Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 09, 2010
The Grind

There has been a lot of talk about grinding lately. Beta players found Final Fantasy XIV grindy. People talked about grinding heroics in World of Warcraft. And Larísa even found progression raiding in WoW a grind. But what exactly is The Grind? And why do we play that way?

I don't know if there is a generally accepted definition of The Grind, but my version would look something like this: "The Grind is doing an unfun activity in a game repeatedly, in order to get a reward which allows access to fun content". That has been parodied by South Park in their Make Love Not Warcraft episode in the kids killing 65,340,285 level 1 boars. Killing the same mob over and over is one of the most typical forms of grinding. It often is a possible way to level up (although killing 65 million level 1 boars usually won't work), but games in which this is the most effective way to level will often be described as grindy.

And there we stumble upon an important truth: Grinding is very often by choice, because The Grind happens to be the most efficient way to advance your character. In most cases it is not that there are no other activities in the game, often there are even other ways to advance. But one activity is often more efficient than another activity, so players follow the most efficient path, which leads them to repeat the same activity over and over, instead of seeking out a variety of different activities, which would advance them slower, but be more fun.

Imagine you play a MMORPG for a year, about 20 hours per week, for a total of 1,000 hours, and then stop playing. Does it really matter what you "achieved" in the game during that time? Given that there is no win condition, does it matter how far exactly you got, how efficient you were in advancing your character? I would rather say the premise is that you'll spend 1,000 hours of unproductive activity, for your personal entertainment. As levels or epics aren't worth anything outside of the confines of the game, being more efficient in gaining them has no value. It's like trying to be more efficient in watching TV by recording everything and then watching it in fast forward. You get through content faster, but that only diminishes the entertainment value of the content and serves no purpose whatsoever. Isn't game activity A which amuses you but isn't very effective in gaining levels/gold/gear better than activity B which is effective but not fun?

If you can do whatever you want, there is no grind. The promise of fun later if you grind now is an illusion. The joy of the reward lasts only for a very short time, while you wasted hours of your valuable free time with unfun grinding. That gold making guide telling you what is the best method for making gold in World of Warcraft is misleading you. The *best* method for making gold is the one that is most fun to you. And that might well be doing many different things, from daily quests, to fishing, to gathering herbs, to running dungeons, to playing the auction house, each for as long as your having fun, and then switching to something else. And the same is true for the best way to level up in this or that MMORPG: Most of the time you have various options, and its better to try everything, and switch between activities, than to do the same activity for hours on end.

The Grind is a consequence of the false worship of the cult of efficiency. Once you realize that it is by definition impossible to win a MMORPG, and efficiency gets you nowhere, you are set free to play whatever way is fun for you, and The Grind just disappears in a puff of smoke. If there is no fun activity in the game, why would you even want to play it in the first place?
Thanks for your post.

By way of reply to your last question:

1. I think surprisingly many actually like grinding. Like you pointed out, "The Grind" can mean many things to many people, but at its core your definition seems to be right on the money. And just like many people you meet at work won't admit they actually like looking at huge Excel spreadsheets and punch numbers for a whole day now and then (no offense to all you Excel-lovers out there!), I believe a lot of the complaints you hear about grinding are more bound by social convention than the result of true exasperation.

2. Your question at the end also leads to a part-answer. Many people will stay (and have stayed) in the game much, much, longer than they would have if it hadn't been for the social aspects, i.e. the guild, your friends etc. What's left to do but repeating old activity if you want to retain that "vibe". This, of course, breeds nostalgia and also boredom. Boredom leads to a feeling of grinding. Personally, I have levelled so many toons to 80 that for me The Grind™ is levelling through all zones from 1-80. I do it in varied ways and through different routes and all that, but you can only do the same content so many times and still feel that it's fresh. But I am nostalgic, and I long back to the days of yore when we'd wipe three times in a row on the stairs of ZF, the mobs had respawned and we had to wait 30 minutes for my ankh to come off cooldown. Ah, those were the days... I'll stay another year ;)
If you can do whatever you want, there is no grind.

I think this is the key. Games with lots of variety don't feel grindy because you can switch to a new activity whenever you get tired of what you're doing.

The problem with many games these days is most of the variety is limited to the endgame. At low and mid-levels players are often restricted to (mostly solo) questing. For example, in LotRO raiding, player-side PvP, and advanced crafting are reserved for high-level characters, leaving low level characters without much to do other than quest. It looks like SWTOR is heading in the same direction.

I'd like to see games take a more sandboxy approach and let players progress by doing whatever they like best, whether that be questing, running dungeons, crafting, or PvP.
Once you realize that it is by definition impossible to win a MMORPG, and efficiency gets you nowhere, you are set free to play whatever way is fun for you, and The Grind just disappears in a puff of smoke.

The day that happens is the day that subscription numbers drop by an order of magnitude.
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This is pretty much spot on at least for me personally. I stopped doing stuff that I don't actually enjoy in favor of stuff that I like and ever since my playtime has dropped, but I'm having lot more fun. I used to do a lot of stuff that could be defined as grinding, and that was actually quite boring most of the time.

These days things that were a grind go to two categories, either things I don't do at all or things that I do in moderation only when I actually want to. I really used to hate leveling alts too, I never managed to do it, because it felt like a major excessively long grind to get to maximum level as fast as possible. Now I have several characters I'm leveling and I'm liking it a lot. So where is the difference?

I do a lot of different activities and sometimes I may stop leveling for a long time if I don't want to play that particular character. I often stay longer, and quest in areas most people don't go to when they are in a hurry to level as fast as possible. It may be fun for them but not for me. There is simply no pressure or no rush, and suddenly the activity that was previously means to an end becomes the enjoyable thing itself.
I agree wih Oscar's first comment. I've always liked "grinding", only for years I had no idea that was what I was doing. I thought I was playing.

In 2000, when I logged on for an hour every morning before work and pulled the same goblins out of the same ruin in Lake of Ill Omen, logging out with another yellow bubble of xp on my bar, I never felt I was "grinding". I felt I was enjoying myself.

Nowadays, when I chrono my SK from 86 to 40 and clear the whole of Runneyeye for 20% of the level, I'm not grinding either. I'm having fun. Slightly different mechanism, but it's still just killing mobs to raise the xp bar and that's what I call entertainment.

On the other hand, doing quests really IS grinding. It's boring, repetetive, inefficient and rarely any fun at all. I do that because, post-WoW, most games designers seem to believe that if an NPC tells you how to spend your time your character deserves a much larger reward than if you make the decision for yourself.
I know a lot of masochists that delight in mount farming. They say it's all about the enjoyment of seeing it drop, but then complain as they're "going to have to look for a new grind now :("
Actually, the "no win" MMO is a pretty good model of real life. You set goals yourself and you want to reach it efficiently.

Grind comes to the picture when someone does not set proper goals, usually setting social goals like "having l33t t00n" or "pwn". You can achieve almost everything in the game without grind. However if you want to be on top, you must grind. It might be a very important life lesson.
Grind comes to the picture when someone does not set proper goals
However if you want to be on top, you must grind. It might be a very important life lesson.

To be on top = grind = not a proper goal?

So be the life lesson would be to not want to be on top ?
The "grind" word is kind of tricky. It could mean that something you're doing in the game is repetitive, but it has a negative association. The thing is that many players actually enjoy repeting stuff and find it even relaxing. I didn't mind the grind I did for the Frostsaber mount, I actually enjoyed it a lot. To speed things up, it was more efficient to group up, and I find that "grind" way more social than a lot of other things I do in the game. The landscape is one of my favorites in the entire game and the rounds I did put me in a medative mindset. There are many hobbies and sport activities that include quite a bit of "grinding" and I never hear much complaining about that. Different forms of meditation. Repeting patterns in a budo sport over and over again. Prayers, for those who are into religion.

Maybe we're overusing the word "grind"? My chasing for the Frostsaber mount wasn't a grind, but an enjoyable repetitive activity that we should give another label, due to the fact that I enjoyed it?
One could argue (and i will) that grinding is necessary in order to get to the content you need at a time in game when it is challenging.

Every boss fight gets easier over time, either via direct nerfs, better gear or simply by the fact that more people know what to do.
So you need to get to bosses faster if you want to experience them at a harder mode.
It that time spent wasted? I think not, but thats up to individuals to judge for themselves.
is my gaming experienced lessened by the fact that i feel i have to get through content as fast as possible? on the contrary my enjoyment is heightened. And I do not regret having run out of things to do, or having skipped the "smell the roses and enjoy leveling" that some people enjoy.
The people who regret grinding are those that do not realise themselves what they are looking for in the game they are playing, and then later regret not having done this and that inside or outside of the game, instead of grinding their way to the top.
I think this post is very spot-on, but I believe that the subject is complicated somewhat (as others have noted too) by not everyone perceiving grinding as negative.

To take myself as an example, I might talk about grinding heroics or describe the Loremaster achievement as "grindy", but that doesn't mean that I didn't have fun doing either of them. It's just another way of saying that something is time-consuming and somewhat repetitive, but sometimes that's exactly what people enjoy.
if a reward is the ultimate goal to you, then the grind there can be negative whether you 'choose it' or not. and it's irrelevant whether the reward is an illusion or not - a lot of MMO players get a kick in owning special gear or other items (or making it to the goldlimit while mocking others, like Gevlon). and even if they hated the grind that stood between them and their reward, the outcome makes it worth it.

that said, it's true that you can never 'win' as there is always a next goal, a next item on the horizon - but isn't that a rather fitting analogy for life in general?

if you're not fussed over rewards or titles in such ways, then I agree you can pretty much play the game without ever feeling 'the grind', as you just pick what you like to do and never chose to do anything annoying.
Jormundgard hit it on the head. Unless MMOs drastically redesign their gameplay (for the most part), I don't think many people would keep playing them if there was no kind of "importance" attached to achievement. Hell, look how many people go to great lengths to actually get "Achievements" in game that do nothing at all.

Its actually probbaly one of the reasons I haven't really played many MMOs lately. I've been looking for something that has that nice persistence aspect, but isn't about levels/grear collection/advancement, and there are precious few options. World War 2 Online is probably the best option at the moment.

In the meantime I've been playing Minecraft, Torchlight and the occasional round of TF2. Why? Because they are fun in their own right.
I think you hit the nail completely on the head, Tobold. It seems like it's human nature to disconnect immediate, virtual goals with long term, real life ones. If we step back, nothing we do in a MMO matters at all beyond the concept of "having fun" and thus elements like grind shouldn't exist.

Of course, having said that, it is interesting to consider whether or not elements like grind (and harsh death penalties etc) enhance the final and overall experience. Do we have more fun completing an easy, non-grinding task or more after slogging away at a very difficult, grindy one?
I wrote this as my own definition of grinding a few months ago:

"Grinding is when the mental process of play breaks down because it became separated from the game’s meaning. It’s similar to when a word sounds wrong and seems to lose its meaning after you say it a hundred times in a row. Grinds separate the meaning from the gameplay by the sheer force of repetition. Since game design is focused on cultivating meaning, game designers should wish to prevent game systems from devolving into grinds."

I don't think that's far from your definition, Tobold. It's a generalization of the more specific-to-MMOs definition you present.

The problem of players voluntarily grinding, then complaining about it, is a problem for game designers to solve--players generally don't think about this situation and find ways to have fun, they'd rather just drop the game and pick up another one blindly.

The only reason you're not complaining is because the Frostsaber mount isn't a grind anymore.

Back in the day, when I did it, oh boy... :P
"Once you realize that it is by definition impossible to win a MMORPG, and efficiency gets you nowhere, you are set free to play whatever way is fun for you, and The Grind just disappears in a puff of smoke."

"Do not try to bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth... there is no spoon."

Sorry, could not resist.
Simple psychology. People want to feel they've achieved something. The Grindy( or repeatable) activities give them the immediate reward and produce a pavlovian affect. (mild addiction similar to nicotine or caffiene) The problem is it takes longer and longer to satisfy that urge and then people get bored and unsatisfied.
Also in an MMO when you stop doing things that aren't fun for you. You begin to seperate yourself from your friends. That's where the real anguish begins. Do I run this again for my friends? Or do I tell my friends no and do my own thing.
"Simple psychology. People want to feel they've achieved something. The Grindy( or repeatable) activities give them the immediate reward and produce a pavlovian affect"

I partly agree, I wouldnt limit this to the grind effect only though. there's many ways to achieve the same satisfaction without the monotony of the grind.
I have written an article about the same topic recently and I believe it is the 'hard parts' in games that make us experience achievements a lot more intensely in games. hard doesn't only equal grind though - the grind is a rather cheap way to achieve this effect.
There seems to be two paths: you can either do something new, or something old and repetitive (grind). I find most times, something new seems harder, more intense, takes longer to figure out, etc. Grinding, on the other hand, seems faster because you know exactly where to go and what to go for a baseline reward. There are just times when either I am not in a mood to be challenge by a new quest, or I just want something easy/fast/unthinking so will settle for a grind. There is a baseline reward after all. It seems I am in a group of people who can settle for 10 XP in 10 minutes rather than 40 XP in 20 minutes.
It has actually been the grindiest games that have taught me to chill out and enjoy the ride. We westerners tend to be overly goal oriented. We enjoy crossing the finish line and so focus almost exclusively on that. Take a game like Lineage 2. Literally a mob grinding. Nobody in my guild had a max level character and some had been playing for years. You learn to play the game and enjoy the company of your friends and you slowly work you way though the last few levels of the game. But if you obsess about being level 85 you end up botting your character which is not playing at all. I also noticed that when people wanted to go level up they got into a group and went hunting. The trick to hunting was to find a spot where you could comfortably but effectively grind mobs as a group. It was actually considerably more social than everyone doing solo quests.

Another example of a game that almost forces you to become zen about leveling is PWI. Perfect World has 105 as the max level but after 2 years in release in the west there are no 105s, there are no 104s either. There are 18 103s on all the servers for NA and EU. The server I am on only had 2 lvl 103s. Talk about encouraging people to just chill out and enjoy the ride. PWI appears to be strong on the quests though. At least at the lower levels so far.
Because MMOs are carrots on sticks. They aren't about fun, at least not in the same way that Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty is about fun. Those who don't care about the carrot either don't play or quit early on. Those who do stay on and play, not for fun, but to get that damn carrot. Which is of course ultimately impossible. But that's how you get someone to waste 1000 hours a year for years. No game is that fun. To get that level of dedication requires a different motivation than fun.
"Grinding is when the mental process of play breaks down because it became separated from the game’s meaning.

I think that is a very useful definition if you want to adress the negative side of 'grinding'.

The definition allows for activities that are not inherently fun at every minute, but calls them 'grind', when they make the player drop out of immersion and ask themselves: "Why, the hell, am I doing this???".

In the end however, it is necessary to distinguish between different player mentalities. And they are probably the answer to the whole debate.

1) If a player wants a MMO to be 'just a distraction' after work, every minute of his 'valueable time' should be fun. He will not remember any activities, because they do not have any meaning for him. And because he doesn't even want to remember them. It is all about passing time. An example is taking a shower before going to bed. It can be fun, but it has no meaning. You do not remember it and there would be no reason to.

2) If a player wants a MMO to be interesting, like watching a good play at the theater, however, he is interested in a meaningful activiy. The main motivation is not to pass time, but to experience art.
And there your definition of grind comes in. For this player mentality, monotonuous repetition is not a problem, if it is still immersive. Hacking lumber to build his own house for two weeks may be boring as an isolated activity, but it can still be a lot of fun, if the final house means something to him.

The problem in understanding (2) is that some players look at fun like an inherent property of a isolated activity. I wrote about that fallacy before.

This post hits home for me, particularly after this past weekend. I spent the majority of it playing around in EPL and WPL with my 80 Paladin doing some quests that I missed (on all my toons, sadly). I did the Tirion Fordring quests and soloed Scholomance (which I had never done before).

I had a great time doing all of this, but there was this ever-present and annoying feeling that I was wasting my time and not accomplishing anything. This isn't helping my character's progression, so why am I doing this?

The answer of course is that it was tremendous fun, and a nice break from running the same heroics or dailies.

So, thank you for the very insightful post.
"The Grind happens to be the most efficient way to advance your character"

Tobold, you made a shift there and left "content" behind. If you're repeating the same old, stale content in order to get through a gate to the next content, the goal isn't advancing your character; that's a means to an end. The desired end is playing in more content or with new tools. If you can't get there in any other way beside doing stuff you're tired of, then yes, The Grind still exists.

It's an inevitable problem in a leveling system with content gating mechanics.
People who play slot machines wouldn't call it a grind, but
"grinding" for RNG rewards like mounts is quite similar to playing a slot machine.

With better graphics and a more predictable monetary stream.
The *best* method for making gold is the one that is most fun to you. And that might well be doing many different things, from daily quests, to fishing, to gathering herbs, to running dungeons...

Those all seem to be grinding to me.

Doing the same daily quests for the life of an expansion has to be repetitive boredom surely.

Who would gather herbs for fun?

Running dungeons for badges... not been fun for a long long long time in WoW.

All the above are a solid grind imho.
Why I found Wotlk more of a grind then TBC.

In tbc, content for alts and casuals outside ZA and pvp pretty much stopped @ Kara. So you could play a character to 70, do some heroics and Kara and then put it on the shelf. The odds of doing content past that where small so their was litle incentive to try and be suitable for that content.

In wotlk leveling speed was much increased. So i had a 56,63,66 and a dk. Log on to them for a few times over a year and suddenly they are 70. Log on for a 1 hour a day for a month and that 70 is now 80.

Then of course between badge farms and pugs their is no stopping point thats say its time to stop playing on this alt. So suddenly your doing 11/12 25 man with some hard modes on a character with 4 days played @ 80.
I'm not sure if this is mentioned by someone else or not since I couldn't read all 30 comments, but I want to mention something.

People grind isn't always exactly because of the thought that they would have fun later at higher level. They do it because non high level is merely an obstacle in MMORPG. Most of the times, your equipment at level 20 would be useless by the time you're level 30, and meant rubbish by the time you're at max level 100. Things like that also made the players want to skip non high level content because they know there's no real point for them to work their hardest to be the best they can at lower/mid level when it means nothing at high level.

Therefore, I think the best MMORPG scheme in terms of quality is to have a low level cap with variety of content to do so that people can put their best from the get go and not have to wait til they are higher level. By doing that, the players have no reason to grind because to reach the cap, it doesn't really matter if they do it in one week or two weeks as opposed to the current comparison of say weeks (of grinding) compared to months (of not grinding).
Exactly like in real life. Working long hours in an unsatisfying job only to buy 'stuff' that leads to 'joy of the reward that lasts only for a very short time' At the end of the road, the consequences are even higher. In a game at least you have a high level character (I know it means nothing), in RL you die and disappear.
In real life you die no matter what you do. Dissapearing is different, but that's a comment to a completetly different topic.

You're all arguing about semantics. Tobold gave you a fairly good definition of grinding, and the important part of the deifnition involves unfun activities. Now, as far as people go defining what is fun and what isn't causes trouble, because you will never get any clear criteria.

Lots of you mention, that grinding is fun for you, and that you enjoy it, but in fact you simply took Tobold's definition and threw into trash. If you enjoy what other people do not, you do not grind - you're having fun and that is by definition not remotely considered as grinding.

The repetetive actions in a game can be way much fun when done with other players. Doing repetetive things in an orderly fashion, giving out players roles and building a team in which everyone has his own tasks and the team's success rely's on everyone doing their part right, even if it is repetetive, is fun and that's why a lot of people are considered grinder by those, who have no team and do not bear the repetition. But the so called grinders enjoy themselves, and therefore - do not grind.
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Yes and no. Your argument is predicated on there being no "win condition", i.e. all gains are illusory and there is no goal you're working towards. You make that explicit when you say "The joy of the reward lasts only for a very short time, while you wasted hours of your valuable free time with unfun grinding".

That does indeed hold true if you're regarding the purples and the gold as the "goal". However that's not in general the case.

I don't think that's the only goal people are working towards, however. The complaints I see are most generally of the form "I want to raid with my friends, but I'm tired of grinding X hours for the enchantments / consumables needed."

In this case, there's a real, tangible goal - several hours of fun time spent with friends. There's a hurdle you have to overcome - acquiring the necessary consumables. And there's a grind needed to get there - getting the gold and/or materials to do so.

It's as if you wanted to join a football team, but there was a law saying that you had to spend 2 hours picking up litter for each hour you spent playing football. If you liked football enough, you'd do it, but for sure you'd complain about it.

Yes, in some sense you can say the goal (ha!) is illusory. Each match only lasts a few minutes and is over. That's not the point, the point is that you enjoy playing football, and there's this meaningless make-work task getting in the way of it.
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