The grinding safety-netPosted: March 26, 2013
So I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni lately, and for the most part it’s a lovely experience, until you get to the combat. The trouble is that it claims to have both skill-based gameplay, as well as grindy/time investment type gameplay.
To explain, in skill-based games players rely on their own ability or understanding to succeed. however in time-investment/grinding games, the only thing a player must do to succeed is invest time. so long as the player has more time to spare they can grind whatever variable is holding them back until the chances of victory approach 1.
Few games are *purely* about time-investment, though some come close. Even the most grind-heavy J-RPG tends to have systems where certain attacks are better in certain situations, party formations impact performance and so-on. But even with the perfect strategy and technique, Sephiroth is going to win every time if I fight him at the level I start the game at.
The entire point of grinding/levelling systems is so *anyone* can win, it’s a self-adjusting system for varying skill (in theory); players who struggle using skill alone can grind a little and have an easier time playing with their skills, or grind further and not have to worry about the skill challenge at all. (In this respect; grinding is like a difficulty setting in the options menu, except takes hours to adjust.)
If you look at the history of grinding in games, it sort of makes sense; it’s a way to represent a character becoming more experienced over the course of the game, and prevents them from overcoming certain obstacles until the character is suitably experienced. It’d be like if a hero in a movie stepped onto the dance floor for the first time, won the trophy right away and never had the training montage. (In this respect; grinding is like a training montage from a movie, except it takes hours to watch.)
The thing is, though characters may not have it early on in the game, many players do have the experience required to overcome the obstacles already. I spent many, many hours grinding in many, many games. I already know if you don’t equip the right accessory when you face an enemy with a bunch of status-effect inducing spells you’re gonna have a bad time. But little Oliver, he doesn’t know that. He still has to grind, he still has to collect that experience until he becomes anywhere as close to a master wizard as I am. This kinda sucks for me.
But here’s the thing; almost nobody is using time investment/grinding for the purposes of conveying ‘narrative of character improvement’, or even as a difficulty setting; it’s a safety net for designers.
You can make the game you think sounds cool, “it’s all about skill and tactics and stuff”. but you implement a levelling system so that when you screw up your design players can just grind a little, to improve the odds and get through that skill bottleneck that you didn’t have time to fix. This is precisely what it does in Ni No Kuni and so many other games. Narrative-wise, Oliver is a great wizard because it is his fate and <spoilers>it’s in his blood</spoilers>; the kid doesn’t *need* experience. Grinding serves no mechanical purpose, other than to allow players to up the victory odds because the skill-based part of the combat is massively flawed.
Whenever I see levelling up in a game these days, I consider it as an admission of failure. “I know *players* can’t improve as they play the game, so I added grinding” or “The game doesn’t take as long as I want it to take, so I added grinding”, perhaps “I couldn’t make a consistent skill-requirement throughout the game like I wanted, so I added grinding” or maybe even the worst “Every other game was doing it, so I added grinding”
There’s simply no good argument *for* levelling up mechanics in a video game.
- As a difficulty safety-net so anyone can finish the game; if anyone can finish, why force weaker players to waste more time to progress?
- As a narrative technique; Do it like the movies do montages; keep it short, address that it happened and then let the players get on without having to do repetitive nonsense.
- As padding to keep the game longer; fuck you and wanting to waste people’s time, don’t you know your players are all going to die someday? Why are you wasting their precious moments alive?
There is one thing I’ll say for grinding; it’s realistic. Everything I have gotten good at in life I grinded to get my own skills there. To be able to make games in a weekend without a second thought has taken thousands of hours screwing around with code, studying and experimenting. Same with drawing, 3D modelling, and even getting amazingly exceptionally good at pure skill-based games (hello SSX, guitar hero etc).
But I don’t get into games for realism (usually). Games don’t start at the ‘beginning’ usually after all. all the characters tend to at least have made it through puberty; there’s no playing Vaan as a baby, collecting experience every time he shits himself until he’s a high enough level to hold it in and use a toilet. We can just take it as read he has that experience and get on with playing the game. We players don’t need to experience it *all* with him, and the same is true for ‘gaining experience’. If we need to see the characters (as opposed to the player) get get more skilled, montage that shit! Games don’t have to be so… ‘narratively real-time’, give Thirty Flights of Loving a go to see what I mean. There are cuts in it much like you see in movies, there’s no reason Cloud couldn’t walk into a dojo someplace and walk out tougher seconds later in player-time. Or even have him walk away from any battle with the strength required to overcome the next one.
But this is besides the point really, it only helps solve the issue of wasting players time. My real point is if you’re going to have skill-based gameplay, don’t make it redundant through grinding, get rid of that safety net.
Let’s look at Dark Souls (I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to pull design tips from Dark Souls at this point but you’ll get over it). You can beat Dark Souls at level one. You don’t have to, but you can. You can grind to make it easier on yourself, but because grinding is entirely optional it means the skill-based play aspects are working just fine. The safety net is there if players want it, but they can totally play skill-only if they want.
Compare Ni No Kuni; You automatically level up as you play so level one runs are impossible, but that’s not the problem. The real problem is there is no way in hell you finish the game without grinding. If you just run through the story you will come against enemies that can’t be beaten until you are a higher level. The game has skill-based play during battles but it’s all irrelevant; at high levels you win whatever, at low levels you can’t win at all, and in-between you need to rely on luck because the core combat system itself is massively flawed.
If your skill-based gameplay doesn’t add anything to the game; take it out. Take it right out of there, you’re mocking the player by leaving it in. There is little more frustrating than being told “it is within your power to effect the outcome” when any possible action is going to result in failure.
So, some final summary to tie this up I guess;
– Using Level-up mechanics as a safety net is admitting your game is broken, grinding is a quick-fix that makes players suffer for it.
– Don’t be afraid separate the character and the player for a time, the player doesn’t need to be there as the character builds up their muscles/reflexes/whatever
– If you have a skill-based system, it only counts if the player can win using their skill alone, otherwise it’s a grinding system with crap tacked on to hide how ugly it is.
– A player’s time is valuable, don’t force them to do the same stuff over and over to progress. (if it’s fun to do repetitive bullshit, they will opt to do it themselves, heck knows how many times I’ve dropped down zombies with jetpacks)
just some stuff to think about 🙂