheless seem to adore the challenge.
There is, after all, pride associated with mastering something difficult.
Multiplayer Games are the Best Grinding Games
MMORPGs lean heavily on grinding as a form of character progression. On the whole, it works very well.
Stats-heavy games will always lend themselves to the grind more naturally than those that are lighter in that department. The social aspects associated with multiplayer games also allow for extended moments of grinding with less boredom. When working as part of a team in games like WoW and The Elder Scrolls Online, grinding becomes akin to a sort of fun version of work. You feel compelled to put in the time to succeed, but don’t mind doing so, as some fun times are guaranteed along the way.
In this respect, grinding has managed to succeed as a game mechanic where perhaps it shouldn’t. Doing something repetitively over and over only to improve your stats shouldn’t be fun, should it? But when multiplayer games do this, especially RPG games, there seems to be a unique appeal that most single-player games just can’t deliver.
To make a great grinding game, developers cannot merely rely on providing players with some company while they blindly go through their ‘gaming chores’. A good game will include a grinding routine that stimulates the player just as much as the more narrative-driven segments.
If a game manages to hide the grind, or at least blur its edges to the point where it is difficult to tell where the grind starts and ends, it is already on the right path to success. Get this wrong, though, and players will see straight through these game-lengthening techniques.
So what is the key to making the best grinding games?
Fun Grinding Is a Matter of Balance
Getting the balance right is crucial when it comes to fun grinding games.
Too much effort and too little compensation is a recipe for boredom and frustration, and too much reward and too little work can lead to a game that lacks depth.
The MMORPG Ragnarok Online emphasizes grinding from the very beginning of the game. For an RPG, Ragnarok uncharacteristically leans away from the story-based elements and much more towards a grind-heavy experience. That isn’t to say the story is non-existent, but it does somewhat fade into the background once you get started and find yourself traversing the maps looking for areas with enemies you can kill.
With enemies rarely dropping useful loot, those times where you do find yourself scanning over the remains of a fallen foe and bagging some decent swag are all the more satisfying. Ragnarok Online neither drowns players with rewards nor hands them the world on a plate.
It’s a challenging tightrope game developers have to walk, especially when certain game franchises are now expected to have lifespans that exceed half a decade. One slip in the direction of either extreme could result in an experience that doesn't fulfill its potential as a good game or a money spinner.
This is probably why grinding games have remained relatively static in their execution throughout the years. After all, why risk changing something that could sink the ship?
Variety Is the Spice of Life and Gaming
Bashing the same button over and over as you slam your pickaxe into a rock, all in the hope of gaining a few numbers on a stat sheet is going to get very tiresome very quickly. Mixing up the results from the mining will, on the other hand, at least keep the player concentrated on the task at hand.
Two excellent examples of how grinding can actually work well are Stardew Valley and Ragnarok Online.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past couple of years, Stardew Valley is a smash hit indie title that took the world by storm back in 2016. As the sole heir of your grandfather’s farm, you leave the city life behind and head back to the country for a life of farming, mining, and socializing with the locals.
While town life may be considerably narrative driven, the mining and farming aspects of the game are very grindy. Stardew Valley doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming tedious though, as there is plenty of variety to its grinding. When farming, you may be required to plant and water your crops on a regular basis, but the way you do this is entirely up to you. You decide on the aesthetics of the farm, you choose on what crops you sow and in what pattern. Yes, you may be repeating the same action, but ultimately it feels like it is your choice to do so, and rarely feels like a chore.
The same can be said for the mining portion of the game. You decide where to mine, and the variety of rocks and ore keep things fresh.
The key to the success of Stardew and Ragnarok is the blend of hard work and reward combined with enough variety to keep it interesting. As stated earlier, it can be a tricky tightrope to walk, but these are two examples of perfectly balanced games when it comes to the grind.
They also exhibit another factor that any grind-heavy game would benefit from, and that is that they give you a little glimpse of the future.
Working Towards a Goal
No, they don’t have a crystal ball, and they aren’t going to be providing you with the winning lottery numbers any time soon, but they do give you a slight glimpse into the future. The future of the game that is.
Grinding is only really worth it if you have a slight idea of what the results could bring you. Nobody wants to work hard if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or the rewards might not be worth the effort. But, if you could only just see what waiting for you at the end of the struggle, it might just be worth it.
Stardew Valley does this amazingly well by placing obstacles in the way of your character progression, blocking access to certain parts of the map but allowing a slight glimpse of what is in store once you manage to attain the necessary tools to proceed.
This ‘carrot on a stick’ is key to any game that wants players to invest hour after hour into it and still come back for more. Whether that carrot is an inaccessible area or a weapon that is out of your current price range, the allure of ‘what might be around the corner’ has to be strong enough to encourage the player onwards. All the best grinding games know this and use it to their own advantage.
There are, unfortunately, games that simply did not get the memo when it comes to grinding. These games tend to drag on and on, with little to no sign of a reward or reason to carry on. This would have previously been a death sentence for games released ten or fifteen years ago, but with constant updates now available to anyone with internet access, games can be rectified if needed.
Grinding in Video Games Done Right
For those of you who supposedly hate grinding, it is worth considering what the gaming world would look like without it. A game with little challenge and a constant stream of rewards is something that quickly becomes boring. Anyone familiar with a parody game called PSTW (Press Space To Win) might have already considered the empty feeling a game with no challenge provides for a player. Perhaps it is an uncomfortable truth for you to believe, that mom and dad were right all along, and hard work really is a reward all by itself.
Some players will reference a sort of ‘zen-like’ state that descends upon them while they are deep within the grind, and the sense of achievement they get from putting in the required hours leaves them with a genuine feeling of pride.
To loop back to the start of this discussion, if grinding is implemented correctly in the first place, we shouldn’t even notice it at all. So, as a rule of thumb, If the grind is varied, challenging, and fun, you are halfway to creating a great grinding game.