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The Digital Continuum: 'Comfort' grind

Kyle Horner

Often times grind is lambasted as the worst part of this genre, something to be minimized and removed to any and all extent. I understand all too well why; hundreds of hours of brain melting repetitiveness. Only here's the rub: the very nature of MMOs -- persistence -- creates a grind. Unless you keep it under a reasonable number of hours played, it'll turn into a festival of grind.

I used to think this was a colossal problem, yet lately I'm beginning to rethink my stance.

This last weekend, I moved into a new place and it basically obliterated me into exhaustion by the end of the day. Afterwards, I really didn't feel like doing much for the next day or two. It just happened that I had new roommates and we recently purchased Borderlands. Now, I was planning on getting plenty of time in with Aion but just couldn't muster the mood -- these things can't always be forced.

Several hours of playing Borderlands later, I realized an old feeling had soaked its way into my brain. The mission pacing, leveling and loot droops were all incredibly familiar, so why didn't I come to hate it after a full weekend of playing? Why wasn't I loathing the grind? Something ineffable about this game took hold of me and wouldn't release its meaty grip.

There are all sorts of things about Borderlands that I could list off in a positive light. You can objectify it all you want, but what it really comes down to is satisfaction. A good grind rewards you with a constant -- but not overwhelming -- stream of treats. Sometimes you gain a level, and others you earn a piece of better equipment but there's always a treat right around the corner. And you know, it's a really comforting feeling.

Much like certain foods, movies or blankets a comfort grind is reassuring, if not precariously addicting. You can have too much of a good thing. At one point or another in all our lives, traditional MMOs were a good thing. Whether it was EverQuest, World of Warcraft or something else entirely, everyone who'll 'never do that again' had too much of a good thing. The fault is both no one's and everyone's, because nobody has been able to come up with the perfect solution and we just keep playing the friggin' games all the same.

Do developers realize this, and if so should they be trying to minimize 'grind' from their game? Grinding can be good if it doesn't demand more time than a newborn child. Not all grinds are created equal, but no grind should be overtly epic. This could be my biggest grief with Aion, and indeed with many MMOs -- although with Aion more than any other.

I don't want a mind-numbingly slow grind. Maybe some people do crave it, although I question the validity of even that small number. The key to doing what Borderlands did to me is pace, structure and reward. If grinding is too slow, too abstract or insufficiently rewarding it won't comfort, it'll frustrate. The very last thing I needed after all that exhausting moving was frustration. I didn't want to play for hours only to see very incremental improvements.

The requisite slower pace of an MMO means they'll only ever appeal to set number of people with the current model. Community and massive persistent worlds give them an edge over the Borderlands of the world, but the MMO grind is being liberated and repurposed in a way that makes me question whether or not MMOs have got their version of it wrong. It would seem to me that time is -- as it will probably always be, short of a time machine -- everything.

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