A case against grinding

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Nachtfischer, Mar 24, 2014.

  1. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Definition: Grinding in a game means repeatedly taking an action that grants you an in-game benefit, while there's no significant risk involved. That means you are guaranteed to gain the affected resource while losing (almost) nothing. It's a completely safe way to success basically.

    Thesis: To allow grinding in a game is bad design.

    Argument: Grinding in itself is not interesting as it poses no gameplay challenge whatsoever to the player. However, for the same reason, it's usually an optimal strategy, giving you benefits with basically no significant potential disadvantage involved. An uninteresting strategy like that, should never be a good (or indeed optimal) one.

    Most of you probably already agree with that. But let's see if we can get this bulletproof once and for all.

    Possible counter-arguments:

    You can interpret grinding as a difficulty safety net. Everybody can make the game as easy or hard as they like.

    Answer: That might seem nice on first sight, but actually it's just the designer not having done his job. Instead of offering multiple balanced and thought-out difficulty modes to accomplish the suspected goal of allowing players of many skill-levels to enjoy the game, he asks the player to decide. "How easy do I want to make it for myself?" The player is supposed to decide in which of the (in some cases basically infinite) difficulty levels he will have the most fun in. That means that he is effectively puttings hours upon hours into the game (while grinding) to adjust the difficulty level, instead of just having to change one option in the main menu? Seems bad to me.

    You don't have to grind that much. Or alternatively: Nobody grinds through the whole game, because it takes so long.

    Answer: It's actually not that uncommon for people to maximize on every little piece of grinding they can get. And the thing is, it's completely rational to do that and to make the game as easy as possible for you that way. The reason is that grinding in most cases is an optimal strategy. You continously get advantages without really spending resources. There is no reason not to do it inside of the game. What's wrong with the above counter-argument is that it implicitly shifts the level of assessment: For the argument to become reasonable, the player has to make the transition to the meta level of "real life". He has to understand that the resource invested here is "time of his life". And he's not getting (real) value back in the form of interesting gameplay (which grinding isn't).
    So, what the player wants in the game and in his life are completely opposed here. In the game, grinding is just amazing. Everbody wants to do it, because it's a really great strategy. In real life, it's awful and you don't ever want to do it (which is one of the reasons why many F2P titles make money, by the way, because they let you "skip the grind" by paying money). Exposing the player to this severe mental discord and making him force himself to not take the optimal gameplay action, is just horrible. Some indeed can't take it and just waste hours and hours of their life, because the game told them that it's optimal. A in itself not interesting strategy should never be an optimal (or even good) way of playing.

    I personally always run into these. Particularly the second counter-argument. Hope that's a good case against it?

    What else can you think of? Probably something like "But I like grinding" or "I think it's relaxing". Both of which I'm pretty sure have little to do with game design to begin with.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  2. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    You have only presented counter-arguments. I think some of the content in the answer to the second objection functions as a general argument in support of the thesis, so perhaps reformulating this a bit to present an argument first might be in order? It seems weird to have counter-arguments without an argument in place to begin with.

    I seem to recall Richard Terrell disagreed with the given definition of grinding in the GDT Podcast, but I'm not at leisure to go listen to it again right at this moment. Did he offer an alternative definition, and did he offer some other reason why grinding is desirable? (I can't recall what he said about it other than that he disagreed with the definition)

    With respect to the definition, does this mean that a high risk action that a player can pursue indefinitely in order to gain an in-game benefit doesn't count as grinding?
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  3. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    Also, I think the Sophie Houlden article you linked to was mostly against allowing grinding as a safety net. She seems to suggest that it's acceptable in Dark Souls because it's technically optional. Her point is that the skill-based challenges of Dark Souls are not redundant because if you want to face those challenges, you can. She is saying that if you cannot win except by grinding, this renders whatever skill elements are in the game irrelevant. Perhaps the case of the optional grinding safety net is worth specific discussion. I mean to say that it is worth pointing out that the problems with grinding are present even when the grinding isn't strictly necessary. "Necessary grinding is bad," while not false, is not as strong as your thesis, which includes optional grinding as well.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  4. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

  5. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Grinding makes sense in a setting where time is a resource, either in speedruns (where tactical skill leads to less grinding and thus a much larger effect on run time) or in competitive games like MOBAs where the grinding has a large strategic cost related to map control.
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  6. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Right, yeah. Fixed.

    I think he basically left out the "risk" part. So it's just an action you can take repeatedly. But I think people usually refer to low-risk actions. Like the popcorn monsters in Final Fantasy. And not some crazy difficult (repeatable) boss fight, where they have to really stretch to beat it and will die regularly or something.


    Yeah, I didn't want to imply that seh is pro grinding. It was just a link to clarify what safety net means here.

    What's "grinding in a speedrun" exactly? Also, I think in our recent MOBA discussion we concluced that the "grinding" indeed has certain risks involved, so it doesn't really qualify as "grinding" in my opinion.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  7. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    Here's another article about Dark Souls.

    The arguments (summarized and paraphrased) appear to be:
    1. Grinding is acceptable when you are not only training your character but also training yourself. That is, grinding is not boring if by doing it you are practicing the skills necessary for completing the game's challenges.
    2. If grinding is thematically meaningful to the game in question, then it is acceptable.
    I suppose my response to #1 here would be that it isn't necessary to have RPG-style character progression at all in order to allow the player to practice skills. If it's actually about skill, then leveling up arguably ruins that, because when you finally succeed at whatever challenge you were trying to overcome, it's hard to say how much of that was because you got better at it and how much was because your numbers were higher.

    P.S. My favorite instance of forced grind was in Crystalis for the NES. You try to climb a mountain, and if you are below a certain level, your guru adviser guy telepathically tells you, "You're not strong enough to make this climb yet. Go back and train some more." And if you try to climb anyway, he telepaths you again with the same message, stopping you, so you literally can't walk up that path. So you go down to the valley and kill some monsters until you level up, and you try climbing the mountain and get the same message. Okay, you didn't level up enough. So you go back down and gain another level. You try climbing the mountain again and voila, you can pass the annoying spot. But then IIRC there's another annoying spot just like the first one right behind it, so after thinking you are strong enough... Nope, you have to go gain a few more levels. Ha ha, fooled you! Later in the game the exact same thing happens again with a different freaking mountain.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
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  8. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    Speedrun - attempting to win a single player game as fast as possible, or faster than some benchmark.
    Grinding - repeatedly performing an in-game action that grants some benefit, where there's no significant risk involved.

    Grinding in a speedrun - Repeatedly performing an in-game action that grants some benefit at minimal risk, while in the process of attempting to win the game quickly.

    Re: Crystalis
    Even if you bypass the minimum level checks, bosses are invulnerable if the player isn't a high enough level. This game is serious about its forced grinding.
  9. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    Right. But please do take note that Sophie did appear to be taking a weaker stance on it than you are with your thesis. She is saying that if you must grind to win, then the skill elements are irrelevant. But then she says that if you don't strictly have to grind, then the skill elements in the game are still relevant because you can overcome them on skill alone if you want to. I want to suggest that you should formulate a response to this.
  10. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Yeah, as you said it's a weird argument. Why do you actually train something other than yourself. If anything, this disturbs the feedback the system will give you on how well you trained yourself. Also, if it's actually hard to do and you're learning stuff, then I suspect it's not even grinding by my definition...

    The second point is kind of irrelevant, too, because I think even if you want to display the grind, like "putting you in the shoes of somebody that has to do chores" then a) you wouldn't do that for hours and b) you wouldn't even necessarily have to have in-game benefits. Essentially it's all about the story/theme then.

    Yeah... so it's still a problem. I mean, you said it "makes sense" above. Did you mean that from a player's point of view (then I agree) or from a designer's?

    Actually I think that's pretty much addressed with my second counter-argument objection in the OP. Like "Oh, you don't HAVE TO grind". There is still this huge mental discord going on. You might decide not to grind, but in doing so are probably consciously choosing a suboptimal route strategy-wise. Plus, you're effectively playing designer, because it's on the same continuum as in my first objection (you just choose the maximum difficulty by not grinding at all).
  11. link6616

    link6616 Well-Known Member

    Well, what about the case for grinding?

    It's pretty simple, and most of TV will agree... sometimes you just want to effectively veg out, but use your hands. Or most of your attention is focused on something else, but you want just a little more to do. This is where the classic "grind while watching equally mindless TV" or "grind while listening to a podcast" become things. Now, this might not be ideal GAME DESIGN, but this is most certainly designing for an audience. Grinding also generally suits commuting style play more where you can 'progress' during the commute, and maybe do the more challenging sections when you can devote your full attention to the game.

    It's for this reason games like Disgaea, Persona and RPGs generally seem to work better as handheld experiences where you can more easily multitask or play in harder to focus conditions. MMO players I know often employ dual screen set ups so they can watch movies or something while playing the game.

    This very much runs into an issue though of designing for an audience/player habits as opposed to designing for the game itself.

    After this, I think the arguments against grinding are pretty easy. But I don't think the above is worth dismissing. (although of course, this doesn't mean leveling up is a bad thing, this is just about grinding as described, without any risk or consequence. 'grinding' in games like half minute hero is a non issue)
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
  12. Bucky

    Bucky Well-Known Member

    I mean, it's a source of ambiguous decisions. Spending time repeating an action might make later parts easier/faster, but it's ambiguous whether it will save enough time to make up for the time spent grinding. Furthermore, the grinding requirements are often inversely proportional to player skill; this is the 'grinding safety net' in the reverse direction, where the game measures the player's skill by how little grinding they can get away with.

    I don't know to what extent designers build around speedrunning as a goal. Grinding with a timer is a rare mechanic. However, 100 Rogues is one of the few games that features it, so ask Keith.
  13. Erenan

    Erenan Well-Known Member

    Yes, I suppose all of that is true, and whether or not it's necessary to address the "optional makes it okay" line of thought specifically depends on what exactly you're planning on doing with this thread. If this is not going to be going anywhere outside of the thread itself, then it's obviously kind of a moot point because we understand it's covered by your second response. On the other hand, if this is being done in preparation for a formal article or blog post or something, then I think in the interest of being thorough it might be a good idea to explicitly state the optionality argument and then simply state as you did above that the same answer applies to it because it's really just a specific case of the general counter-argument (i.e. it's "you don't have to grind that much" but the amount you absolutely must grind is zero). I submit that it's important to establish that the optionality of grinding does not actually rescue the game from the real problem.

    I think the important point to cover here is that the problem is not that forced grind makes the skill-elements irrelevant, but rather that the mere possibility of grinding actually ruins the game. The point I think you are making here is that in ideal game design the player developing skills should be the best way of overcoming the game's challenges, and if grinding is an option, then that's not true.

    @link6616, absolutely, I think it's important to consider the case for grinding, and I think that's actually the point of this thread. We need to state the case for grinding in as strong a form as possible, so definitely your perspective is valuable here.
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  14. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    This seems like an inaccurate definition of "grinding." Here's a simple counter-example: my opponent in Agricola is misplaying horribly by repeatedly leaving the "family growth" tile open for me to take. So I take it, repeatedly. In this case there's no significant risk involved in me taking this over and over, and I am certainly getting an in-game benefit. Under your definition this is "grinding," but actually it's merely me exploiting a skill-differential, which is a necessary thing to have in games of skill.

    I propose this alternate definition:
    Grinding is when a game encourages (or forces) a player to play below his preferred difficulty by providing in-game benefit for doing so.

    Note: if people accept this definition, I will propose a theoretical game that has no permadeath, XP, and killing monsters for gold, but no grinding.

    I liked your post, but then I realized I disagreed with it. You are describing the benefits of an easy game. For instance, I can play Lost Cities while I watch TV, because it doesn't take a lot of mental effort. But it has 0 grinding. You haven't yet described the benefits of the real core of grinding, which is using imaginary extrinsic factors to motivate players into doing something they otherwise would not have done.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2014
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  15. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Grinding has no place in strategy games.

    If anyone has any disagreement with that point, I'd love to hear about it. My reasoning for saying this is that strategy games are essentially contests of decision making, and if grinding is possible then it overrides decision-making. It's always more optimal to grind, if you have the choice, than it is to "try to make some strategic choice and hope to get ahead". This is why the "it's optional grinding" argument holds no water.

    Might be interesting to look at how grinding works in my four forms:

    - Games: Grinding is completely intolerable and if players are doing it and it works for them, the game is broken
    - Contests: No one would use the word "grinding" in a contest, because all contest engagement has the qualities of grinding, by design.
    - Puzzles: I would say there's really no room for grinding in a puzzle. If you know the solution to a puzzle, you should be able to enter it quickly as possible. It should never be like, "ok, I figured out what I have to do, now all I gotta do is pile 300 cubes on this spot to get the weight sensor to trigger...."
    - Toys: Of course there's room for grinding in a toy. It might even be an inherent part of exploring a toy - "what happens when I do x... five more times!?"​

    In other words, the phenomena that people refer to as grinding is only appropriate in toys.
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  16. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    I think Nachtfischer's definition can appear inoffensively in strategy games, while my definition cannot. Here is a very specific example that I alluded to in my previous post. It contains Nacht's definition of grinding, but not mine.

    Imagine a theoretical game that:

    - Is based on survival. There are 100 levels. You have the option of starting on any level you have gotten to.
    - Beating levels gives you loot, which makes your character permanently stronger (not just for the run).
    - Loot exponentially increases, such that from a rewards standpoint, you have no reason to start on levels you can easily beat. In fact, the sweet spot is about 5 levels before you died. For the purposes of argumentation lets say that the sweet spot starting level for loot and the sweet spot for player difficulty line up exactly (we can argue if this is possible later, but forgive this abstraction for now).

    My argument is that this game does not actually have grinding, even though common wisdom would suggest that it does. Since you are incentivized to always pick the difficulty that maximizes flow state, you are always making relevant decisions. It's just that your reward for playing well is not a score that tells you how well you did, but better loot that in turn accelerates the speed with which you can gain loot.

    Now, you might argue that this is not a game* because it has no skill measurement. Someone on level 77 could have gotten there because he played a long time, or he could be there because he is excellent at the game and didn't need much loot to get there. My response is that the *only* change you would need to have skill measurement would be when you reached level 100, the game told you how many levels you played on the way there. And as Bucky alluded to, any grinding game can be made into a game* by turning it into a speed run.

    I call it a treadmill game. As your character gets stronger, the monsters you try to beat get stronger in turn, so that you never actually trivialize the game through grinding. There are actually a lot of games like this. Diablo III, Borderlands and Infinity Blade both qualify as imperfect representations of this form, IMO.
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  17. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Yeah, that's what I meant in my last line. If you want your game to be not engaging and not interesting to begin with, then grinding might be close to the optimal thing to have. I admit that my premise was looking at someone "wanting to be engaged by the game".

    Actually you're defining something different here. What you're defining is "a game being open for grinding" [static]. What I defined was "the player actually taking that action repeatedly" [dynamic]. I mean, in your Agricola example, it's true that it's not actually the game that allows the "grinding" but your opponent. The game doesn't encourage this behavior, but your opponent does. So, I'd probably say that what you're doing is still grinding in that case, but it's not simply "allowed by the system" in general (but by your opponent). So it would count as "the player grinding", but not as outright bad design.

    Then you're not grinding by my definition. But unless you add that speedrun-like measurement, the game is definitely "open for grinding" by your above definition, because, as you said, you could just play a long time and succeed.

    I wonder if it might be useful to only look at grinding in terms of "persistent vertical progression". That's a term used to refer to "numbers going up" basically. So, your actions ("verbs") don't change. For example when your strength goes up in Diablo and you just deal more damage. The opposite would be "horizonal progression" that directly affects the "breadth" of your action space, so you can do new things. For example when Link gets the hookshot in Zelda. It gets a bit fuzzy sometimes, because in Diablo you're grinding experience vertically to then progress horizontally by learning new skills. In Minecraft you can grind to get 10000 pieces of stone which then sort of (horizontally) enable building a huge castle, but you cash them in in the process, so it's not really persistent.
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  18. Leartes

    Leartes Well-Known Member

    I think it can also be grinding if the difficulty level is the best match, but you repeat content over and over again because the next difficulty level is too hard. e.g. you want to advance to the next area - and if you were really skillful you could - but you are not thus you grind in your current area for better gear. This needn't be easy! If you repeatedly do it then it is a grind.
  19. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Nacht, or anyone else... can anyone think of something that is a strategy game i.e. is a contest of decision making, yet allows grinding? In general grinding seems to appear mostly in toys or puzzles, like MMOs or RPGs. Sometimes I guess it could be said to crop up in strategy games if, like Leartes says, a game is too low difficulty and let makes you / lets you do it over and over again for a real gain.

    Then again, it's kinda weird if something that's too easy is "grinding". Feels not-concrete enough of a definition.

    I think we still need to define "grinding" better if we wanna get really nitty gritty about what it is we're talking about. Like is the metagame in League of Legends "grinding"?

    @vivafringe - what is the objective of the game you listed? Like what's the condition that triggers a win state, specifically? Or isn't there one?
  20. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I certainly think so. I've seen a lot of people refer to this as "grinding to level 30". And I think that's consistent with my definition, since you can't lose anything (you're not allowed to play ranked before 30).

    An additional danger in that case (I'm sure Riot have implemented some counter-measures) is people just entering games to gain EXP without really taking part. I have another for that: Very recently I took a loot at the alpha for Dead Island: Epidemic, which is essentially a MOBA with zombies. And, as it's an alpha, they didn't really think through everything. So people could gain huge amounts of EXP and loot and whatever by just joining a game and then leaving their computer alone for 30 minutes, waiting for the others players to win or lose. Of course, many people did that.

    I mean, many roguelikes come to mind. You could probably push things like Nethack, Angband or ADOM (which are all full of grinding) into the toy category, but they're certainly not "pure" toys and have game-like situations emerge. I suppose the "pure" contests of decision-making on the other hand would make sure to take counter-measures to not allow grinding to destroy their purpose.

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