Grinding_the_sparks.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - video game progression systems that might not be so different from each other.]

I really adore gamer lingo. Especially the term grinding, because no other gamer jargon inspires as much innuendo. But the only other function of the term, besides inappropriate puns, is to disguise one of the oldest and most prevalent concepts in gaming as some new ugliness rearing its head.

A lot of common video game tropes go into constructing the grind and the concept manifests in many different ways, but the simplest definition of it is the process of unlocking content through repetitive behavior. In most modern games, levels and experience create this system of gated content. Grinding essentially boils down to one thing: players have to do things they've already done to unlock things they haven't.

The main complaint against grinding is that it has the potential to force players to do something boring in the promise of doing something fun later. What's worse, these systems generally measure progress through time invested and not skills learned. Essentially, leveling has the potential to replace thinking, since players can potentially grind until difficult tasks become trivial. The fear is that this system rewards players only for their time and not their skill, resulting in gameplay that is possibly addictive at the expense of challenge.

But before we start worrying about whether or not this will destroy gaming as we know it, maybe we should ask whether this problem is actually a new one. The grind in its most fundamental sense isn’t exactly new. What older video games had instead was memorization--experience points for the player, not the game. Nearly all arcade games were exactly this, partially by necessity, since they weren't capable of saving anything except for the high scores.

In the strictest sense memorization is just another form of grinding: repeating content over and over with the hope of eventually unlocking something new. The clever thing about arcade games is that they save the game’s progress on the player. Memorization is a skill to be sure, but it is also a somewhat tedious one. It is the rote memorization of problems that players have already solved. So is it really any different than the grind?

While We’re Grinding

World of Warcraft is a great example of what grinding has come to mean. WoW’s leveling system is specifically designed to keep players within a certain area of content. It makes content that is too easy worthless and content that is too hard impossible. This minimizes the impact of skill pretty much up until content like raiding or PvP.

World of Warcraft is carefully crafted to not present variable difficulty until the end of the game--it aims for, and mostly succeeds, in making the whole experience up until maximum level a challenge that is neither too great nor too little, so that players (or at least the majority of them) will be entertained without encountering frustration.

This discourages players from risky behavior, which may not be a good thing. World of Warcraft ensures that anyone leaving their comfort zone will be severely punished, so there's no real option for skilled players to skip the grind by plunging ahead. It is one of the many design elements that prevents players from getting too brutalized, and therefore theoretically makes them less likely to discourage themselves. This is how WoW achieves its treadmill pacing, and it’s made possible because this grind is playtime scheduled.

World of Warcraft doesn’t let players encounter much, if any, barriers until the endgame. But at that point, the game begins to function very much like those old arcade games, with bosses that must be memorized and practiced (at least in terms of Player vs Computer content-PvP is a whole other story). The bosses and regular monsters up until this point, despite being much simpler, also require a degree of memorization to deal with. They’re just so simple that players usually don’t even notice. This is what we mean when we talk about the grind minimizing player skill and involvement.

One thing that bears a lot of repeating is that video games involve a lot of repeating. WoW’s grinding involves a lot of repetitive quests, but games of memorization involve just as much repetition. Bullet hell shooters are so thoroughly based on memorization that many have selectable starting levels, anticipating that players would quickly grow tired of playing the same first level over and over again.

It was probably the console ports of early arcade games that were the most brutal in their repetition. This was the sticky point between arcades and consoles where games still had lives and continues but didn't have the option to keep putting money in so players could keep going. Getting a game over--or just turning off the console--meant that players were going to be seeing a lot of that first level.

Sonic 2 is as good example as any, and one in which I was acutely aware of how I was memorizing my way though it. My parents didn't want me to waste all of my time on video games, so they let me play a half an hour a day on school days. I’m not sure that this was very effective at curbing my appetite for the video games, but it did force me to think about what I could accomplish in a half an hour, and it helped me concretely measure my progress.

Before I copied the level select code out of a strategy guide at Borders, I was basically stuck with starting the game over from the beginning every day. Sonic 2 was generous but not excessive in granting lives and continues, so there was also the very real possibility of getting a game over, although this possibility would disappear the more I memorized the dangers and how to avoid them.

In doing so I also discovered how to get through the levels more quickly. Sonic 2 has a ten minute timer for beating a level, but most of the levels in the first half of the game can be beaten in less than 30 seconds in unassisted speed runs preformed by humans without exploits. Day by day, my six year old self got further and further through the game in that short half hour.

Getting through Sonic 2 meant memorizing the level layout and how to get through it. This is where stuff like problem solving comes into play. Stringing these memories together is problem solving too. But as soon as a problem is solved it becomes repetition--the player has to replay solved problems to get to the new content. It's almost a reversal of how grinding works in games like World of Warcraft.

Having it Both Ways

Both of these approaches, grind and memorization, are a function of time=progress. Once the experience points are gained, or the level map memorized, the progress is essentially complete, whether it’s saved on a server or the player's brain. The sense of accomplishment I felt when killing a boss or beating a level in Sonic for the first time is the same sort of relief I feel when I gain a level. I often wonder if I can even appreciate the difference.

Both leveling and memorization actually removes challenge. A boss pattern that players understand is like a level already gained. The game is inherently easier now. The challenge has been removed, and there’s no going back--save starting a new game or setting it down until you forget (which may never happen). Yet, both of these genres will demand that players repeat this solved content in order to reach new experiences.

The difference between the systems lies in the process of discovery. I could spend five minutes or five months fighting the last boss of Sonic 2, but the challenge only ends when I solve its pattern. But the impossible quest in WoW that’s five levels too high for me will be as easy as the quest I’m doing now in five levels. In ten levels, it’ll be so easy it won’t even be worth doing. So, then, the essential difference: with a leveling system, it’s essential possible to skip challenges through grinding through them. This is impossible in a memorization based system, in which every challenge must be solved by the player.

Taken alone this could be a damning indictment of grinding systems, but I want to make two vital points about this system. First, while leveling allows players to skip some challenges it cannot let them skip all of them. Players have to do something right to get experience points at all. There’s potential here for players to pick and choose their challenges--whether they think it’s worth investing in memorization and problem solving, or merely by spending their time on lesser challenges. However, it’s not an especially endearing feature for players that are both frustrated with the challenge and don’t feel like wasting their time.

Secondly, the fact that leveling essentially automates some aspects of the game isn’t necessarily a bad one. WoW, and any other RPG, has a lot going on besides fighting enemies for experience points, a lot of things that require a great deal of thought from players--so maybe it’s okay that there are some things they don’t have to think so hard about. They are not a system that is inherently manipulative, just one that must be used with the upmost care.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog which he's actually updating now called Mammon Machine, which is struggling for life, and he can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]