I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve lamented the amount of grind present in MMO’s. But the hard truth is, almost every aspect of MMO’s and RPG’s involves some sort of grind, and yet I still play them. I’ve long enjoyed the leveling process of MMO’s and RPG’s, which at its heart is really just an XP grind. Why are some grinds more palatable, and even desirable, while others are dreaded?
At this point in the post I realize two things. First, many of my readers play and enjoy LOTRO. Second, to those who still play, this post may seem to be highly negative with regards to that game. To those of you who fall into this category, I have this to say: I harbor no ill will towards my favorite interactive depiction of Middle-Earth. I received over three years of intense enjoyment from LOTRO, and it will always hold a special place for me. That being said, in those three years I became intimately familiar with many aspects of the game that, over time, wore down my desire to play, some of which will be mentioned here. Some of these things are a product of a game developed for another era. Game systems are continually evolving, as are gamers’ tastes and thresholds for things like unnecessary grind. Some of these things are a product of (in my opinion) developing grindy systems into the game in order to sell cash shop items to decrease that grind. Likewise, many of the positive examples that follow are from Marvel Heroes, which, while not the perfect game, has the benefit of newness and of having learned from the mistakes of older games like LOTRO. It’s also technically an ARPG, so perhaps a direct comparison isn’t completely fair.
Complete Within a Reasonable Timeframe
One thing that I love about games of any genre is when you complete something without realizing that you were even working on it. This is typically how I approach most achievement systems. Level, level, level – oh look, I got the “kill 600 smoobies” trophy! Good for me! Once I complete my leveling, if there’s an achievement for killing, say 300 more smoobies, I might be tempted to carry on. The biggest problem I had with some of the grind systems in LOTRO was that I had to go out of my way to complete them. When I did inadvertently complete a slayer deed, for example, that only meant that I was 1/3 of the way done with the “advanced” version of that deed. The advanced version, of course, is where the actual stat boost is rewarded. In other words, there is really no way to complete the advanced slayer deeds as a part of the normal leveling process. I always had to go out of my way to obtain the advanced deed reward, which felt unnecessary.
What’s the big deal? So, I had to spend a few extra minutes doing something I didn’t like. So what? Well, I did a little math. The Angmarim slayer deed requires killing 150 Angmarim mobs in the Angmar region, but the advanced version of that deed requires 300 additional Angmarim be slayed for a grand total of 450 Angmarim. That doesn’t sound too bad if your main game is an ARPG, where trash mobs are slain by the dozens, but in LOTRO, mobs are typically killed one at a time, and usually via a mini-battle that can take up to 10-20 seconds (on level), depending on your class and DPS rate. Let’s say it takes 10 seconds to kill an on-level Angmarim. Slaying 450 of them would consume 4,500 seconds, or about 1.25 hours. That doesn’t even count the time needed for looking around for Angmarim or waiting for respawns, which could easily add another 30-60 minutes to that total, depending on the number of mobs and respawn rate (and whether they’re a stealthed mob!). It would be very easy to spend roughly two hours completing a single set of slayer deeds beyond your normal leveling grind – and that’s just one set of deeds! According to LOTRO Wiki, there are roughly 400 slayer deeds in the game. That’s a lot of extra time spent in addition to the main character progression system. Most players cut down on this time by first over-leveling an area, and then returning to it when mobs can be killed more quickly, which solves some problems but creates others, such as….
present the “right amount” of challenge
…the grind being too boring. Yes, that was me slaying dragonets in Moria (a level 50ish zone) at level 85. As a hunter, a ranged high-DPS class, it was like swatting flies! When I wasn’t sitting in a corner waiting for the respawns, anyway. But I certainly wouldn’t call it fun. It was something I was doing because either I couldn’t think of anything else to do, or because I felt it was necessary for my class to obtain the slight stat boost awarded at completion. I had to break the deed up into several nights because it was just…so…boring. This is always a danger zone for me. When I start to question why I’m doing something, it means I’m not having fun. When an achievement is too difficult or time consuming, I tend to give up and find something else to do. When it is too easy, I find myself sighing in boredom. In order for a grind to not feel like a grind, it needs to include just the right amount of challenge. I understand that this can be a difficult thing for developers, since a ‘challenge’ can be highly personal and subjective.
I like the way Marvel Heroes has provided different levels of difficulty for their terminal repeatables. “Repeatables” by very nature can be extremely repetitive and boring. However, the challenge and rewards offered via MH’s Green, red, and cosmic terminals provide increasing levels of difficulty while at the same time offering a sense of accomplishment and reward.
While we all have our own motivations, rewards tend to be a fairly common goal within a game. But offering rewards can also be a tricky business, and has a great influence over whether a player clicks on “one more run” or logs off in exasperation. Exciting, measurable and visible rewards are key to making a game grind palatable, and even fun and desirable. In my experience LOTRO really runs the gamut between fun rewards with perceivable benefits and collections of pixels that find themselves dragged out of my bag and trashed. The reason I like the leveling system in LOTRO is because it actually feels like progression. Your bar fills up, your character gains a level, and suddenly mobs that presented a challenge just five minutes ago are much easier to destroy! In fact, the whole world changes as mob colors progress from orange to white, and then to blue and green as your character enhances his skill. Especially in the earlier levels, the excitement that came with getting a new ability, and the anticipation of learning how to use it, made leveling an enjoyable experience, despite the fact that at its heart it’s simply an XP grind. By contrast, the tiny boosts offered via the aforementioned slayer deeds are practically imperceivable during normal gameplay and serve only to make you question why you just spent an extra two hours killing smoobies. Likewise, LOTRO did themselves few favors when introducing the oft-maligned Epic Battle system with the Helms Deep expansion by offering only jewelry as an end-game reward. Jewelry provides stats, but not the visual reward that most players were accustomed to receiving at end-game. Many players reasoned that if they were to “suffer through” the new end game system, they should at least get some epic looking gear!
Marvel Heroes, by contrast, offers loads and loads of gear drops for the copious amounts of grind. What interests me about the gear in MH is the multitude of uses designed into the game. For example, as a lowbie I was excited to find a purple (rare) drop with numerous stat increases. As I progress through the game, I start to discard the purple gear for cosmic (yellow) gear, and later for unique gear. However, I’m still able to donate lower-tier gear drops to crafters, enchanters, and other such NPC’s in order to better their offerings. I’m also able to ‘level’ my pets’ passive boosts by throwing gear of different tiers in their direction. Due to the numerous uses for gear (and other drops), grinding doesn’t usually reach the level of feeling ‘pointless’ like my deed completion in LOTRO did. In a sense, the usefulness of these drops is its own reward, and I continually feel like I’m working towards something worthwhile.
I don’t envy game creators in their quest to keep players happy. Grind is an integral part of MMO’s and RPG’s, and has proven that it can keep players busy and happy for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. However, allowing players to see and feel the progression and rewards associated with grind is essential. The best grind is the one that players don’t notice because we’re too busy having fun.