Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Diablo 3 and Grind

There's a lot wrong with Diablo 3. For reasons that should be obvious, but seem to be invisible to Activision/Blizzard and many other publishers, always-online restrictions are terrible for games and gaming, and have had a genuine negative impact on a huge number of Diablo 3 players due to lag or the complete inability to play. The plot seems to take considerable effort to be non-sensical, overwrought drivel when it could and should be a simpler, more focused affair that enhances the world and atmosphere. The real money auction house appears to be a cynical cash-in, unwanted by most (and took an embarrassingly long time to go live, despite being used as justification for the always-online requirements). As many have noted, the early balance is poor, with the initial stages of the game far too easy: Act 1 on normal is far, far too long for such a trivially easy slice of game, and not until a second run through the story on Nightmare - some 10-15 hours in - does the challenge reach about the right level. And did I mention that being essentially an MMO technology-wise, there no support for mods?

This game represents or demonstrates a lot of worrying or just plain disappointing patterns currently afflicting mainstream publisher funded gaming, to the point that, had I not be lucky enough to get my copy free, I probably would have given it a miss. I certainly wont be buying any Activision or Blizzard titles in future on principal - although few of them interest me anyway.

On top of all of this, the actual act of playing the game itself can only really be described as grind: grind to level up and gain new abilities, and grind to find better loot to equip your character with. These grinds even have sub grinds: the grind to collect gold, the grind to level up your blacksmith and jewelcrafters (and the grind to level up jewels with your jewelcrafter), the grind for crafting materials, the grind to equip your NPC companions. In all instances you make slow but steady and inexorable progress up a hierarchy of ever more powerful steps or levels via a repeated, standard activity: bashing monsters and collecting loot. Grind, grind, grindy grind.

Oh, yes, and I've spent well over 100 hours with Diablo 3 and adore it. You see, the thing is, while the criticisms in my first paragraph still stand and still bother me greatly, the fact is that I actually quite like grind.

At this point I want to make several things clear: I'm pretty certain that I'm not deluding myself when I say I like grind, I don't like all grind, I don't like grind where it doesn't belong and grind certainly isn't the only reason I like gaming. We'll return to those points in more detail later, but it's important to have some perspective before I waffle on about the enjoyment I find in grind and grind based games.

We should also be sure we know what we're talking about here and define exactly what is meant by the term. The Wikipedia page on the subject is a decent enough place to start, stating "Grinding is a term used. . . to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games." I want to add to that slightly in a way that I don't think anyone would object to, to give the following definition of grinding:

    Grinding is a term used to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games in order to make some sort of progress or gain some form of advancement.

Note that, under this definition, grind is still markedly different from simply making progress through a game: it has to be done by "engaging in repetitive tasks" - I'm certainly not someone who is trying to argue that "all games are grind" or anything similarly foolish. Also worth noting is that simply engaging in repetitive tasks is not enough to constitute grind under my definition: thus doing something repeatedly only because you find the task fun is not grind. The task may or may not be fun by itself, but it is done repeatedly in order to make progress.

So why might grind be appealing? Well one thing that attracts me to games is escapism. Like the lazy amateur I am, and also because the definition is fine, I turn again to Wikipedia:

    Escapism is mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life.

Now, on first reading it might seem like grind is antithetic to the idea of escape from the unpleasant or banal aspects of real life: most people's existence is full of repeated activities like cleaning, shopping and, of course, working at the same job every day, which will often involve it's own set of dull repeated tasks. Why would anyone want to engage with something equally repetitive in their leisure time? What I believe is that for some, myself but certainly not everyone included, the repetitiveness is not really the issue. Instead, the frustration with the world and every day existence is found in the arbitrary nature of the rewards and the lack of predictable or fair progress for completing tasks.

I don't want to make my life sound like any kind of tragic misery or myself sound like a whining idiot; I'm a perfectly happy and comfortable human being and am tremendously lucky to be so. That important caveat dealt with, let me moan a little. Life can be deeply unfair: you can try your hardest to get a job/girl/boy/house/shred of happiness and gain nothing but utter humiliation, while others seem to achieve everything they want without trying. You can work and work and work at something and get nowhere, and the very next day get the most amazing opportunity without any effort. Life can be terrible and wonderful and it sometimes seems to bear very, very little relation to how much work you put in.

Grind, as defined above, can be an escape from this. Simple, understood tasks offering proportionate rewards. An environment where X hours put in will mean roughly Y amount of progress. A place where you wont be rejected or stuck or unsure of what to do next. In Diablo 3, unwelcome hacking issues aside, I wont arbitrarily lose my progress or receive a sudden unexpected set back, but instead can make steady and reasonably predictable progress towards an achievable goal. Sometimes, and I stress not always, but sometimes this can be a wonderful thing to escape to.

Now, to me at least, an obvious objection to grind as a worthwhile part of gaming springs to mind around this point. Surely, one might argue, all - or at least most - games involve the progress or development of narratives or characters or the accrual of skill or power. Pretty much all games involve advancement in some way. Why oh why would you want to play one that involves repetition in order to gain this advancement? Why not games that involve regular surprise or demand constant innovation? Why not games that need a range of skills and have wonderfully varied mechanics?

Well firstly I would answer that I love games that involve regular surprise and demand constant innovation and I adore games that need a range of skills and have wonderfully varied mechanics. I also love good grind based games. I direct you to a point I made earlier: I enjoy a range of things about games and I certainly don't enjoy grind at the exclusion of anything else. But this doesn't answer the criticism any more than the man who eats effluent saying "well I also eat proper food" answers the question "what the fuck are you doing?"

The real answer is that repetition of the right tasks, in the right context, can be a defining strength. In fact it's the very crux of my escapism argument above. If I'm looking to sink my time into a system with predictable progress for a given amount of effort, then the procedure to produce that progress had better be repetitive. Why? Well if the procedure involves regular surprise or demands constant innovation in any meaningful way then my progress can't be predictable: I might get stuck or hit a task I don't understand or enjoy; I might desire progress more than I want to have to innovate. Again, I love difficulty, creativity and innovation in games, but sometimes what I desire is predictability and reliability. Sometimes I want to grind, and needing a range of skills or having wonderfully varied mechanics can get in the way of that.

Of course, repeated tasks and progress alone are not ingredients for guaranteed joy. Just as someone might enjoy shooters and love Half-Life but hate Daikatana, there is good and bad grind. I'll talk about out of place grind later, which is always a bad thing, but I want to make it clear that as a grind advocate, I'm neither so unsophisticated nor so blind as to think that all grind is fun. A full discussion of what makes grind good or bad could take as many words again as the whole of this piece, but I think it's worth talking about some of the main points, to illustrate why I and others find particular grind enjoyable.

To my mind, there are two separate spaces in which a grind based game must excel: its progression must be compelling, deep and demonstrable and its repeated task must be streamlined and satisfying. And as an awkward third point, both aspects together need to be predictable, but not too predictable.

The facets of well crafted progression will be familiar to most gamers, because they are pleasures shared with most non-grind games that involve, broadly speaking, "RPG like" character and/or equipment progression. There needs to be a system of progression compelling enough, meaning varied, complex and well presented enough, to be interesting to the player and to make them want to advance through and explore it. The progression needs to be deep, in that there are long term goals to keep the player engaged over time and not feel like they've seen everything too quickly, but also broad, in that there should be meaningful choices to make at various levels of progression and the joy of tweaking comes into play (note: perhaps the terms broad and deep should be the other way round here; I honestly have no idea). Finally, progression must be demonstrable: you must be able to see that you have become more powerful within the game environment, for example by being able to take on tougher enemies or seeing that previous enemies are now easily overcome - as a side note, while not primarily a grind based game, one of the best examples of demonstrability of progress failing was Oblivion's level scaling.

There's less to say about the repeated task of a grind based game, which almost always means its combat, but this ingredient being well sourced is just as important to creating a tasty grind soup (yum?). Importantly, every interaction needs to be streamlined and polished: while in any other game an interface imperfection or a lack of feedback might be simply annoying, when the problem is repeated fifty times an hour an otherwise small grievance can become game breaking. Combat, or whatever else, must also be satisfying: this is something the Diablo games have always got spot on, with the visceral explosions of defeated enemies and the feeling of destructive power given by using various abilities. Again, this is something the player will be doing over and over again, so a certain animal level satisfaction will be required, similar to that experienced when half watching a spectacular action flick or have a favourite album in the background - a mindless kind of base level engagement.

The seasoning of our soup is the level of consistency and predictability of the game, and like salt and pepper in a delicious broccoli and Stilton concoction, I suspect the required level will vary for different tastes. While above I've detail why high unpredictability can break the basic enjoyment of grind, total predictability either in what you experience on a minute to minute basis or in the advancement you achieve will make for something very few will find compelling. There's a balancing act to perform whereby for a certain amount of play you always advance within certain margins, but there's enough unpredictability to ensure that you're still compelled to find out what that advancement is. For instance, I know if I play Diablo 3 for a couple of hours I'll find several new rares, but I'll keep interested because I don't know when exactly when the elite enemies will spawn, how many rares they'll drop and whether they'll be better than my current gear. I'll make - on average - a fairly standard amount of progress, but there's enough variability that I don't feel like I'm just going through someone else's motions to achieve it.

So the steady build up of an ever more powerful character with ever better equipment via standard, repeated tasks is, for me, a satisfying and compelling temporary escape from the more chaotic patterns of risk and reward found in real life. But grind usually has negative connotations when used to talk about game mechanics, and as well as talking about the reasons why I think it can be enjoyable, I also want to address some more of the problems people have with grind in general and with specific games that use grind as a mechanic.

The first issue is what I would call the delusion argument: that those who are grinding are addicted to the promise of incremental progress and are not actually having fun; they're delusional. It's an argument I don't want to completely dismiss, because I think in some cases it's true. There are clear instances where gamers sacrifice disproportionate amounts of time, effort, social interaction, money and many other valuable currencies to grind towards progress in a game, while not experiencing any real pleasure. Even outside the realms of unhealthy devotion, I think it's possible to identify people who are simply going through the motions of a grind based game without enjoyment, for a whole variety of reasons. But it's a real mistake, and quite an arrogant one, to jump from this concern about some people's treatment and experience of grind to a dismissal of the everyone's experience of it, or of the experiences of those who play a grind based game thoroughly and for a long time.

Speaking personally, I hope and believe that I'm a rational human being, with a decent level of self awareness and a good understanding of what makes me happy. I know a number of people who I would describe in exactly the same way. We've all enjoyed grind based games. Maybe we'll all wake up one day with a crushing sense of regret and a realisation that in fact we hated every moment of it, but I find that unlikely. Some people dislike grind, and that's fine, but I'm annoyed by the assertion made by a few of those people that no one can really like grind and everyone who says they do must be under some sort of temporary spell.

What about the problem of addiction and the argument that grind soaks up unreasonable amounts of player's time? Well as with any form of escapism, it's important to keep a sense of perspective and reality: by escaping to Diablo's grind I am not forgoing or forgetting real life, at least not any more than I or anyone else would be when visiting the imaginary environment of a book or film. There are some pretty decent reasons to, for want of a better phrase, have a life, and espousing the benefits of engaging with a fictional world or a virtual system is not the same as rejecting or hiding from reality and its wonders and horrors. By their nature grind based system are, I would fully admit, more likely to cause addiction and the loss of many more hours than is healthy to their embraces. While this is not to be dismissed or ignored, I also think it's worth pointing out that addiction and delusional non-enjoyment aren't the normal outcomes of playing a grind based game and that it's perfectly possible to enjoy the mechanic as I've described it, without devoting an unhealthy amount of time to a game.

A related argument goes that time spent grinding is worthless and a waste of time. It's often phrased in terms of the sudden realisation, after many hours of play, that the gamer is just on a treadmill and no longer wants to put any more time into the game. The obvious and valid response to this is that of course grinding is a waste of time, just like any other game or form of leisure activity: it's an entirely idiotic fallacy to suggest that one form of enjoyable leisure activity is more 'valid' than another. The issue with grind based games is that they're often very long or open ended, therefore the gamer is likely to be bored before 'completing' the game (or exhausting it's content). This, I believe, is where the 'realisation' phenomenon comes in: it's the moment boredom overcomes momentum, a moment a single player game with a finishable storyline wont induce because players exhaust content before they lose interest. The contempt bread by eventual over-familiarity can be confused with contempt for the game and all of the time spent playing it.

Playing Diablo 3 is no less worthless a use of my time than playing any other game. I relax and enjoy myself, as described above, which is all I ask from gaming and my free time. On top of this I get to hang out, virtually, with a couple of guys that live in other parts of the county who I don't get to see very often. Finally, I wont go into any detail about other 'benefits of gaming' like improved hand-eye coordination or problem solving abilities because it gets pretty tedious, and I think you can show that a lot of activities improve people in some way, but the fact that games, including grind based games, do engage your brain and reflexes on various levels isn't to be dismissed.

The final argument against grind that I'll present is a pretty compelling one, and one that I largely agree with, but believe shouldn't be taken too far. It's goes a little something like "why the fuck am I grinding for XP in all my bloody multiplayer shooters?" Games companies have realised that grind is compulsive. Forget fun, or boring, or addictive, or worthwhile, or any other adjective, we can all agree that to a large number of people, grind is compulsive. And as large corporations strive to wring as much profit as they can from gamers, there's a tendency towards attempting to extend the life of each game as much as possible and to get players to spend more and more money during that life span. Now I love ice cream, but I don't want it in my lasagne. Sex is great, but not at a family gathering. I like grind, but not in a tightly balanced online FPS. Not to extend the length of a story led RPG. Not in my Mum's lasagne.

I am all for experimentation. I'll try ice cream lasagne once. I'll- oh, stupid metaphor. What I'm saying is that it's great for game designers to experiment and see if grind-unlocks for multiplayer shooters work (and sometimes they do), and there's plenty of space in the world for both uncomplicated FPSs and ones with unlocks, but there are a couple of real problems. The first is when something is successful and everyone copies it: when experimentation doesn't lead to divergence but means that all new iterations follow the new pattern and the strengths of the old model are lost. The second, related problem is that when unlocks are only implemented to ape the successful trend setter, you'll get bad, not-fun grind that can ruin a game (see above for an explanation what makes grind good). This, sadly, is what I believe we're seeing with multiplayer FPSs currently, with all the attached and unwelcome baggage of microtransactions and 'games as a service'. Once again, I don't begrudge these games existing, I just wish that the model wasn't suddenly so dominant, and believe that many - not all, but many - of them are poorer games for the inclusion of shoehorned grind unlocks. Similarly, while I actually love a good grind MMO, having enjoyed levelling characters in both WoW and LotRO, I wish there was some more variety on the scene, because things like Eve are little bit special.

But lets not take this too far, because the problem does not invalidate any of the arguments I've made above about the enjoyment of grind where it belongs. I've hugely enjoyed enormous amounts of time with Diablo 3, as I did with its predecessor, because these games are about grind, and successfully if imperfectly pull off the mechanic in an extremely satisfying way. I'd hate for all of gaming to be about grind, but it is one of the many and wonderfully varied ways games can engage and entertain me, and I think we would benefit from understanding it as something that can be awful, but can also be brilliant.

No comments:

Post a Comment