Grinding to a Halt

This article was published on 05/23/2008.

The concept of leveling up has long been a staple of role-playing games or RPGs for short. It can be defined as the act of powering up your characters by defeating enemies. Sometimes there are other things you can do to improve your characters, but combat is the main way in which the leveling process is conducted. The idea is that your characters become more experienced and skilled as they battle foes. This is represented by "Experience Points," which are points that increase your level after you gain enough of them. Many variations have been made to this formula over the years, but the core concept hasn't changed. So what is the purpose of leveling up? It's about character growth. The players feel as if the characters are growing throughout their journey, similarly to how a player becomes better at a game as he or she progresses through it. It rewards the player with stronger characters who can defeat foes with less effort. There is a sense of accomplishment whenever a character gains a level. As the player, you're aware that your actions have improved these characters in a permanent way. The combination of accomplishment and reward is what gives the leveling up process its addictive properties. This addiction is more akin to nicotine addiction; it entices players to do things they likely don't enjoy and normally wouldn't do under other circumstances.

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Grinding, in the video gaming world, is a term coined to express the dull moments of running circular laps around a tree in Final Fantasy to encounter enemies to dispatch for juicy points of experience. In other words, it's farming for experience points to level up your character in an RPG. This is the very definition of tedious. It's problematic when games force its players to grind, by either making enemies too hard to defeat or by tempting players with delicious abilities. The most nefarious offenders are the games that base their entire premise on grinding: the dreaded massively multiplayer online role-playing games, also known as the MMORPG. When a game can be likened to a job that you pay to endure, then there is something amiss. Sure, MMORPGs provide many distractions, such as vibrant worlds to explore and many other players to socialize with, but ultimately, you're there to grind. For an odd reason that eludes me, a lot of people don't seem to realize this. Perhaps it's the addictive feel of accomplishment, the promise of virtual riches, or the mere thought of online supremacy. What does not elude me is that grinding sucks.

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Developers are acutely aware of how much grinding sucks, because they go to great lengths to hide it. Psychologically, players may not think they're grinding when fighting enemies during the story's progression, but they are. It's just that this type of grinding doesn't feel as tedious, due to the nature of these battles. In this case, players are just fighting enemies that get in their way. It just so happens that they'll level up as a result of this. It's a way to streamline the leveling process to improve the game's pacing. If the developers hate you, they'll make it so that you'll have to do your own grinding outside of what the main quest provides. That's a situation that should be avoided at all costs. People don't like grinding, so games that force you to do so are going to be less accessible. It isn't in a developer's best interest to make games that are less accessible.

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Games that have leveling up substitute player skill for the player's tolerance of tedious activities. Instead of getting better at the game, the player can just do the repetitive task of leveling up to make the game easier. If a situation is too hard, then leveling up a few times will tone down the difficulty. This has an adverse effect on a game's balance. How can developers craft a game's difficulty if players can neutralize everything through extensive grinding? There are ways around this from the developers' side, via level caps and other methods, but most developers just give up. The other issue is when a player's level is too low to overcome a given challenge. In older RPGs, there was no way for the player to know what level was required for a particular area of the game, but modern RPGs will occasionally make this information explicit. If they don't, though, then you're playing a guessing game. The kind of guessing game that can only be won through grinding.

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It's possible for a game to contain grinding without a level up system. Even games that aren't RPGs can have grinding in them, too. Grinding can involve killing the same monster over and over for rare drops, getting a bunch of extra lives in a platform game, or anything that involves repetitious activities. If you repeat the same thing countless times, then that's a type of grinding. The reason I focus on leveling up in RPGs is due to that being the most common occurrence of grinding, but it isn't the sole occurrence. Grinding is a nightmare that pervades many genres. The difference is that these other games don't usually require grinding, but RPGs often do. It's also clear that leveling up is the primary culprit of grinding in video games. Grinding must be eliminated at all costs, even if it involves getting rid of the leveling up mechanic present in so many games.

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