Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Psychology of Grinding

Etrian Odyssey III came out this past week, and once again, it's another game that will probably sit on my shelf for months until I get the time to really play it. Years after the fact, I'm still not sure if I like Etrian Odyssey. I like the feeling, conceptually, of getting lost in a maze and beating up stuff to awesome Yuzo Koshiro music, but then I realize it will require hours of dedication I just don't have, and then I'll go off to pursue something more immediately gratifying. At least, contrary to this completely wrong RPGamer review, it's got an outstanding soundtrack, easily next to NIER and Scott Pilgrim for Best Video Game OST of 2010.

I still read threads about Etrian Odyssey though, and there's a recurring sentiment that I also see about any old-school type RPG. There's a lot of resentment towards reviewers that claim that there's too much focus on grinding. No, the fans say, you absolutely don't need to grind in Dragon Quest or Etrian Odyssey or any of these games! If you fully explore the map and do all of the subquests and farm all of the supply points, you'll never need to sit around and build levels! Well...that's kind of grinding right there.

The disconnect, it seems, that people can't agree about what constitutes "grinding". Its general definition is mostly "any repetitive aspect which I find tedious", but that bar is completely different for every player. Me, I like the feeling of constant progression. I don't like doing subquests, or anything that strays away from the main goal - I never have and probably never will. But these sort of RPGs aren't built for that mindset, and are definitely for the people who like to explore and take their time.

The concept of leveling up is such an integral part of an RPG that to remove it completely feels like ripping out a spinal cord, but I think there are a few ways to, psychologically, get the player to enjoy this concept, so it doesn't feel like "grinding". (1) Provide more content that's part of the "main" game, and (2) deliver better player progression feedback.

The reason why I'm talking about this is because I'm still embroiled in Ys Seven at the moment. The only real criticism I can dish against the game is that there's almost too much of it. The previous Ys games were pretty short, with minimal weaponry and fairly small areas. Ys Seven is a much, much larger game in every regard, and that includes level design.

All prior Ys games have had copious amounts of grinding, because they're all based on a game that came out in like 1987. Most fans never really minded, because Falcom made it fun, but it's still a valid criticism towards them. In Ys Seven, they tried to fix that. If you break it down to percentages, you probably spend as much time killing enemies in Ys Seven as the previous games, but instead of simply running back and forth between the same few screens, it's spread out over the course of much longer levels, giving a more natural sense of progression.

For this to work, the "checkpoints", the boss battles, need to be well balanced, which Ys Seven is pretty good at. Although there are a handful of difficulty spikes (that stupid bird on the tower), for the most part, if you fight every enemy along the way and don't run past them, then you'll be sufficiently leveled up to take on the boss at a reasonable difficulty. There's no need to branch off and do anything else.

In the cases of Etrian Odyssey there's enough content there so the player just isn't running around in circles, but it's all presented as "optional". It isn't, really, but to people who like to play their games in a straightforward manner, they feel more like roadblocks than anything else.

Dragon Quest always felt the same way to me. If you charge through a dungeon and get to a boss, even if you've fought every random battle along the way and maybe returned to town once or twice to get new equipment, it doesn't always feel like you're QUITE ready for it.

This may actually not be true, which brings me to my second point - random-battle, turn-based RPGs do a TERRIBLE job of communicating to the player how powerful they actually are. Maybe you are well equipped to defeat that boss, but he pulled off that really powerful attack twice in a row on the same character and set you on a course to defeat. When the player dies, they are left to wonder - did I screw up, or am I simply underleveled? Luck plays a reasonable part in the proceedings, and players are aware of this, so I think the general assumption is that they aren't strong enough, which leads them to believe they need to grind some more. Maybe they don't though? But the game isn't making this message clear. One could argue that this feeling of uncertainity is a central aspect of an RPG, especially given how easy it is to liken Dragon Quest to gambling, but it's also not one I'm a fan of.

Ys Seven (and most other Ys games) don't really have this problem, because they're action-based, and it's clearer that you failed because your strategy is flawed or your reflexes aren't up to snuff. Or, if you're only doind single digit damage against a box with 10,000 HP, there's probably a character development issue. Whatever it is, the player has a better idea of what they're doing wrong.

There are numerous other examples of things done right or wrong. Nippon Ichi games, for example, everyone complains those are grindfests. I'm not sure I agree, but given how many options there are for character development, combined with their generally poor balance, makes it easy for them to come off that way. Again, it's all about perception and how it's presented, and these things go a long way towards improving player enjoyment. Maybe they should hire some actual psychologists to look at these things.


  1. My definition for grinding, is doing nothing things for progression for its own sake. It's the direct conversion of the player's time for power in the game, with no other real cost. Why not just make the player as powerful as he will be at the end of the time-consuming activity? I've been known to call that "unhealthy," in more than one article.

    So, the following situations are not grind, to me:
    - When there is substantial danger from the activity. It's not enough that there is a risk of death; if nothing is lost from death, then it's still grind. There has to be some aspect of skill, which requires player engagement, for it to be interesting.
    - When some not-easily-replenishable resource is consumed (other than the player's time of course). Healing potion supplies don't count if they're cheap; the player will just buy 99 and head back to town if they begin to get even slightly low.

  2. I have always expressed the fallowing .Having characters that I have leveled up through out the years is very gratifying experience. My PSO and PSU characters are like a car you take from the ditch and modify and make better through the years and even if its not as complex, but also gratifying feeling having those maxed out characters in Shining in the Darkness. The thought of maxed out characters with little threat to them, where there was plenty before, is an idea I find comfort in.

    The unsaid idea that trots behind early RPG's is, that every battle is not suppose to be taken the same way every time. For example, you fight the same looking static bat with the same background several times. As the bat sits in static animation, and numbers and text scroll, it is was always in thought by devs, is that you picture the battle in your head to your imagination. This based off its root pen and paper concept. The issue(SOME of us view) is that there is a lack of description or great narrative in writing that dose not come off exciting enough to want to remember. Problem was pre Phantasy Star 3 era there was a great issue with text and memory O_O wait what?? text took up that much memory? Yes, which is why there was very little improvisation to none when it came to name changing in early games(four letter slots??).

    I remember grinding in FFVI and really just using the images and themes as aid's to a dynamic seen in my head. I credit pen and paper for this. This whole idea of "grinding" in most aspects, is not really something most of today's gamers could really appreciate or understand the basis of.

    Some times, its just as simple as I want to chew a piece of gum, just to pass the time.

  3. For myself, I tend to look at games in terms of what I'm going to be doing from one moment to the next, if most of that time is spent fighting monsters in order to get stronger in order to fight stronger monsters, then all I need is for that aspect of the game to be engaging. DQIX does a really good job of this, because each individual battle is really fast, so I never felt bogged down by killing mooks in order to get stronger, plus, there was always a fresh, juicy carrot just up ahead.

    For myself, I'd define "grind" as anything the player does to mitigate risk, usually in the form of busywork. When you go up against an opponent who could potentially wipe you out, that's risk... and by levelling up your character, or farming for gold in oder to buy massively powerful loot, or whatever, you can reduce the risk of failure, to the point where a favourable outcome is almost guaranteed.

    The solution I would present would be to better balance player punishment (say that ten times fast). There needs to be a punishment in place to discourage the player from getting killed, but the more severe that punishment is, the less risk that player is going to be willing to take, and thus, provided they continue to play the game at all, the more likely they are to grind away on weaker enemies in order to prevent the stronger ones from being any sort of threat. The problem is that, without any risk, the grind is no longer engaging, and you're pretty much playing Progress Quest at that point.

    Again, pointing to DQIX, dying is hardly a free ride in that game, you lose half your gold, and in a game where things are expensive and farming is slow and tedious, but at the same time, you've still got all your experience points, plot progress, and equipment, so there's no reason not to push forward when you can, and at least try putting yourself up against the strongest enemies you've yet encountered. By doing so, even the regular battles have some slight risk to them, so they're still engaging, but not enough risk to scare you away from at least trying.

  4. I agree with John H.
    When it is exciting to run out and power yourself up, there's not much wrong with it. 100 easy encounters is just mindnumbingly boring for anyone actually looking to fight.

    An overall problem with grinding though, is that it breaks the difficulty curve sometimes.
    Symphony of the Night for example is a good and beautiful game, only flawed by it's broken difficulty. Depending on the order you do things in, some things become ridiculously hard and others way too easy.
    I hate encountering an awesome boss only to see it die within 5 seconds.

    Ys is one of the few exceptions as the difficulty is adjusted very little by your levels, though this might be because you simply can't overpower bosses.
    You need to learn their pattern or you will die quickly, no matter your level.
    (I base this on the PCE versions of YS I, II and III)