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It can be fairly common for games to boast about how long it can take to complete them, or for players to boast about how much time they’ve spent playing a particular game. And yet when these boasts are brought up, one element that can occasionally be ignored is the discussion of “grinding,” and how grinding can impact the amount of time spent in a game.
Broadly speaking, grinding is a term that refers to the performance of a repetitive task in order to attain something from the game. That “something” could be experience, or money, or items, or plenty of other things. And the nature of the repetitive task can be equally wide in scope. The most common form of grinding involves running into an area, killing monsters to get experience, and then running away or reloading an area to respawn the monsters so they can be killed again. By repeating this process over and over, a player can gain experience fairly quickly in order to level up.
The key to grinding is not the repetitive nature on its own, but the objective in performing the task. The joy the player is getting needs to be derived from the goal, rather than the task itself. Hopping on to an MMO to do daily missions might count as grinding, for example, insofar as it the task is being performed not because the task itself is fun, but because of the reward associated with it. But repeatedly playing matches in a shooter would not necessarily count on its own, though if someone were to be playing not for the sake of each individual match, but playing matches to reach some goal (achieve a particular rank, for example), then that would count as grinding.
Grinding is generally dull, and players usually engage in it not for entertainment, but as a temporary measure to attain some specific goal. Grinding, for example, might be the most efficient way to gain experience. Sure, you could complete quests, or explore normally, but you wouldn’t gain experience as quickly. Or grinding might be the only way to attain something. Perhaps a particular item drops from a specific enemy, and so you need to spend multiple hours killing that enemy over and over again until you get the item (or enough items).
Grinding is fairly common in video games, particularly role-playing and online games. And as a mechanic, it is pretty regularly – if not universally – reviled. And yet, there are better and worse forms of grinding, mechanics that make us feel more annoyed at or more forgiving of the process. And we can occasionally find the process of grinding to be acceptable on some occasions when the same mechanics, in a different context, could be absolutely detestable.
So I’d like to take some time to examine the concept of grinding in more depth. Why do players engage in grinding in the first place? What kinds of grinding are there? And what are the ways to make grinding better or worse?
Why Players Grind
The reasons why players grind can be split into a few possibilities. Some of these are derived from the player’s intentions, and some are derived from the game’s design.
Sometimes players grind as a shortcut, usually to get to a high level. Games will generally have established methods for players to gain experience and skills, but grinding can be a way around those methods. Rather than having to do quests or use some other mechanic, the player can simply repeatedly kill enemies. Generally, players will engage in this form of grinding if the process is faster than the intended methods, or if the intended methods are in some way gated to the player.
Similar to the above, sometimes players grind because the game essentially forces them to do so. This setup is more common for online games, or in role-playing games with crafting/upgrading elements. I say “force” here because often there is no actual requirement for players to grind. Yet, for players who either wish to continue playing, wish to earn certain items or equipment, or want to complete the game to some degree, the game will ultimately place that requirement. While no given player must grind to play the game, certain players are essentially punished because they must grind to play more.
Occasionally players grind for the sake of personal preference. A particular item is available at the shop at a ridiculous price, and a player grinds out the money to get it early. A player grinds heavily to increase their level and be able to breeze through the rest of the game. Whatever the reason, the player themself may elect to spend time grinding for the sake of a later payoff.
And sometimes there is grinding that is literally required by the game. The next sequence of the game may be too difficult if you are just going from mission to mission, and the game is genuinely expecting you to go back and replay content or explore in order to gain more levels or upgrade your equipment so you can complete it.
In talking about these forms of grinding, we want to do our best to divide grinding into what the game is making us do, versus what we are making us do. This division is a bit harder to maintain than it may seem, because those two sources aren’t mutually exclusive. If, for example, the game would be easier if you grinded, and you want to make the game easier, then which horse is pulling the cart in this situation?
So to help, let’s think about the problem in terms of goals. What are the goals that the game gives you, and what are the steps as established by the game by which you achieve those goals? Whether it’s as simple as completing the main quest, or more involved such as unlocking a game’s “good” ending, we need to ask how the player is meant to reach that point, and what the game provides to get the player there.
So for example, let’s say a game requires a player – either to beat the game or to unlock the best ending – to collect a specific weapon and then fully upgrade it. In this case, we could think of two ways where the game could incorporate grinding.
Firstly, the game could make the task of getting the weapon an arduous process. It’s a rare drop from a specific enemy, and so you are expected to repeatedly kill that creature until you get the weapon.
Secondly, the game could make the task of upgrading arduous. The resources needed for upgrading, whether money or materials, could be so rare that players must continually kill enemies for rare drops or to get money.
In both of these cases, the grinding here would be driven by the game. Even if it’s for the “best” ending, and thus something that the player is deciding they want to get.
Now let’s move to a slightly higher level of abstraction. Rather than the concrete goal of just finishing the game, let’s say we’re dealing with a game that is by its own nature repetitive. Online games with lots of items often have no real defined point of “completion.” Instead, the player sets their own goals for what they want to accomplish. And one thing that a player might decide to accomplish is collecting items, such as pieces of equipment.
So again, there’s a weapon you want to get, but it might not even be a weapon you need. But since you’re trying to collect it for the sake of having it, you still feel the need to run through the process. And the game might make the weapon a rare drop, or require you to continually play some form of mission over and over for a chance of getting the weapon.
Here is something we could call player-directed. While the same basic process is at play, the reason why the player is undergoing that process is distinct. The game doesn’t directly compel the player, and as a consequence we can somewhat forgive the fact that there’s grinding.
I provide this distinction just because it’s important for us to lay down a basic principle that when there is grinding, it should be player-directed, rather than game-directed. This is a small element of the problem, because we can still have bad grinding systems, even when they are player-directed.
So it’s important to avoid imposing requirements upon players that might push them towards grinding in order to overcome challenges. This is all easier said than done. The sources for the desire to grind are pretty multifaceted, and it’s hard to say with a lot of certainty that a player is seeking a weapon because it’s what they want compared to the game forcing them to seek out that weapon.
Sometimes games merely by having a lot of items to collect or a lot of goals to achieve can create these desires, directly or indirectly. There is to some extent a gigantic ball of confusing interests floating around for any given decision that a player makes. So when we highlight a particular objective as game-directed versus player-directed, we don’t want to rely entirely on that distinction.
Good and Bad Grinding
Now what we need is to figure out how to improve the systems for grinding to make them more fun. Or more appropriately, less annoying.
The main problem is that, on a fundamental level, grinding isn’t actually fun. We can sometimes be willing to forego some fun in the short term to accomplish some goal in the long term. But whenever we talk about grinding, we are talking about a system that is essentially designed to be boring. Sometimes that boredom is intentional – it’s a way of discouraging players from grinding. Sometimes that boredom is just an unavoidable result of grinding – the only way to avoid the boredom would be to reconfigure everything.
So for example, grinding in a single-player role-playing game will get boring, but that’s because you’re not supposed to grind. Meanwhile, grinding for items in an MMORPG will get boring, but that’s because if the game allowed you to get those items more easily, you would complete the game more easily and thus stop playing sooner.
But even then, systems for grinding can still be designed to be more or less boring. What we’re looking for are systems that streamline the process of grinding so that less time needs to be spent on it. Ultimately, if we want to grind, then the game should be giving us very subtle signals that we don’t need to, while also providing us with aid.
This claim might seem contradictory: why would the game tell us at one point not to do something, and then turn around and help us do the thing we’re not supposed to?
But the answer lies in the fact that games still need to focus on players and making systems that are fun for players. Trying to nudge players in a particular direction is one thing, but punishing them is another. The former is acceptable, while the latter is generally not.
So for example, take grinding for experience. The process of grinding for experience in a single-player role-playing game involves roaming around an area killing the same enemies over and over again until you reach some level that is acceptable. But combat will become repetitive to the point of tedious, as more battles against the same enemies need to be completed.
To avoid this problem, the game can allow players to instantly kill enemies that are significantly weaker, without needing to actually fight them. The player then gets the rewards for the fight, but bypasses the combat. Such a system accomplishes these two contradictory goals at once. The game gives a signal that the player is too strong, and might be better suited going to a later area with stronger enemies. But a player could ignore that signal because they want to continue grinding. But in ignoring the signal, the player isn’t punished for their decision. Instead, the game says “alright, if that’s what you want to do, then that’s fine with us,” and gives the player a small boost to help.
But wouldn’t this just encourage players to grind and be overpowered? It could, but if we pose that question, it presumes that it’s a bad thing in the first place. Because this form of grinding is entirely player-directed (assuming the game is set up properly), it shouldn’t matter if the player wants to grind or not. What matters is that the player has multiple options for playing that are viable. If the player wants to be overpowered, that’s acceptable. And if the player would prefer to only fight the absolute minimum of enemies to preserve a sense of challenge, that is also acceptable.
Or let’s think about something like upgrade materials. When video games have upgrade materials, they can have a few different ways to present them. Sometimes they are rewards for exploration and questing, sometimes they are random drops from enemies or randomly found in the environment. But of these options, we want systems that rely less on randomness and more on knowledge.
So when it comes to materials, or something like items or equipment, we should want to avoid making these random drops. Random drops reward perseverance in a way that benefits those with the time to devote to grinding. It punishes players with less time to play.
Let’s go back to acquiring a weapon. Let’s say that this weapon can be acquired from a specific boss monster in a couple different ways.
In Scenario #1, it’s a random drop with a 20% chance of occurring. That means you could get it your first time, or it could take many more attempts. Generally speaking, though, you would expect to fight the boss no more than five times (though you can certainly have to do the fight more than that).
In Scenario #2, it’s a guaranteed drop, but there are five pieces to get. That means you have to fight the boss five times, but each time you beat the boss you’ll get the next piece.
For these two, Scenario #2 is the preferable version. Even though it’s possible to spend less time grinding in Scenario #1, by setting up the grind not as a product of chance but as a task with specific intermediate goals, players can have a clearer sense of what they’re doing and why. There is a level of comfort in knowing that you will get something, compared to the mere possibility. When we start making that possibility lower and lower – when it’s not a 20% chance to drop, but a 1% chance – then the value of that guarantee is much greater.
The last thing to think about is the amount of grinding itself. Plenty of games might either require players to play a huge amount in order to unlock everything, or to get the player character to the max level, or any number of other goals. The amount of time that needs to be spent to accomplish a particular task should be limited. It should, of course, take a long time to level your character up to the maximum if you’re just fighting the weakest enemies in the starting area. But once the player gets to or approaches the end of the game, those players who want to fully level their characters need some method to help them. The point of this is that these players shouldn’t be forced to just repeatedly kill the strongest enemies in the game for 10-20 hours just to reach that goal. There should be a shortcut. Sometimes a game can make that shortcut a challenge on its own: you have to fight a special enemy a few times that will involve a tough fight, but doing so will raise your character multiple levels at once. That sort of shortcut is okay. But the shortcut needs to be there, to help those kinds of players. Because while not having the shortcut would certainly expand playtime, it would be such boring and unfun playtime that the player is likely to feel bitter towards the game. The game is, essentially, hobbling itself by forcing players to jump through hoops to play the game as they want.
So in looking at these ideas, we see that we want to provide certainty to the player and reduce the need to continue grinding. We can’t really make grinding fun, unless we can make the repetitive process itself so fun that repetition is enjoyable. But even then, the likelihood that repeating it over and over again will remain enjoyable is…low. Eventually, we’re going to run into the problem of boredom. But tackling the issue of grinding means addressing that inevitable boredom.
Being able to sidestep grinding entirely is, of course, a good thing. But designers may struggle with the idea of preventing a game from becoming so broken that it ceases to be interesting. Retaining grind can be fine, as long as that grind is something that the player will decide to do on their own, rather than feeling pressured. No matter how good the systems are, if the player is essentially forced to grind, that force is going to feel boring.
Grinding in video games inhabits a strange space. We generally don’t like it, but sometimes we’re willing to go through with it. And while it might seem like it’s best to just remove it entirely – and sometimes this is the right answer – reconfiguring the entire basis for the game can involve things like removing the basic concepts for role-playing, exploration, or even player choice. Or it could remove the meaning behind all of those things. The drastic action of removing grinding can mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
But we can still think about how to implement better systems for grinding. Because even if we begin from the standpoint that the basics for grinding are useful, or even in some cases that grinding is necessary, we can still make grinding so annoying that it will drive away players, or even improve the existing methods for grinding to make it significantly better than normal. Video games should be fun, but the problem is that we all have our different approaches to playing games. My fun may not be the same as your fun. And so while you may hate grinding with a passion, I might tolerate it. And it’s important to think about grinding not as an immediate source of joy, but as a step towards a goal. But those steps can be more or less annoying. We can send players on a repetitive adventure that will require hours of performing a monotonous task, or we can ask players to spend a small portion of time repeating something fairly simple so that they can move on.
These systems are not absolutely necessary insofar as grinding is a facet of games that we want to avoid in the first place. But when games are going to run up against the problem of grinding, it is important for designers to keep these issues in mind and address them. Because there will be a significant chunk of players who will grind for one reason or another, and those players will be the ones who will remember the game fondly or poorly depending on these little details, such as how annoying it felt to grind.
 We are setting aside here the value statement that it’s okay to engage in this form of manipulation to get players to continue playing. That subject is itself a can of worms to be opened at a later point in time.