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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Magnius09

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@Kungfu_Kenobi "No one ever complains about grinding when the gameplay is inherently well designed. The problem is not what to do about grinding, the problem is to make killing 10 rats exciting, every single time." After reading this article, this is exactly what I thought. I do believe grinding should be tackled from a developer standpoint as mentioned in the article, but I if the game is fun, the grind is fun. Good example for me is Demon's Souls. I've made 4 different characters and tried various builds. The majority of the experience isn't changing, only the tweaks I make in character stats to have a new build. The enemies, levels, etc. remain the same, but the combat is just so visceral and fun. Also, there's enough experimentation with my new character in terms of tackling enemies in a slightly different fashion that I didn't care. The grind isn't a problem if the player has multiple tools to tackle it, and each one slightly alters the experience while remaining fun. Bungie summarizes it really well. When creating halo games, they talk about maintaining that "30 seconds of fun" in each skirmish. It's all about recreating those 30 seconds of fun over and over again in enough ways to keep things fresh while maintaining the fun, core gameplay.

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tiggerlu

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As soon as you have to sit back while playing an MMO and feel like you're not immersed in some grand adventure, then you're grinding..."getting stuff" is not a reason to play a game...I think of all the developers out there, BioWare can bring some unique to the table...

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ThyphonXxX

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@Slavadil i'm afried that is harder than it sounds. Blizzard have improved alot of things with catalysm, and have put alot of work in endgame since many are max lvl. Many dont feel like starting from the bottom. :/ ps. soz for the spelling -_-* sitting in school and dont have time to check errors.

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Slavadil

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I hope this game is the WoW killer that we've waited 6 years for.

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puablo

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The philosophy behind this game sounds better and better. I like the idea of keeping up a cadence for grinding. So long as it is fun, and there is a goal directly in view, it's hard to complain about. WoW did this fairly well, with some slow parts, so if Old Republic improves on this at all, it will be golden.

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Viktormon

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Interesting and true. Very wise people there at Bioware. :)

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GamerJedi29

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ive never been into MMOs but im actually really exited for this one

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VidGamAnonymous

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Finally! A MMO that could actually challenge WoW.

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tommygun6644

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Bioware: If they can't kill WoW, nothing will.

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Slagar

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Grind is expected, just as long as it is reasonable amounts, and broken up with other, more interesting things. Some mechanics are sickening though IMO.

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bhmg

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Hope this game don´t fail like FFXIV! . . . ¬_¬

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reanor2

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I love Bioware's approach. That's why its the best RPG game developer out there. All their games are thought through and specific ideologies are implemented. They actually worry about what player may or may not like instead of just pushing the content through and hiding lack of creativity behind the dumb grind hours like most of the MMO devs do these days. I think I may never play again any other MMO after SWTOR comes out. Because 95% of them - same old crap. And the worst thing is that they just keep making them even though there are 100s of same MMOs out there.

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Darko-Ashitaka

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I'd never really put much thought into it, but I guess that grinding really is the reason why I can't get into MMOs... I just don't have the time (nor patience) to play hours in a row per day.

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Onyx99

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Just read the gamespot review for FFXIV and Uhhh I will not be playing that MMO. I'll just wait for SW: TOR.

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alert0

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Awesome interview. The guy really knows what he's talking about.

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Onyx99

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FFXI was a bad game and one reason was because of the grind. It was a constant grind from beginning to end and the rewards weren't worth it IMO. That being said I probably will still try FFXIV. BUT I will definitely be getting SW: TOR. BIOWARE ROCKS!!!!

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galaxee_90

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Sounds like they understand how important it is not to mess up the grind or make 2 much of it in an mmo, which makes me very very very happy. Because i cant stand grinding! Bioware is effing genius. Lets hope they dont release the game to early like other companies have done before. /cough Funcom, cough!

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wolf503

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@Kh1ndjal Pretty much the perfect explanation of why MMOs today suck. I still can't believe that people still play WoW and still try to defend the game, everything about it is pretty much out of date, a game that's not worth PTP, but that's just my opinion. I really hope GW2 does deliver and from what I've seen in it's vids it looks like it will, but there's always that chance of failure. I mean common, SP gameplay mechanics in a MP environment? Now that's an MMO I'd PTP (I don't PTP anything, ever) and it's gonna be FREE!! Freaking Win! I'll give this 1 a go if it's FTP xD

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Kh1ndjal

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i cannot remember how many times i have quit MMOs because of the grind. sometimes i want to play for 20 minutes, and if i don't feel i accomplished something or had fun in those 20 minutes, the next time i have 20 minutes i will not start up that game. in this regard guildwars is quite good. zero travel time, no cooldowns that last more than a minute, and world that can be enjoyed in sips rather than having to jump in the deep end. ofcourse if i want to play a few hours of an mmo in a go... i will still quit if i don't feel like i am getting anywhere in the first 30 minutes. i need a new item, a fun quest, a fun mechanic, a new area to explore, a new companion, etc. i disagree how people think MMOs should not allow people to solo. there are a variety of reasons why i like to solo. and most of them also encourage me to go on random servers on games like TF2. if i am in a group and i heal too late, i will get cursed by everyone in a team. if i am a tank and i lose aggro, i will be called a noob and kicked. now if i were a regular player i would be strongly discouraged to group up, and if i play 3-5 hours a week a guild is not going to help because it is unlikely i will get guildies ready to group up with me in the 3-5 hours i play i a week at random times. i think GW2 is taking the MMO genre in the right direction, lets hope they deliver.

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Pete5506

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Sounds pretty neat, could never play MMORPG because of how much I hate to grind

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CarlitosWay

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Like i have stated many times before, it was a gutsy and bold move for Bioware and LA to take TOR and make it an MMO. I cannot judge the game, as it has yet to have been released. I just hope it fairs better than the majority of MMOs that have been released recently. I dabbled in GW for a few days and quickly got bored of it. Dont know what it was really. And i have recently escaped the grasps of WoW. Im holding out for this game. And as always, Bioware's people seem to have the right idea as to what they want to deliver to us (except the way they have space combat setup, im totally against it). I hope they REALLY take into consideration the opinions of the community as a whole, and not as demographics. Demographics is what killed SWG.

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Icehearted

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@_distemper That was the point, my friend. I didn't say there was no grinding, I said it proved there wasn't a need to pad the game out with it. Indeed, I agree that it was a choice, and that's the beauty of it! You could level up sooner via grinding, or you could group up and level as you made your way through the game. A game like WoW you pretty much had no choice, you are going to grind or you will get nowhere, period. Again that's the peril of pay-to-play games. They want to keep you going, and they do this with massive cool-downs, massive leveling, and massive grinding. I played a lot of GW and WoW, and I can safely say that while WoW felt deeper, GW was just so much more fun. I felt like I could pop in and pop out without worry. WoW, on the other hand, felt like an arduous commitment to hard boring repetitive labor, only to be rewarded with more of the same.

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CptJuancho

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I can't agree more with this

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Johns93

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BioWare is just a bunch of geniuses, i swear.

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snaggleoooo

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This gets me thinking about the dynamic event system in Guild Wars 2. At least if you get told to kill 10 of something because they're supposed to be attacking a town, you'll see them attacking the town and there will be consequences if you let them. The average MMO tells you they're attacking, but the enemies are generally standing in the field, which isn't a threat to anything.

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dkdk999

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I think this guys got it right.

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Gruug

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I am so tired of chasing xp in MMO's. Grind is just a time sink and not fun. Doing the same quests over and over (especially if running alts) become mind numbing. Just let me play the game....give me meaningful quests and let me choose how I wish my player character to progress.

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fLaMbOaStiN

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I'am actually a fan of grinding mobs.. I loved AION because of it.. But the mobs have to be challenging.. I grinded elites almost twice my level in AION and each time i pulled one there was a chance i'd die, but there was potential for quick XP and very good items.. I grinded that way 35-50 (end game lvl) and then when i got the the "quest grinding" i quit.. I don't mind grinding mobs.. But grinding for Miragents/Fenrils is ridicilus.. NC Soft can learn a thing or two by reading this.

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AlexTehGr8

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As long as i can SEE the experience meter moving up while grinding, them i'm alright. I can't stand grinding for about an hour to see my experience bar move about 1 cm across the screen (using the WoW exp bar for example, as it spans across the page).

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_distemper

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@Icehearted I'm going to challenge you on that. There was definitely grinding in Guild Wars - especially in Nightfall, where you needed to be a certain sunspear rank to advance to the next area. This usually involved you running around and killing things for sunspear points. But, the thing about grinding in GW is that ANet gave you a choice: You can grind and reach the high level arenas, OR you can just make a PvP only character. ANet didn't eliminate grinding, they gave players a CHOICE. That's the most important thing. The people who enjoyed the grind got to grind, and the people who didn't were able to as well.

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Gladestone1

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What gets me its a mmorpg..Its not a single player game..People complain about not being able to solo..Mmorpgs where never meant to solo..A mmorpg people is about grouping..Thats why its a online game..The grind is also part of the game..Wow made the game way to easy..Its suppose to take a good year to developed a character an get good at it..Its why everquest had hell lvls..Sure people hated them..How ever you know what..When i hit that lvl 30 45 50, man i was happy as hell to get past it..It was a feeling of wow i did it..Never got that from another mmorpg since..When i play a online game..Id like to come into the game..Grab some guildies an say hey lets have fun..Thats how mmorpgs should be..Not this easy crap thats been around these days..Also the games need a END GAME..Devs listen to this..If your making a pve game..Bring some raids..Dont take another year to try an figure out what to do with your game.. Look at many mmorpgs that have failed of late..Conan, star trek online, These are just two on top of my head..Bring me a end game dont take 2 years to figure out what high lvl players are suppoose to do..Think Everquest live an 2, and also wow did the end game right..Its why those games survived...

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LionSitter

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Sounds like the SWOR team did their homework.

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Gooeykat

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All MMOs have grind and ToR will be no different.

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Animatronic64

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**** mmorpgs, I'd rather play single player.

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Icehearted

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Guild Wars proved that a good MMO doesn't require grinding. By keeping the level cap to 20 they made it more about skill and stat allocations than about raw mathematical bulldozing. On top of which Arena.net doesn't generate revenue by trying to keep us running in that hamster wheel, freeing them to focus on satisfying game content rather than on the padding needed to keep us working long hours for minimal rewards. That's ultimately where a lot of companies disappoint me; when the game goes from fun to work. WoW has this issue in spades, but other games, like Gears of War and it's bullet sinks or Metroid and it's constant backtracking, aren't exactly innocent either.

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Targzissian

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This is really thoughtful and insightful. Grinding has its uses, apparently, and can be defined in many ways. Death penalties (too high vs. too low a penalty) and leveling systems are related (i.e., do monsters level as the character levels, or not, or to some degree). As are the concepts of linear vs. nonlinear exploration (i.e., having freedom to choose the order you do things in). It's all a question of designing the game with just the right balance to keep it fun and rewarding all the way through.

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Kenji_Masamune

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that's the problem with MMOs is the grind. Of course the company wants you to grind (be a subscriber for longer). Don't think MMOs will ever changed because of the ever powerful dollar. Realistically after 60 hours played you should be at max level and in almost max gear. Grinding for gold, honor, rep, badges, isn't fun. Going through a dungeon for the nth time just to grind sucks.

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BigStik

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In some games though, grinding for levels is a vital part of the game... anyone here ever played Disgaea?

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deviant74

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Some people like to run into battle and die many times learning how to kill something. Other want to build a bomb, or find the poison. The spice of life. The quest to become superman. When do we let them run fast, see threw things, become bullet proof, super strong, heat vision, fly, super breath, Who gives a sh!t we all want to be superman. Just make sure the panties are not made of lead, and we can smash threw building with perfect controls. Then hand us 2012 disaster after we become superman. Then spend 5 years making the love interest not irritating.

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DrunkPrince

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All that staff for me its just words and words... Bring us out a great online rpg for the S.W fans (and not only) and stop we did that and we did that.. FF developers also spoke a lot but how much did it take?? 4? So bring me a 9 at least and after that i will hear you for hours non stop..

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OJ_the_LION

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Very good comments here. I've been playing FFXIV recently, and it's astounding how little of this advice it follows (and fanboy comments aside, how much it's hurt for it). The quest flow of the old republic sounds interesting and very fun from the sounds of this, i can't wait for it.

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Kungfu_Kenobi

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No one ever complains about grinding when the gameplay is inherently well designed. The problem is not what to do about grinding, the problem is to make killing 10 rats exciting, every single time.

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alexLmx6

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It's interesting that he mentioned getting a zillion quests all at once, I think developers do this to make it feel like less of a linear game, and give the player more choice in what he tackles next. For me though, it's just overwhelming.. I mean it's very rare that I will skip over a quest entirely if it's been given to me, I would much rather just get one or 2 quests at a time to focus on. To keep the element of choice there, why not give people one quest at a time, if they don't like it they can take a different one which will replace it?

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Poodger

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I will definitely get this game if they are able to implement all the things they just mentioned in this conference. Some of the biggest deterrents for me in a MMORPG are the ridiculous number of hours you have to spend just killing mindlessly for exp in one area, as well as the necessity to travel with 25 other people. Sometimes, I just want to be able to go out and do a whole epic quest alone, or with one or two buddies. Not coordinate an assault with 30 people for 2 hours.

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whiteagle18

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I don't mind grinding as long as the rewards are decent. I played lotro allot in the summer and never really had a problem with grinding. The only things I hated about it were mandatory group quests for the main quest chain, and pointless quests that make u spend hours just riding from one location to the next just to talk to npc's (some over and over again).

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Ladiesman17

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I like "grinding" on Diablo II & Borderlands. :? why it's soo bad.

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Bhemont

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I remember when they said there would be no mindless grinding in this game. Well I guess that was just a big eL Oh eL

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jewell21

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Whoa. I'd never realized how badly I hate the grind or how often I am forced to muddle through it until I read this article. I suppose it does make some rewards a little more satisfying if you feel that you earned them. I prefer grinds that require me to use my ingenuity or my reflexes over grinds that involve me doing the same thing over and over until the buttons on my controller give out. I like a game that's fun to play from start to finish, not one that makes me earn the exciting parts by plodding through mundane filler content. After all, I think shelling out $60 is enough to earn me access to the coolest parts of a game.

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Bigbudd0045

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@Barighm agreed, framing blows. Personally I like killing questes.

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Barighm

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I hate farming more than grinding. I don't mind grinding so much as long as the rewards are worthwhile. I'd love to see MMO's implement a micro-leveling system sort of like FF10: you gain lots of "levels", but all those levels really do is give you acess to a couple points of some stat or a bit more HP. Combine that with a normal leveling system, and make it so that gaining a level is a major increase in power, and grinding becomes much more tolerable. But I'll bet some game out there has done that by now.

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