Clockwork Game Design: Episode 7 – Grinding, Toys, and Value

cgdplogo_twitterGrinding basically has no place in interactive systems. In this episode, I talk about why that’s my position. I also respond to a bunch of comments from my Psychological Exploitation Games article.

Also if you want to know more about my Interactive Forms.

  • Theyrealone

    badness –
    goodness +
    How the Scale look like:
    How people think it looks like:


  • Max Hospadaruk

    I tend to agree with the assertion that we *can* evaluate opinions: obviously we all fight for and about what we like all the time, so if we didn’t think opinions could be evaluated in this way, we’d just leave it be and accept that other people’s opinions and tastes were fine as they are.

    I also agree when you say that finding these intrinsic values gets harder to find the further we get away with extremes (i.e.; is it ok to murder right now vs. is star trek or star wars better). One thing I’d just like to mention is that as we get into these grey areas, while it is worth exploring “what we like and why we like and whether or not we’re right to like,” even if we had perfect clarity on a certain subject (which, I think you admit we probably never would, but is more of a lofty ideal to strive for) we might ultimately find that different individuals simply derive different values from the same materials.

    For example, let’s say that with enough analysis we could actually come up with a hard number from 1 to 100 representing how much value something gives us. While we might find that movie A has an average value of 62 and Movie B has an average value of 67, I think each individual, based on biology and personal history, would have slightly different personal values for these two movies. So while one might on average have more value, in a an individual case you might find these numbers flip-flopped or even wildly different.

    The interesting part, then, is trying to boil away each others misunderstandings about a certain system or piece of art, and learn where the real differences in what each of us values lie.

  • Rob Seater

    The best example of a real-world grinding contest is the southern tradition of winning a pickup truck of you are the last person still standing with your hand on it. It’s really an endurance/dehydration contest, but a big part of it is having nothing better to do than stand with your hand on a pickup truck for several days straight. I think it is safe to say that those contests are stupid.

  • Ya. And a bit more constructively, we shouldn’t have “game designers” intentionally designing experiences like those.

  • I’m not sure I quite understand. What does the 0 represent?

  • Rob Seater

    I think the commenter who said they liked the optimization aspect of Diablo is not actually defending grinding. In fact, I think their comment is fundamentally agreeing with you by saying that the grinding is secondary to the optimization. That sounds to me like Diablo would be better if you could just set up different builds and then have the game engine run the character at high speed through a dungeon and give you feedback. Maybe that’s a game, or maybe it’s a puzzle, but either way it sounds like the grind is interfering with the stuff that _is_ interesting.

  • Rob Seater

    I think your comment about differing opinions is solid, and I think it is (probably) compatible with what Keith is saying. There is room to say “you can have your own preferences” and also say “we can objectively discuss if a given game is good for you or not” without contradiction. Considering individual preferences will be part of that objective discussion, but not render the discussion impossible or useless.

    The question relevant to strategy games then becomes, how much differentiation is there between different humans in what decisions systems they gain value from exploring. I’m really not sure.

  • Rob Seater

    One thing this episode made me think about was the subtle distinction between grinding and practice, or (as it is often phrased in education) between busy work and practice. Practicing long division is good up to a point, and then it becomes busy work. The observable activities of practice and grinding are very similar — iteration of small tasks in order to be better at doing some bigger task, where the bigger task is all that really matters.

    I think the key is in what you said about games seeking to provide value. Practice is good if either (a) it is unavoidable (I need to practice playing the violin to be better, because there is no game designer who could just delete that part of the process) or (b) it is of value unto itself (the act of practicing violin teaches me patience or pleases me independent of my ultimate ability to play). When practice is unnecessary and of no intrinsic value, it becomes grinding / busy work. Maybe that’s obvious in retrospect.

  • Rob Seater

    Are you saying that most people are mostly good as assessing goodness/badness without a formal understanding, except that they like one really terrible thing and undervalue a few moderately good things?

  • Kind of a side note to your comment, but – the better-designed a game is, the more “playing the game” becomes the best way to practice. You can only really “practice” for games now because they’re these big messy boxes of barely-connected mechanics, so you can just “master” some chunk of the system independently. A well-designed game is like one big unique system, and the best way to get better at it is to play it.

  • Theyrealone

    After thinking more my scales are wrong.
    I redone them, still think my scales are wrong.

    Want to hear what you think.

    –Like Scale–
    Tends to do things it likes (Some don’t do them)
    Tends not to do things it doesn’t like (Some does them)

    Delta Resources = Resources Out activity – Resources In activity:
    + Improves (Delta Resources > 0)
    0 May Improve may Waste (Delta Resources = 0)
    – Wastes (Delta Resources < 0)
    (+0- Points can contain more than 1 activity)

    Example Scales: {27 Levels of Like | ;X; neutral point}

    * Population likes things that improve them.
    * Population dislikes things that wastes them.

    * Population mostly likes things that improves them.
    * Population mostly dislikes things that wastes them.

    What I predict:

    * Population like things with no definite correlation between improves/Wastes.
    * Population dislike things still there are things that improves yet disliked.

  • Theyrealone
  • KammanderKhan

    I think the last comment you read really supports your “Games are broken Toys” argument. If you have a fantasy simulation first perspective, and use mechanics to make the simulation more intresting, that’s a fair use of the interactive medium. However, that was more prevalent in the CRPG era that was mentioned and was the philosphy that D&D was designed in. Nowadays, designers are desperately trying to balance staying loyal to the game forms ( or genres) people want and are farmiliar, with mechanical twists to prevent in from getting stale. In addition, expectations of amounts of content in triple A products, only keeps rising. Thus we get a perverted fantasy simulator building philosphy. Designers turn to skinner box and progression systems because its the only way go structure dozens of hours of content, 5 – 10 minute gameplay loops. Its the only thing they know how to do( or are allowed to do)

  • Ventroy Rolle

    I don’t Wind Waker’s map completion mechanic is an example of grind. If you go back and you map out the entire game notice the fish that marks places on your map is usually not too far from interest points in that particular block. They almost always near buried treasure, a pirate base, or what have you. So if you choose to explore every spot on the map, when you find something worth-while, there is a way to mark that you’ve been there Also this content is optional, I think grind implies that the activity is repetitive and necessary to reach the victory condition.

  • Nerf Herder

    So after listening to this I have a lot of burning questions in regards to RPG’s and I am really hoping I can get a reply. First off I agree grinding is bad and I also agree there is a lot of it in modern RPG games, I wish this was not the case. I guess mainly I am wondering if there are any worthwhile parts to RPG’s and how would you classify these parts that I enjoy?

    When I play an RPG I am pretty sure I am enjoying three main things about it:

    1. I really enjoy exploring the world. Especially interesting locations and the backstory they have, plus exploring the setting they are in too. What kind of forces are at work here in this new world? What characters will I meet here? What interesting concepts have been used to give this world its feel and atmosphere? Going and finding these things out is a big part of why I like these games.

    2. I enjoy playing the role of someone in this world. I am never going to be in these settings for real so I enjoy getting a feel for what it would be like to walk a mile in my characters shoes.

    3. I enjoy having to make choices (especially hard ones that make me really think about them before I can decide) that then have an impact on the game world and become part of the story/journey that my character has gone through.

    With exploration I know this is just me “exploring the edges of the toy” but at the same time I feel like I am actually getting more out of it than that, I like the feel of being immersed in this new environment in a similar way to how I get immersed in a world when reading a book or watching a movie/TV show.

    Am I wrong to enjoy these parts of a game? Where do they fit into the 4 forms of games? Are these still just parts of a very impressive Yo-Yo? Am I just trying to defend an RPG addiction?

    The podcast has also made me ask a couple of design questions:

    Can you have an RPG that doesn’t have any type of grinding to obtain levels? (this gave me an idea that maybe making choices or finding interesting ways to complete quests using the skill sets you have chosen are the only ways to gain experience points)

    Are there any good examples of an RPG that doesn’t have a gambling/skinner box core engine? If not what would this kind of game most likely be like in terms of features and mechanics?

    If gathering resources was part of a risk vs reward decision then would is still be considering grinding? For example I play a game that has exploring areas of various danger levels and often looking for resources in them exposes you these dangers that may get some of your crew killed. There is information given about these areas before you head into them so you have to weigh up a number of things before you decide to go after the resources or not. Is this just a more elaborate version of grinding or is it something with more value?

    How can any form of “loot drop” be incorporated into games without it turning into something people try to grind for?

    Also thanks for a very thought provoking podcast.

  • I wouldn’t tell you you are wrong for enjoying whatever you enjoy. But I would say, there are probably other media that you can look to that will give you most of the value you are getting out of RPGs, but in a more concentrated way.

    In other words: your time is probably better spent diving into a good book or movie or TV show, which all allow you to get immersed in some world, except now instead of the key points coming to you haphazardly, sometimes after hours of milling around, the order of events is carefully planned (at least with a GOOD book/movie/show) for the most impact.

    All stories allow you to walk a bit in another character’s shoes. My opinion on videogames is that people vastly overestimate the amount “I’m actually pushing up on the controller to make him move” immerses people in a character. In fact, I think having control over a character makes him less “that character” and more just “you”.

    >Are there any good examples of an RPG that doesn’t have a gambling/skinner box core engine?

    No. That is really fundamental to the genre, sadly.

    >Can you have an RPG that doesn’t have any type of grinding to obtain levels?

    Technically, some of the Ultima games don’t have explicit levels (also I think Final Fantasy 2), but you still need to grind in both to power up. Similarly, the Zelda games don’t (except #2) have levels… but you still collect hearts and all these items that make you more powerful over time… so basically it’s the same thing.

    I guess maybe visual novels might qualify?

    >How can any form of “loot drop” be incorporated into games without it turning into something people try to grind for?

    It can’t. That’s an inherent property of a “random reward”. The best thing you can do is impose huge arbitrary delays between the loop drops maybe. Like there is only ONE per campaign and each campaign is like 40 hours long, or something. But even then, it’s still functioning the same way (if it’s functioning at all).