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Kill The Grind

Lately, a friend of mine has been trying to get me to play MMORPGs with him. However, he can't seem to bring himself to play them. So far we've been to World of Warcraft and City of Heroes. His main excuse is that "life is more interesting", but I think the problem is that he hates gaming, and it was the grind that taught him to. There's no other single aspect to subtly convince one that games have no aspects of artistic appreciation than the grind.

"The grind" is the boredom that results when a game tries to get you to play it when you're already bored of the game. Roleplaying games are a common culprit, as they possess artifical achievement complexes (e.g. experience points and gold) as rewards to bear with them. However, any game can be a grind if it stretches the content too thin, forcing the player to go through a number of monotonous actions to get to where the fun is. The only insulating layer there is between the grind and you is your enjoyment of the game. Once you've bored of the game, you run smack into the grind.

Unfortunately, the average modern MMORPG is a grind. EverQuest and Ultima Online, the original granddaddies of this graphical massively multiplayer binge, had something unique that most of their imitators did not. In EverQuest's case, it was a challenge to coordinate yourself and 5 other players to become a well-oiled machine. Monsters were challenging in EverQuest, and attempting to fight them solo or in small groups was often impossible (unless you count indirect tactics such as kiting). In Ultima Online's case, it was this wide-open virtual world where anything goes. Unfortunately, Ultima Online's developers just couldn't handle this, and eventually gutted the game into the clique carebear it is today.

The average modern MMORPG has ditched EverQuest's 6-player coordination game in order to be more casual friendly because hunting for 5 other players to play with just isn't compatible with a half-hour play time. The average MMORPG hasn't dared to pick up where Ultima Online left off - making an EverQuest clone is just easier. The resulting MMORPG has killed any aspect it had of unusual gaming appeal, and because of this, it has the same appeal than any other game.

Such a game is suited for maybe 20-40 hours of play, then it's time to put it down and move on. However, MMORPGs have subscription fees, and so the developers feel obligated to make the game last as long as possible. They deliberately create a virtual chore list of things to work on to keep players playing long after the 20-40 hours the game is worth is over. The result can be nothing other than a grind.

I have a solution. Lets call it Geldon Yetichsky's Countergrind Mechanic. Because I'm vain and don't want to admit that this is a basic idea anyone could think up.

The Countergrind Mechanic works like this:
  1. Create increasingly more challenging encounters that need to be overcome by real player skill, not virtual character skill.
  2. Bring the player to their level of challenge as rapidly as possible.
In application, this means that instead of killing 50 orcs to get level 10, you kill one orc. If you can kill that orc, you've proven yourself able to best that challenge, and it's time to take your game to that level. If the players are not playing as though they've earned their levels, they lose those levels as quickly as they gained them (this also caps the exploit of hiring somebody to level for them).

The actual use of the word "level" here is a bit of a limiter. Ideally, one would made the existence of levels as transparent as possible. As far as the player could tell, they're just getting better at besting challenges until they reach a point in which they need to improve as a player to proceed further. Persistence alone is not rewarded.

The reason why this approach works is because it directly magnifies whatever worth the game has. If your game is so crappy that a toddler could master it, then the player will finish it the first day they play it. The developer is challenged to create gameplay that challenges the player in order to keep their players at all.

In order for this to work, the developer needs to be willing to let go. If the player has mastered your game, don't ruin the game by forcing him or her to stick around. However, you don't coddle the player either: they have to play the game like they mean it. Now there's an RPG nobody can say is a grind.
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