View From the Road

View From the Road: An Axe to Grind, Part 1

John Funk | 26 Jul 2010 17:00
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It's a safe bet that in almost any discussion about an MMOG (any MMOG) on the internet, there will invariably be somebody who jumps in to the thread, complains about the game being a "grind," and then leaves like the proverbial internet Batman. Some have even suggested that "grind" is just something central to the MMOG concept, and that trying to remove it from a Massive title would be excising the very core of the game.

It's true that many MMOGs - particularly older ones - are built around the idea of the grind, but that doesn't mean they all are. The modern MMOG is steadily moving away from this core concept, though some games are quicker to pick up on it than others. In other words, just because some RTSes are about building a bunch of tanks and sending them at your enemy, that doesn't mean that all of them are. Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in discussing the idea of the grind is that it may have a different meaning for people who don't play MMOGs. Or, in the words of Inigo Montoya: You keep on using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.

How do you define grind? For all we complain about the idea, it's an awfully nebulous concept. The most obvious definition - and one that I think most people default to - is "to do something over and over." If you are repeating one particular action over and over, the idea goes, you are grinding. Ergo, since in MMOGs you repeat the act of killing any number of monsters over and over, it is a grind.

Hang on a minute. Yes, you're killing enemies over and over again. Don't you do that in every game where combat is a major element of the experience? I must have killed hundreds of enemy soldiers and evil mutants in playing Singularity for our review the other week, but I haven't heard anyone calling that a grind. The entire point of TF2 is to kill members of the other team; I haven't done anything but kill REDs and BLUs since 2008 ... but that's not a grind, is it? (The crafting, on the other hand...)

The perceived difference between killing thousands of enemies in an MMOG and killing tons of enemies in Uncharted 2, of course, is that Nate Drake is murdering with a purpose in order to advance the story. He's not killing thugs to reach the next level, he's slaughtering them by the bucketload because they're after a mythical treasure or whatever, and letting them get the treasure would be vaguely unpleasant. Likewise, in TF2, the objective is to capture the flag or push the bomb-kart - killing the other team just happens to be something you do in the process.

Last night, I was stonewalled in my replay of Pokémon Platinum by the Fighting-type Gym Leader, whose final battler was simply too much for my underleveled team to handle. So off I went to the wilderness around the city, knocking out wild Pokémon one at a time to slowly build my team up to the level they needed to be in order to stand a chance. Everyone here would probably agree that that is grinding, no? So what's the difference?

The difference comes down to a matter of intent. True, my ultimate goal in Pokémon was to face and defeat the Gym Leader, but the immediate goal I was working toward was simply to make that little blue bar fill up enough times to have the numbers that I needed to have. In other games, the combat and killing is what you do on your way to an objective; grinding is when the combat and killing is the objective. Or, to put it in a more pithy, concise statement: Grinding is the action of systematically repeating a particular action or series of actions in order to accomplish a larger goal.

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