Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nose to the Grindstone

The term "grind" is a familiar one for those who have played MMOs with any frequency. It usually not thought of as a good thing, yet there are those players who feel it is a necessary part of any successful MMO. But just what does it mean and is it really necessary?


Yet again, we turn to the dictionary ( to try to figure out what we're analyzing.

So let's see here... skimming the definition... crush, pulverize. No. Gnash? As in "grind the teeth". Not quite. Hmm.. "To bear down on harshly; crush". Maybe my spirit and/or bank account.

Wait, I see it. We have to skip down to the 5th definition to get to the good stuff.

6. To produce mechanically or without inspiration: The factory grinds out a uniform product.
7. To instill or teach by persistent repetition: ground the truth into their heads.

Ah, that sounds like how I spend $15 a month.

I note a few positive words such as "produce" and "teach". But then I see more neutral or even downright negative concepts such as "mechanically", "without inspiration"; maybe "repetition".

Follow the link again ( to see more specifics, if you will. But let's just assume that the term isn't being used for the slang definition there, or else I've been missing a large part of the games. (Look it up, kids. Err... maybe not.)

And so, let's now turn our attention back to MMOs in particular; tucking this definition in our collective back pocket to be referenced if need be.

When one begins a new MMO and takes their newly created toon into the game world, typically a tutorial instance or area is presented. The act of learning here is quite overwhelming, challenging, and exciting. Or at least it should be.

Once the tutorial is completed, the "real" game begins. Still, it feels like an extension of the tutorial except there is more spam, more obnoxiousness, and usually more then a few guys playing girl toons running around in their skivvies with grind macros running. (See what I did there?)

Continuing along, with one finger hovering over the trusty Journal and another ready to summon the map, the levels come rapid-fire. The toon grows in capabilities; the inventory fills, the little money tracker - wherever it may be, and whatever the currency - is spinning upwards.

Behind it all, it's nothing more then "Go here. Kill x thing. Rinse. Repeat." But the player is learning via this persistent repetition, right? So it's already a grind, by definition.

But then there might be inspiration to reach that next level, to get that next amazing weapon, to unlock that new area. If this is done with inspiration, then it's NOT a grind, by definition.

So which is it?

Well, it all depends upon when the leveling process runs out, coupled with the patience level of the player (and perhaps their capacity to learn).

In most MMOs, the pattern of leveling soon presents itself. The progression is linear, the content is gated, and the complexity of tasks never deviates. But at the same time, the requirements to attain the next level, skill, and gear increases while the potential for new information to be learned diminishes or disappears.

Because gamers have been bred and conditioned to stop at nothing until a task is completed to the end, the drive toward the "end game" is a significant reason to continue forward. (And we'll discuss this "end game" in a future article).

A good MMO will have mini-games to distract players. Most often this involves the crafting of goods to sell to fellow players, but we may also find fishing, exploration, or playing music. The problem there is that even the mini-games can become repetitive quickly since they tend to be very simple to learn and usually have no end game to work towards.

So let's summarize here. The repetition of a task is a teaching mechanic. This works in children, dogs, and gamers. (And isn't it telling that we're lumped into that list?).

Let's focus on that for a moment; let's consider children. (And couldn't we all just do that no matter what we're talking about?)

We can say that children grind out their ABCs until they learn them. There's a catchy tune that aids in this, and to this day we all would be hard-pressed not to hear the melody if we run through the alphabet in our head. That was an effective grind to say the least!

Children then move on to learn about capital letters, printing and eventually cursive writing. Along the way, they learn a few rules about spelling and their vocabulary continues to grow. Soon, they're writing papers or blogs about the term "grinding" and they're not thinking twice about the basic tenets of grammar learned years ago.

They may even move on - hardly children by now - to learn additional languages, whether foreign or even for programming. Those with special needs could also be outfitted to understand sign language or Braille. And the most talented become authors and give the gift of their imagination to the world via the written word. (Are we looking at end game, here?)

In all facets of the previous example, there is a repetition to acquire permanent information. Even the author, at his or her own end game, will continue to write and refine, just as 8 year old Susie is practicing her printing while twisting her tongue between her teeth to get the lines to be just so.

The author has no need for printing his or her ABCs, right? Just as Susie is in no danger of writing a best selling novel over her summer vacation. But the author needed those fundamental skills that Susie is learning.

"Go. Kill. Repeat." Sprinkle in a random "Loot Reward" with the unspoken word of "Without this, you'll suck at end game". This is the video game equivalent of practicing ABCs for a lifetime. How many iterations does it take before Susie gets it?

Or put another way, just how many clicks DOES it take to get to the end game?

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