Friday, April 2, 2010

Defining Grind

By Kirk Hamilton

On his blog Chungking Espresso, Simon Ferrari wrote a post about Final Fantasy XIII's design titled "Hills and Lines." In it, he provides a fascinating, incredibly detailed breakdown of the linear and multilinear structure of the game's design. Check it out - it's very cool.

Simon and I also had an interesting back-and-forth in the comments. As I was figuring out whether or not I considered FFXIII to be a grind-y game (all things considered, I do), it became clear that an important first step was to come up with a working definition of the word "grind".

I highly recommend reading the post and the ensuing comments. I also thought I'd reprint my own definition of grind here. I'm interested in what y'all think, since the word gets enough play that it seems worth trying to pin down. I think I managed to articulate how I see it fairly clearly:
For me, grinding begins when a game places an objective in front of me then requires that I repeat an action/engagement multiple times in order to be able to access that objective. (Don’t worry, that’s not the entire definition. Since that describes pretty much every game ever.)

What makes it a grind is when the necessary action doesn’t build on itself and has no sense of extrinsic progression, it’s merely a means to accumulating enough victories (experience points, CP, etc) to become “strong” enough to overcome the initial objective and progress. I use the quotation marks to highlight a distinction – grinding is about my -character’s- strength and not my own, since strength is measured by the game’s internal metrics and not by my ability, planning, or knowledge.
It is, of course, somewhat of a personal thing - there's no perfect definition, but I know it when I see it. I'm interested to hear what everyone else thinks, and any examples of grind that particularly stand out for you. Or conversely, grind-like situations that for one reason or other you don't consider to be grind.

So I put it to you - how do you define grinding?

17 comments:

David said...

Here is my take on the dreaded grind in a game. Many games involve leveling up. As you level up, you get different benefits depending on the game. Maybe you get more powerful, maybe you get to go to more regions, maybe you just further along the story. The problem is that leveling up can take too long to the point that it feels like work, or it is just plain repetitive and gets old after a while.

That is one of the issues that people have with MMOs. There are only so many types of quests in World of Warcraft for example. Collect 10 hides, but guess what? Not every wild death boar has a hide for some odd reason, so you just have to keep killing until you collect enough to turn in. Yay! I get to turn it in, only to get another quest where you get to collect 12 beaks or something.

Hardcore games aren't alone in leveling and grinding. Take Farmville for example. You grow crops, cash them in, trade in cash for cool stuff, grow more crops and as you level you get access to more cool stuff, including different crops. Rinse, repeat.

The problem is that people have different tolerances for leveling and grinding. Fallout 3 for me is a good example of a game that levels you up, but it doesn't feel like a grind. World of Warcraft is a painful example of a grind. Maybe it is a curse for open-world games, or a game which requires more than just plot progression quests in order to continue the story.

Jay said...

sorry, HELLA errors on blogger posting to comments today...

Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, blogger is being bizarre with comments today. Super. Working on it, they should be up there, though...

Brian Longtin said...

Most people like 'leveling', because of the sense of progression and reward structure. 'Leveling' becomes 'grinding' in my mind when you have to interrupt what would be your natural play style -- exploring new places in an RPG, or, say, using the weapons you actually enjoy in MW2 -- to engage in unnatural, non-enjoyable behavior before returning to what you're really there for.

So the best games match up the leveling with the progression and you never feel held back. The bad ones drop a brick wall and force you into a grind to get past it.

Annie Wright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Hamilton said...

Nice. Jay, interesting that you bring up the show, since sports sims require that part of the game be given over to the skills (or lack of skills) of the players and teams that they recreate. But I haven't played The Show (I know David has, though).

David said...

Funny you mention The Show. It is a grind, but it doesn't feel like it to me. I guess because I consider those goals to be vital to progress well in the game. This is a game that you actually have to practice. Before I play a game, I do a little batting practice to loosen up a little and try and get the timing back.

The added goals in Road to the Show really stress me out. I feel guilty when I don't accomplish them and worry that I've blown it for the team. The way I play, I am surprised that I haven't been downgraded to wiffle ball.

Jay said...

David, I absolutely agree with you about the goal system. It is a beautiful and stressful system that offers as great of distinction in its rewards as it does guilt and fear in its failures. Unachieved goals become scars you wear until the next cycle of completes. Achieved goals mean more playing time, better stats and, as you point out, the player becoming literally and physically better at the game with practice.

I'm completely addicted to RTTS, but I enjoy taking a break now and then for some old-school 1 on 1 exhibition games. Feel free to hit me up on PSN anytime.
id: BruzeWayne

Kirk Hamilton said...

Brian, that's good! And it strikes me that by your definition, the Pulse sections of FFXIII in fact aren't a grind, since players don't have to shift play styles to make it through. The game merely halts story progression until a certain party level is achieved.

And that's totally true about MW and other persistent online FPS's - you have to do monotonous crap with rubbish gear for a long time just to get to where you can play the game as you want.

That steep bar for entry is actually a big part of why I've never gotten into MW online. I hate running around with my jank AK getting perforated by dudes with reflex scopes and night vision and whatever.

David Carlton said...

Funny you should bring this up, because I was just thinking about this topic last night and tonight. The tentative definition that I'll propose is this: a grind is when a game has three (or possibly two) directly adjacent mechanics that all depend on extrinsic motivation.

For example, say there's something that I'm intrinsically motivated to accomplish in an RPG: maybe I like the story and want to get to the next chapter. But I can only accomplish that by leveling up: that's extrinsic motivator 1. And, to level up, I have to fight lots of battles: that's extrinsic motivator 2. And the battles are just rehashes of the same old tactics, not requiring any new insights, so I'm just pressing buttons out of rote: extrinsic motivator 3.

Kirk Hamilton said...

David - Oh, that is interesting. In my initial definition, I said that grind "doesn’t build on itself and has no sense of extrinsic progression." I was talking about intrinsic/extrinsic as it relates to the game. You're talking about intrinsic/extrinsic as it relates to the player.

Putting things in terms of the player makes more sense, since no matter the nature of the grind, it is the player who is doing it. (readers - check out David's post on the subject).

In your post, you talk about Go, and how the extrinsic motivation of climbing a leaderboard adds a level of motivation to what is already a very intrinsically motivating game. Interestingly, that motivation is extrinsic both to the player and the game.

I look back on Annie's comment about Battle.net and see something similar. I didn't play much Starcraft II online, so I didn't get how it could be a grind on the scale of a MMORPG. But now that I've seen how the leaderboards are laid out, I get it. It's actually possible to entirely eschew one's intrinsic motivations (love of the art style, the sense of order, of the mental exercise of forming strategy) in favor of focusing on the extrinsic ones. I'm sure there are Starcraft players who view the game entirely through the lens of their Battle.net rankings.

But that's probably not the way most people do it. Like in many games with leaderboards, it's a fun system because it puts an extrinsic motivator on top of an intrinsic one. So a game becomes a "grind" when extrinsic motivators are placed on top of other extrinsic motivators. And when the motivators are extrinsic to both the game and the player, it's double-trouble.

For example, there have been times when I've said "I need to finish this game in order to write about it" which is a humdinger of an extrinsic motivator. So I try to be careful with that, because laying that on top of other in-game extrinsic motivators is a sure-fire way to suck the fun out of an experience.

And there are plenty of other examples of it - "I have to unlock this MW kit so that I can have the same gun as my friends at school" is a one way ticket to grindsville. Though now I'm just talking about why we play games, and not so much about grind per se.

Anyway, woah, there's a lot here.

Annie Wright said...

...Not to mention the fairly polaraized split when the ladder's reset on Battle.net. Some people are like "Hell yeah, the race is on" because they enjoy working out strategies to level up more quickly or efficiently. Others look on this with dread, because it means they've just lost all their hard work, unless they just want to continue as non-ladder, of course. But who wants to do that?

Kirk Hamilton said...

I didn't understand the ladders until I read this piece by Chris Breault. In it, he suggests that the new ladder setup is actually "completely hosed." Seems strange that Blizzard would mess up the ladders, since I always thought of that kind of addictive motivator as their specialty. But then I haven't played the beta.

Annie Wright said...

Yeah, SCII's ladder system is WAY more complicated than Diablo II's. Leagues, divisions, odds on players, etc.... On the one hand, it does need to be at least a little complex in order to make it interesting (after all, we've already established that any game concept that's TOO linear is just going to be boring). So maybe SCII's ladder suffers from the opposite problem as FFXIII? I know that's a bit "apples and oranges", but it would seem that one is too narrow and the other too broad to really be ideal experiences.

David Carlton said...

Mmm, yeah, that's a good point - I'd been thinking of grind in terms of extrinsic motivators for a player within the game, but of course extrinsic motivator coming from outside the game can be at least as effective in contributing to a grindy feel. So if an extrinsic motivator outside of the game leads to further extrinsic motivators within the game, it's definitely grind city.

It also helps explain why different people will disagree why a game, or a context within a game, is a grind: one of the surprises to me from my post is how an in-game mechanic may be intrinsically motivating to some people but extrinsically motivating to others, and I'm sure that can very even more with motivators outside of the game.

Annie's comment about ladder resets gives a great example of the intrinsic/extrinsic split varying across people; I tend to think that leaderboards are extrinsic motivators no matter what, but if you enjoy working out new strategies, then your response to that may immediately tie into intrinsic motivations (so no grind), while if you don't, then the extrinsic motivators get reinforced by your in-game actions.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hot. Let me try to codify it a bit.

We've got two variables - the motivation is either coming from the game or from outside of it, and the motivation is either intrinsic for the player or extrinsic. So, four varieties of player motivation:

In-Game Intrinsic (IGI)
(I enjoy some aspect of the game.)

Out-of-Game Intrinsic (OGI)
(I enjoy some non-game aspect of the experience, i.e. talking about it, reading about it, etc.)

In-Game Extrinsic (IGE)
(I must perform this unrewarding in-game task to get back to the intrinsic stuff, i.e. JRPG grinding.)

Out-of-Game Extrinsic (OGE)
(Battle.net, MW leaderboards.)

All games have some combination of all four, and the weight assigned to each of the four varies depending on the player. Further complicating things is that fact that what's OGE to one person might be OGI to another, or even IGI, like in your example of leaderboard strategy.

But when all is said and done, if the extrinsic motivations outweigh the intrinsic ones, it starts to feel like a grind.

Annie Wright said...

I would go so far as to say that the balance of those four factors determine our relative fulfillment, as they have a lot to do with the whole "Autonomy-complexity-connection between effort and reward" triangle that we humans supposedly desire in everything we do.