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Disguising the grind


Believe it or not, grind is an essential part of an MMO and we might be pretty lost without it. Repetitive content is the cornerstone of the MMO genre but it's not all just smacking monsters over the head for hours on end or completing yet another "kill ten rats" quest. The repetitive elements in an MMO give us predictable gameplay in a form we can digest. We don't feel lost when we pick up a quest because it uses similar mechanics to previous quests we've done. From a development standpoint, the amount of time it takes to create new and unique gameplay for an MMO is quite large and it's just not feasible to churn out unique gameplay with every new piece of content. Instead, developers are forced to re-use the same gameplay mechanics over and over again. So if we genuinely appreciate predictable, repetitive gameplay and it's not feasible to do otherwise, why are we always so up-in-arms about the evils of grinding?

In this probative opinion piece, I look at why we need repetitive gameplay in MMOs and the various ways developers disguise grind to keep the game entertaining.
Update: Link to page 2 fixed. Thanks Brian!

What is grind and why do we need it?:
The option of grinding is universally present in MMOs. Every game has some repeatable activity that offers a linear exchange rate between effort and reward. We appreciate the assurance that if we sit down for an hour, we'll accomplish a decided measure of work and be rewarded in kind. Another factor we tend to forget about repetitive gameplay is that we've come to depend on that predictability to provide a smoother gameplay experience. When you take a quest, you know exactly what you have to do. If you get a kill quest you know right away that you have to go over to some guy, chop his head off and go back to the quest-giver for some fat loot. It's an established pattern and if quests ever diverge from the expected patterns we find ourselves stuck trying to figure it out or looking up an online quest guide. If every quest were truly unique in gameplay, we may actually end up frustrated that we don't know what to do and exasperated at the quest's difficulty.

That said, there's a fundamental difference between predictable, repetitive gameplay and the "grind" we all hate. It's the content designer's job to turn those repetitive gameplay features into an involving game experience or an evolving story that draws us in. It's their job to turn "kill ten rats" into something enjoyable so we don't really notice we're just hitting rats over the head repeatedly. Designers may be stuck using the same mechanics over and over again but that doesn't mean they have to give us almost the exact same quest time after time. It's their job to make those same old mechanics we're used to appear fresh -- to disguise the grind. In that regard, too many MMOs fall far short of the mark.

What's in a quest?:
When I was a pen-and-paper dungeon master, I learned a few valuable lessons in quest and adventure design. When you want the players to kill ten orcs, the quest shouldn't be "kill ten orcs". Instead, it should be to accomplish some grander task and the orcs just happen to get in the way. You might have to kill the orcs to complete the quest but that's not the overall goal and it's not what you directly tell the player to do. I've observed both World of Warcraft and EverQuest 2 successfully latching onto this idea with some quests and then forgetting about it in others. They aren't the only MMOs guilty of this offence, some haven't latched onto the idea at all and a lot of the quests we have in MMOs today are still just completely mundane tasks. Kill 10 rats, collect 5 rat tails that only drop from one in four kills, bring this box of rats to Billy the Chef. Any of this sound familiar?

Read on to page 2, where I look at a few of the ways developers manage to turn grind into an adventure and some of the ways they utterly fail to.

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