Nose to the Grindstone

            I’d like to try a little experiment, if none of you would mind. You see the minimize button at the top right corner of your screen? Good. I want you to click it, and then bring the screen back up with the taskbar after you’ve done that. No keyboard commands, I actually want you to use your mouse or touchpad. Nothing of note happen? Excellent. Try doing it three more times. Still okay? Fantastic. Try doing it ten more times. Not too hard, is it?

            Now I want you to minimize and maximize this window five-hundred and twenty-three times.

            Most of you probably balked at that proposition, save for a few individuals who either have severe problems with authority or have more free time than I would consider medically safe. So why did you decline my request? I would assume it to be because I commanded you to do a meaningless task for no explicit reward. Some of you probably closed this window the first or second time I asked, out of idle curiosity to see what track I was taking on this little tangent train, but you almost certainly stopped short of deliberately inconveniencing yourself for no adequate reason. Minimizing a window, while a perfectly serviceable means to the end of getting a program out of the way, isn’t how most people would choose to spend their free time.

            However, what if I were to offer you fifty dollars for minimizing it a thousand times? Ignore for the moment the fact that I would have no way to verify if you had actually done this and the fact that it would be blisteringly stupid for me to make that offer to the entire internet, just consider it from a hypothetical standpoint. Many of you would take me up on that offer, now that I’m offering you compensation for it, despite it still being, at heart, an utterly pointless task. This is a fairly basic rule of human nature: people are willing to do things they find dull or unpleasant if they think it will benefit them at some point.

            This rule of human nature is what drives the concept of level grinding in role-playing games. The basic setup works something like this: the player is given a weak and limited set of skills and a pitiful set of equipment to work with- for example, at level 1, the character has a strength score of 1, armor made out of talc, and is only armed with the Broken Sword of Wussitude. The player, naturally, will want something better to work with, either because A) the game mandates that at some point you must, at minimum, possess a strength score of five and the Average Sword of Mediocrity in order to make it logistically possible to beat your generic Eldritch Abomination of the week, B) it’s a MMO and everybody’s making fun of your non min/maxed character, or C) you can buy a badass flying mount when you hit level sixty.

            Lucky for the player, the people who designed the game have thoughtfully left an abnormally large number of Generic Baddie #4 in a certain area. Even luckier, Generic Baddie #4 drops experience points and gold like a rapper drops phat beats. Luckiest of all, GB #4 evidently possesses a reproductive rate that defies all known anatomical circumstances, as there’s always a fresh batch of him waiting for the player whenever he leaves and re-enters the room. So all the player has to do is walk into the room, kill all of the enemies, leave, and repeat ad infinitum. If the player wants to reap the rewards of a high level, no matter what they might be, all he has to do is keep killing Generic Baddie #4 over and over again. Eventually he might graduate to killing Generic Baddie #18, but for the most part he’ll still be killing the same enemies over and over again. He probably won’t find this to be all that enjoyable after a short time, but that won’t matter- he’s willing to do something he finds dull or unpleasant because he thinks it will benefit him at some point.

            So is grinding an inherent flaw to the RPG formula? After all, it’s arguable that the entire genre is built around growing more powerful over time. As long as the rules for growing more powerful aren’t completely arbitrary, the players are eventually going to work out the most efficient way of doing so, which, in most cases, turns out to be some variation on grinding. However, it doesn’t always have to be that way; there are ways to design an RPG to avoid necessitating that the player fall into this pattern.

            Most obviously, there’s simply not letting the player kill the same group of baddies over and over again like some sort of amnesic serial killer. An easy way to do this is the dungeon layout used by games like Torchlight  and Fate, where all the combat takes place in linear dungeons linked by a peaceful overworld hub. In this sort of system, enemies typically don’t regenerate, meaning that progressing further in the dungeon is the only way to encounter more enemies- and, by extension, the only way to acquire more wealth, for that odd reason that is never elaborated upon in RPGs. The dungeon levels are randomly generated, so if a player tries to re-enter a dungeon, he won’t be able to prepare a consistent strategy for what he faces.

            An alternate system for preventing grinding is the idea of level scaling, as seen in games like the later Fallout games and Dragon Age. The concept is simple: if the player is at a low level, the game sics low level enemies on him. If the player is at a medium level, the game sends medium level enemies at him. If the player is at a high level, the game cries and hides in the corner, because that’s pretty much all it can do. Done right, this can make the player feel like he’s gaining in strength without mandating that he gain all of that strength at once.

            The thing both of these systems have in common is that they try to make the player’s level grow as he progresses in the game, rather than the other way around. Dungeon layouts do this by forcing the player to move forward to continue the game, and level scaling does this as a direct game mechanic. As a rule, this feels more natural for the player, since it doesn’t make leveling up feel like the contrived action that grinding does.

            Remember this: a player’s fondest memories of a game are usually of novel experiences, not mindlessl repetition of the same action to the point where carpal tunnel syndrome becomes a legitimate concern. Just because a player is willing to do something they find dull or unpleasant because it might benefit them at some point, doesn’t mean that they should have to. The Chosen One destined to save mankind should never be beaten on the first hit by the archvillain because he didn’t spend enough time whacking gnomes with his sword earlier in the story.