“I hate that game, it’s such a grind.” I often hear this complaint, and I’ve probably said it myself before. Most gamers can probably think of at least one game where mindlessly running the same missions or fighting the same battles over and over in order to progress soured the rest of the experience. So why, then, am I sometimes a fan of grinding?
“Grinding” is one of those tricky things that everyone thinks has a solid definition, but I’d argue that it’s often in the eye of the beholder. I’ve heard it used in context of missions, mobs, group content, and even running PvP depending on who’s talking. While I believe it’s possible to talk about the necessity of repeating content in a semi-objective fashion, not all gamers will view the same things as a grind. If you love PvP, you’re likely to have more patience for running it repeatedly. If you love exploring, you may not view exploration feats as a grind at all. And if you’re loving the combat and combat system, you’re likely to have a higher tolerance for replaying that content. It’s not rocket science really; a part of the game you love can certainly become a grind if it’s overdone or done poorly – I just suspect the bar is a little higher.
There’s also room to question things a bit when saying a game is “only” a grind. I’ve felt for a while that my higher level DC Universe Online characters are stuck in a grind; running the same daily missions over and over for not nearly enough progression. When I say that, there’s something I’m leaving out of the equation. I don’t much enjoy pugging in DCUO, so I don’t run much group content when my league isn’t on. I’ve also yet to even get into PvP in that game. So if I complain that “the only thing to do is grind these daily missions,” you could argue that what I’m really saying is “only a fraction of the content appeals to me, and in that content there isn’t much variety.” At lower levels, I rather appreciate some of the more grindy solo content because the rewards are enough to help me make up for the pugging I want to avoid.
On the topic of grinds I enjoyed, I can mention one of the older games I was reminded of while watching AGDQ last week – Final Fantasy VI. (FF III on the SNES) I spent countless hours in that game, grinding out spells and levels. I’ve had plenty of players tell me it’s exactly that sort of grind which caused the Final Fantasy games to never appeal to them. For myself, though, I loved the battle system and I loved the world. I wanted to spend more time there, so the ability to level up through repeat battles was lovely to me. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment. I could look at my characters with all-of-the-spells and feel like I’d accomplished something even though most of it wasn’t a requirement just to complete the game.
Extra Credits did an episode a while ago on making quests feel less like a grind and more like something players actually want to accomplish. I’d agree with their points; and their example is one of the early Investigation missions in The Secret World. Interesting missions are one of the major reasons I got into TSW in the first place. I can also tell you there are people who consider the very type of mission EC praises to be a grind to get through so they can get back to whatever they’d rather spend time on.
Something else to consider when discussing grinding is that some players seek abnegation in their play. Extra Credits also mentioned this in their episode on Aesthetics of Play. In short, that sense of turning off your brain and doing something simple, yet satisfying? That’s a legitimate thing plenty of players want out of their games; if not all the time, then occasionally. Note that content meant to appeal to this aesthetic should still be done well, that some variety in tasks and rewards that feel satisfying are key differences between a positive and negative experience.
Do I think some games throw in arbitrary grinds to artificially extend the length of the game? I do, indeed – I just also think there’s a space to realize that in any given game what *I* call a grind someone else will call their favorite part of the game. I can think of players (including me!) who will spend all night mining in Minecraft, which can be considered one of the “grinds” in that game. I know others who would much rather play on Creative so they can build whatever they want right away. The Minecraft purist in me says that’s cheating – it’s MINEcraft, right? You should have to work for that obsidian tower! However, the massive amount of Creative and modded servers tell me that not everyone prefers to play that way.
I’m not automatically in favor of any and all grinding in games, to be clear. In most cases, what I prefer is that there be a choice – folks who would like to move quickly through a game have an option, and folks happy to take their time or get some extra rewards can play that way. Folks like me who sometimes want different things at different times have both. Regardless, just because I enjoy a game or a mechanic of the game doesn’t mean everybody does or has to.
I do think that reframing grinding, and looking at what sort of content you like in a game can sometimes help you decide which games have a grind that appeals to you and which you might be happier not playing. I further think it’s useful to consider when arguing with other players about grindy games. Just because something feels like a grind to me, it does not follow that it feels that way to everyone. Folks who enjoy that game might just have different tastes than I do.