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On the Grind

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How many crabs have you killed? If you asked the average person, they would probably consider it a strange question that doesn’t merit much thought. However, if you’re someone who spent years playing Final Fantasy XI, I imagine that question is not so easy to answer. From Gustaberg, to Valkurm and Qufim, to Kuftal and Boyahda, it felt like we were always killing crabs. Looking back on it though, burning away hours murdering mostly identical blue crabs was kinda a weird way to spend our time..

What is the grind? In gaming, grinding typically refers to performing repetitive actions over and over to make your character more powerful or gain some type of advantage. Grinding manifests in a variety of ways across different game genres. In role-playing games, one of the most common forms of grinding is the leveling process where players must repeatedly fight monsters to gain experience to raise their levels. If an area or boss encounter is too difficult, grinding experience offers a simple way to become stronger. In the aforementioned example, killing crabs in Final Fantasy XI provided experience which helped players increase the level of their characters. Leveling was a core part of the Final Fantasy XI grind, and crabs just happened to fill a need. RPGs also often feature the familiar item grind. A powerful item might only have a five percent drop rate, so players will spend hours fighting the same opponent over and over in hopes of receiving a rare drop. Massively multiplayer online RPGs are notorious for their item grinds, as players can spend weeks/months/years farming the same opponent in hopes of obtaining a highly desirable item. In many racing games, the grind is largely focused on winning enough money. From Mario Kart to Gran Turismo, additional racers, vehicles, or accessories can regularly be purchased using an in-game currency. Players must repeatedly win races or collect currency to purchase a coveted item. Fighting games offer their own spin on the "unlocking grind": characters. Often times, additional characters are locked behind specific requirements such as playing for a certain number of hours or beating a mode multiple times with different characters. Players can spend hours grinding away at these objectives to unlock every character. First-person shooters like Call of Duty build a progression system around their grind. As players gain experience from playing matches, they unlock additional weapons and perks. Some of the best weapons and customizations can be locked behind higher levels, so players spend hours playing these games to unlock everything.

Grinding isn’t only about obvious and tangible returns. Sometimes grinding is about less palpable rewards, such as increasing a player’s skill. In both fighting and racing games, the grind to unlock new cars and characters, respectively, trains players to perform at a higher level. The hours you spend speeding along the same courses teaches you how to hug corners and take turns better. In fighting games, the time spent grinding inevitably teaches new combos and counters. Competitive first-person shooters often use the skill-based grind to give players a target to spend hours chasing. For instance, in Overwatch’s competitive mode, players are given a skill-rating and corresponding rank. You earn points for winning a match and lose points for losing a match. Players can spend hours grinding away and improving their skill as they work their way up the skill groups. In a game like Overwatch, the grind is mostly focused around reaching that next skill group. In other games, unique rewards are locked behind higher skill levels. The latest season of Destiny 2 introduced a competitive ranking system and a powerful weapon for players to chase. While the actual execution is more of a time grind than a skill grind, the way it was initially presented to players was that it would be a weapon that would only be available for players who managed to grind their way to the highest skill tiers to incentivize players to work to improve their skill.

Given that grinding is so prevalent across such a wide variety of games, why does it exist? Is grinding just a facet of gaming, or does it serve a purpose? The simplest answer is that grinding gives players something to do. For instance, in fighting games, completing the story or arcade mode usually does not take a large amount of time. If a player is skilled enough, there are many fighting which can be "finished" in under an hour. However, introduce a grind for characters or costumes, and suddenly players have a reason to invest their time. In role-playing games, the grind is a central part of the experience that keeps players playing instead of rushing from one boss fight or cutscene to the next. First-person shooters use the grind to give players goals and sustain their player-bases. Whether it is unlocking a new weapon or perk, or leveling up your skill-rating, a target to grind gives players a reason to keep playing a first-person shooter and its competitive player-versus-player modes. Massively multiplayer online games similarly use the grind as a tool to keep players coming back. For those of you who player Final Fantasy XI, think back -- how much did the hunt for an elusive item or the desire to level a new job motivate you to keep playing?

Of course, that’s not to say that there is not a bad side to grinding. For a lot of gamers, there are some forms of grinding that are considered uncreative game design and poor tools used to extend play-times and conceal a lack of content. Poor drop rates on highly coveted items are one of the frequently criticized examples. Players invest the time to learn the mechanics of an encounter, but then must repeat it over and over, without significant deviation, in hopes of receiving a rare drop. These grinds can leave players feeling like their skill does not matter and that they are at the mercy of a random number generator. At the same time, and while there are certainly extreme examples, most player-bases are voracious and will quickly consume content faster than developers can produce it. Grinding then becomes a question of quality versus quantity. Another common example criticized by players is level caps/damage scaling. Instead of relying on player skill or mechanics, damage scaling forces players to spend time grinding to increase their levels before participating in challenging fights. Of course, players also want a progression system and a feeling of reward for reaching higher power levels. The final boss of Destiny 2’s latest raid, the Spire of Stars, was highly criticized during the week of its release because many players felt they were being penalized for not reaching a high enough level for the encounter (the fact that this raid dropped less than a week after the latest expansion was released was seemingly irrelevant to these players).

Recent trends in mobile games have been gaining notoriety for relying on grinds to keep players playing and spending money. In many mobile games, players must expend energy to complete tasks or participate in activities. Typically, energy recharges over time, but can also be recharged by spending real-world currency. Limited-time events are often coupled with low drop rates to put pressure on players to spend real-world money or risk missing out on highly desirable characters or items. While it has been nicknamed “Grindblue Fantasy,” I actually think Granblue Fantasy strikes a reasonable balance between a luck-based grind and a skill-based grind. While many limited events definitely have low drop rates, many challenging fights also reward drops which can be collected and turned in to obtain the item. Instead of spending hours grinding in hopes of getting lucky in an all-or-nothing situation, the game offers a more tangible measure for players to know how much time and effort they need to spend grinding.

I find grinding to be an interesting topic, especially given my own gaming background. Like many of you, I spent years playing Final Fantasy XI, and the grinds in that game make most modern grinds feel tame by comparison. I cannot think of another game where I tried to get a single drop every week for over a year. Having spent a lot of time playing Destiny and its sequel, I’ve seen arguments from both ends of the spectrum from the game’s player-base. Destiny 1 had random rolls for perks on weapons and players constantly complained about the time commitment to try to obtain a perfectly rolled weapon. When Bungie got rid of random rolls in Destiny 2, the player-base complained that they had no reason to play activities anymore as players didn’t need to obtain multiple versions of the same weapon (these complaints occurred simultaneously with complaints about some of the few grinds Destiny 2 kept). As Bungie has introduced new grinds in the latest expansion, the player-base has once again turned to vocally complain about the time commitment grinding requires. The reason I bring up this example is not to poke fun at the contradictions of the Destiny community (although..), but to highlight the complexity of grinding. As gamers, we want quality content, but we also want a lot of content and a variety of content. We want reasons to play content, and we want things to chase, but we also don’t want to spend hours and hours chasing the same thing. We also want our rewards to feel special and create a lasting memory, but we don’t want it to take too long to obtain those rewards. While some games come closer than others, I don’t think grinding will ever find a perfect balance. Maybe Final Fantasy XI desensitized me, but I find it humorous listening to gamers complain about grinds in other games as a result. Then again, I’ll be the first to admit that I would be happy never having to fight another crab again. Oh wait..

Everyday I'm hustlin'  ♪