Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sidequest Corner: The Place For Grind

I love grinding. No, not the erotic kind of grinding, although I am partial to that as well. I enjoy myself some level-grinding in my video games. The simple act of basically repeating the same task over and over, fighting the same enemies, playing the same levels, all to watch numbers slowly rise to reward the time investment is surprisingly rewarding.

Every Monster Hunter game I've played I've clocked at least two-hundred hours of killing countless variations on giant dinosaurs and serpents, all to get a certain crack at randomly generated loot. One of my favorite franchises, Pokemon, has eaten up countless amounts of time in my life, trying to push my team to level 100 and finding every challenge I can. RPGs like Persona and Bravely Default are oddly meditative with how much they demand the player to take their time and just hammering away at cannon fodder. Even an ostensibly action heavy experience like Dynasty Warriors has a certain popping bubblewrap quality to it.

It's a design philosophy built around abnegation. You want to play something but you aren't in the mood for a bombastic action extravaganza or an online competitive scene where you'll probably get called names by twelve-year olds. You just want a simple bit of time where you can just groove on the simple act of dealing with simple problems and getting rewarded for it. Trashy paperbacks and cable TV sitcoms do the same thing for books and film after all.

It's something resembling a zen state, personally. You aren't worried too much about being the best or trying to show off to anyone. Just a simple yet effective feedback loop that mellows you out.

But recently a lot of players around my age are starting to hate its inclusion in video games. This isn't to say that grind-heavy games are dying out or vanishing, there's still plenty of people out there who enjoy them and there are plenty of franchises that play it to the hilt. The problem is more of a change of attitude with the Gamer Generation. Guys who grew up in the console Golden Age of the NES and SNES who once had all the spare time in the world now becoming adults, having families, jobs, taxes, and other obligations; shrinking their game time to maybe two to three hours a week as opposed to entire days.

Because of this, I've seen players more willing to want to skip a lot of grinding in their games. They see it as fluff and filler, "I don't care how much loot I just got, I don't want to sort through it!", and would rather get to the meat of a game they spent north of sixty dollars on and have devoted such precious time to experiencing. Because of this, grinding to them has become a four-letter word.

For the record I am referring to grind as a blatant form of padding that has no true bearing on the plot or the narrative flow of the experience. Something like the repetitive grindy gunplay of Spec Ops: The Line was used as a tool for the demythologization of the shooter empowerment fantasy, or the very nature of battles and improvement is the entire central point of the Pokemon franchise. We're focusing specifically on the padding in old Final Fantasy games where they were there to stretch the run time a bit longer or the vapid underdeveloped nature of the story missions in Year One of Destiny.

It is a development that both developers and publishers have recognized and have adjusted their models , for better and for worse. On the one hand, many studios have done their best to step up their level and gameplay design. Making something simple feel more important with dynamic production values and greater narrative context.

Case in point, almost every single major story encounter and contract in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt can be boiled down to three basic phases: talk to character, look for monster, find and kill monster. But rather than make it feel like a tedious bit of busywork, context and environment are used to great effect. You find the werewolf but it's actually a ploy in a demented love triangle between the cursed guy's wife and a childhood friend who has a crush on him. There wasn't a monster at all but a bunch of war orphans stealing food from a farmer to survive. The list goes on.

But publishers have also used this as a form of monetization. It's increasingly common on mobile games but it's the classic free-to-play model of either grinding for countless hours, accruing some form of in-game currency to get an item or character you desperately want in an RPG or shooter of some kind, or if you want to just cut to the chase, pay up real-world money for a premium currency that will buy it faster.

I've made my thoughts on this practice very clear in a past Sidequest Corner regarding Ubisoft's model in For Honor, but the sad thing is I can see why this model has become so successful. As I said before, for people that still love videogames, their adult responsibilities have made the prospect of sitting down in front of a 200+ hour epic less of a challenge and more of a chore, and some would gladly pay a little extra to get a quick boost through it. After all, if you paid full price for a game, you want to experience everything it has to offer, even if it means paying more.

That last paragraph isn't an endorsement of the practice by any means. I am still firmly in the camp of wanting the practice outright removed from AAA games entirely. But at the same time, I can see why some have normalized it as something resembling a pro-consumer practice, especially if you work double shifts and have to feed the baby and mow the lawn and clean the gutters and scrub down the bathroom only to sit in front of your console of choice and find out you still need to look for fifty locks of horse hair, twenty goblin teeth, ride to the top of the mountain and kill a giant bear then crush his skull into powder all in order to make a potion that will take you to the next interesting bit of story involving characters you like, you'd be well within your right to just shut the game off and queue up some Netflix. Then probably never touch the game again.

So where exactly is the place for grind in this day and age?

Well, I've kind of hinted at it already: the younger generation and those nostalgic for the old days. If you haven't noticed how popular superhero movies or Pokemon Go have been recently, we are living in a nostalgia market. There will still be games that proudly embrace the zen-like nature of repetition and abnegation. Disgaea 5 Complete launched on the Nintendo Switch, Monster Hunter XX is on its way in Japan, and the Pokemon franchise is still going strong after twenty years. All easily accessible to kids who have plenty of time and will still find comfort in the simplicity and satisfaction that it provides between their lesser but nonetheless taxing stresses of school and adolesence.

So yeah, I admit it, I've gotten old and this is one of those rare things in game design that I still think has a place, even if everyone else calls me a fuddy duddy for it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go beat down some identical goblins for a few hours so I can work up a sweat.

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