Ain’t Got Time to Grind

The Paleogamer

So it’s been awhile since I posted anything; I have the real world to blame.

In my non-gaming life I’m a senior developer for an international airline and am currently working with a database used for revenue decision support. We completed a major upgrade to the system recently and installed it into production about a week and a half ago. Things actually went somewhat smoothly, or as smoothly as anything can with a 50 billion row, 4.5 terabyte database used by around 150 people. So, I’ve been a bit busy. It looks like I may clock in at under 60 hours this week, which is an improvement over the 70-80 I’ve been logging for the past two weeks.

At any rate, the other night I had a bit of a break and decided to burn off some stress by logging into World of Warcraft and killing a few innocent snapjaws to collect their scales for my master leatherworking quest. So I wound up on a beach in Tanaris, killing snapjaws and half-watching the latest Torchwood off the TiVo while waiting for the next set to spawn. Then, when the show was over, I not only turned off the TV, I logged off of WoW as well. I just wasn’t having that much fun. And that started me thinking about MMOs, grinding and what makes a game fun.

No one likes grinding; I think everyone agrees with that. Unfortunately, that makes up the vast majority of most MMOs. Most of your time on-line winds up looking like:

  • Kill critters, so you can…
  • Get more XP and better loot, so you can…
  • Kill bigger critters, so you can…
  • Get still more XP and still better loot, so you can…
  • Repeat as necessary

If you think about it, this is really all that is happening for most of any MMO; your character is advancing in level, gaining experience and better stuff, but the world around you never changes. You may be sent off on a quest to kill the evil wizard Foozle in his tower to the north, but even after you do so he is still up there terrorizing the local population. After all, he has to be there for the next player to kill. Nothing you are doing has any affect on the world around you; you are just gaining levels and getting stuff. You may as well be playing Progress Quest

This is a key difference between the standard MMO and most single-player games. In a single-player game, you are the center of the world. In Half-Life for example, you are Gordon Freeman, savior of humanity. In Oblivion you are the hero who will close the gates and save the world. In an MMO, you’re just the latest guy to attack the wizard. Today.

Of course, everyone puts up with the grind so that they can reach the endgame. But what is the endgame? Endlessly repeating the same raids over and over again until everyone in the group gets their complete set of gear? This is just the same grind as before with still no effect on the larger world. After all, that raid instance reset itself after you left. No matter how many times you go on that raid, the evil wizard Foozle will still be there.

Yeah, there is always PvP but other than the additional challenge of fighting an actual person instead of an AI, nothing comes of it either. Sure, you get points on a leaderboard or something but the fact remains that no matter how many times the Horde and Alliance beat up on each other in the battleground the political landscape of Azeroth is never going to change. And if you just want the challenge of going up against another person, something like Team Fortress gives the same challenge without all that unnecessary grinding up front.

To be fair, there are a few MMOs that break these rules. Eve Online comes to mind first. The grind there is minimized in that your character gains skills at a fixed rate even when you aren’t logged in. And the PvP there carries real weight in that the boundaries of the great player empires shift back and forth depending on player actions. (And losing a fight carries a severe penalty too, in that you lose your ship and everything in it.) Still, the player wars have no effect on the core empires and the open PvP is off-putting to some players.

The other game I must mention is Guild Wars. There, player actions do affect the world. But it is only able to do this because it is so heavily instanced; Guild Wars doesn’t even identify itself as an MMO.

Grinding is work. Even worse, it is busy work; it has no function or purpose other than occupying player time. I can have fun in Team Fortress without spending weeks or months killing increasingly difficult critters beforehand. If I do decide to spend weeks or months killing increasingly difficult critters, I can do it in Guild Wars and have an effect on the game world around me. And, if I just want to do a repetitive task over and over again, I’ll go to work and update a set of database schemas. At least I get paid to do that.

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