The ‘Grind’ as it is universally known in gaming is that loop the player finds themselves in and has identified as being a chore in order to progress. It is the antithesis of the entertainment that games are supposed to deliver to the player. It is quite simply the single worst manifestation of terrible game design. The gamer who finds themselves in a grind would be wise to move on to something better, almost anything.
If your game has a grind element in it, I personally think that is evidence of bad design, one that should be considered for rebuilding or scrapping altogether. I do believe in most cases the grind can be eliminated rather than scrapped however. The grind is something that might have started out as fun but becomes stale, and is usually (but not always) encountered in game loop activity situations.
In games like World of Warcraft (and many other similarly veined online games) there are a few notable grinds such as: grinding for experience to level up, grinding for better equipment (the loot grind), grinding for money. Constantly repeating the same cycle of killing NPC’s for their loot, money and experience. Initially this is quite fun, but over time this becomes more difficult as the loot is more rare, the experience is harder to come by as you close in on level caps and things become more costly, it’s all about diminishing returns here. The more time you are putting in, the less (entertainment) you are getting out of it. In online games in-particular they benefit from playing with others and achieving that social fabric that can keep any grind from getting too stale. Never the less eventually the law of diminishing returns kicks in such that the player isn’t having fun and it isn’t worth the time investment and they bail.
The really good games don’t have perceptible grinds whatsoever. If the player can’t identify a grind in a given game, that’s probably a really good game worth playing. The Binding of Isaac (and all its iterations) is a particular favorite game of mine and it has a very simple loop to it. You start the game and one-by-one clear rooms to go ever deeper into the game’s world. It’s designed in a very similar way to the The Legend of Zelda, particular the dungeons where each room had to be cleared to advance. As you progress you get more powerful by gaining new items which grant unique abilities. If you are able to complete your ‘run’ through the game, you win, otherwise you lose. Pretty simple. However I’ve manged to sink a lot of time into that game and by and large I lose probably 80% of the time as it is a rogue-like and success isn’t assured; in that respect it’s kind of like solitaire though the player can influence play and I probably just need to get better 🙂
The fact is I never tire of the game, and I’ve never identified a grind to it, I’ve never even seen the game described as a grind, most people love the game and is why it became an overnight success years ago. So why if it has a pretty simple loop to the game play where the player is obviously repeating the same actions over and over, not described as ‘grindy’? It’s simple, it’s because the designer made the entire journey fun, it’s never the same and the situations always change. Even when the game ends and even if you lost, you are ready to give it another try either right away or perhaps the next day, fact is you come back to it because you enjoyed it.
Whenever a game begins to feel like a grind or a chore, it is and trust me there are better games to be playing and things to be doing with your time. At the same time, some folks actually enjoy grinding for things, to some, the grind is a kind of catharsis; being able to shutoff thinking about much for some time and enjoying the grind. I get that.
Nevertheless, it is my advice to avoid the grind like when designing your game. Don’t ask or force the player to perform the same sequence of actions for an important output if it can be avoided, or at least give them the tools to make it easier on them, after all you are supposed to be providing them entertainment, not wasting their time.
The truly great game is the one that doesn’t compel the player to increase stats, money, items, etc. but rather the one that produces fun and excitement, experience and memories. The best are the ones with the amazing story (Xenogears), freedom (Ultima Online or Grand Theft Auto) creativity (Minecraft), wonder (Super Mario 64, Super Mario Odyssey?), the social aspects (Counter-Strike), the rich & awesome (everything by Larian Studios) you get the idea, the 9’s and 10’s.
I prefaced this article with the box image of Diablo 3, I don’t think I have to explain 😉