Gaming on a Timer

A Casual Glance – The Grind, And How To Implement It

In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week we’ll be talking about the concept of grinding in games and taking a look at a few examples of implementation, both good and bad.

During the last few days, there’s been a few discussions on grinding in games going on at the 100Pals Achievement Discord Server. While I’m not quite sure what inspired all of them, I can take some guesses: within the past couple of weeks, Capcom announced that their flagship title Monster Hunter World would be getting an expansion in Q3 2019 (Iceborne); Grinding Gears’ Path of Exile received its biggest expansion thus far (Betrayal); and on a more general note, the end-of-year festivities have brought a series of events in most (if not all) of the perpetual play games that people are into (anything from WoW to Warframe, though the subject of perpetual play itself is probably something best suited for a future post).

The common thread in all these games is their reliance on grinding as a reward mechanism, in one capacity or another. In the interest of clarity – and since the term itself is interpreted in various ways – let’s set a definition of what constitutes “grinding” in a gaming environment.

Grinding comes in many forms, from looking for specific monster sizes to raising hunter ranks…

In broad strokes, we’ll be working under the assumption that grinding is the act of replaying already cleared content in order to gain an in-game reward, either due to said reward being awarded randomly or by requiring incremental build-up to acquire. Some more generic examples are:

  • Defeating a specific enemy repeatedly to earn an item (most prevalent in MMORPG’s with respawning enemies and random item drop chances – most famously World of Warcraft’s entire loot system is built upon this cycle)
  • Completing specific quests/missions to earn advancement currency more efficiently (such as finishing repeatable quests to earn experience or “reputation” points – a prime example is Monster Hunter World’s Hunter Ranks, which accumulate through all completed content but have a much higher rate of accretion within certain event-only quests, thus making them highly desirable to anyone wanting to raise their Hunter Rank efficiently)
  • Repeating specific content in order to unlock other forms of empowerment/rewards (such as materials for crafting – Warframe is an excellent case study where certain materials that are needed to make bigger and stronger weapons are more likely to drop in specific missions)

A keen-eyed reader will also notice that, aside from repetition, the other key word used is specific – grinding only applies when having a clearly-defined goal, be it “gaining level 30” or “improving your equipment” or “unlocking a new reputation level” (in the case of more vague goals, design comes under a variety of headings, most notably “perpetual play”).

This very specific nature of grinding is also why it can often go horribly wrong in its implementation – games, at least partially, rely on offering a sense of uniqueness, discovery, wonderment or similar to get players to “buy into the fantasy”, so to speak and there is nothing that kills off that aspect faster than requiring constant repetition of the same content over and over again.

As always and with the above in mind, we’ll be having a look at some examples that manage to either work around or with the limitations of grind-based systems, whether by refining the systems themselves or by complementing them via other, interlocking systems.

Framing The Question

Digital Extremes’ Warframe is probably one of the more well-known free-to-play titles currently on the market – following a rough start during its initial launch semester, the game was slowly (but steadily) refined into a massive sleeper hit. 

In Warframe, players take control of the titular Warframes, biomechanical suits of armor with powerful abilities, which act as the game’s class system – each Warframe handles differently, comes with a set of four unique skills and one (or more) passive abilities, with some best suited for taking fire, dealing damage, hiding and eliminating enemies in a stealthy manner, and so on and so forth.

There’s a huge variety of different Frames…

Being a free-to-play title, one of the major gameplay elements is grinding for more or less everything – weapons, Warframes, companions, equipment – every single piece of gear needs to be earned through grinding, often by acquiring the blueprints and materials needed to craft it. Naturally, as a free-to-play title, this system is complemented by an extensive microtransaction store, where a player can pay real-world money in order to expedite acquisition of said gear.

Taking a look at the overall free-to-play market, one can see that the majority of F2P titles on offer mostly fail to strike a balance between the grind and microtransaction parts of the system – these games often come across as too grindy (sic), in turn making microtransactions feel forced or unfair – and yet… Warframe somehow manages to avoid such criticism (for the most part). Why is that?

I believe that a big part of why grinding works in Waframe is that the core gameplay has been built with grinding being a core concept, rather than added at a later stage. A mistake that F2P games often make is using grind as a means to either inflate game time or increase difficulty artificially (once again, a subject best left for a future post) – often with the goal of making microtransactions feel more enticing. This will in turn lead to player fatigue, resentment and eventually low retention rates.

Warframe takes two steps in its design in order to avoid this. Firstly, the grinding is kept down to small, discrete projects – for example, while crafting every single weapon in the game might require hundreds upon hundreds of hours, any single one of them can be gained in a much smaller time frame, ranging from a couple of hours to a few days. Thus, the player never feels overwhelmed, always has a goal to work towards and (more importantly, owing to the aforementioned uniqueness of each item or gear piece) provides a wide variety of different gameplay styles and alterations.

…and an even bigger selection of weapons.

Secondly, by way of level and gameplay design, the developers make heavy use of rogue-lite principles to lessen the repetition – levels are constructed out of pre-made room configurations, with a wide variety of unique setups and features (such as environmental hazards and enemy type availability), while the selection of different game modes and objectives further enhances the randomized nature of available content. In doing so, Digital Extremes achieve a player experience that feels fresh and interesting several hundreds of hours later, the majority of which is spent grinding for more content (even if the player in question doesn’t aim to experience everything on offer).

Therefore, we can observe that grinding  can be implemented in such a way that it not only improves, but rather supports and enhances the entire experience – mitigating the repetition by designing against it and by breaking it up in smaller, better-managed segments.

On that subject, let’s have a look at another game which leans on these design ideas, but this time from the AAA space.

Hunting For Fun And Profit

In a lot of ways, Monster Hunter World follows the exact same “recipe” as Warframe: a wide variety of weapons and equipment that offer wildly different gameplay styles, quasi-randomized content (called investigations and coming with a series of random modifiers that alter the mission’s parameters) and an emphasis on building the player’s gear up by progressively playing harder content.

Where it differs though, is its in focus – while Warframe takes a quantitative approach (as evidenced by its procedural-generation of levels, as well as the huge variety of items and gear on offer), Monster Hunter World focuses more on interactions –  specifically between players and monsters. 

The series in general is a great example of enemy design and implementation, with  a huge amount of work apparently going into the game to make each monster feel unique. From a creature’s diet, habits, nesting and feeding areas, to its general behavior and hierarchy in its native biome, the developers have taken great pains to simulate a consistent ecosystem with bottom feeders, apex predators, herbivores, carnivores, and a large amount of other variables.

With 14 different weapon types to play around with (each handling in a significantly different way), you’ll not feel the grind anytime soon.

By using such a high degree of complexity in their core enemy design, Capcom achieve a type of replayability which works incredibly well on a fundamental level when combined with a degree of randomness – in this case, by introducing the player into the aforementioned ecosystem. Players can (and are encouraged to) exploit monsters’ weaknesses, habits and characteristics in order to gain an advantage – any one of a monster’s unique attributes can become a tool against them.

This randomness does not stem from player skill alone, either. As mentioned above, the game offers a wide array of gear, weapons and armor with which to kit out a player’s hunter – aside from providing some much-needed mechanical variety, it’s important to note that most (if not all) of these items are carefully balanced, in order to not have any one given weapon or gear set outperform its equivalents ( it’s important to note that not all gear is equal, just that any item is a valid option within its own power tier). As a result, each hunter can and usually performs a lot differently than their peers, offering a good deal of replayability and experimentation space (design-wise).

Similar to Warframe, the aforementioned gear is also gained by grinding through content – in this case, utilizing a random drop table for each monster, which can be affected by exploiting a monster’s damage model (a system in where certain parts of each monster can be destroyed, which affects their available movesets and item drops, for example by cutting a tail off in order to prevent them from attacking with it and gaining an extra item chance from the cut appendage itself).

The ecosystem has some cool little intereactions you can find out, as hinted here.

Therefore, we can observe that in Monster Hunter’s case, the grind is tied directly to progression (since both a player’s knowledge and gear rank is increased with each successful hunt ) and can also be affected by said knowledge and skill (cutting/breaking of specific monster parts during combat, which results in better/more specific rewards).

As a final note, it’s interesting to note that in both game examples, the designers have taken steps to include the grinding aspect into the main gameplay design  – be it Warframe’s huge variety of  missions, enemies, weapons and frames or MHW’s more limited but better-balanced selection of monsters, weapons and gear, everything seems to be tuned to support, encourage and benefit from grinding, while actively taking steps against the traditional problems arising from its use (boredom and a heavy feeling of repetition).

Perhaps, this is the most important design hurdle to overcome: how to make the grind feel like less of one, while keeping its functionality and purpose intact? Hopefully, the games we’ve examined here can provide some insight into answering this question – and if not, then it at least makes for interesting observations.

What are your preferences when it comes to grinding in games? Do you enjoy the methodical approach to it? Do you prefer games that try to “mix it up”? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!