Slave to the grind

GDC Online 2010: Star Wars: The Old Republic designer Damion Schubert examines how and why fantasy MMORPG-style grinding gameplay has infected social and console games.

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Who was there: Damion Schubert, principal lead systems designer on Star Wars: The Old Republic at BioWare Austin. He previously worked on Shadowbane and Meridian 59.

What they talked about: Schubert began by defining the grind, or the treadmill that designers implement to extend the life of their games. It's asking players to do something they don't want to do, usually when they'd prefer to be doing something else.

Look for creative use of the grind in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Look for creative use of the grind in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Grinding doesn't just imply leveling up or getting experience points, he noted. It's a version of grinding almost any time the player asks why they have to do something, such as get to a certain level of the tech tree in Civilization before they can drop nukes, or play through single-player in a racing game to unlock all the tracks for multiplayer. Having made massively multiplayer online role-playing games for 15 years, Schubert said he's well acquainted with the grind, as it bears a specific stigma on the genre he's made a career in.

Schubert acknowledged there are good reasons for designers to implement grinding in their games, such as extending the life of the experience and giving a reason to purchase the game instead of rent it. However, players generally don't care about those reasons. For them, grinding isn't intrinsically rewarding, Schubert said.

Fun in games is all about players being introduced to a pattern, learning it, beating it, and moving on to the next pattern. Grinding takes place in that bit of the loop after players have beaten the pattern and aren't interested in it any longer, but the designer won't let them move on to the next pattern.

Despite the complaints about grinding, players like the payoff they get from going through it. Schubert said the first time the Old Republic team ever had somebody complain about grinding in the game was when they dropped items that were too high level in the newbie area. At the same time, when those players did reach the prerequisite level for the item, they liked that they got instant and substantial rewards in being able to use that equipment. Additionally, grinding gives players a little bit of direction to get them started in the world.

Grinding is a matter of perception, Schubert said. For the people who play World of Warcraft with the intent of running high-end arenas or seeing the end game, the leveling up is a grind. But to more casual World of Warcraft players who never aspire to those things, the leveling up is the reward. It's about the journey for those gamers, not the destination.

For MMOGs specifically, replay adds greatly to the grind factor. The first time a player goes through and maxes a character level, Schubert said it's still a novel experience. But going through the same content with a second or third character makes it a grind. For The Old Republic, Schubert said the developers made sure every class had its own advancement path to keep things fresh for players going through the game with a second character.

In a moment of blunt honesty, Schubert also admitted that the grind is cheap and robust. Handcrafted content can be devoured by players much faster than it can be created, and for MMOGs or Facebook games, developers need to keep giving people new content as a reason to log in and play.

While there's often a good reason for using the grind, Schubert said it's an assumption that should always be challenged. However, a little novelty can go a long way, Schubert stressed. Developers can break up the grind with humor, interesting interactions, new game mechanics, or, in the case of a licensed game, new bits of content referencing the source material. He also stressed that randomly generated content doesn't necessarily equal novelty. Randomly generated content has to present something that players care about.

Schubert also said that not all grinds are created equal. He pointed to a graph showing how much time it took players to grind to the next level in World of Warcraft, showing that the leveling pace accelerated as players reached thresholds, like getting a mount at level 40.

In the original test of The Old Republic, Schubert said the team had structured quests much like in other games, where players would arrive in a new area and collect quests in rapid-fire succession. However, they found players were quickly overwhelmed by the abundance of story and conversations, such that even the handcrafted content was starting to feel grindlike to the players. As a result, the team decided to space out the "gold standard" quests, supplementing them in places with bonus mini-quests that are delivered midmission.

After a brief warning and a plea to the press not to misconstrue his comments, Schubert said developers have to slow down the pace at which they give rewards. He pointed to MMOGs that spread out the advancement, such that the first 30 levels proceed at one cadence, with the later levels going much slower. He stressed that developers should keep the cadence consistent, or players will feel like they're slogging through molasses as soon as they hit the slower rewards schedule.

Schubert also said developers need to avoid absurd quests like asking players to kill 5,000 goblins. Players are good optimizers, he said, so they'll just find the easiest place to kill goblins and stay there until it's done. That means an abundance of repetition, and repetition is the devil.

Developers can use the grind to their advantage, Schubert said. By overlapping grinds, developers can give players a variety of rewards at different paces. He pointed to Civilization as an example of a wealth of grinds, from the Golden Age meter, to each city's growth and production progress. That means players are never far from making progress somewhere, so the game doesn't feel so much like a grind.

Players hate the grind so much that developers can give them experience or resource points for logging back in, and players will react favorably. In Civilization, players can cash in a great person to bypass the grind and instantly research a technology or build a wonder. In Mafia Wars, players can pay money to bypass the grind, and they will.

There are added complications when designing a grind. Schubert mentioned again that players are great at finding the optimal path through a developer's maze to find the cheese. Significant death penalties in games can also create grindlike behavior, as it encourages players to stop taking chances or exploring. It just persuades them to return to patterns they already know they can beat. Schubert wants players to try more things, so he advocated lower death penalties.

Social grinds are also a problem for Schubert. The idea of needing to find a group to advance is limiting, Schubert said, and it's one MMOGs have often bypassed. However, social games embrace grouping, because players can either pay to bypass that grind or enlist friends to help, at which point the social game gets free promotion.

Schubert said competitive grinds are secretly scary, pointing to leaderboards as an example. It may drive people to kill more enemies and top the leaderboards, but only one person can be at the top, and the rest will either fail or decide they'll never be at the top and not try for it. That's a good reason to wipe leaderboards on a regular basis, Schubert said.

Grinding to keep items or property from decaying also drives players away, Schubert said. While it can be good to keep them coming back at first, as soon as they go on vacation and miss their upkeep window, losing that item or property serves as a great reason to never play the game again.

To address the issues, Schubert said designers should be kind. Maybe they don't need to offer 500-hour play cycles or require players to log on every single day. He also stressed the importance of being inclusive, giving the players rewards and letting them be valuable to their teams from the outset instead of locking the great content away behind too much playtime.

Then there's what Schubert called "the slutty design." If a competitor's game has a grind that players don't like at all, it's a tremendous opportunity for developers to make a "sluttier" game and give the milk away for free. For example, The Sims Online locked some of the house customization content away, but players weren't willing to endure it when they could always fire up The Sims and enter in a free money cheat to do basically the same thing. That's why death penalties are less harsh, and lots of genres are getting easier over time.

Quote: "Why do we make people kill 10 rats? Because it never, ever, ever ****ing breaks."

Takeaway: Players generally perceive the grind as being bad, but there are good reasons for developers to invoke it. The key is that they implement it intelligently and do their best to keep it from feeling transparently grindlike.

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