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This is a very persistent question in game design, especially in games where you need to hold/retain players like MMO or social games. (On a side note grinding can easily calculated so its easy tool for engagement and timed progression).

The question other than community building/competition are there solutions that can replace grinding and still hold your audience for certain period of time (without adding large amounts of game assets and code)?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Anko, Josh Petrie Feb 12 at 16:27

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

thats what ArenaNet promised for Guild Wars 2 and I have high hopes for them.. this question may be answered once that game is out.. –  saiy2k Mar 2 '12 at 11:49

13 Answers 13

up vote 45 down vote accepted

This question avoids one of the main problems with "grinding", which is that no one agrees exactly what it is. In Everquest, grinding was fighting random mobs for XP. WoW switched the MMO format to a quest-based genre, so then grinding is doing uninteresting quests.

Is grinding any low-attention play? Then you don't want to get rid of it entirely, because low-attention play is what drives a lot of social interaction. It also serves to make high-attention (i.e. "difficult") play more exciting by highlighting it.

Is grinding what you do after you make the interesting choices, e.g. grinding is actually fighting the raid boss after speccing out your gear? Then grinding is the test of your ability to play the game, and can't be gotten rid of.

Is grinding a repetitive play pattern? Some repetition is necessary. It ensures players learn skills, and they usually feel good being able to demonstrate they have learned their skills. If players are complaining about doing something 3-5 times being "grindy", the problem is probably that it's boring to do even once.

Is grinding any boring element of a game? Not everyone is excited by the same things, so you'll never get rid of "the grind" in this case.

Are complaints of grinding just whining because you can't get the best sword in the game in the first ten minutes? Sometimes.

"Grind" is a term so abused and overloaded it's meaningless. First identify your market, then identify what they like doing, then make a game where they can do that. If people complain it's "grindy", figure out what, if anything, they are actually complaining about.

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+1 because grinding is in the eye of the beholder. I still think it kills MMOs for a lot of people though –  Iain Sep 6 '10 at 14:11
Grinding is repeating boring tasks in order to pass an obstacle. So yes, fighting the same mobs over and over for XP is grinding, repeating the same quests for XP/reputation is grinding, fighting the raid boss with the same attack combo for half an hour is grinding, etc. –  gray Sep 6 '10 at 21:05
@gray: Is the problem that the tasks are repeated, or that they are boring? If the problem is that they are repeated - plenty of people like that kind of game. Ask a shmup player how many times they played exactly the same level; ask them if they thought that was grinding. Some games, like go, only have one action. So the problem must be that they are boring. But a boring thing you do once is still boring. So the problem isn't "grinding", it's plain-old boring game mechanics. Now define "boring", and maybe we'll have a useful design metric. –  user744 Sep 6 '10 at 21:37
Re. "shooting the same enemies in the same patterns" - is Space Invaders grinding? Re. "element of precision/timing" - Exactly my point. Killing even one enemy is uninteresting in an MMO (in fact optimizing kill rate, i.e. grinding, is where most MMO players say the interesting strategy is). Re. "while they're chatting" - Exactly! MMOs need downtime for social interaction; at the same time, you need to keep "doing something" or it's just a chat room. A good analogy is a sport like golf. –  user744 Sep 8 '10 at 14:26
I think what most people (at least me) define as "grinding" is summarized very nicely in penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/the-skinner-box. Its applying psychological "tricks" (Trick is a bit vague. See the movie, James can explain it much better. I'm talking about things like sheduled reward systems) for making the player doing things repedeately, that he actually would find boring otherwise. –  Imi Feb 19 '12 at 22:44

Issues of "what is grinding" aside, one obvious solution to "repeating the same content" is to add more content. Now adding content is expensive, and takes time, so how do you work around that? Well, games throughout history have found many ways to get more from their content:

"Palette Swapping"

Same enemy, different skin, different bullets. A technique passed down from the very early ages. Why have just one orange "Hill Orc" when you can have red "Fire Orcs" and blue "Ice Orcs" and green "Forest Orcs"?

Cons: Unless you really vary up the strategies for them, most people will see killing red orcs as largely the same to killing green orcs. So...

Better AI

Grinding is usually considered mindless, so add some mind to your encounters and they won't be grinding. If Fire Orcs behave in a different way from Ice Orcs, then encounters with both will feel fresh. Implementation varies from giving them different attacks to actually giving them different behaviors.

Cons: AI is a lot of work! Plus most MMOs don't have processing to spare on AI. Also...

More Terrain

Vary up the landscape, make encounters that actually use the terrain, then take advantage of that. Orcs in tight hallways should feel different from orcs in wide open fields. Let specialized monsters take advantage of terrain, like Fire Orcs are immune to fire so they can attack from unexpected directions in a firey landscape.

Cons: But all this stuff still requires a lot of content and players will eventually burn through any amount of content you make. WoW does all of these things AND MORE and there's still not enough content to completely eliminate repetition. Which means...

Procedural Content Generation

Will Wright talked heavily about this prior to Spore coming out. Unless you have a 100 person art and design team cranking out quests and assets, its very hard to have a lot of content. The solution is to have a little bit of componentized content and then to mix-and-match the pieces.

Any game with procedural content is a good example for this: Minecraft, Noctis, any roguelike, etc. Look at Nethack: that's a 30 year old game that's still popular. Yeah it gets updates pretty often, but people come back again and again because the randomized, generated content is always fresh.

This is a strategy that plays well with the above too. Nethack has a lot of predefined monsters, but the terrain varies heavily. Different mixes of monsters, in different terrains, require different strategies depending on the player's class, race, and item loadout. The number of permutations means that almost any encounter will be somewhat unique, but still building on everything the player has learned to that point.

Cons: Ahh, but the downside is that procedural content is HARD to get right, and can easily shift from awesome to boring. Who cares if you have billions of miles of generated terrain to explore, if all of it is empty and boring? Likewise look at Spore: lots and lots of monsters, including thousands generated by players and available as automatic downloads. Lots of varied and interesting worlds. But only about 3 AI routines so no matter how cool a monster looks, they all play exactly the same. Also a very limited selection of powers and abilities. Every game plays out exactly the same, just with different skins.

Procedural Content is only good when:

1) it is constrained to make sense and be playable ("I spawned in a sealed room full of lava?!")

2) it is actually varied enough to be fresh and the player's don't see the illusion that all of it is just new configurations of the same old crap

3) the rest of the game is built to support and reinforce the value you gain through procedural content generation. Your game has to build on top of the PCG assets, not just rely on PCG to provide gameplay.

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procedural content needs some design work put into what rules the procedural generater to follow.(don't put spawn locations in rooms with no air) In addition to procedurally generated content you could do procedurally assissted content so you do something like generate a hilly area and then have artist come by and make modifications for things like the area surrounding a city or some such. –  lathomas64 Oct 28 '10 at 17:18
I believe the "procedurally assisted" method has been used by Bethesda (for Oblivion and Fallout) and CCP (for Eve Online), amongst others. –  CodexArcanum Oct 28 '10 at 18:36

First off my assumption of what grinding means is repetition of an uninteresting task that is required for advancement.

so there are three things you can address here:

  1. Repetition
  2. Lack of interest
  3. required for advancement

This one there is difficult to get around if your game is of an appreciable length. At least within your constraints of not adding a bunch of new code or assets. The best way to avoid repetition is to allow multiple avenues to achieve what the player is using the "grindy" experience for. I think player content creation systems are the best way to do this but that would not be without its own headaches.

Lack of interest
This ties in closely with the other points. Repetition is most problematic when what you are repeating isn't fun in the first place. I like the idea of making a toy out of your core mechanics, and then once you have a solid, fun mechanic, then add goals and direction and make it a game. I.E. League of Legends has tons of repetition but its interesting activity(usually) so the repetition is not as noticeable.

Required for advancement
This is a big killer for grindy-ness. The player wants X but to get it they have to do Y so many times. I think that players should have to work for rewards but this becomes a problem when this is cross-activity. If someone is a socializer and wants a purely aesthetic item to help in that regard requiring a huge combat challenge may be daunting. If they had a social avenue to get their social reward that may be much more palletable.

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I think this question is particular to MMOs, but the answer lies by looking outside MMOs. What is grinding? Completing a repetitive task with a guaranteed reward. How do you eliminate it? Provide puzzles, challenges, story, character and anything that motivates and engages the player outside of the gold/items economy of the game.

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These are just a couple of ideas I have regarding MMORPG's and eliminating the grind:

Write quests with differing plots. Think of your quest plot as the plot of a short story. Is it a mystery, action, drama, etc. Don't ever give menial tasks out as quests. Your quest should tell a story.

Let players create (and hand out) their own menial tasks. Need a caravan guard? Ask a player. Need 20 hides? Ask a player. You get the idea. Implement an inter-player contract system for menial tasks. So the boring "quests" are player generated and will involve some player-player interaction.

Make encounters with NPCs as unique as possible. Some fly, are invisible, run really fast, burrow under ground, shoot from afar, can mind-control, charge at you, sneak up to you before attacking, grab you, etc. They don't just have differing DPS. The Stalker team tried this and succeeded quite well, just a shame there aren't more types of mutants. Collectible card games (Magic The Gathering) are also good at allowing players to "bend the rules" of the game all the time by using cards with outside-the-box abilities.

See what lessons you can learn from PvP. Try to replicate the PvP feeling in the rest of the game. It should be a test of skill, not time or patience. How you do this is beyond me...

Any game that focuses on the player's skill instead of the in-game character's skill (or XP) will automatically be way less grindy. Focus on strategy and tactics to get past obstacles instead of "training" to get past an obstacle.

An element of risk always adds to the excitement. Make defeat costly and players won't go into autopilot mode as often. This is a difficult thing to implement and most games just go with the default "respawn with temporary negative effects" approach because it's simple and easy with less rage quits, I guess.

These are all just ideas that I've always had. Whether they are good or bad is up for the professionals to decide and it looks like most of them have decided they're bad, or too much effort.

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I actually implemented a player contract system for a game world based on the NWN engine. It worked well, but players seemed to prefer informal arrangement or free-lancing to iron-clad contracts. –  drxzcl Oct 29 '10 at 8:21
Yes it makes sense. An auctioning system probably works better. I think this is closer to what Eve has. I think it does have contracts as well but they're rarely used and mostly just for transport. Not out of experience, but heard this from players. I guess it has to fit into the overall design to make any sense. If there were a ranking (or feedback) system built into the game, where customers/quest-givers were able to rate the quest-taker's performance, it might become another XP-like stat to work for. Again, just another form of grinding I suppose. –  user2528 Oct 29 '10 at 14:16

The best way I have seen to reduce the 'grind' element is to have the players drive everything. The original Star Wars Galaxies did this very well even though there were some 'grind' spots in the game. There was always an end goal and they were very different depending on the person playing the game. It could be getting the best pieces of loot in order to make awesome armor or weapons for a customer, it could be gathering resources to craft various items for players, it could be building a large city, etc.

You see the great thing is that the player creates their own entertainment so in their mind they don't feel that it is a 'grind'.

Of course this doesn't work very well if your playerbase doesn't like sandbox games in which they are basically generating their own content. I would make the decision based on what kind of game you want to have.

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It's not really clear what you mean by having players drive everything. The quest taker, or the quest giver? They get to choose their own quest goals? –  Kzqai Oct 28 '10 at 21:43
It means that players create 'quests' without calling them 'quests' by for example asking a player to craft them x piece of armor or y weapon. They could also create whole cities in which they would drive the development of. You have to think of the game in a different way than the traditional MMO in which you have specific quests that you must complete in order to gain xp or rewards... –  Kyle C Oct 28 '10 at 21:48

One way to discourage grinding is to use diminishing rewards. Reduce the amount of gold, experience or the frequency of item drops if they keep killing the same monsters over and over again.

This can be done intelligently by comparing the player's experience points or level to that of the monster. If the player's level is lower than the monster's, the player gains more experience for killing them. Likewise, if the player's level is higher, they gain less experience.

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This does not solve the problem it actually compounds it. –  Wight Nov 15 '10 at 2:43
I think he means to not increase gap (experience points needed to level). –  bobobobo Mar 2 '12 at 20:44
This does make a lot of sense, if your world has other options. I.e., if there is something harder to do than grind on trivial not-really-challenges. From the other comments, however, it seems this is not clear to many people. The "downside" is that it would force MMORPG designers to let go of more of the control they typically exert by having severely stratified difficulty levels controlling what players do... which would be a good thing but require much more flexible situations. –  Dronz Sep 8 at 17:10

You could always impose limits on play time, or specifically on performing the same action excessively in a certain time frame. This then leaves you needing other alternatives for players to gain acheivements/items. These alternatives need to not only be enjoyable (though just about anything is more enjoyable than grinding), they need to offer the same level-ups and rewards that grinding would do. Actually, having better rewards would be a good incentive for people to adopt them.

One idea is having a concept of 'quests', where a player needs to do a variety of different things and in different places in order to get rewards. The thing is, the rewards need to be valuable, worth forgoing grinding for a harder pursuit. The quests need to be long enough so that players couldn't repeat it over and over again in a short time (grinding), but short enough that they are still accessible and interesting. It's tough to balance, but if you do, they will be a lot more interesting for players than sitting doing the same thing over and over.

Another option is some sort of reward for achievements in multiple disciplines. For example, if your game has 'skills' like a game like Runescape has, maybe something could be given for getting to a certain level (a low to mid level) in a certain number of different skills. This encourages different activities to be explored by players.

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This doesn't help much your just punishing or forcing player into another action instead of eliminating the actual problem. But variety comment is usually a good solution i.e. Batman Arkham Asylum did this well. –  Wight Sep 20 '10 at 2:58
You can always use the carrot to lead the player to the interesting (ie. content-rich, ie. expensive) bits. For example, WoW has the exploration and zone quest achievements to entice you to consume all the manually created content. –  drxzcl Oct 29 '10 at 8:19

One way to eliminate grinding is to allow people to write scripts that can play the game, which of course introduces other problems.

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This is kind of silly... If you are providing tools so that people don't have to play your game, then what exactly did you bother making a game for? –  Ipsquiggle Sep 6 '10 at 22:15
Tool-assisted gameplay has the potential to be more interesting than unassisted gameplay, especially in strategy games. It's like advances in automation in programming or other fields. You're spending less energy/thought on moving bytes around, which means you can devote more attention to more complex things. Of course you can design a game such that low-level tasks don't exist, so that the player is working in high-level strategy from the start, but that's a different experience than a game built from basic low-level elements, with complexity emerging from the interaction of the parts. –  gray Sep 7 '10 at 2:26
That's fair, but it's not really what you said in your answer. ;) –  Ipsquiggle Sep 7 '10 at 2:43
XP multiplier cheat codes also do the same thing in a console games. IMHO sometimes their better than using BOTS as they still allow for the player to learn while BOTS allow player to progress in power but most of the time not in skill. –  Wight Sep 7 '10 at 3:26
Honestly, I'd love major MMOs to have "botting encouraged" servers with botting competitions for all aspects of the game. It would be the ultimate "programming game". See also corewars, pascal-robots etc. –  drxzcl Oct 29 '10 at 8:25

Ideally, the action should be rewarding in itself, not just the material reward that follows it. But if the game is designed such that the action needs to be performed frequently, but doesn't compensate for this by making the action deeper, then the action will become boring sooner, making it prone to becoming a grinding activity.

So the solution seems to be:

  1. Identify which activities need to be performed often, and therefore are prone to becoming boring.
  2. Fix, or compensate for them.

Point 2 is tricky. Whatever effort you make, there are only two possible outcomes:

  1. You postpone the point at which the activity becomes boring.
  2. You make the activity perpetually engaging.

A lot of solutions actually lead to outcome nr 1. Adding more content, automating the activity, reducing the reward, they all don't solve the core problem. That doesn't mean you shouldn't think about it, because its impossible to make all activities 100% engaging. But the million dollar question is what it takes to give an activity the property of being perpetually engaging, outcome nr 2. And I believe it's to enable emergent gameplay.

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There are alot of ways to remove grinding, but IMHO the most important one is that it's important to make player actions and decisions count, because in WoW, f.e., no matter how amazing the quests or dungeons are, they're ultimately just an obstacle between you and the end game content, doesn't matter if you're casual or a nerd, every poster and trailer has a dragon on it and dragons are the end game content, you won't see a dragon before the last level. WoW is all about the end game content, so nothing in between matters. This means everything you do will feel like grinding.

Grinding in WoW doesn't end at 85 either, because Blizzard is constantly adding more content while making the older content completely obselete extending the grind even further. The longer into the expansion you are, the more you'll have to grind, because content you might have not seen or not completed is made easy or free, which means more work in boring, nerfed content before you get the apropriate level of gear for current content.

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This question has an obvious "brute-force" answer: play test your game extensively, and where players feel an area is "boring, repetitive, but necessary to get to the part that I want" (how I currently understand "grinding"), just cut those parts or make them faster to get through.

The earliest instance of grind I could think of is when I used to make sure I had bought the silver sword from Elftown in Final Fantasy I before going to the earth cave. This insured I wouldn't die as much, and plus I really wanted that silver sword, in all it's silvery blueness.

I think the decision to place "grind" in games is very conscious on the part of the game designers. Yes, killing that many monsters in the same repetitive way, with the only goal of gaining gold or experience is boring, but that makes the pay off that much more worth it.

A game with virtually no grinding, (as I remember it!) was really content-rich adventure games like Neverwinter Nights and the Ultima series games (Ultima 7 specifically). Notice how in Ultima 7, for example, gains from level-ups are actually of marginal benefit, (ie your stats don't increase that much), and most of the best items are found through exploration of some non-mandatory area.

So, all in all, I think the solution to level grind is to bite the bullet, your game isn't going to last forever or have infinite play time, and to play test and cut the boring bits.

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I have one answer to this but only applies to console games. Instead XP for skills you attach movesets to items (way of the samurai did this). Instead of rare drops items are obtained by killing condition (monster hunter had a mix of this and random drop with it's carving system).

But I don't see this effective for an MMO setting though.

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There's no fundamental difference between Monster Hunter and a "real" MMO, so I don't see why MH's systems wouldn't work. That being said, in line with my comments above, I have often heard Monster Hunter described as a grinding game by people who don't like loot-based games or action RPGs. –  user744 Sep 6 '10 at 9:53
Yeah MH does still have item grinding as they still use a RNG in the mix. –  Wight Sep 7 '10 at 1:14
Another example of the 2nd was Valkyrie Profile 2(where you get drops by severing) but since the battle was so chaotic you could never tell which part you were severing making it somewaht mot point –  Wight Sep 9 '10 at 5:31
@Joe Agreed. I found MH grind-tastic. Which is actually why I chose it. I wanted something 'low-attention' as you put it. –  Rushyo Sep 10 '10 at 12:29

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