GDC Online 2010: Slave to the Grind (Bioware)

Notes from the talk by Damian Schubert, Principle Lead Systems Designer, SW:TOR (@zenofdesign).

Grind: what is it? Why do we use it so much if players hate it? If we’re going to use grind we should at least be self-aware about it.

Def of grind: When you make the player do something he doesn’t want to do, in order to get to something he does want to do. This definition applies about 95% of the time.

Grind is not levelling, but levelling systems can be grinds: example: master poisoner in UO. Why should I have to reach level 18 in Mafia Wars before i can go to Las Vegas? Why do I have to complete single player mode before getting multiplayer in a racing game? Why do i have to buy loads of booster packs in order to have a competitive card deck?

In many cases there are good reasons for introducing the grind, but this doesn’t mean players will be sympathetic to your reasoning.

Psychology and Theory — how do they apply to grind?
If you perform an action, you get a reward. Basic operant conditioning. Skinner Box: push button, get pellet, feel good. But are the rats having any fun, or is it all conditioning? Is the Skinner Box the original grind?

Extrinsic/intrinsic motivations

Intrinsic: Rewards from doing: joy, delight, fn, sense of accomplishment, mastery and purpose, novelty (looking cool in your new armour). These are more powerful and rewarding, but unsustainable

Extrinsic: Artificial rewards such as level, experience, achievements (raises, bonuses etc) (getting any old reward). More sustainable, less meaningful and tend to make future rewards less meaningful over time

Raph Koster argues that pattern matching and pattern-breaking are the fun to be found, at least in games (Theory of Fun). Arguably the grind arises when players are asked to beat a pattern that no longer challenges them, or don’t find interesting enough to learn

Bartles Four: 4 player types found in social spaces (Killers, Achievers, Socialisers, Explorers): players are normally a hybrid. Grind mostly occurs in Achiever play

Well-Centred Game (own theory): world / game / community. A good game wants to live smack between all these things, and adding grind pushes it into the gamey corner, which is ok if you add things to balance it out in terms of world and community.

Why the grind is hard to avoid
– players like significant rewards
– players like well defined paths to reach these rewards
– every time you do this, you risk creating a grind

Players hate the grind, but like the payoff they get from it.

Players also like direction: a sense of where to go and what to do next. Clearly defined goals give players a good starting point. Even find-your-own-fun players often need help to figure out the ‘possibility space’

Erik Bethke: For GoPets, adding a couple grindy elements made it stickier immediately (the game is primarily for Socialisers, but ppl need direction)

Perception of playstyles
– grind is a matter of perception– to those who want to raid or run high-end arenas in WoW, levelling is grind
– to millions of casuals who never target the endgame, the journey, levelling, is the reward. the level game is THE game

Resource disparity
– can dramatically change perception
– one man’s tense MMO fight is grind fodder for someone more skilled
– a player who has plenty of time to surf FB might find social games there not grindy at all

Replay factor (mosty MMO factor)
– the more you’ve ‘been there, done that’, the more it feels like grind to do it again. novelty wears off and alt development feels grindy
– in SWTOR each class has its own class story, and in terms of replay every class has a certain amount of novelty levelling up, so there’s freshness in replay

Cheap, robust content
– it’s not that we’re lazy! the grind is cheap and robust
– kill ten rats ‘never fucking breaks!!’ grindy content is easier to build, but also easier to design, to QA, to repair and support. It’s safe. We rely on it a lot, perhaps too much, for this reason. What we’re doing in MMOs is creating scale critical mass, and in MMOs players need a reason to be there, they need goals. in FB, they need a reason to revisit (come back and click). In both types of game, players can devour through handcrafted content faster than designers can create it.

But make no mistakeā€¦ grindy content is usually seen as inferior by most of your players, and that’s because it is.

Managing the Grind
– sometimes it serves the design’s needs, and that’s OK. But always ask if it’s really necessary.

Introduce Novelty
– a little novelty goes a long way.
– mentally memorable interactions, humour, unique POIs, new game mechanics can break up the monotony
– understand that randomly generated content does NOT necessarily introduce novelty. Players are great pattern matchers and if they see that your RGCs aren’t interesting they won’t see it as different content, just as you being lazy. The content has to be interesting and compelling for players.

Milestone Grinds
Time to level per level in WoW used to have dips (lvl 39 just before mount; before cap at endgame), so were rewarding; getting your last name in EQ was perceived as a rewarding grind

Low Investment Play
– Players can only track so much gold-quality content at once; throw too many stories at them and they care less about each of them; things get too jumbled. To solve this sort of thing for SW we cut the bad quests, and spaced out the NPCs, added bonus quests to add more goals in the direction you’re already going — little tiny grinds.
– Simpler content can be a way to ensure that the gold-quality content has room to breathe

Boiling the Frog
You will intrinsically have fewer rewards (extrinsic and intrinsic) and less novelty the further you get in the game (turn up the heat slowly). Manage the pacing; avoid ‘hell levels’ and betraying your established cadence. Kills to kill per level is kinked — feels like you’re running through molasses. is your reason for doing this good enough?

Avoid Sticker shock
– don’t ask ppl to kill 5000 of something. Nothing makes the grind more tangible than an utterly absurd goal.
– reward the players doing new things…
– … but don’t make them do something they don’t want to do.

Encourage diversity of activity
–repetition is the devil

Proving devotion
– Long grind rewards (like the pirate hat in WoW) should be put well off the beaten path. Let players prove their devotion, these are often the pillars of the community and we want to give them this opportunity, but not spread it too broadly

Subverting the grind: how can we be evil? how can we make ppl feel good about grind?

Overlap your grinds: having multiple avenues for progress means the player is always close to progress somewhere. In Civ, the nav screen has a dozen little grinds that move fwd at the same time. This is very cool psychologically. In UO, players grind craft skills at the bank, which doesn’t feel as grindy because it contains social opportunities (distractions)

Offline grinds
– Players hate the grind enough that giving them some grind rewards for free is a great way to welcome them back into your social space, 1Bn blood in vampire wars! In EVE, players can advance skills while offline.

Bypassing the Grind
– Enough ppl hate grind that offering ways to cheese past it are rewarding: Civ ‘great people’, FB games microtransactions

Graduating Past grinds
– It makes sense that players that have been playing for a while wouldn’t want to be bothered by little things. Follows on from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: only worry about the stuff at the top once the bottom sections (more basic needs) are under control. When ppl embrace convenience items like the FV tractor, that speaks to the desire to reduce the complexity of little problems.

Complications: things to think about while designing the grind
– Players are really good at finding the best path to the cheese. They will then complain if it’s not any fun.
– Safe optimisations: death penalties that are too punitive can create grindy behaviour. Less severe punishment encourages players to take chances.

– The more layers of indirection you have between what the player is doing and what he wants to do, the more frustrating the grind will be

Social grinds
– You must have a group to advance
– FB games take this to a high level; you have to get 15 friends to tolerate your game behaviour in order for you to progress. ‘pay money or go viral’

Recursive grinds
– Or the catch-22 grind:` i can’t PvP till i have PvP gear, which i can only get when i PvP
– Tanking is hard to learn, and harder if you’re not geared. most of the time the good tanking gear is inside the dungeons — this is not great

Competitive grinds
– Grinds that compare scores end up favouring early entry and those who invest more time and resources irl
– Can act as a barrier to entry for latecomers (Shadowbane: need a fully loaded city to compete, so older established cityholders stomped all over new ones)

Grinding for Upkeep
– Keep something from decaying by grinding — pay gold to keep stuff
– Upkeep costs on your house are a powerful motivator until you miss a payment, and then it is a powerful motivator to cancel your account
– We’ve mostly stopped doing this. Don’t take stuff away from players.

Strategies and Opportunities

– How much time and devotion does your bus model need from players? Are daily play sessions healthy? are the requirements ones that players are likely to be able to meet? Do you need to take as much time as you’re taking?
– Be inclusive: be sure grind doesn’t prevent people from getting to interesting content (Magic: multistrategy approach to helping players work around grinds: closed drafts, peasant leagues, powerful rare cards)

The Slutty Design
– Your competitors’ grinds are an opportunities for you
– You can give away the milk for free
– Scratch the gaming itch while noticeably getting rid of tedium: Sims online, grind to build houses, however players could retreat to the offline products
– The concept of the slutty design is why many games in many genres have gotten less hardcore over time — to the infuriation of the hardcore. Not to say that we have to abandon the hardcore, just balance it out.

Give feedback
– Life is full of real grinds (go to school to get a job, work hard to get a promotion, go on multiple dates to get.. married)
– One way game grinds are superior: the progress bar. You know where you are. In real life you may have no idea.

In conclusion;
– Players often perceive the grind as bad, and you have to start with that assumption and work with it.

Q: Once players have done the grind once on their main, how about shortcuts for higher level alts?
A: This can be a solution. for DAOC RvR was the secret sauce and they wanted to get ppl there as fast as possible; however if you want ppl to experience levelling up that might not be great, to rush them through. in general it’s better for players to play the game they want to play.

Q: Achievements in single player is a lot of fun, but in MMOs it leads to grind, esp with leaderboards. the metagame becomes so huge that it takes over.
A: Maybe, but I’ve found many SP achievements to be stupidly grindy too. A lot of games try to move hardcore gameplay to achievements in order to get the grindy stuff off the main critical path. A lot of players won’t log in unless they have something to do, and achievements allow designers to provide this pretty cheaply

Q: Balance rewards for grind behaviour with rewards for skills behaviour?
A: Yes, but it’s really hard. Problem is not usually balancing grind vs skill, it’s that usually those two things compound, so that usually the ppl who are really good play a lot so they get both sets of rewards and will crush players who only have one type of rewards. This is a problem designers have to solve

Q: What do you think about the relationship of friend feeds (FB) and grind?
A: It’s perceived as a grind for a lot of ppl cos they feel squicky about drawing their friends into the game experience for various reasons, and designers of those games are still trying to figure it out. I sees SGs as being where EQ was 20 years ago: you have to group to advance. They’ve dialled it back now and I think FB games are backing away from it now bc a lot of ppl are introverts and don’t want to share, they want to play FB games solo.

Q: Maybe don’t have cheap grindy things (find all the books) if you want to satisfy the hardcore
A: This might actually appeal to some hardcores, but most of these type of grinds reward dedication, not skill.

Q: What about grind that players impose on each other? Like WoW gear score
A: An interesting development but not sure what to think of it yet. Gear score filled a critical need, in that its hard to run a dungeon with a tank that’s undergeared, so ppl want to make sure this won’t happen. Players got v dogmatic about it, and will disband immediately if you’re not awesomely geared. Possibly it’s gone too far but not sure how to correct it.