I define grinding as “repetitious combat whose primary goal is to increase various statistics about a character ”. It is most commonly associated with RPGs; Players grinding for character levels, items or currency is a natural part of these games. Here, I will discuss some bad and good examples, with various other aspects of a game related to grinding, like experience systems, side bosses, combat systems and so on. Spoilers for Undertale, Persona 3/4, Trails, Withcher 3 ahead, only discussed as minimally as possible.

Definition

Dragon Quest(1986) has set the basic template for console RPGs. Games made of same cloth are somewhat simplistic in terms of mechanics and presentation. The main activity in those games is to get through various dungeons and grind a lot to defeat the next set of enemies. The games not only require grinding, but it is the bread and butter of these games. On the discussion of games, “grinding” is sometimes used to refer any amount of dungeon exploration, or exclusively in a derisive way. In contrast, my definition of grinding is more useful, as when I say a game “requires grinding” or “grindy”, it means the game asks or heavily incentives the player to spend a non-trivial amount of time to engage in repetitious encounters for a certain reward, and for some games, this is part of the appeal.

Emphasizing the appeal of grinding helps us to distinguish it from “padding”, where the game slows down player’s progress arbitrarily. Certainly, badly implemented grinding might feel like padding but the earnestness is the key distinction: Grinding Magikarp or Abra in Pokémon Red(1995) might be rather monotonous, but it clearly is designed to foster a “training hard to get strong” mentality. More cynical designs grind the game to halt to compensate for lack of content, likely because of troubled development. Or something far worse, strong arm them into buying microtransactions. I have nothing but contempt for this kind of design. Some say “Oh it’s not a big deal. Actually it’s kind of nice to get some experience boost”. No! The game is designed to require the boost! It is the worst gaming design trend alongside with making the players gamble with real money. Ever. I will never entertain it as an artistic decision. Stuff like this doesn’t require much discussion, moving on…

Also, while grinding is no doubt an important part of MMOs, everything here pertains to single player only, because I don’t play multi-player RPGs. My brief experience with them is not very good and many of them also guilty of “skip grinding for money” nonsense, but they feel like a whole separate realm on their own and deserve more than my limited viewpoint.

Avoiding Grinding

As games became more sophisticated, they began to reduce or outright minimize grinding, instead moving towards rewarding player’s ingenuity or softening the gameplay to put the rich story or presentation in the center stage. Final Fantasy 7(1997) is an example of both; there are lots of items, spells, special moves that turns the game into a joke; but even without going all out to become god-like powerful, the game is quite gentle, as it is very focused on telling a grand cinematic story, filled with lots of set pieces and mini game. (In other words, it is the prestige game of it’s time) Some games tightly control how much player can progress. In a character-oriented RPG like Fallout: New Vegas(2008), overwhelmingly large portion of experience points and valuable items are gained from quests, combat exhausts non-trivial resources and the player can make a character that can get out of situations without (much) combat. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt(2015) is constructed very similar sans having non-combat builds, but in this case the approach fails and renders the game bereft of any sense of progression. There is a skill tree, but it mostly offers minor stat bonuses: Geralt(the player character) can make their force shield slightly bigger and start to breathe fire at thirty hours in, not exactly the most exciting thing in a fantasy game. In F:NV, leveling up gives cool perks and gimmicks like: getting stronger with radiation, being able to carry a lot, splattering enemies into guts or unlocking gay energy. In contrast, Witcher 3 feels like it is an RPG only to justify its huge open-world, Geralt starts an ace monster hunter and remains an ace monster hunter; what do levels even convey to the player?

Some games use intuitive leveling systems to nudge the player away from grinding too much. Trails/Kiseki series are quite great at this. The amount of experience earned in a battle is much higher if the characters are at lower levels. Conversely, after passing a certain threshold, fighting similar enemies will start to yield a much lower amount of experience. This is quite easy to follow because the experience gained may drop to half just after going up one level for example. Players are spared from worrying about being under or overleveled both.

Some games even turn into a mini-game of its own. It’s fairly common to have special enemies which are tricky to find or defeat but will yield a lot of experience points if done so. Dragon Quest has the famed “metal slime”, Trails in the Sky: FC(2004) has a creature named “pom”. A different and more energetic approach can be found in Trails of Cold Steel(2013). During a battle the game rewards certain actions with experience point multipliers: Doing combos, hitting multiple enemies at once, being first one to hit, using weaknesses etc. This is a really great way to making players seriously pay attention to regular battles without making them excruciatingly difficult.

Some games employ a set of measures to dissuade or outright prevent the player from grinding. In Persona 3(2007), players get through a singular, humongous dungeon. However, it is not open to exploration in its entirety from the start, instead it is gradually opened as the story progresses. Spending too much time in the dungeon will literally make the characters tired and insisting to continue on will make them sick, making them unable to come to dungeons for a few in-game days entirely. At times, they will refuse to come along for personal reasons. Also, in-game days have limited time slots and there are often other activities to do instead of going to dungeons. Ideally, the player should go to dungeon only when it’s necessary. This makes sense narratively too, as the dungeons are not exactly pleasant to be in, conveyed both by it’s visual design and characters talking of it’s oppressive, sickening atmosphere. To ensure that players won’t feel pressured to grind too much, before the day of mandatory story fights, the characters will not complain about being tired; so that players have always a last-minute chance of grinding as they want. Also, the mandatory fights will be always easier than their counterparts in the dungeon. Therefore, being able to reach the limit imposed by the story will ensure that players are more than capable for the story fights.

Level-scaling is a common anti-grinding feature: Instead of enemies becoming stronger as the game progresses, they become stronger as the player gain levels. In theory, it allows a consistent level of challenge without players being too strong or needing to grind. Unfortunately, this method is often implemented in rather problematic ways:

  • A common issue is that games do not tell that they have level-scaling. Players can often divine it only when it becomes too late. Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion(2006) is quite egregious because of this. The game has a overly complicated (or insufficiently explained) class/skill system. It’s quite possible to end up with a underpowered character because of this. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of at-best-situationally-useful non-combat skills, even basic activities like running might cause the player to level-up depending on the build. [1]
  • When the level-scaling makes the game more difficult on higher levels, some players avoid leveling. In Oblivion, there is a somewhat counter-intuitive[1] way to make a low-level build. In Final Fantasy 8(1998), mandatory fights do not yield experience points, so the method is to avoid non-mandatory fights as much as possible. Doing this makes the player unable to access certain content; in Oblivion some quests and powerful items are locked behind levels, in FF8, the player will only have access to basic spells. Ironically, level-scaling doesn’t even reduce grinding. In fact, it might even cause more grinding in Oblivion. [1] And in FF8, the time spent in battles do not really decrease because the player still needs to farm magic [2] from enemies, which is, quite frankly, much more monotonous than simply defeating monsters in battle.
  • Fundamentally, level-scaling dampens the sense of becoming powerful. Things like turning a previously annoying adversary into a joke, seeing a previous boss demoted to a regular enemy, realizing that I am able to make just a little more damage are what makes RPGs so satisfying. Level-scaling also makes the game world feel more artificial, as it is quite obvious when random bandits start to wear golden armor just to match up with the player.

Level-scaling can be successful however. It works in Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim(2011) quite nicely as it is subtle enough to be not noticed by many people, I have learned its existence only after reading about it as well. First, instead of continuously growing stronger, enemies and dungeons have their own unique level ranges where the player can still be too weak(bears) or strong(basic undead) for them. Second, there is some degree of randomness so that occasionally the player might get weaker or stronger enemies. Third and perhaps most importantly, the game’s skill system is intuitive and the game is forgiving enough that players are unlikely to find themselves in a considerably disadvantageousbuild. (It also helps that Skyrim doesn’t really pretend that skills like “speech matters” at all). This results in a game truly beautiful in it’s simplicity. It’s kind of wonderful to just walk around the world without ever worrying about being prepared for a fight: If something is big and scary-looking or throws lightning bolts, all needs to be done is to go away and come back later. There are only a few end-game bosses that warrant any kind of planning, everything else just blends into one seamless adventure, it’s very likely that when player arrives somewhere they will be already strong enough to take whatever they encounter. The game can do this while also still being able to make the player that they are actually getting more powerful. This is a not a trivial achievement for such an open-ended game.

Harsher anti-grinding measures can be effective if the fantasy of becoming stronger can be achieved in other ways. Demon’s Souls(2009) and its sequels are among the few Action RPGs series where “action” and “RPG” parts are both important. While grinding is a long process with diminishing returns due to level-scaling, one way to beat any kind of enemy is just responding to their attack patterns. So, the game dilutes the more traditional, statistical progression of RPGs and puts the player’s gradual mastery of combat in its place. The game also features lots of different weapons and equipment, there are a lot of hidden ways to get really powerful. It’s also possible to summon NPCs or other players to help out with to deal with bosses. The game never outright forbids grinding but takes great lengths to make sure that the player adopts a mindset which rejects grinding and accepts challenges head on. Which would be absolutely dreadful to play personally, but it is quite interesting to watch how it affects other players’ behavior nonetheless.

As I discussed in previous posts, when a game has unconventional or counter-intuitive mechanisms it’s very important to seed the correct mentality in the player. Undertale(2015) is famously very anti-grind and this is woven into the very core of the game. Amazingly this doesn’t actually trivialize the combat in the game, player is merely guided against trying to gain experience and can only get the happiest ending if they avoid gaining experience entirely. If the player goes the opposite way however, they will find the that that they have rendered the area they are in completely devoid of life. If they choose to do this from very beginning and continue on the path of sin, the game will enter to a state of constant, dreary, bleak tone. Most encounters will be total pushovers, expect for exactly two. The first one, while isn’t that difficult, catches the players off-guard and more importantly makes it clear that player brought this upon themselves. The second, more famous,difficult encounter takes this up to eleven. While reportedly not being exceptionally tough for a regular of bullet hell games, it is still not only quite difficult for anyone who isn’t accustomed to, it is difficult in the most player-unfriendly ways. The game will begin the fight in the middle of a conversation, feign mercy, mock the player for dying and after a long fight abruptly stop to trick them into quitting. Moreover, every hit only causes 1 damage but they also drain all hit points until only 1 left, so health and armor is useless. The enemy has only 1 hit point, but they will evade all attacks until the very end, so attacks and weapons are useless. In other words, all grinding is utterly meaningless. And, if players persevere through this fight and reach to end of the game, all they are rewarded with is a blank space to stare into, have game crashing to desktop indefinitely or an offer to start the game anew (which by one interpretation, will not even cleanse the evil) The entire game is an elaborate joke on the very concept of grinding. However, it’s important that the game does not tut-tut the player for playing an undesired way but rather it challenges them to question their motivations: Did they reach to the end just because they could? Is that worth it? Perhaps grinding is actually a waste of time sometimes, perhaps not every game needs to be “completed”.

Side Content Grinding

Save for a niche section of games, RPGs of the 2000s and 2010s tend to allow players to get through the “main story” without too much hassle. They will rather put more time-wasting things on the side, such as things to collect; quests to finish, and of course, optional enemies to defeat. “The legendary epic sword of coolness” isn’t for defeating the final boss, that would be an overkill no, it is for the ultimate secret boss. Unfortunately, despite how I can enjoy long RPGs and grinding, Undertale is right about this kind of content: I am often unable to muster enough motivation to care about these extra bosses. They seem to only exist for the sake of completion with hardly any larger context. What does defeating “Emerald Weapon” mean in FF7, that problem fixes itself in the end anyway. Or “Dark Valefor” in Final Fantasy 10(2000) for that matter, it literally comes out of nowhere? Why bother with “Satan” in LİSA: The Painful(2014), he is just some dude whom the players will not even see unless they go out of their way to find him? Such extra bosses often drop remarkable loot but why would someone who already defeated the toughest enemy ever need that? They further serve to highlight how much this kind of content only exist to be bragged about; both for advertising “hours of extra content” and to satiate the drive of completionism alike.

In theory, if something is fun then it’s just fun but even modest embellishments can really make things quite interesting. “Death” from Persona 3 is a fun extra boss because of this: “Death” essentially serves to make sure that people won’t linger on the same floor for too long. It is not only visually striking with its imposing body and over-sized revolvers, but hearing its approach with growlings and rattlings of the chains on its body is appropriately eerie for a creature that will crush the player party easily for a long, long time. Towards the end of the game the player finally becomes barely strong enough to turn the tables on it. Sure, defeating it won’t change anything narratively but it is actually more thematic that way; after all “Death” is a manifestation of the fear of mortality, obviously it won’t go away completely. And, it just feels nice to get some personal revenge and have an opportunity to realize how far I have come. Facing death is what all characters do in P3, so it puts a neat bow on that theme too. More importantly, defeating it doesn’t require shouldering mountains, it only demands the correct strategy and some luck. It is also an interesting inversion of most extra bosses. Instead of being there to justify grinding, it rewards the ability to grind more when defeated. It unlocks extra floors of the dungeon. While it isn’t necessary for finishing the game, it’s still quite neat: It gives the player something to do in the last stretch[3] of the game, allows them to easily reach the level cap(addressing a pet peeve of mine) and gives the opportunity to access and use absurdly powerful end-game Personae[4]. This system both actively enables completionist players by rewarding their efforts by making the game easier to complete and can guide the usually-not-so-completionist- players(me) into completing the game just by just having fun naturally. In contrast, in Persona 4(2008), Death is just a hidden boss in the “new game plus”. It just exists, with no relevance to anything else in the game. Players can get a strong item by defeating it, I guess. Whatever. At least it makes a good showcase for the argument that, difference between a great and an alright game indeed lies in the details.

Another obstacle to create meaningful motivation to grind is that games tend to have narratives in conflict with the idea of grinding. Combat is often something that just happens to the characters, no matter how many is slain by character’s hands. Characters tend to be either against or indifferent to combat; and if the game has a serious narrative concerning loss of lives, explores non-violent solutions in its role-play or has a degree of urgency in regards to “saving the world”, it then feels quite dissonant to ask the player to take time to gather a hundred monster toes for the perfect armor. This is one reason why some RPGs feature eager, fledgling adventurers as their protagonist. Fighting repeatedly makes a lot of sense when the player’s party also enjoys doing them. In Trails In The Sky, fighting monsters is a part of main cast’s job and in Trails of Cold Steel, basic battles are an important piece in worldbuilding, showing that the authorities are neglectful in their promises of defense. A lot of characters in both series have a deep relationship with combat, everything from the weapons they use, why they fight, their strengths and weaknesses are all part of their character. When a character is able to jump in the air and do a cool sword move, that’s just part of the world. While it is obviously unrealistic, the series has mostly consistent and subtle rules on whether a battle will be deadly or not. Slaying gods is not uncommon in video games but they don’t usually explore as to what it means that main character is able to slay a god or single-handedly prevent an apocalypse. This actually weakens the power fantasy somewhat. It makes just a little more difficult to care about min-maxing stats, much less about actually taking on some random overpowered boss. In contrast,feats of main casts in Trails games feels much more impressive precisely because it’s made clear that they are not even among the strongest warriors, they are just bunch of brave young people.

Combat

While motivation to grind is certainly important, it’s secondary to the quality of combat itself. The combat should avoid banality and hair-splitting difficulty both at the same time. Even a basic damage multiplier or rock-paper-scissor weakness system goes a long way to stop battles from being sleep-inducing. The stat gains by combat should be at a reasonable pace. Increasing levels or advancement in skills trees should give a palpable sense of improvement but also the overall time spent in combat loops should not be too long. Navigation in menus, the time it takes to execute commands (being able to automate them or turning off animations), the rate where the player needs to re-stock resources to continue grinding. Of course, as I discussed earlier, allowing player to be smart at leveling up certainly helps even when grinding is inevitable.

Let’s analyze Pokemon series from this viewpoint then. Motivation for grinding is implicit in the series: Whether the player desiring to just having a full team in the final story mon, training a late-found or new-born mons or preparing for competitive battling, one thing to be sure is that there is no convenient way to level up fast, some games allow to battle with same trainers more than once(which gives more experience than wild pokemon), there are some items which helps, traded mons also get experience faster but… overall, it’s quite slow. [5] It’s certain that if the player wants battle-ready mons, they will have to spend quite amount of time, defeating same mons over and over. The one alternative is to leave it them to day care and let them level up automatically as the player walks around the world but not only it’s quite limited and slow, it requires constant checks if the player doesn’t want to lose certain moves. [6] However, what makes grinding in Pokemon so dreadful is that not only the battles are so mindless, they also require frequent backtracking to recharge their moves. There isn’t even an auto-battle system. And sure, player can just watch or play something else when they are doing it but… why? Like I play Pokémon because, I want to battle with fun pocket monsters. Why I need to put hours and hours on this, why I can’t just catch something and have it be active member of my team without having nonsensical concerns? And people actually train mons for competitive battles, lots of ones, without using some sort of emulator turbo? This is probably my primary psychological block to play a Pokemon game. I just want to play with various different mons and have fun for couple of hours, that’s often impossible to do without using some kind of generator.[7]

Thankfully, newer generations made some improvements on this issue. The most important of them is that battles finally grant team-wide experience. Wow. On the one hand, it still has grinding, especially one is serious about competitive play. On the other hand, being able to grind six mons at once is still massive and more importantly, the player is now wholly free to experiment with different mons as they like.I am forever baffled at the people who whine about this. Oh, it is too easy, they say. Too easy. Tackling this aspect of the series is outside of this post’s scope, but for now, if I may, allow me to say this: I am still in utmost sadness and pain that Gayme Freak dumbed down this hardcore series for the peasants but having to level up a Beldum was never quite peak gameplay, so it’s not all that bad, dear gamers.

Conclusion

We have examined different approaches to tackle the question of grinding. Classic RPGs are very openly grindy, but they are understandably primitive in their design and this might make sheer monotonousness of such games rather hard to swallow. As the depth of mechanical, textual and audio visual elements have increased, games began to favor livelier and crunchier designs over long-term, gradual satisfaction. Some games have extensive side content, but they tend to be lacking in appeal. There are games with excellent combat mechanics, addictive game-loops or a narrative that strongly contextualizes gameplay but there really doesn’t seem to be any game that tries to strike at the very heart of grinding. There are repetitive games with astounding quality, but never a game has been astounding because of it’s repetition…

Well… no…

There is one….

[1] On character creation, players picks certain skills as “major”, the other becoming “minor”. Skills are developed by using them, growing enough causes a level up and grants boots to the stats which are related to the skill player has developed. To prevent leveling, it’s possible to pick irrelevant skills as major, this way player can grind their skills while also keeping enemies weaker and don’t have to deal with keeping track of their skill growth. This might actually end up increase grinding because players will miss the starting boost to major skills, which can be rather problematic to magic-using characters.

[2] In Final Fantasy 8, the main method to obtain magic is to literally absorb them from enemies using “draw” command. Having magic is also the main way to boost the character stats, so having them maxed out is optimal for every character. Only a small amount can be drawn at a time so this process is quite long, especially if the player also uses the magic for attacking and needs to re-fill every so often.

[3] In last month of Persona 3, the only grand story event left is to wait for the last confrontation. The player is likely reach to end of the dungeon long before the month ends and has already completed most of the other side activities; often, only thing to do with free time is to skip to the next day. Given the rather melancholic tone in the game, having more dungeon to explore is a genuinely refreshing alternative.

[4] In the game, “persona” refers to the physical manifestation of one’s emotions, in the form of various mythological figures. Characters fight by summoning their personae

[5] For a detailed look: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Experience

[6] Mons learn new moves on leveling up and can learn only four at a time. Normally, the game asks you to whether swap the new move with an old one, however; in day care, new moves are automatically sapped with older ones top to bottom. Recovering forgotten moves is not trivial, actually impossible in some cases, particularly in the older games.

[7] Aside from regular cheating devices, there is software called Pokegen which can create Pokémon, items and other stuff inside an existing save file. It’s rather fun to use, and especially useful to facilitate unusual playthroughs.

This article is written thanks to my dearest Patrons and special thanks to: Acelin, Laura Watson, MasterofCubes, Makkovar, Morgan, Otakundead , Sasha and Spencer Gill.

I am Umay, @nyxworldorder from twitter, a trans woman, 25, writing about media and politics, mostly video games though.