Forgive me, whoever is reading this, for I have sinned. Well, maybe not sinned, but I certainly confounded myself. For a solid four days, I did nothing but play Factorio. I woke up, went to my computer, booted up Factorio, played it for 16 hours, turned my computer off, went to bed and then dreamed about more efficient ways to manage my throughput. The thing is, the game is just one massive grind to the finish, laden with repetitive tasks that utterly absorbed me into the enthralling world of conveyor belt management. A game revolving around grinding sounds like hell on earth, but something about this particular grind was satisfying enough to get me hooked.
This wasn’t the creativity-fueled world of Minecraft or the full-time job of EVE; this was a grind for the sake of grinding, and I loved it. I look upon grinding with revulsion, but between the hours of midnight and 3 am, I was somewhere between catatonic and euphoric. So, why doesn’t Pokémon or WoW, both grindey in their own right, tickle my jangles? Repetition is just lazy game design and a cheap way to achieve longevity, so the grind shouldn’t make me want to keep playing the game for 16 hours straight, right? Well, if it were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing an article about it, so let’s get this grind under way.
Pictured Above: A Motivated Grinder
Grinding is like the bland part of the sandwich you have to chew through before you can take another bite. It’s characterised by repetitive gameplay without meaningful progress, and you usually won’t engage in grinding unless the game throws a hurdle in your face and forces you into it. RPG’s have historically utilised grinding for one reason or another, with games like Pokémon (can’t beat a gym leader? Grind!) and Final Fantasy (can’t beat Sephiroth? Grind!) practically requiring it. There’re two important distinctions between grinding and repetition, though, and it’s to do with the triviality and relevance of what you’re doing.
Repetitive tasks can be enjoyable, and most games have repetitive elements, but those elements are relevant to the gameplay. If you look at Doom, all you do is run and shoot, but both of those actions are fundamental to the gameplay, so much so that enemies and levels are designed around doing these very two things. The only thing resembling grinding is walking from area to area, but that’s still integral to moving the game along. Interesting repetition is like the part of the sandwich that stays flavoursome for as long as you chew it, but chewing is pretty trivial, and us gamers tend to prefer a challenging soup.
Yeah, everyone loves a challenge.
The other part of grinding is the superficial nature of those repetitive tasks. Grinding typically involves going back to places you already know you can beat to pound out things you know you’ll get. It could be smashing through dailies in WoW to get more gold, or it could be crushing some random encounters in Pokémon to get xp. There’s no challenge, and thus, no satisfying payoff, and the tedium grows exponentially with each success you accrue. So, if it’s better to make an elegant design that minimises trivial and irrelevant repetition, why was I so invested in Factorio that my haemorrhoids came back? It made me want to, that’s why.
To keep you invested in a game requires a delicate balance of fostering intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from the game rewarding you for doing well, like scoring gold for completing a quest. Intrinsic motivation is a bit trickier, and it comes from a sense of self-accomplishment and satisfaction with the mechanics rather than being rewarded. Games like Minecraft and SimCity are big on intrinsic motivation to keep players coming back, but Diablo 3 would feel pretty dull without the constant loot drops. Finding that balance between rewarding the player and letting them do their own thing is essential to maintaining player investment, and grinding tests this balance.
When you’re forced to grind, whatever extrinsic motivation has fostered you thus far is thrown out the window. The focus is now on intrinsic motivation to push you through to the next part of the game, but this can backfire very easily. Without a constant sense of progress, like consistently unlocking new tech or levelling up, a lack of intrinsic motivation translates into an indifference to keep playing the game. Too much reward and things backfire even more. If there’s enough to keep you going, however, then something weird happens.
If you manage to get through a session of grinding in a game, you’re likely to rationalise the experience after the fact. It could be as simple as your brain going, “It’s an RPG, and levels have to be earned,” or “Grinding is just part of the Pokémon experience,” without you even realising. The weird thing is, this makes you more likely to engage in grinding again because you’re reinforcing the intrinsic motivation and require less extrinsic motivation to get through it again. By putting in the long haul, you eventually get the pay-off at the end, and if it’s structured right, the grind can eventually become an accepted albeit unappealing part of the game. This is all well and good for a game like Factorio, but games like WoW offer a different perspective.
Fetch quests. That’s where it’s at.
It’s too easy to entirely blame rationalisations and conditioning because it misses half of the picture. Grinding is rarely an exclusive affair, and most games that are heavy in grinding are surrounded by a slew of other gameplay features. Most MMO’s are grind-fueled experiences, but they are surrounded by social mechanics to make the grind more palatable. There is barely any motivation to find in MMO quests, but the grind becomes enjoyable because it serves a different purpose.
Games like WoW demand more grinding than you would ever be able to tolerate, but millions of people still log in every day. It’s not because of some brilliant game design to break people into the torment of grinding, it’s just because the game is a platform for social bonding. MMO’s are not single player games, and as such, there will come a point where you will need to join other players to tackle an instance or complete a quest. By suffering together, the game fosters a sense of togetherness for the players, and this forms something like group favouritism without a real enemy.
Together, we can beat the grind… Or just keep grinding, I ‘unno.
Where Factorio has to motivate the player to push on, MMO’s can skip that step and get you to invite some friends. The grind in an MMO is not an enjoyable experience, but when it’s framed as a sort of enemy, it facilitates a sense of belonging. When you join a group in an MMO, your common enemy is the game. Because of the tedium the game presents, there is a tangible, long-winded reason not to fail any given instance, and that serves to unite everyone involved. In this way, the grind is being utilised because it’s frustrating, but don’t go thinking I’m okay with this approach.
When grinding forms the core of the game, it’s accepting a design that revolves around trivial, irrelevant gameplay. MMO’s utilise grinding as the foundation for everything in the game – whether it’s PvP, dungeons or raids – partially because it’s too hard to make a large enough world any other way. This is hardly elegant design, and if the social aspect is taken away, you’re just left with an intolerable grindfest. Regardless of how enjoyable or stimulating the grind can be with other people involved, it accepts and legitimises grinding without offering anything to bolster my motivation, and for me, that’s just a poorly designed game.
I like Factorio for being about grinding, but I hate MMO’s for being about grinding.
I’m totally not a hypocrite.
There’s certainly satisfaction to be found in grinding, but it takes a delicate balance to pull it off. MMO’s don’t do an excellent job of it, but games like Factorio and Minecraft have enough to motivate players to keep coming back. Don’t get me wrong, utilising grinding as a mechanic is a terrible way to design a game, but making it enjoyable is certainly doable. Oh, and if a friend of yours ever tries to invite you to Warframe, just go ahead and grind off their face.