Free for All: Which came first, the grind or the grinding?

Grinding is an interesting thing. I've thought about it a lot lately in an effort to come to grips with the fact that I just don't play MMOs like my friends do. Oh, don't get me wrong; I can log in and blow away five hours of my life on a title, just like I did last night with the newly relaunched APB: Reloaded. Holy moly, I can play that game forever, especially if I have a friend with me. I can also spend countless hours in other games, exploring and generally acting like some kind of virtual hippie, never touching a sword or destroying a foe. A lot of the time, combat just feels repetitive.

Exploring for hours and driving a car into mailboxes over and over really shouldn't count as grinding though, should it? Grinding is, in my opinion, defined by the repetition of the exact same action (or close to it) for a long time, usually in the pursuit of a single goal. The thing is, the grind has been around since the dawn of graphical MMOs. Hasn't it?

But what started the grind? Was the desire for grind already there? Is the playerbase just better-suited for grinding? Click past the cut and let's chat about it. Grab some tea.

Think back to your first MMO. Think hard. What did you do most of the time? For me, I spent a lot of time on my horse, Poopy, exploring the lands of Ultima Online. I was so thankful when Electronic Arts split the realms and all the annoying player-killing was tucked away on a separate facet. I was free to explore, to find trouble, and to play with my boat. Oh, I was a Grandmaster Archer and could hold my own in combat, but generally I was not fond of repeatedly killing the same monsters, at least not night after night. The grind was there in '99, for sure. The funny thing about a "sandbox" game like Ultima Online is that "sandbox" does not mean that there will be no templates or rules for playing correctly. Players quickly knew the exact loadouts to plan their characters for maximum efficiency. There were as many "classes" in those older sandbox games as there are in World of Warcraft. Of course, players made those classes in the sandbox game, not devs.


"This is going to sound extremely snooty, but it is simply how I feel: Some players are just better-suited for grinding."

Along with those ideas of perfect DPS or ultimate speed came the need to reach those levels of perfection very quickly. Despite the fact that the players had all the time in the world, they felt the need to get to the top as soon as humanly possible. Is this how the grind really started taking hold of people?

While it is true that there are many games that do not require us to grind in order to gain levels or do something wonderful, the grind seems to be the activity gamers enjoy. How else can we explain its popularity? The funny thing about MMO development is this: If a system is poorly designed, players will not play with it. If a zone is horrible or outdated, players will move on. If you have a cruddy weapon as the prize for an hours-long raid, players will stop pursuing it.

But strangely enough, players keep going through the grind -- they keep using it as a path to virtual glory. Developers can make it as bland as stale crackers, but players still go through it. Why? Why is the grind an accepted design?

This is going to sound extremely snooty, but it is simply how I feel: Some players are just better-suited for grinding. Some players have no issues with it, for many different reasons. I hate to draw parallels between gaming and real life, but MMOers can be some of the most passionate gamers out there. Their lives and gaming are intertwined. This is why I believe that some players are good at grinding in real life, as well. They grind away at the same job for 35 years. They grind away at the house payment, the standard number of children, their retirement. It's the worker-bee mentality, and many people have it. Many of these players see their gaming as a reflection of real-life morals -- if you're asked to do something by your superiors in the guild or tasked with something that will be better for your character down the road, you simply do it. It's what you do.

People have been grinding away at real life since jobs were invented. It's in in the blood of many of us. Me? I tend to go a little crazy when I have to perform a job that is nothing but a repeated task. No, this is no attempt to make myself seem "special," like some kind of restless genius -- in fact, I see it as a flaw in my personality -- but it's true. If I were forced to do the same thing over and over again, I would find a way to get out of the situation or go bonkers. Some people -- no, many people -- would not. They have a higher tolerance for grinding.

So which came first? The ability or the want for the steady drone of the grind... or the gameplay designed around repeating the same action over and over?

If we look at some of the very first popular free-to-play titles, games like Rappelz, Flyff or Rose Online, we see games that were grind-heavy, to say the least. Those games certainly didn't help the design situation. To be fair, EverQuest and City of Heroes, also early games, were grindy enough to keep up with even the worst free-to-play imports. Hell, they were all doing it. Ironically, free-to-play imports are taking more cues and blending in with the more modern Western design, while Western "AAA" subscription games are taking more cues from older free-to-play imports. They're meeting in the middle, sort of.

The saddest part about all of this is that there are always players eager to accept grinding as a path to glory. Thanks to those repetitive-action fanatics, the rest of us have to deal with games that feature the linear grind. If that sounds harsh, simply consider that game design is based on popular opinion, such that if we didn't value it in mass numbers, it would not be there. If we preferred dance-based gameplay, then we would see a lot of that, too.

The grind was an early conception, for sure. We know that. I say we should outgrow the concept already. We should stop OKing the use of grinding as the only way to grow our characters, cities, and armies.

It's time to leave that dead-end job... let's try freelancing for a while.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.