Bringing back the grind

Ferrel is sleepyI’ve been contemplating the meaning of MMO life a lot lately and I’ve come to a realization. We need the grind to come back. That is the next evolution in the MMOs we’ve come to love. I recognize that right now a huge portion of you have read no further than that and are furiously writing a comment about how I’m wrong but hear me out. I think you might actually agree and, if you don’t, you still have the opportunity to comment. Let me explain what I mean by grind, though, before we get too deep.

The term grind traditionally comes from EverQuest. It means sitting in a place and slaughtering countless mobs for long periods of time to make a little bit of experience. It has a notoriously bad connotation and I can see why. You put in a lot of work for a little progress and a single death could take hours away from you. We still do the same thing today but instead we call them quests. I am not part of “we,” though. I call these things chores. Boring, mindless, pointless, chores that your boss gives you at work because he sees you sitting still for one minute and cannot handle that fact. Eleven out of every ten quests are dull and we don’t even respect them enough to read the text. Developers know it so they just color the map for us. Talk to Skippy the wonder rat and run over here. Quest done! That is totally so much better than sitting in a dungeon and killing monsters! That is an entirely different article. To get back on point, in this case when I say grind I am referring only to the speed at which you level. My point is that we need to level slower.

The attitude that has become prevalent among all players these days is that the game starts at max level. This notion used to be reserved only for the super elite like myself (I am no longer a super elite by the way). By that I mean those of us who invested our time in raiding competitively. Everything prior to that was fluff for the masses. We cheated ourselves the great experiences between 1 and max so we could get on to what we deemed fun. That was okay for a small minority of us. That is disastrous for the average player. The average player probably doesn’t want to throw away the majority of their free time dying to a raid mob. It is because of players like me that everyone assumes level 1 to max is worthless and for that I apologize.

As guilty as my ilk and I are in this regard developers have fallen into that mentality too. MMOs are designed to have really interesting beginnings so you become hooked but as you progress content starts to noticeably thin. Middle content is a very low priority behind end content because it is so transitory. Why spend a ton of hours designing a mid level dungeon when players burn through those levels in two days or less? Why indeed! After all, designers need to spend those cycles working on end game content to entertain the huge sum of average players capping out at alarming rates. The cycle is vicious and self supporting.

It seems that this all is justified by the idea that leveling fast makes a player happy. Leveling rapidly and reaching max level fills us with glee! Right? As far as I can tell, and someone may disagree with me, the answer is no. In fact it seems like they’re less happy. I knew hordes of mid level EQ players who were thrilled to explore the massive world and experience all that it had to offer. They could find neat places, dive into a few different dungeons per level range, and generally live in Norrath. This and more was available at release mind you. I’m not talking about ten years later. I’m talking classic EQ1 and then maybe the Kunark addition. These players were typical and many never reached max and they never cared. I’ve also seen horde after horde of average players cap out in MMO after MMO and complain of being bored or having to just grind gear to do anything. Then, when the next game comes out, they go repeat the process there. This is turning into an almost parental situation. You can’t always let your kids have what they want. Sometimes you have to give them what they need. What players need is to realize that MMORPGs, for the majority of them, are a journey, not a destination.

I think it is time to set the clock back and slow down those dings. MMORPGs need to adopt the Dungeons & Dragons model once more where the game is less about reaching the next level and more about enjoying the ride. If it took longer than two days to cross the mid levels we’d see more time invested there. If there were more interesting things to do in the middle, players wouldn’t shot gun through them so quickly. Death won’t set you back hours anymore so progress will always be forwards. Why then do we cling to this new tradition of easy levels and top heavy games?

My assumption is that everyone assumes that grinding means people will lose interest. They assume the WoW players won’t stand for it. To anyone who believes those two things I have something to say. WoW players do not matter. Everyone assumed that when that game hit 11 million players that would bust the industry wide open. Other games could do the same or draw those players off. That has not happened. WoW players jump on new MMOs for three months or less and leave. The market of non-WoW MMO players is still growing at a small rate and those are the people we need to develop for.

In evaluating my last point I’m sure someone will use Aion as an example as why my idea won’t work. I’d argue that Aion better fits my argument than the counter point. Aion has more of a grind than western MMOs, which players complain about, but it offers nothing compelling in the mid levels! Based one my earlier points I have to say of course it is a grind! They took the dull, chore-based system we have now and made the levels slower! Who wants to do that? The game is on a single rail and doesn’t allow you to deviate. As such, this example unjustly classifies the grind. If you’re going to use a grind you have to commit to it and Aion just didn’t. Not in the way EverQuest and other early MMOs did.

23 thoughts on “Bringing back the grind

  1. Hehe!

    Quests can be nice, but by now they have become so predominant that they can take away freedom of exploration and basically do a guided bus tour through the world. Being in different phases of quest completion often causes problems for grouping and all that.

    I think grind is nothing we should strive for, but Quests, “Dailies” and Reputation Grind are often nothing else but grind in disguise. And you are right about Aion, it is not so much about grind or no grind but about compelling choices.
    I think we had enough Quest driven MMOs by now. The pros and cons of the system should be apparent by now.

    We have gigantic worlds, and only the few % of the level contemporary endgame are used. It is such a waste and such a shame. I just started dreaming of Guild Wars 2 and dynamic events all over the world… *drools*

    1. Absolutely correct. The major issue with the quest hub system is that it discourages adventuring. If you get off the beaten path you’re no longer being efficient and you’re now leveling slower. This cannot be allowed! We must reach the end! I’m still not sure why though1

      I’d prefer larger worlds with more things that make me go “hey neat” than the total chore count in an MMO. Non-instanced dungeons, random hunting grounds to discover, and little things that developers squirreled away are for me!

      1. You really hit at the big issue — in games where quests are pushed so heavily, there’s a disincentive to actually go out and explore the world. Exploration needs to be just as rewarding as quests, or offer an alternative path toward achievement. One idea is to make certain spells, abilities and armor, etc., that’s only available in certain areas — so if you don’t go to those areas, you lose out. Or create some completely different that rewards players for going off the beaten track.

        It’s actually quite amazing how many interesting areas are in games that players never go to because it’s not ‘the quest hub.’ Though, I do want to point out that even in games where questing wasn’t a big part of leveling, various factors of the game forced players into certain ‘hubs,’ too. For example, in old school EQ, Luclin-PoK days, the typical route exp would be something like gfay>pal caverns>HHK>DPS, etc. etc. etc. There were only one or two zones for each level range where you could reliably find a group. Nowadays, it’s basically the same thing, but for anything below the very highest levels, it’s all about the “Hot Zones,” which is at least a better model because SoE switches it up every few weeks. So even without questing, stratifying can still happen — and unless there’s major boons to going out there and exploring areas that aren’t highly populated, players aren’t going to do it.

  2. Why not remove levels completely, and focus development on creating an ever expanding/changing world and story. I never played Asherons Call, but some of the stories I have heard about it have really piqued my interest in a game driven by story insted of levels.

  3. I’ve been thinking this same thing lately. The problem is, without keeping levels as a mainstream goal until level-cap, developers have to find other ways to keep the stream of rewards consistent. Leveling up alone might not make players happy but the fact that they’ve achieved something tangible (power) does. If there’s a way to supplement that, and smarter minds than myself could certainly figure it out, I think this could work.

    What worries me though is that, while WoW players on their own may not matter, the expectations the game has bred into the wider MMO audience does. Take Aion for example. There’s a game that necessitates grinding. Players were upset by it and many quit. Now, maybe they were the tourists, I don’t know. But, the players annoyed caused enough of a stink about it to get the developer’s attention.

    I think there needs to be a balance. Players will tolerate some grinding but I definitely think that questing is a better way to go about it, since it breaks the monotony and acts as a directional tool for the player. But, the mentality of “the game begins at the level cap” needs to go. That’s a lopsided design philosophy. What needs to happen to achieve that balance is to give players the option to quest instead of grind, if that’s what they like. That means making quests less rewarding in exp. and mob kills more. People don’t want to be driven toward one style of play. If a game comes along and strikes a good balance, emphasizing that “the whole experience is our game, not just those few raids,” we might be able to break out of the trend we’re in now.

    If it happens, I firmly believe it’ll be an indie game. At this point, I’d think that changing design philosophy so much would be too risky for most AAA titles.

    1. The real trick is to make the game more compelling in those middles. I’m not saying eliminate choring (my new word) completely and just make people grind for exp. I just mean make the leveling slower. The Aion example I mentioned. Nobody wants to grind through dull content and from my understand that is what was there.

    2. You don’t need levels to keep players engaged. There’s abilities, skills, armor, equipment, spells, weapons, pets, etc. etc. etc.

      Personally, I like games that have some vertical progression, but not a lot, forcing most of the progression to be horizontal — expanding abilities. There’s almost limitless abilities you can add to a game, but by adding them horizontally, you’re not forcibly preventing players from grouping with whoever they want, or creating a situation where a player feels hopelessly behind. Guild Wars had a great model for that. I’ve heard good things about EVE in this regard, as well. I even think games like Free Realms get that right.

  4. Lengthy ramblings here:

    Ah, for the days when I had the spare time to BOTH leave rambling comments AND update my own blog. 😉

    The short form, ironically enough, is that I actually agree with you for the most part. If I were developing an MMORPG right now, I’d definitely go for a heavy focus on group content and grinding, quite possibly without a solo game at all. I personally would not be able to play such a game, but it seems like a much more attainable goal in a much less saturated niche within the market.

    1. I love your lengthy ramblings though!

      I’d definitely go for a heavy focus on group content and grinding, quite possibly without a solo game at all.

      Saying this in public may get you shot at! Not that I disagree. I’m of the school that soloing should be possible, not the best option. I know that makes me a “forced grouper” and “anti-solo” guy but I stand by it!

  5. I loved the original EQ. And sure, the Planes were the big carrot being dangled in front of you, but for some reason, you still wanted to explore the game, try new things, do new content just for the sake of doing it.

    While I’ll agree that AION has some major faults, to me it’s still an enjoyable game and one that I play daily and look forward to logging on to when I get home from work (much to my wife’s chagrin). I don’t mind “the grind” and leveling actually brings back the feeling of accomplishment. There is also the fear of death in this game, which a lot of MMO’s don’t have. And, leaving myself open to flaming here, I have to say, it’s the one game since the original EQ (aside from the potential of Vanguard) that I’ve totally enjoyed. Nothing will ever bring back that feeling of logging into EQ for the first time as a total newb.

    1. No reason to fear the flames. Fear of death is something MMOs need again. It doesn’t need to be as drastic as EQ1 but this whole business of death being meaningless (or even a perk) just doesn’t do much to make you feel like you’ve done anything.

      1. There’s nothing too drastic about death in EQ1 anymore, between the guild lobby and a 96% res. Yeah, it can eat up time if you die repeatedly in a group, but if it’s truly wasting that much time, that means you’re dying a lot… which probably means it’s either a horrible group or you shouldn’t be doing that content yet, anyway. Suffice it to say, though, the days of losing hours of time because of a death or two in EQ is long over (and even in the PoK days, before the guild lobby, weren’t so bad).

  6. I’m not opposed to more of the “good” kind of grind, but I don’t think you can scoff at the quest root either. The problem with quests being a chore is very similar to grinding becoming a chore. Make them boring and meaningless, and they’re boring. Make them epic and interesting, and it’s fun. Personally, the games where I’ve seen *good* voice acting for quests really adds to the experience and makes the random NPCs into actual characters. Make the quests stories that move along from one to the other, tied together, and it’s awesome. And for god sakes, stay away from “kill ten rats,” which is just a lame way of reducing the grind because developers can’t actually think of ways to make the game interesting.

    1. I agree. Quests have their place. Just make them interesting and worth doing. I remember a line of quests in EQ that had me making my own Paladin armor. It was long and it was epic and more importantly, the reward was worth the effort. Same with the line of Epic quests introduced later in the evolution of the game. Sure they were hard and almost impossible to do without a good strong guild behind you, but not only were they worth it to the individual, but in most cases, most notably in the case of clerics,enchanters and tanks, they were also good for the guild because it made you a viable “plane capable” guild.

      I don’t have a problem with the “kill ten rats” sort of quest in the starter zones, but even then, I think they should somehow be tied to the character’s development somehow (gathering for crafting etc) and not just as a method to grind out xp. After about level 10 though, that line of quests should dropped in favor of more lore/content driven fare.

  7. If you want the game to be about the journey and people playing together, you have to get rid of the wide power band (levels can stay if they must, but a level-capped character can’t be more than four times more powerful than a fresh newbie) and make grouping fun and easy. Psychochild’s article on “punishing grouping” is a great reference for this:

    I’m an avowed soloist, but even I’ll group up if it’s easy to do and doesn’t mean I have to deal with a lot of mechanical hurdles (including lame quest chains that get out of sync and nonscaling encounter dynamics). If I have a way to quickly ignore and report idiots, that’s huge, too.

    Also, the game has to be fun to play all on its own, it can’t be all about the endless Achievement or Loot treadmill. If all the game has to offer is mindless, banal, annoying *play* that relies on the crutch of acquisition to generate interest, the journey will never be the heart of the game.

    Bringing back the grind shouldn’t be the focus, even in a sound byte (it’s too prone to abuse by those who don’t understand what you’re getting at here). Making the game fun to *play* from day one, and letting *any* player contribute to a group (meaning you can actually *play* together no matter what) should be the key. Those aren’t impossible goals, but they do run contrary to the mainstream MMO game design and business model.

    1. (including lame quest chains that get out of sync and nonscaling encounter dynamics).

      This is one of the reasons why I also hate group quests. You’re on a different part so every time you have to start over, cut someone loose, or just let someone get screwed. That is so annoying. Great point!

      Bringing back the grind shouldn’t be the focus, even in a sound byte (it’s too prone to abuse by those who don’t understand what you’re getting at here).

      But the shock value of saying that sells Epic Slants… uh… newspapers? Yeah you’re right though ^_~

  8. Lemme first say that I play Atlantica Online, a MMO that works a bit differently in that each player controls a team in turn-based battles. This means that partying with other players is mostly a matter of “adding to the numbers”, not of specifically needing a healer/tank/DD. When any 3 players of any level can party, it’s easier to find a group.

    What AO did to boost the mid-levels experience without making it feel grind-y was to enable quest reset for all but story line quests. A guildie needs help on a quest chain? Craft/buy a license to reset it and just redo it with him/her. Reseting is not just to help others. It can be decent money (some quests give out rewards that can’t be obtained in other ways, which means that people of all levels reset and sell) and decent xp (higher levels have a bonus for completing the first 3 quests every day, a set amount for any quests except dailies – even if the low lv quest gives 5k xp, your bonus is still 500k).

    All but the highest levels map areas have content for 2 very different level ranges and there is location chat to ask for help. Bored? Go help lowbies kill a boss. AO’s world being an alternative history world each area has a cultural theme so nearby areas can be different enough to be fascinating to walk around without it breaking the immersion factor. Bored of lv 96 Constantinople and not strong enough to travel to North America yet? Travel a bit North and fight again in lv 50 Bran Castle. If you are there reset a quest and get the quest-only crafting mats it gives. Sure, you’ve seen it all before, but quite some time ago. I find it works really well.

    Of course, there are plenty of people that rush towards end game and can also afford to, but plenty others revisit older content along the way. Yes, repeating quest chains IS grind, but the advantage of resets is that it’s grind you choose whenever you want. I’ve recently reset a lot to party with someone on them, so I’m questing in 5 areas now and not watching xp bars at all. And any time someone uses a specific key I can teleport from where I am to do one of the 4 instanced party dungeons available at my level, which have different rules from normal PvE so break the monotony even more.

    tl;dr version: During middle/high levels grind feels better if there is flexibility, which means more content should be open to the player. The option to unlock old content is possibly the cheapest solution, but it can work really well if repeating quests is rewarding.

  9. Excellent article! I’ve been itching to write one that deals with the very same thesis myself but haven’t found the time. But I’ve been saying essentially the same thing for many years now.

    The main problem is the hyper-incentivation of MMOs like WoW. Players are controlled by the designers by an infinite series of rewards. Given the way WoW is structured players feel that leveling to the max will allow them to start earning more rewards.

    Also since WoW is really math and a numbers game getting to the level cap is seen as some kind of goal. So instead of enjoying the low to mid levels players race through them as fast as possible without stopping to smell the roses.

    Your analysis of EverQuest was spot on. Levels actually meant something back then and yes there were many people who were content just to enjoy their current level and they never reached the false nirvana of the level cap.

    Somehow MMOs changed from being about the journey to being about the destination. The journey being all of these experiences and adventures before the “end-game”.

    Another problem is that easy leveling players never really get to fully explore a zone. They level so quick that they spend 1 or 2 days there and then they are whisked off to another zone by a breadcrumb questgiver. This has the additional negative of effect of weakening the sense of community.

    Back in the days of EQ, I would spend weeks if not months in various dungeons. You got to know other players who hung out there. You developed friends and even enemies. Now that players are only passing through and because of the anti-social nature of instancing this social bonding is gone from MMO.

    The fact is that leveling *is* far too easy and has become trivialized. How many of us know players that have multiple maxed out characters in various MMOs? This would have been unheard of in the first few years of EQ.

    Even the word “leveling” is offensive and indicative of how we’ve lost our way in this genre. Instead of saying; “Hey let’s go out and adventure and explore!” We now often say: “Hey I need to level my druid tonight…”.

    Blizzard has been one of the worse culprits in all of this. Even the last 2 expansions had far too much content because of the easy leveling. I recall in Wrath of the Lich King I had attained level 80 after completing all of the content in 4 zones. That left another 4 zones or more not including instances where I was maxed out which makes all of these quests and loot rewards seem rather pointless.

    As Muckbeast has said in his brilliant article quests are just another form of grind — just better disguised.

    As far as I’m concerned the current MMO paradigm is ripe for a complete and total overhaul if not a full blown revolution. We need to get back to the core concepts of adventuring, exploration and socialization.

    I’m worried that current MMO designers do not have the courage to do this type of soul-searching. And to be honest I’m pointing my finger at the designers at 38 Studios. Do they have the courage to stand up to the conventional wisdom that says WoW is the success template for how to build a MMO?

    We need to ask ourselves if where we are is where we should be. The effect of Blizzard’s WoW on the consciousness of the MMO community has perverted all that was good and noble about online gaming. The pendulum has swung much to far in one direction. We need some real hope and change in the MMO world.

  10. I loved the grind in eq its was all about what the character wanted too immerse themselves into like some liked too sell become a trader go out get materials become a crafter while a majority prefered too hunt lets go hunt some Ice giants and the like it was immersion of bein part of the world and bein what you wanted too be. nowdays the quests all the games are anymore are quests.Hell i play wow i find myself grinden just for the heck of it.

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