Q: What is grinding?
A: I define grinding as repeating a single task until it gets boring.
Q: If it’s boring, why is grinding necessary?
A: There are two reasons. One, gaming as submission (1). Two, grinding lets games have a ramping power level. You get stronger when you grind.
Q: Why do games need a ramping power level?
A: It’s illustrated in a game design concept called “flow.” Players are constantly evolving when they’re playing games: they’re getting better as they learn new mechanics and master old ones. So if the game’s difficulty level doesn’t change, the player will quickly become too good and the game will be boring. The game’s difficulty needs to rise along with the player’s power level. Consequentially, if the game is too hard and the player hasn’t yet acquired the skills to properly react, it becomes frustrating to play. Flow is how games maintain a balance between “boring” and “frustrating” by scaling the difficulty with the player’s power level.
Q: So if flow is meant to prevent games from being boring, and grinding is meant to make flow happen, then why is grinding boring?
A: … Good question.
Well-designed video games find an answer to that last question. Mediocre video games never make it to the third question: they just assume that ramping power levels are a good thing. Bad video games never bother to question what grinding exactly is and just stuff it into their game.
Grinding happens because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what flow is. It’s when designers mistake “player skill level” for “character skill level,” as in the character that the player is controlling. That might seem like a small difference, but it’s not. Not at all.
Player Skill Versus Character Skill
“Player skill” refers to the growth that the human player holding the controls goes through while playing the game. Things like reaction speed, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, predicting enemy movements, estimating the flight arc of a thrown grenade, and bluffing are all player skill. Think of it as the skills that stay with the player even after leaving the game. On the other hand, “character skill” is all about the systematic numbers behind the player’s character. Leveling up, finding health upgrades, and equipping a stronger weapon are all cases of character skill.
Flow is all about player skill. Character skill is only relevant if it applies to player skill. Straight numbers have no place in flow, and that’s where the problem of grinding lies. It’s what happens when you try to artificially create flow using character skill rather than player skill.
Still, it’s not easy to differentiate between “player skill” and “character skill.” Don’t they play off each other? If you had a character who attacks once per second for two damage, and another character who attacks twice per second for one damage each, wouldn’t you play them differently? There’s a whole grey zone in between those two types of skills, but for the sake of clarifying the differentiation we can look at the polar opposites, the genre that epitomizes player skill versus the genre that epitomizes character skill. Those two genres, in my opinion, are fighting games and RPGs respectively (2).
Players of fighting games have to go through many, many steps before being able to experience the game as it was meant to be played. First, there’s learning the controls and combos. Then there are different characters, each with unique playstyles. After that, you start getting into the nitty-gritty details of block frames and dodge frames and how all the underlying mechanics work. And throughout this whole process, a player has to be honing his physical dexterity to play the game in the first place: it took me like an hour of practice until I could execute Ryu Hayabusa’s Izuna Drop attack in Dead or Alive 3. Finally, after all this learning, the player gets to the stage of “yomi,” the part where the game revolves around predicting and countering enemy movements (3).
Beginner players of a fighting game can’t possibly afford to spend concentration on yomi, because they need that concentration for controller dexterity and character-specific combos. Fighting games are notorious for their immensely high skill floor and how difficult it is to get into that world. Of course, the tradeoff is that player growth has immense potential, high enough for professional fighting game players to make a living. That whole journey from beginner to pro, from learning the controls to manipulating yomi is all player skill. But the characters themselves never changed one bit.
On the other hand, traditional RPGs have a low player skill ceiling (4). These games consist of turn-based combat and selecting actions from a menu. How much better can you get at selecting “Fire” under the “Magic” section? Difficulty in RPGs is measured numerically: levels, statistics, health, damage output, etc. When you’re facing off against a difficult boss in a traditional RPG, you defeat it by fighting other monsters until your in-game characters grow stronger. But you as a player aren’t actually growing at all: your talents aren’t rising, because there isn’t anywhere for them to rise. Maybe you’re getting a little faster at selecting options from menus, but that’s about it.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that pure dedicated fighting games rarely have leveling systems, or even numerical displays. Health in fighting games is often represented by bars: it’s rare to see it represented by numbers as is so common among RPGs. Branching off that train of thought, professional RPG players will probably never be a thing with how low the skill ceiling is. RPGs don’t actually drive the player to greater skill levels: they drive the characters that the player controls to greater skill levels. There’s no player growth happening, but compare a hardcore Final Fantasy Tactics player’s team to a complete beginner’s.
Now that we’ve established fighting games as being primarily player skill and RPGs as being primarily character skill, we can look at each genre’s approach to grinding. It’s not a deep analysis: fighting games have little to no grinding, and RPGs have a ton of it. But there are more genres than those two, so we’ll need to take a look at a wider spectrum of games. I’ll be adding my opinion on which skill type each game focuses on, and how that ties into the gameplay. Keep this question in mind: how would you approach a difficult boss in each of these titles? Would you vary up your tactics and hone your player skills, or would you retreat and grind on monsters to increase your character skills?
Final Fantasy Tactics (Turn-based strategy, RPG): I sort of regret using this game to represent pure character skill. Like with any turn-based strategy, FFT involves positioning, timing, and foresight. All of those are player skill, but I would still say that FFT is primary about character skill. New classes only become available once a character has trained sufficiently in prerequisite classes. Each class provides new avenues for player skill, but unlocking the classes in the first place is character skill. 15% player skill, 85% character skill.
Cave Story (Action adventure): Enemies drop weapon energy when defeated, which levels up the weapon you’re holding. That’s character skill, but there’s a gimmick: when you take damage, your currently equipped weapon loses some energy and becomes weaker. If you’re taking too much damage, your character becomes weak and you have to either switch to another weapon or try to build up more weapon energy. Your ability to avoid damage is what maintains your current character skill. It’s like FFT in reverse: your character skill level scales proportionally with your player skill level. 75% player skill, 25% character skill (5).
Borderlands (FPS, RPG): The game’s leveling system is balanced so that focusing purely on story missions will leave you underleveled and weak. There are plenty of side quests to gain experience from, but even then you’re never more than a few levels over a story mission boss. Grinding and increasing character skill is used not as an option for defeating tough enemies, but more as a limiter forcing players to do side quests. Which isn’t a bad thing: the side quests are interesting, fun, and never repetitive. 80% player skill, 20% character skill.
The Binding of Isaac (Action adventure): Now this one is just weird, because the whole game is completely randomized. Sometimes you’ll find many powerful accessories and become a juggernaut, whereas other times you’ll be less fortunate in your journey and will probably end up dead. There’s player skill involved: dodging damage, landing attacks, using special items wisely. But character skill isn’t a reliable factor. With that said, this game doesn’t follow the concept of flow (6). 25% player skill, 10% character skill, 65% randomization.
Notice any trends? For one, none of these estimates are reliable. Each title’s emphasis on skill changes over the course of the game. Late-game Borderlands focuses much more on character skill, and late-game Final Fantasy Tactics increases the need for player skill. But these are just rough, general estimates for the game’s power curve as a whole. I just had to point that out for the sake of integrity.
But the important trend to notice is each game’s relationship to grinding. When a game focuses on character skill, it tends to lean towards grinding. Final Fantasy Tactics has grinding: you fight randomly encountered enemies so your characters get stronger. Cave Story has a little tiny bit of grinding: it’s smart to bring all your weapons to their maximum level before a tough boss battle, but the maximum level is three and that’s easily reached. Borderlands doesn’t have grinding: enemies give experience relative to your own level, so killing enemies weaker than you makes no difference. The Binding of Isaac doesn’t have grinding: it’s impossible to grind in that game with its randomized nature.
What Does Each Kind Of Skill Do?
Emphasis on character skill causes grinding. When a game focuses on character skill, it becomes all about the end result. You fight battles so your character levels up and becomes stronger. It’s like a Skinner box: you’re going through a boring process so you can get a reward in the end. A video game should not be a boring process.
On the other hand, when a game focuses on player skill, the journey becomes the goal. You fight battles because it’s fun to fight battles, not because you want a reward at the end. Think about it this way: when you reach maximum character skill (the level cap) in a game, do you still continue to play it? Look at the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. You gain experience by playing, but you have an option to reset all your experience and start again from scratch. Go to Maplestory and ask any high-leveled player if they’d like to reset all their experience and start again from scratch. There’s no way it would be okay in Maplestory: having your account hacked and losing all your items is considered traumatic enough. But everyone does it in CoD: MW. It’s because the action of playing CoD: MW and shooting people’s faces is intrinsically fun, and restarting lets you play the game more. But in Maplestory, you’re playing the game only for the reward, rather than because it’s fun (7). It’s not fun: if it weren’t for the leveling system, no one would play it. Games should be fun in and of themselves rather than relying on tricks to reel players in.
Grinding and flow are like two sides of a coin. It’s the battle between the psychological trap against the paragon of good game design, represented by character skill and player skill respectively. Still, as much as I dislike grinding, I don’t want to just bash on it: it’s better to try to see both sides of the issue. What’s the good side of grinding and character-based skill?
One, character skill is consistent. Player skill is something that requires effort to develop, while character skill is always increasing as long as you’re playing the game. Contrast the outwardly-similar MOBA games League of Legends and Dota 2. LoL has aspects of character skill: after each match you gain influence points (IP) that you can spend to buy new champions, or runes to boost your champion’s abilities in battle. If you’re on a massive losing streak in LoL, it might feel demoralizing and painful but you’re still gaining IP even after losses. Maybe you can switch it up: buy a new champion, or buy a different set of runes. But Dota 2 doesn’t have a system like that: it’s pure player skill. When you’re feeling weak and useless after a losing streak, it’s frustrating to know that you can’t get any stronger unless you have a pro player coach you or something. That’s why Dota 2 is considered a game for hardcore players while LoL is a bit more approachable, and that’s also why LoL is one of the most popular games in the world while Dota 2 has a niche community. It’s a smart way to take a positive aspect of character skill without bringing grinding into the picture (8).
Two, character skill gives you time to master player skills. In Borderlands, each character has a special Action Skill: the hunter Mordecai sends his pet bird Bloodwing to attack enemies for his Action Skill. Bloodwing’s initial cooldown is twenty-eight seconds, but as you level up and learn new abilities (improving your character skill) you can bring Bloodwing’s cooldown to as low as one second. But think of it this way: if Bloodwing’s base cooldown was one second, how would a new player react? It would be impossible to balance using Bloodwing and using standard gun combat at the same time. That’s why Bloodwing’s cooldown starts out high and drops down low, so players can get used to cycling through different types of attacks while in combat. With a twenty-eight second cooldown, it’s easy to see how to use Bloodwing: throw her out, have her attack an enemy, then shoot people for twenty-eight seconds until she’s ready again. A shorter cooldown is the same thing, but faster: and the player can actually do it, since he’s learned how to do it with a twenty-eight second cooldown.
Three, character skill is satisfying. Looking back at all the effort you spent making your character as powerful as possible is satisfying. It’s like that scene in Gran Torino when Clint Eastwood is cleaning his car, and when he’s done he sits on his porch, smokes a cigarette, and just looks at the finished product. That’s just not possible with player skill. Perfectionist player types gravitate towards RPGs or other character-skill based games for this reason. Disc 3 of Final Fantasy VII was pretty much that: it contained nothing but the final battle with Sephiroth and a ton of room for extra character skill expansion. Some players would just make a beeline for Sephiroth and end the game, and some players would go out and look for the golden chocobo or try to kill Ruby Weapon or all the other character-skill things left to do.
The distinction between player skill and character skill is fuzzy and unclear, but when a game’s designers sit down and try to pin down exactly what they want their title’s skill distribution to be, it results in a good video game. But when that process of considering different skill types doesn’t happen, it results in design flaws like grinding. It’s necessary for us designers to understand the pros and cons of both player skill and character skill and apply that analysis to the games we create.
(1) Read the “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics” paper for more on submission. Basically, it’s when you play a game for the sake of losing yourself in a simple rote task. It’s like re-reading a book so you can zone out and just enjoy it, rather than picking up a new book that would be a bit more thought-intensive. Submission is a reasonable and respectable goal for game design, but not all games are about submission.
(2) Puzzle games like Closure and Braid are also cases of pure player skill with zero character skill. But for the sake of this essay, fighting games are easier to analyze.
(3) For more about yomi, look up the prisoner’s dilemma. “Yomi” in fighting games is analogous to “ply” in chess: in both cases it’s the interaction between what you think the enemy will do and how you will counter it.
(4) I say “traditional RPGs” to differentiate between pure RPGs and action RPGs. Action RPGs are more like the grey zone in between player skill and character skill, whereas traditional RPGs lean much more towards character skill.
(5) I almost feel like I should rate Cave Story‘s emphasis on player skill higher, because of the Blood-Stained Sanctuary levels. Seriously: I’ve been playing those levels while writing this essay, and I still haven’t beaten them. Not only are they insanely hard, but entering them drops all your weapon levels to their minimum, so you have to build up weapon energy from scratch. More game design at work, making a hard area even harder by eliminating grinding!
(6) While flow is normally a part of good game design, The Binding of Isaac actually has a very good reason for not using it. Analyzed here: https://omegathorion.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/game-review-the-binding-of-isaac/
(7) I used to play Maplestory a long, long time ago. Back then, we measured experience gain in terms of percent/hour, as in the percentage of experience necessary to reach the next level. 10%/hour was considered average, while over 15%/hour was considered very efficient. Imagine spending ten hours grinding, fighting the same enemies over and over and over for ten hours. Now, Maplestory has changed and it’s much easier to gain levels. But still, ten hours for a level! Behold the fearsome power of the Skinner box.
(8) LoL does have grinding: it takes a lot of matches (around sixty) to get enough IP to buy a champion. The thing is, each of those matches is still fun by itself. There are players who have unlocked every champion and every type of rune and yet still continue to play. Even though you’re repeating the task of fighting battles over and over, each battle is different: you’re playing a different champion with different allies against a different enemy who also has different allies, and each of you has different rune setups and is playing a different position. It would be like saying basketball is grinding because you’re always throwing balls through hoops: it’s not that way because of all the variables making each game unique.