Meaningful grinding

A recent tweet and Winter Wolves forum post about grinding got me thinking how to deal with this issue.

Grinding can be relatively boring experience. For example, in an RPG a player character cannot complete a quest because there’s too tough enemy in the end. Therefore the character goes and kills some orcs to get experience points to level up so that he can beat the quest boss enemy.

Grinding here is simply a boring act of clicking without real threat of losing anything. Why is this introduced in the first place? If the purpose of grinding is to make player “wait”, then there’s little meaningful play there.

I’m not trying to fully describe what grinding is or how it should be dealt with, but the basic idea can be that you need to do some boring, repetative action in order to progress in the game.

So, what are alternatives for grinding?

No grinding?
One obvious is: no grinding. This cuts down the playing time, and at least gets rid of the boring parts. But this isn’t necessarily the optimal way since it requires tons of work, and some players actually like some aspects of grinding.

Meaningful quests
One very obvious way to masquerade grinding is to introduce quests. While everybody and their mom can notice that killing spawning rats in a forest is grinding, adding some variety to this in form of quests can bring some meaning into things. Instead of killing a rat you first talk with an old man who has a rat problem, you go to his barn, kill rats, collect rat tails and then come back and gain experience. This too can be grinding, but having few more different actions (talk, walk, kill, collect) add variety into the system, and becomes slightly less boring.

For a time being.

Long-term penalty for grinding
Instead of viewing grinding as “something you need to do to beat the next enemy” we could introduce long-term thinking in how much grinding you do. Usually player can choose to grind so much that there’s no challenge in beating the major boss: for example you might have designed that in the end of Map 2, there’s a Level 2 enemy which should be attacked by Level 2 hero. Hero might have decided to kill spawning wolves so much that he is now level 7 hero, and can easily beat level 2 boss. So, your challenge has become something that has absolutely no challenge (first rat killing, then easy end boss kill).

To prevent this: introduce some long-term negative penalty for grinding. For example, in some games there might be attribute “age”. If player spends 60 years in the forests beating rats, in order to beat the next boss… he might suffer penalties for Dexterity or something. Maybe his skills are getting better, but his core attributes receive penalties (thus he might have perfected his mastery of the sword, but since his endurance is very low he can hit just once). This “age” attribute can be a really harsh penalty, so milder versions most likely are more suitable for most games.

Another thing might be that since time passes, there are certain quests he cannot take. Perhaps there has been a possibility to defend a city from attacking pirates, but since the player character spend 3 years in the forest collecting mushrooms, the pirates conquered the city. There’s no “defend the city” quest (that would reward the player with plenty of experience points, karma and equipment) available any more.

Here player has had a choice between “low-risk, low reward mushroom grinding” and “high-risk, high-reward pirate attack quest”. That can be a meaningful choice as-is. Player must take his pick, he cannot choose both ways.

Or perhaps character receives a curse point every month (I dunno why, maybe he just is cursed) and the more curse points he receives during the game, the worse overall score he’ll receive at the end of the game.

Or perhaps the curse points affect: each curse point increases the likelyhood of random bad encounter during travels. This way, player may decide to grind to gain experience, but receives curse points that affect traveling. Therefore, player cannot grind too much or his long-term progress gets worse.

Or maybe player character is an elf who can live 500 years, and grinding really does increase his age — thus eventually killing the player if he grinds way too much…

Whatever the situation, one way to think of grinding is that “grinding gives you short term help (for example: helps completing the current quest) but introduces long term penalty or hindres progress somehow. This way player might need to think how much grinding he does: he must balance short-term gain vs long-term pain.

And the other way to think of it: allow player to grind (low-risk, low-reward) but also allow him to choose high-risk, high-reward path.

Even more meaningful quests
Adding an another layer of meaning in the previous actions help make things bit more interesting. Naturally this means you have to do some work to get the engine going, and it’s probably a hidious thing to test… but here’s the general idea: doing certain actions change state of the world.

For example, if the player character goes around killing rats throughout the city, eeventually he’ll piss of the “hunter killing guild”, which is the official jobbing place for rat killers. No outsiders are allowed to kill their rats. This means that when your player kills rats, this event triggers negative and positive reputation. Let’s explore this situation bit more.

For example, there could be several entities in the city, some of them listed below:
– rat killer guild
– inn keeper guild
– old man
– miners
– prince
– villagers
– thieves

Then there can be several resources in the town (here’s a few examples):
– rat population
– gold mine
– food situation

Each of these entities could have relationship. For example, “rat killer guild” could be happy when “rat population” is high. “Prince” doesn’t give rat’s arse, if you may, about the rat population, but he cares about “food situation”. Inn keeper guild doesn’t care about “rat population”, and they actually want “food situation” to be poor (so that they can get monopoly over limited resource). Villagers hate rats. Prince wants to keep good relationships with the rat killer guild but also with the inn keeper guild. And somewhat good relationship with the villagers to ensure there’s no riots.

Now, some examples that might occur if the player character was to go really deep into killing rats. Naturally, getting rat population lower might actually be an impossible thing… but let’s assume there’s a town with a really low rat population, and somehow the main character manages to use alchemy to come up with a poison to kill almost all the remaining rats.

What would follow:
– rat killer guild would be pissed off: they have just lost their jobs to an outsider
– inn keeper guild doesn’t care since rat population doesn’t concern them (unless the hero decides to start a rat burger business too)
– old man specifically cares about rats in his barn, but he might also generally like the idea that there’s fewer rats in the city, thus he might thank the player
– miners don’t care, so nothing happens there
– villagers hate rats, so they like the new situation
– prince notices that rat killer guild is pissed off, which might mean prince gets bit pissed off too, but not too much since villagers are happier now

What else might follow?

Rat killer guild members might try kill the player character (this can be simply by spawning random rat killers somewhere near the player character, who have think that player character is “enemy”). Of course if there happens to be “friendly” villagers nearby, those might join to defend the hero.

As you can see, by introducing just a few elements in the game economy, we’ve seen a huge difference in what “rat killing” has become. By introducing generic elements, we can see emerging behavior from different groups, and player needs to choose sides.

And these are just numbers.

See how it’s almost automatic that you think “rat killer guild” is “bad folks” and “villagers” are the “good folks”. (I’m taking a wild guess here that you sort of mentally labeled them one way or another).

And they are just numbers. I could have listed them as groups A, B and C and doing thing X creates negative relationship with group A but positive relationship with group B. But since we labeled them “villagers”, “prince” etc. we assume differently. There’s now, in a way, some meaningfullness in the system itself. Player might choose to do things game designers didn’t anticipate (maybe he pisses off multiple sides, maybe he manages somehow to get villagers and rat killers hostile towards themselves. Maybe villagers manage to kill rat hunters, and then rat population grows too high, pissing of villagers who then go attack prince for not doing anything.

And at that point our lone hero has left the town…

But what about balancing?
Now that’s a tricky subject I purposely left out. In this blog post I thought only about how to add meaningfulness to grinding.

As for the balancing all this, that’s probably beyond this blog post.

Sure, by introducing new elements, you also have to think about the game balance, but one thing is certain: even if you go with “rat killing, no side effects” method… that too has balancing issues. No matter which route you take, there’s always balancing issues.

Here I tried to look at things that might turn grinding into something bit more interesting.

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Or, you could have an RPG like Chrono Cross, which eschews the typical grinding system in favour of one where your stats get up to snuff in no time, but once they reach a certain point they stop growing.

    I feel it has rather interesting combat to make up for that sort of thing.

    • But then there’s no growth/advancement/experience, which is highly important for games.

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