Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why all the grinding? 9 Alternatives.

Inspired by recent discussions and an old Ixo post that he recently linked to: One of the main reasons WoW is rich enough to pay off the cops after going on a Motley Crue-level drug-induced binge and crashing a Camaro full of hookers directly into the front entrance of the police station, while EQ still lives alone in its mom's basement, is that WoW cut out a lot of EQ's pointless waiting, grinding, and self-flagellation. Death penalties? Kabosh'd. Travel times? Reduce'd. Camping a rare spawn for 36 hours straight while poopsocking and barely noticing while your wife moves out? Redirect'd. It still happens, except instead of camping a spawn, you grind dailies and grind instances over and over. And instead of merely getting a small chance at a rare drop, you get 12 achievements, a hundred different tokens, and handful of grape candies. I mean epics. Sorry, I keep getting those two confused because they are both given out like ... candy.

WoW's solution to the problem of keeping players interested has always been: more grinding. Ixo may have imagined a humorously hyperbolic version of the Blizzard offices, but take a step back and look at the choices they've made and you start to suspect that maybe he's not that far off the mark. This is not news to most of you. WoW is full of grinds, and as each is conquered, a new one must take its place. There are reputation grinds, daily quest grinds, raid instance grinds, regular instance grinds (grind exactly the same content again a second time on heroic!), BG grinds, arena grinds (ever tried to go from 0 to 1500? It's a lot of games nowadays) and for the truly insane, obscure gathering grinds. All of the max-level content is designed to be repeated many, many times, all apparently in the name of keeping players in the game. Every new idea, from making two lockouts for each raid (10 and 25) to heroic instances, to the badge systems, to the daily quests and their evolution, to every single version of the honor system, to the added ability to stockpile vanity items, to the holidays, to even dual speccing (grind out for two specs instead of just one!), and especially to the achievement system: every new idea has been all about adding new grinds.

But grinds have always struck me as unnecessary. There has to be a better way to keep people playing the game for the extended periods of time it takes for subscription fees to accumulate into an awesome statue of an orc on a wolf in front of your corporate office. It would destroy my faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if it turned out that grinds were the best possible solution to this problem.

So how else could you possibly keep people playing?

One key here is that any new solution also has to be somewhere in the same realm of cost-effectiveness that grinding is in. Grinds don't just keep the playerbase busy; they allow the devs to squeeze every last drop of paid playtime out of every piece of content they implement.

So how can we make the game less grindy without breaking the bank?

I'm not going to pretend that these are all my original ideas, as clever people all over the blogosphere have already proposed probably all of these. But I can't remember who to attribute them too, so let's just consider this a consolidation of what I've heard before along with my own new ideas and call it a day.

1) Randomization: this is the most obvious and used one. You make it less painful to repeat content by randomly changing elements of it on every playthrough.

City of Heroes tried to do this with a partilaly randomized mission system, but it suffered from a lack of content and assets behind it, making it actually more repetitive, rather than less. The same office building full of the same enemies isn't interesting even if the rooms are rearranged. Hellgate: London was based almost entirely on this concept, and did better with it despite ending up as a burning wreckage.

Blizzard has dipped their toes in this before, but they seem to really be embracing it now. Some of the dailies are already randomized, and Violet Hold is probably the most obvious example of a randomized instance. In the upcoming patch, which new dailies you get will be randomized. The new 5-man will include a boss who [SPOILER ALERT: highlight text to read] summons bosses from other parts of the game for your to fight, randomly selected from a pool of over 2 dozen, including Algalon and Hogger (!).

Randomization is a simple no-brainer of a way to cut down the grind a bit, but it's hardly a solution.

2) Reinvigorate "obsolete" content. This is one for games that are getting on in years. If the primary cost of new content is in things like art assets, then the cheapest way to get "new" content would be to make "old" content relevent again. Heroic versions of old world instances, and even level 80 versions of Outlands instances, is one of hte most-requested suggestions from the WoW community. I think one of the best things Blizz could do in the next expansion is use it as an opportunity to create an "alternate" Azeroth, through either a world-changing Maelstrom event or the Emerald Nightmare. Make it either a new levelling experience or a max-level area that takes a lot of your old assets and reuses them in fun and interesting ways.

The downside to this idea is that it has an aspect of adding more repetition. Not only are you running Sethekk Halls or clearing the Barrens while leveling, but then you have to grind them again at level 80. This idea is way better if you make changes to the original content as part of revitalizing it.

3) Focus on story. Talk is cheap (I should know). Hire me or any of my blogging compatriots for the equivalent of peanuts, and we'll write you some world-class quest text and stories to use. Stick them in the game. Cheap as balls.

The upcoming KoToR MMO is looking to be the real innovator in this area. Quests can have different endings, outcomes, and impacts depending on the choices you make. This effectively multiplies the content available and makes replays more interesting and less of a cheat to keep subscribers. There are obvious ways to apply this to WoW questlines, but you can take it even further and create instances with mutually exclusive alternate paths. Imbue the content with story, and the repetition of gameplay elements is easier to accept.

4) Encourage alting. Make each class sufficiently different that it's still fun to replay the same content while learning a new class. Obviously, this can only go so far, and works best if you can start from 55 as a Death Knight. The grind all the way from level 1 is just too long a curve for learning a new class to remain fun rather than a grind.

Also, make the content different for every class and race. This goes hand in hand with focusing on story. You can make pretty slight changes while reusing the same assets and give a very different feel to the same areas, while strengthening mental attachments to classes, races, and factions and incentivizing alting. A cheap way to keep giving people less repetitive things to do so they keep paying their subscription fee.

I've also been a big proponent of audio tutorials players can listen to while doing other things in game, like travelling or even questing. Blizzard explains the fundamentals of your class to you while you are doing the starting area. Hell, even have them narrated by famous characters of that class, such as Malfurion Stormrage for druids or Thrall for shaman. This would help players of a new class learn how to play that class well, further giving an incentive to roll a new class. I know a lot of players are so daunted by the amount of theorycrafting and outside knowledge needed that rolling a new class doesn't seem like an option.

5) User-generate content. Give the players ways to entertain each other. City of Heroes is testing this out with a mission editor (which still has some kinks), and APB thrives on this by essentially installing mini-games where you can design clothes, tatoos, cars, etc. to share with other players. A while back, Ixo had an idea for player-made quests which could be applied to WoW.

6) PvP. Yes, right now, PvP is a grind in WoW. It doesn't have to be. I still Q for AB because it's fun, not because ZOMG I NEEDZ ARMORZ LOL. It's essentially another form of user-generate content. Encourage world PvP along with BGs, because what happens out in the world can be more varied and engaging. The current implementation of Wintergrasp has some echoes of this. It's a lot more unpredictable than BGs, and most matches feel different from others. Of course, this will be heavily reduced by the WG player cap in the next patch.

APB is promising some interesting PvP by creating randomized in-world missions with a matchmaking system where you never know what kind of opposing force to expect, so each match should theoretically play out differently, making for interesting replayability.

7) Make repeated chores into minigames. Though this idea may seem inspired by efforts by bloggers such as Tobold and Ixo to make crafting more interesting, the thing that really made it come to my mind was playing Prototype last night. In Prototype, you play a super anti-hero in NYC, and you travel around using a sort of hyper-charge parkour augmented with the ability to run up walls and glide through the air. Travelling from place to place is a visceral, pleasurable game all it's own. Champions Online is emulating this to a lesser extent by making each of its myriad travel powers play and control completely differently, and as rudimentary mini-games. People run around in Prototype, or drive cars aimlessly in GTA, or play Peggle or Bejeweled over and over because they find it fun. Emulate those, and you make a lot of the repetition feel less ...repetitive.

8) Remove upgrades from the game and become a pure game of skill. This one is not likely, and and not one I advocate for most MMOs, since character advancement sits firmly at their core. But it's undeniable that shooters and RTS games where every player starts with exactly the same assets, and matches are (at least theoretically) decided by knowledge and skill, have the potential for a very long shelflife. People are still playing Starcraft professionally, for god's sake! So this is an option to create infinite replayability. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about WAR, but did that game do this a little bit by making most high-end gear relatively easy to obtain, making max-level keep battles more evenly balanced?

9) Stop incentivizing grinding so heavily. Instead, put the incentives on learning, success, and trying new content you haven't tried yet rather than re-running all the instances and quests you already know by heart. In the case of WoW, encourage alting more (perhaps even as a way to augment your main, through sort of reverse-heirlooms), and maybe add some kind of rest bonus to each activity: ie, you get more loot after taking two weeks off from Ulduar than you would by running it every day. Or maybe, for instance, give an honor bonus if you do BGs after doing a lot of raiding.

Instead of putting some of the most desireable stuff at the end of mindless instance re-grinds and pointlessly grindy holiday events, give it out for strong shows of ability and for trying out all of the content. I can tell you right now there are dozens of questlines I've never done because they didn't give rewards as good as dailies or grinding instances. Try leveraging the content you already have before you worry too much about making people rerun the handful of things that are already rewarding them.

I'm very confused about Blizzard's current motivation. First they make a grind-fest change to badges, then they also take steps to reduce the repetitiveness of other grinds through randomization and extending the raid lockout. And Wrath has been all about making grinds easier to complete while just piling on more of them. I hope that whatever new MMO Blizzard makes (and all the other upcoming competitors on the horizon) can come up with even better ideas than these to prevent repetitive grinding from killing the genre. I'm already feeling the fatigue.


LarĂ­sa said...

A very thoughtful and interesting post indeed. I have to ponder a bit about it... hm... may inspire to other posts in the long run I think.

A quick thought about grinding: no matter how boring we think it is, there seems to be something that attracts us in it too. Strangely enough. I think people can find it relaxing from time to time. Just the same way as it's relaxing to do that one-man-card game, don't know what's it called in English... Solitaire? You know what I mean. or sudoko. You do things mechanically and just don't think about anything special.

It seems to fulfill some weird need within us to do easy, repetative things.

Hatch said...

Good point. I know that myself and my girlfriend both find grinding herbs and ore very therapeutic if we are in the right mood. There's definitely some pleasure in checking things off a list and getting a feeling of completion or progress. I can't stand fishing in WoW, but I know a few people who find it relaxing to just sit and do for hours.

It probably wouldn't be a good idea to delete grinding from MMOs, just make avoiding grinding a more prevalent option.

Tesh said...

I'm strongly against grinding as a gate to content access, or as a trick to extend sub time.

I'm not against grind that I choose to do. I've been playing Puzzle Kingdoms, and even after I'm done with the story, I'm still playing the game with different heroes because it's fun to play and experiment with different builds. If I had to do that to complete the game or see all the content, though, I'd be very mad about it.

Similarly, I went through the hassle of getting Knights of the Round in FFVII because I wanted it. It's not necessary for the game, but it's good fun, and I even had fun with the combat and Chocobo racing, in moderation. I could offer the same rationale for Aeris' ultimate limit break (which requires grinding, looks cool, but is totally unnecessary).

Ultimately, I lay the blame on the subscription model, and the need to pad out the experience.

Stabs said...

Excellent post.

I think one of the problems WoW has is that it's boxed itself into being completely accessible.

Many things are really disconcerting to less adept players.

I tried running a pug to zero drake Sartharion on my new alt. It was an abyssmal failure because I told people to take the portal on the first drake. Two of us took the portal, another couple stood in void zones and died, most of the rest stayed outside flailing ineffectively against the drake. We wiped and people started leaving.

The problem was that on this server the custom is not to take the portal on that drake. Either tactic works perfectly well but these players were incapable of doing the tactic they are not used to.

You know where you are with grinding, with fixed layout, with rote bosskillers strategies learned by heart. Once you start mixing it up by randomising you will lose your most inept people.

The challenge WoW faces is not designing interesting content for competent people who are bored but maintaining safety zone content for incompetent people to play within their comfort zone.

I think it's for new games to break away from the grind model, swtor possibly