Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guest Post: The Grinding Issue

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 23, 2013

This is a guest post by a friend, fellow indie dev, and a guy I’ve been in the trenches of “mainstream” game development with, Curtis Mirci. He is the creator of the silly, simple fun shooter-with-RPG-elements March to the Moon, an upcoming educational title with RPG elements, and the upcoming game “Siphon Spirit” which is more of an action-RPG with abstract but fascinating mechanics. His website is Califer Games. Today, he’s gonna talk about the game “mechanic” frequently referred to as Grinding. Enjoy!

After I released March to the Moon (link: http://www.califergames.com/marchtothemoon/) on XBox LIVE Indie Games and PC I got a review that made me rethink how I was doing the leveling.  My original idea was to allow people to replay levels to get more XP so they could take on tougher levels.  Indie Gamer Chick (link: http://indiegamerchick.com/2012/12/12/march-to-the-moon/) got to the second act and just played the first level over and over again for an hour.  Then she complained about the game being too easy.

I’ll admit, I like to grind when I’m playing games.  I’m playing Final Fantasy Tactics right now.  I’ve got one guy who can heal the team, one guy that can scare the enemy away, and everyone knows how to do a weak, ranged attack.  And since the XP you get is based on the level of your target, I can consistently level up by just attacking my own team.  Sure, I’m eight levels higher than everyone else, but at least I’m close to unlocking the ninja class so I can use dual weapons.

So what’s the issue?  Why should a designer care about whether the player grinds or not?  For one thing, it makes the game too easy.  A game that is too easy is a game with no more challenge.  A game with no challenge can get boring pretty darn easily.  Also, most games that allow for grinding have a story.  If the player manages to get themselves stuck grinding they could forget what the story is and what the goal is.  These both lead to a player giving up on the game since it’s no longer any fun.

There are a few ways to handle grinding depending on how your game is set up.  You could have a hard game that absolutely requires the player to grind.  I can’t think of a single reason that you would want to do this, but I have read reviews for games that complain of this very thing.  You could also make grinding simply not possible by removing enemies after they are killed or setting a low XP cap per area.  Generally, people don’t seem to like those either.

For the most part, people seem to want to have the option of grinding without ever being forced to do it.  That’s what I like.  But this has a few more layers of depth to it as well.  Players may not be grinding just to get new levels and get generally stronger.  Maybe there is something that they really want to get. Whether it’s a rare drop, money, or new abilities there are plenty of reasons that a player might want to grind.

So how can you combat grinding without taking away a player’s freedom?  I have a few ideas and I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

1. Experience requirements for level grow dramatically.

    Grinding killing rats for 2 XP made sense when it was only 15 XP to level up, but when the next level needs 100 XP you’ll want to move on to the next point of the game to something that gives more XP.

2. Give them a better chance at getting drops.

    If they’re fighting the same monster over and over again to get a rare drop, they’re going to be piling on the XP not only for that monster, but also for all the monsters they kill on the way to their target.  Increasing the odds each time that they kill the monster makes them more likely to get the drop and keep them from overpowering their character.

3. Less XP for lower level enemies.

    If the thing you’re grinding just isn’t giving you as much XP as it used to you’re more likely to move on to find something else to kill.  Giving extra XP for killing something above your level and it may pull the player to face harder challenges and perhaps get through the game sooner.


Filed Under: General - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I generally like the method of reducing the XP for enemies based on the level difference between them and the player. Eventually the player reaches a point where grinding on weaker enemies gives no XP at all. This pretty much forces the player to move on to a new area or advance the story. Also, rewarding the player for taking on higher level enemies and winning encourages them to try and advance in the game – giving them the same reward in less time than grinding on easy opponents.

    For rare drops and the XP problem, I wouldn’t increase the odds of getting the item drop each time they kill the monster (this makes the item not ‘rare’, but ‘inevitable’). It rewards persistence, not luck. Which, if that’s what you’re going for is fine, but it definitely changes how it feels to get that item or how rare it feels.

    Instead of giving a better chance at drops the more they face the monster, what about lowering the XP reward each time they kill the monster? Once they get the rare drop, the XP reward can reset. You could base the XP reduction on the odds of getting the item drop. If the monster has a 5% chance of dropping the rare item, then you know, on average, that the player should get one of those items every 20 battles with that monster. You could then set the XP reduction so that after 20 battles it reaches 0.

    Whether or not I like grinding depends on the game – if the game and the combat mechanic are fun, and there are lots of rare drops to collect, powers to unlock, and secret monsters or bosses requiring an overpowered character or party I love it. If the story is better than the gameplay then grinding just becomes a chore in the way of finding out what happens next.

  • Adamantyr said,

    For my vintage CRPG, I just did away with levels and XP entirely. Monsters are obstacles, not a goal. Character advancement is tracked by reaching certain points in the game instead.

    That said, the humanoid monsters still do drop money, and the occasional random item, so there is value in grinding for that reason.

    I honestly don’t know yet if this will be “fun” or not… the fact combat is 2D tactical turn-based that could conceivably drag a bit may not help either.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ll be honest, the older I get the more I HATE grinding.

    I’ve been playing alot of Japanese games recently and they tend to rely on the “Higher Difficulties are for high level players” and I’m struggling to enjoy the game. I need to choose between playing an easy but balanced game… or an dull game where I need to hit enemies 30 times to kill them. So… don’t do that jay!

    As for dealing with the grinding, I don’t think that the solution has anything to do with doling out the XP. I has to do with the combat system itself. By creating a system that allows a strategic player to fight much higher level foes… you can allow players to fight at their chosen difficulty (Level).

    Either that… or remove grinding for levels as you know them. Rather than gaining attributes that make you invincible levels will just unlock skills. You will be equally weak… but you will have more strategic options.

    Finally, you could always do something that balances a player regardless of grinding. For example: Guild Wars reduces your level to the expected value before starting a quest. You could do something similar where you force a player to prepare his skill slots and weapons based on a limitation for the “Stage”.

    When you replay an early quest you may only choose 100 points worth of weapons and skills for your party. This would allow you to unlock better powers, but still limits the players power to something that could be challenging.

    If you choose to just mod the XP rates… I tend to like the high XP gain until you match the monsters level… and then it slows to a crawl. That usually keeps me at the appropriate level for most RPGs.

  • Jeffrey said,

    I’ll go counter here and say I hate systems that kill my grind XP and cap me. If I am determined to “spoil the experience” for myself, why shouldn’t I be allowed to?

    Guild Wars gets away with capping because it is an MMO. It is no fun to play in a low-mid level zone and then have a griefing lv 80 player come curb stomp the targets in your entire zone in under a few seconds.

    In the FFT example, I am able to set secondary goals for myself even with my overpowered state. I steal equipment or invite all enemies into my group as “standard tactics” (and the quoted “47%” success rate is anything but)–but I need to get access to Mediator first. A friend of mine deliberately grinded Delita to let him one-shot Algus at the climax of chapter 1.

    Should grind be required? I say no.

    Should grind be disallowed? I also say no. If I want to self-select difficulty, I can do that easily this way. If there’s enough variance in the character growth system, I’ll make it harder on myself naturally as my skill grows and my patience shrinks.

  • Maklak said,

    > For my vintage CRPG, I just did away with levels and XP entirely.

    For me this is the best solution. Things like “For lower level enemies you get fewer XP” are just artificial constraints that damage immersion and annoy me. One of the best RPGs I’ve seen was “VTM: Bloodlines” and it didn’t have levels. You got experience points for quests and used those points to improve attributes and skills. Many combats were optional and how you bypassed the obstacles didn’t influence the quest reward.

    Another good way to forego the level system is to have a skill-based system. Skills are improved with their use and from training with NPCs. Unfortunately this system encourages another kind of grinding, like people jumping around all the time in TES.

    Overall some combat is fine, but too much of it just gets in my way. Well, all to often slaughtering thousands of beings is the main focus of the game, but I don’t play this kind of games much anymore.

    Respawning enemies (or just more of them showing up in an already cleared area when you level up, like in New Vegas) and people having infinite ammo in combat, but dropping a bunch of random items when they are killed are also what I consider annoying, artificial constraints. If somebody has a sword, he should drop that sword when killed. If he dropped a halberd, but fought with a sword, there is something wrong here. If someone got killed before firing a shot, he should have all his ammo on him. If I just dodge bullets, at some point the enemy should run out of ammo. Similarly, when a bunch of player-controlled ruffians storms a place, there should be an alert, officers should pick up those fancy weapons from their chests and there should be some kind of organised resistance, not just guards wandering in circles and not caring what goes on in adjacent rooms.

  • Xian said,

    It’s not that I hate grinding so much, but it’s when you HAVE to grind to progress that I don’t like. I just finished Ni No Kuni Wrath of the White Witch and there were several areas where I was supposed to go to continue the main quest line but the monsters were much too powerful, even though I had completed every quest and side quest up to that point. I had no choice but to go on a killing spree until I had leveled up enough to survive the next area.

  • Xenovore said,

    I know there are players out there that view repetitive game content, i.e. “grinding”, as a good thing. (Hmm, there are probably some masochistic and/or obsessive/compulsive tendencies at play there…) However, in my experience, grinding is typically the result of flaws in a game’s design.

    Flaws may include:
    1) Insufficient content. Players are forced to repeat content to complete the game. (Or they are deliberately forced to play through the content at a slow pace, so as to not exhaust the content “too early”. See #3 and #6.)

    2) Static/scripted content. Players are deliberately forced into grinding. (Often hand-in-hand with #1.)

    3) Unbalanced difficulty levels. Players are forced into grinding just to progress (e.g. Xian’s post above).

    4) Unbalanced difficulty levels. Players are encouraged to grind because it’s the easier/lazier way.

    5) Excessive reliance on combat actions to progress. Non-combat progression paths can go far to mitigate grinding.

    6) Progress (e.g. XP) is too limited. Otherwise balanced game-play becomes grindy.

  • Walter said,

    I think lowering the amount of XP when you default a lower level monster is annoying and artificial when you don’t get more XP for killing higher level monsters. When it’s always taken into account, though, it makes it more fun to throw yourself at the higher level enemies.

    Also, I really rare drops. Unless there’s a luck stat that determines your chances of getting them, it’s entirely arbitrary and artificial. Also, 10 LUCK should get me any enemy’s rare drops full stop, since I’m supposed to be the luckiest man in the world.

    Speaking of drops, I hate when intrinsic parts of an enemy aren’t unconditional drops. So that skeleton with a bow who was shooting me with arrows only had 2 arrows? No bones, no bow? And I hate it when games have it so enemies use up their ammo that they drop shooting at you, but only the current clip. They never have more than one clip that drops, and it can never run out of ammo. This mainly annoys me because enemies running out of ammo sounds like an awesome concept to base a game on, and I can’t think of a single game that does it.

  • Maklak said,

    > This mainly annoys me because enemies running out of ammo sounds like an awesome concept to base a game on, and I can’t think of a single game that does it.

    Actually, I’m quite sure enemies in Fallouts used up their Ammo, then switched to melee and only ever dropped the ammo they had left and their gun (also armour in Fallout 1). Arcanum seems to follow the same rules; enemies can run out of ammo and then they go into close combat. BTW, I’m talking about the true fallouts, not those FPS blasphemies. Curse you, “magical companion ammo”.
    Of course Dwarf Fortress tracks ammo too, both in fortress and adventure mode. I’m also quite sure Morrowind did that too: NPCs had their inventories, used what they had to fight and when they died, you could loot all that was left, including clothes. There were a few exceptions, though.

    It is arguable that enemies dropping their equipment on death, will let you grind money too easily, but most games avoid it by making common items worse and much cheaper than what you’ll normally have and money not matter all that much.

    About realistic enemy loot, I think an awesome concept to base a game on would be to run the random loot tables upon visiting a new location for the first time (NPC inventory, chests, all of it), then determine who uses what (so for example that “sword of moderate awesomness” goes to the leader or one of his officers, not to some random footsoldier or a chest in the barracks and most “alchemical grenades” are distributed among grenadiers, then have the defenders behave with at least some degree of intelligence (like in one of those sneaking games).
    With this, going head on against this place would result in almost certain player death and some more clever tactics would have to be used, such as hit and run, snipe from afar, hide behind a wall of companions seeking glory and death, some diversion to lure defenders away from you or maybe something even more ?fun? and !exploity!, such as attacking their supply lines to weaken them.

    Back on topic of grinding, I usually do it for one of two reasons:
    1) The game makes it somewhat fun and addictive.
    2) I want to make future combats easier.

  • Bandwee said,

    The Last Story handled this incredibly well. No random encounters, just set locations for fights (think Chrono Trigger, where the enemies are in static locations) but there were frequent spots where you could voluntarily begin fights over and over. The leveling was designed so that, for example, every level from 40 to 50 would require 20,000 exp, and that was roughly what each of these summoned fights would give. But from 51 on would require 200,000 (and fights in level-appropriate areas would once again keep you properly and quickly leveling). So it was really easy to boost your party if you had fallen behind, but clear when it was time to stop and get on with the game.

    I only did it for the final boss of the game – I was too underleveled to keep up with him.

  • Rachel said,

    Devil Survivor 2 had an interesting take on griding. It’s a tactical RPG, so every required battle is a story battle, but if you need to you can choose to grind. Unless you know what you’re doing, you probably will have to grind. But you get more NG+ points if you don’t grind at all–kind of a challenge mode (that said, the actual grinding I had to do to beat that game stunk).

  • David W said,

    In large part, I tend to think the option of grinding is necessary, because of the problem described in Shamus Young’s post here: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=221

    (man, both Shamus and the Coyote have been around since 06?)