Image: Square EnixSoapbox: Grinding Is Poor Gameplay Design That Doesn’t Respect Your Time

Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, Henry discusses how he's fed up of being ground down by grinding...

We really are spoiled for choice these days and, in part thanks to digital distribution, more games are releasing than we can keep up with. In Europe alone, the eShop had 43 new launches last week. They can’t all be winners, but for a traditionally quieter month, we’ve seen already big names like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Hitman 3 and Cyber Shadow. Factoring in other platforms with big releases like The Medium being added to the infamous “List”, there’s no wonder most of us have a backlog. Despite this pandemic, many of us still lead busy lives and when we get that chance to sit down with a game, you want to make the most of it.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of RPGs of various flavours. They are a commitment to get through, no denying that, but they’ve brought us some of gaming’s greatest stories and recently, Trails of Cold Steel has had me hooked. I had a few experiences with them growing up, starting with Pokémon Sapphire, Golden Sun, and Final Fantasy III, but I wasn’t truly onboard until a work friend loaned me SRPG Fire Emblem Awakening. Between that and Persona 5, which was recommended to me two years back, I played a lot of older RPGs. Something became increasingly clear as I did, however: so many of them just don’t respect your time.

Even if RPGs aren’t your speed, you’ve likely experienced grinding at some point; a mundane method of levelling up, battling with lower-level enemies until you reach a high enough level to take down the next boss. I’m hardly the first person to make this point over the years — and I know plenty will defend grinding, too — but in my eyes, it really makes for poor gameplay design. When a game becomes reliant on it for advancement, that gets repetitive and when that happens, my interest waivers.

Image: Square Enix

That hit home during Final Fantasy IV. It took me a long time to defeat Zeromus spending hours levelling up across the Moon, and when I finally succeeded I felt both relieved and annoyed. I just wanted to see how it ended and sure, I could’ve gone to YouTube, but I’d have lost that satisfaction. Keep in mind that wasn’t exactly an option when it first launched either.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon sticks out too, where a significant number of units were under levelled going into the final mission. After eight painful attempts, Marth finally landed that critical hit on the Shadow Dragon to end things and only one other unit survived, Draug. It made The Charge of the Light Brigade look like a minor tiff. Speaking honestly, I’m not sure how I made it that far.

Games with harder difficulty options are an exception here. You can’t expect to just waltz through after all, grinding comes with the territory. If you’ve chosen lower difficulties though, this shouldn’t be an issue. We all want different things from games and there’s no shame in taking the easy option, regardless of what the “git gud” crowd say. The recent development of being able to change difficulty options midway through a playthrough has been particularly welcome. I made use of this during Hyrule Warriors: Age Of Calamity, helping those grindy segments become more palatable.

I can already hear you asking “what would you suggest as an alternative?”, but this isn’t a one size fits all situation. What works in one game might not for others, for numerous design reasons. I will give credit to Bravely Default's approach, which offers a slider to determine your random encounter rate and many games provide items with similar function. A lot of players aren’t as keen on random encounters anymore, so we’ve witnessed developers make enemies visible and approachable. I prefer this method, but there’s a temptation to skip fights that comes with it. Do it too often and the next boss will make you pay. More games also divide earned EXP between your wider party, even if they’re not in active combat, which helps to keep them balanced.

Image: Square Enix

Of course, it isn’t just RPGs that are guilty of this. We’ve seen a more calculated approach to grinding in recent years within live service games too. I already struggle keeping up with new games, never mind those on my own list, or the ones designed to keep you coming back. On the Switch specifically, free-to-play games like Rocket League and Fortnite cater to this quite a lot. New events, modes, skins, double XP weekends: all ways of holding our interest until the next big update. We have to cut our losses somewhere as you simply can’t cover them all, a point recently brought up by our sister site, Push Square.

As an F2P game though, grind serves a separate function: incentivising people to buy microtransactions, as opposed to unlocking cosmetics or levels through hours of play. As their primary revenue stream however, this is more understandable. Rocket League does this, offering a “Rocket Pass” that also boosts your earned EXP, one you can level up quickly by buying credits. Using Apex Legends as another example, a game rumoured to be launching on Switch very shortly, it came under criticism during its seventh season for making it a lot tougher to level up normally, creating a backlash which led to Respawn Entertainment rebalancing it... twice.

Free-to-play is one thing (though I want to be clear that those experiences will vary) but that mentality has spread to fully priced experiences, too. I realise I’m stretching here but Assassin’s Creed Odyssey — a game only available on Switch as a Japanese-exclusive cloud release — also faced widespread criticism about level grinding. Specifically, regarding how the main game only just covered the required XP to advance in some areas, even if you did every quest going. It wouldn’t have gained as much attention if Ubisoft didn’t also offer paid XP boosts, a cynical move designed to entice players towards microtransactions. If you’ve paid for a full priced retail game, you shouldn’t expect F2P style monetization.

Whether you seek narrative payoff from a 60-hour RPG or that fancy new car in Rocket League, experiences that keep us coming back are ones that reward us for sticking to it. When progress becomes a chore, you must ask yourself if it is worth it. With so many games vying for our time and money, it’s not unreasonable to hope they respect what you’ve committed to it. Grindier free-to-play games are unlikely to change soon — not when their revenue model depends on it — but I am pleased at how modern RPGs have begun tackling this issue. I’m looking forward to seeing how they continue evolving.

Image: Ubisoft

Are you someone that doesn't mind the occasional grind? Do you agree that it’s bad gameplay design? Let us know in the comments.