The Soapbox: The grind is good

Tetris
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Like many of you, I have fond memories of several important video games that carried me through my childhood and teenage years. Some were deep, some were obscure, some were landmark moments in the genre, and some were Chrono Trigger. It's weird, then, with all that variety, that I have strong fondness for a game that had so little going on in the story or progression department as to be a step away from playing marbles or jacks in the street.

It was a game that I'd sit down to night after night, not to go on any grand adventures or to raise my level 1 fighter up into the ranks of godhood but to just unwind. It was a game that required such a zen-like concentration that it pushed the thinking portion of my brain out and soothed me with its repetitive gameplay and simplistic motions.

That game was, of course, Tetris, a game that was grind personified. It was minimalistic puzzle-solving repeated over and over again, and some days that's all I needed. When my mind was wiped, or when I just wanted to sit back in my chair instead of forward in it, I turned to these silly blocks. When I needed it and wanted it, the grind was better for me than the most complex and innovative video games of the time.

The grind is good, especially when you have the option to do it or ignore it, and I feel that this has gotten such a bad reputation in MMOs that its positive aspects are overlooked. Time to remedy that!

Coffee grinder
Why grind got a bad reputation

Unlike the writers of some Soapboxes here on Massively, I'm not out to make a huge radical statement here that defies popular convention. I completely agree with anyone who says that a lot of MMO grinding is annoying and quite the opposite of fun, usually because it's forced upon us and overused. In the early days of MMO, the grind was the content for the most part, and after a few years of our having only one repetitive option, it's no wonder that people eagerly grabbed at any alternatives and never wanted to go back.

The problem with the overuse of grind (usually referring to the process of killing mobs over and over again to gradually eke out a reward or to hope for a rare drop) is that it's systemic to the MMO genre. When you make a game that doesn't have a "game over" screen and is meant to be played for long, long periods of time, there's an immediate problem when it comes to the amount of content available -- namely, there's no way devs can create enough original content to keep everyone playing indefinitely without repeating anything.

So without a definitive end to the game, there are only a few options available. You can just focus on creating original content and hope that players are patient enough to stick around for the next batch (and we all know how patient gamers are these days), you can try to harness player ingenuity to have the players create or generate content, or you can create content that's compelling or rewarding enough that it's worth repeating. That's pretty much it. And because the first option is so time- and resource-consuming and the second is notoriously difficult to monitor and structure, it's almost impossible for MMOs not to have a grind of some sort.

I think many of us accept this. We may not jump up and down praising it, but grind is just as much a part of the genre as dancing on mailboxes and being good sports after an intense PvP match with doodyheads. What we ask for is that developers minimize the most painful aspects of the grind and that the grind be as disguised as possible so we're not actively thinking about it. We're willing to buy into a suspension of disbelief as long as the devs meet us halfway.

Shooting hoops
Why I want to grind sometimes

Because there's this huge kneejerk reaction anytime the word "grind" is mentioned, it's as if the notion that grinding could be enjoyable in and of itself is completely out of the realm of possibility. But you know what? Sometimes that's all I want to do. I don't want to get into complex quests, I don't want to craft, I don't even want to raid or PvP or join a costume parade. I just want to grind.

Grinding relaxes me, just as Tetris and Asteroids and some of the early FPS titles did. I don't have to think hard about it; I can just get into a groove and go to it. In fact, many hobbies have grindy elements to them, and they're not lambasted for it. Grinding mobs in MMOs is like knitting or gardening or shooting hoops solo or spending gobs of time painting a model. It's not about the adventure and huge action; it's about soothing one's soul through a simple, calming task.

Grinding gives me a chance to refine my fighting skills. I recognize that sometimes I get into a rut in combat and stop experimenting with different rotations or approaches as I'm pushing through quests and content. When I stop to grind, I find I'm much more open to just trying different things. More often than not, I discover a technique or combo that I never considered before. As the combat system of most every MMO is the centerpiece of the game, it's not the worst thing in the world to be interacting with it.

Grinding also produces rewards. My mentality is such that I always prefer killing two angry birds with one stone over just a solitary disgruntled robin if I can get it. Grinding tempts me with a steady stream of two desirable things: XP and loot. The slot machine factor of kills makes the outcome of each battle unknowable; maybe this will be the time that a rare item will drop instead of just vendor trash. Sometimes there's a third bird in that mix, as I'm grinding toward a long-term reward such as a reputation item, a very rare drop, or a character stat improvement.

messy room
Grinding is best when it's an option

Going back to why we don't like the grind, I think it's safe to say that when we choose to do something, we always like it more than when we're forced to do it, even if -- and this is important -- it's the same activity. If grinding is the only option to progress, of course we're going to hate it. If it's the sole way to get something you want, of course you're going to resent it.

The two biggest factors in making grind acceptable is to give us a choice to do it (or not) and to wrap it in as much fun as possible. My kids hate cleaning up their room, which is a grind to them, but if I turn it into a game with music and challenge them to outdo each other, it all becomes a pretty enjoyable time.

Likewise, MMOs have come a long way from naked grinds, and I'm happy that we've made progress in this regard. I like grinds that are broken up or coupled with other activities. I am pleased that combat is no longer just auto-attacks punctuated with sandwich artistry. And I am glad that more often than not, I have the option to grind when I want to.

Like popping bubble wrap, sometimes mindlessly mowing through mobs is all the relaxing activity we need. And it can, indeed, be good.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.