Monday, June 06, 2016

Worlds, Characters, and Grind

I used to love "the grind" in games. When you take your party out into a dungeon and level up, fight random enemies, search for more treasure chests, buy the next weapon upgrade. Other people liked platforming, or shooting games, or racing games. I liked grinding.

Well, entering the Tower of Doom and fighting 8000 orcs isn't that much different from replaying a few levels of Super Mario, or running through a Doom chapter, or racing for a cup in some racing game. They're all just play within well-understood constraints, right?

But "the grind" has a very bad reputation. It's not fun.

Is it? Isn't it? It was when I was a kid. Actually, going back and playing FFVI, I still enjoy grinding. What's up? Why does it suck so much to grind in MMORPGs and other modern games?

What did I like about grinding? Why do I like grinding throughout FFI, but only in the first part of FFVI? What do Gau and Strago have to do with making grinding fun again?

Let's be clear: I like to grind because I like having a reason to spend time in that world with those people.

Modern games don't do that.


Right now we're coming out of a rut. For decades we've focused on silent and/or customizable characters, and now people have started to realize that marketing (both to consumers and to publishers) is much more effective if you can center it around energetic characters that resonate.

We used to market games based on visuals, gameplay, or plot. Now we market them based on characters. There's nothing wrong with that, but why do I not like grinding in any of these games? They have colorful, interesting characters in lush worlds, so what's up?

Well, I like having a reason to spend time in that world with those people.

I like having a reason to spend time.

Modern games don't give me a reason, and don't let me spend time.


The easiest example for me is FFVI. In the first half of FFVI, I loved grinding. Hanging out with Terra and Sabin and Locke and the other guy... Fred? Whatever. That was great! The world was beautiful, the music was grand, the characters were fun! I really loved their reaction when you first use magic in a fight: the game patiently waits for you to use magic, it doesn't just force the scene in wherever. It's damn near perfect.

How about the "reason" and the "spend time"?

Well, in a linear RPG, the "reason" is easy. There's a meat gate. You're stuck here until you can beat the meat gate, so you grind until you can.

The "spend time" is also easy: you measure your progress not in absolute power gains, but in gains relative to the meat gate. You're not "level 6", you're "two levels below where you need to be". How high we set the bar varies based on the player, but in the end you can't get around the meat wall. You have to grind through it.

You have a reason to be here (you're just stuck here) and you have a way to measure the passing of grind-time (your power relative to the meat gate).

The Kefka blows up the world, and you can go anywhere.

I didn't like this part as much for grinding. For non-grinding play, it was intense, and I appreciate that. But I couldn't spend much time in this world. Ironically, once the world opened-up, things got more goal-focused. While the goals were very well-written, they aren't very long and don't require grinding.

You can still grind, of course - kill baddies, gain levels. But there's no easy way to engage with the world or measure your progress - it turns into bland statistical grinding instead of being stuck somewhere intense making progress against a particular challenge.

I had no reason to grind, and no way to really measure time.

This changed when I remember Gau and Strago, two characters I'd written off as "annoying to use". These are characters that give you a reason to grind, and a way to measure grind progress. Not perfectly, but better than nothing. Plus, the music on the veldt is amaaaaaaaazing.

And, just like that, grinding became fun again. I had a reason (improving Gau and Strago's unique abilities) and a way to measure time (The list filling in) in that world with those people.


Open-world is not a curse. I love open-world games. I loved them back in the day, with Fallout and Wasteland. I love them now. And I can grind in open worlds, too. The process is a bit different, because instead of grinding "in place", I grind while exploring.

It's dangerous to equate the two kinds of grinding, because the first half of the sentence is different.

I like having a reason to spend time in that world with those people.

In a linear game, the reason is simply the meat wall before you can move forward, and the time is marked by your progress towards defeating it.

In an open game, the player needs reasons and something to mark time. Normally, the setup lets the player choose their reasons and the reasons have some kind of really clear progress built in, or at least can have some kind of progress put in as a limiter.

For example, in Skyrim I might choose to run vaguely towards the next town while grinding any encounters or dungeons I happen to stumble across. I'm grinding my character's chosen class - throwing fireballs, firing arrows, sneaking, stabbing, etc. Now, normally, grinding a class is incredibly dull, because your progress is measured in fractions of a percent of how far the class can go.

I mean, moving from 10 swordplay to 11 swordplay out of 100+ possible points isn't very interesting.

But Skyrim has a few fun ways to measure time. First, when you level up, you get a perk. The perks require you to have a specific stat. So if I want a big damage boost, I need to get to 15 swordplay and have a perk ready to spend on it. Going from 10 to 11 when your goal is 15 is very measurable progress! The chunkiness of the leveling also makes it more interesting than if you just get the damage boost at 15: you've got to weigh when you'll get a level, if you should save the perk, etc.

Another way to measure time is movement across the map. I'm theoretically going to the next town, but there's all sorts of random crap just off the road to lure me aside. That's great. I can see how far I've come, how far I have to go, and I can decide how quickly I want to get there and what detours I want to take.

I can also just strike out in any random direction, but since the map has major destinations and limits built in, I'll eventually reach a natural "stopping" point where I can reassess my goals and methods.

A lot of people don't like Skyrim, probably because this is the primary gameplay. Everything works like this. Want to be a thief? Well, measure how many people in the city you haven't robbed yet, how many buildings you haven't burgled, how much stuff is in this room, how much is worth taking. You have a goal and a way to measure the time you're spending on achieving it.

This seems to be a powerful way to build open world games, given that Skyrim is still popular. Lots of people don't like it, but lots of people still play it even after all this time.

What do you folks think? Are you the same way? Do you have different ways of playing?

Well, what I really want to talk about is how to make characters in that sort of setting, how to create an interactive world, how to make the player avatar act in deep and interesting ways without forcing a particular character onto the player, how to set up NPCs so they have character arcs that react to the player's activities in an open world, and so on.

But, uh, maybe that should wait.


Random_Phobosis said...

I like Dying Light. Like TES/F3+ series, it has vast open space to explore, and not unlike TES/F3+, the combat and resource systems are crap, which get in the way of exploring and make any challenge involving actual game rules utterly annoying. As a tourist simulator, the game is awesome though.

What is the same:
- faceless protagonist
- dull main quest line

What is better:
- Far more environmental storytelling. Kinda like in Thief series, the space IS the character, because it has many stories to tell if you're observant enough.
- Traversing the world is transformed into meaningful challenge.
- Lots of personality in sidequest NPCs. Sadly, no interactiviy besides linear quest path, but very inspired nonetheless.

Craig Perko said...

Dying light is STILL full price. :|