Evizaer at That’s a Terrible Idea has just written an article called Gameplay is not Grinding in which he explains that it’s not simply a set of repetitive actions in a game that constitutes a grind. Evizaer states that a grind is present when the mental process of play becomes separated from the game’s meaning.
It’s an interesting thought for me because when I was writing my Is It Time To Make Levelling Hard Again? article my primary concern was with the difficulty of keeping the grind out of a game while extending the time it took to get to the level cap. If we forget about non-levelling style games for the moment, it almost seems to be a set of mutually exclusive ideals to either minimise grinding or to extend the time to the cap.
But Evizaer might just have the answer.
If what we call grinding is simply a separation of a players mental process from the games meaning, then perhaps reuniting the two might minimise the grind while at the same time allowing a slower pace through the game. Let me explain a couple of things.
First, what I think Evizaer is getting at here is the concept of meta-gaming, or in MMORPG terms min-maxing. If all a player is interested in is getting to the end-game with the most powerful character possible, in order to be accepted into the end-game content (raids, PvP, or whatever.) Then that player will stop being interested in the meaning of the game and will start only doing the things that will help achieve this goal. Quests now stop being entertaining stories to play through and become a more efficient way to get experience. The relevance of a quest falls soley in to how it helps the player get to the end-game.
We see this in the World of Warcraft guides that recommend the fastest way to get to the level cap is to not do Instances because the XP per hour is less than grinding quests. The fastest way to the top is to forgo the less efficient content. I’ve been guilty of this myself when I’ve just dumped gray quests because the rewards, both XP and loot, are not worth the time.
The problem often is exacerbated by the quests themselves being highly repetitive. The kill X monsters quests are especially bad for this because they don’t offer a story, or really any meaning. These quests are really just an excuse for the eco-system in the area, or as filler content to help the player get out of an area. Developer 1: “Hey look, I’ve just filled this area with a bunch of skeletons.” Developer 2: “Hmm. I’d better write a quest then.”
Quests are presented solely as a way to advance, not as ends to themselves.
So where does that leave us?
Perhaps one of the solutions to the grind is to give the player a reason, aside from just increasing the character stats, to interact with the content. What if doing that quest doesn’t give you any experience but opens up a possibility to advance your character in another way? What if the reward offers the choice of a new skill, or perhaps even opens up a new area in the game? What if heading into that dungeon and finding a magic sword opens up a whole series of events that would allow you to enjoy a terrific story?
Would that be enough to reunite a games meaning with the player and eliminate the grind?
BTW, notice I said ‘interact’ there, not ‘kill.’ But that’s for another post.