If you’ve been following me on MMOBomb for any length of time, you’ll know that I often speak out against “grindy” games. They’re repetitive, often exploitative (“Buy our boost to reduce the grind!”) and generally pretty dull. Games of their ilk have been around forever, usually in the guise of rat-infested MMORPGs, so it baffles me sometimes as to why they can be popular. Certainly I, a distinguished and discriminating MMO player who’s experienced plenty of that style of game would never be interested in such a game again, at this mature point in my gaming life.
Then I started playing Path of Exile. And I love it. I’m just now starting to figure out why, despite my supposed aversion to such games.
It goes back to a post by Joe Posnanski, a sports writer whose work I enjoy. He explained that expectations can make us see something as better or worse than it actually is. In his blog post, he talked about how he was disappointed by a movie that he thought would be spectacular – a four-star movie – that turned out to be only about a two-star movie. On the other hand, a movie he thought would be terrible – half a star, at most – turned out to be watchable enough that he enjoyed it.
Posnanski tried to reconcile how two movies that were, technically, of equal quality – both two stars – could evoke different feelings of satisfaction in him. He admitted it was his expectations that played into it, and I can’t say I disagree. I think we’ve all had similar feelings, about being “pleasantly surprised” by something that we thought would be awful and roundly disappointed by something we thought would be amazing.
Like, you know, an MMO.
Just over a year ago, we had a guest editorial that offered the viewpoint that “grinding can be very important to the health of an MMO, even if there is the ability to add more ‘less repetitive’ content.” The author was a big Warframe fan, which, like Path of Exile, definitely fits the mold of “grindy” and is also a hugely popular game where people don’t really gripe about the grind very much. That point is key – why don’t people gripe about the grind too much? The answer, I think, is expectations.
When I started up with Path of Exile, I didn’t go in expecting a great story, open-world adventures, a vibrant and friendly community … I went in to kick monster ass and accumulate loot. Sure, the story and lore have grown on me and the landscapes are really pretty for an ARPG, and the community … well, it’s not bad, but I haven’t really gotten involved. Still, I went in expecting a grindy, vertical-power, loot-accumulating game, and that’s just what I got. The developers make no effort to hide that aspect of their game – heck, it’s even in the company’s title: Grinding Gear Games. I’d imagine Warframe fans feel the same way about their game.
Now, compare that to an MMORPG, especially one that’s upcoming, like Bless or Ascent: Infinite Realm. You’ll see videos about the beautiful landscapes, the wondrous adventures you’ll have, the tactical battles in PvP, the awesome character customization, and so on. Then you’ll get into it and enjoy some of those things for a while before settling into the inevitable grind. Whether it’s leveling and killing those 10-packs of rats or dungeons and raiding at endgame, they nearly all wind up the same: repetitive tasks, performed over and over, with minimal progress as you go. The very definition of grind.
They don’t tell you about that when you sign up, of course. Nowhere in the videos or blog posts do they list “endless grind” as a game feature (except this one, which boasts that you can do the content “over and over and over and over”). Your expectation in those games is that you’ll embark on grand adventures, not be stuck in the same dungeon for hours a day, gasping for fresh air. We’ve all been there.
This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy grindy things like dungeon-running, questing, or, as that previous editorial states, “fishing or woodcutting.” Simple, repetitive tasks can be enjoyable diversions from all that world-saving characters are typically tasked with. It’s when it becomes the main focus of the game, or the only way to meaningfully advance, that things get monotonous. You might have enjoyed playing Gwent in the Witcher 3 or fishing in Final Fantasy XV as relaxing side activities, but if those were the primary ways to advance, you’d probably be wondering what kind of game you actually bought. They certainly wouldn’t be the great RPG adventures you were promised.
On the flip side, you certainly wouldn’t be upset at progression based around those elements if you played Gwent: The Witcher Card Game or some kind of fishing simulator game. It’s the same gameplay, but your expectations would be different. It’s like the difference between an “epic open-world adventure” MMORPG that has you running dungeons all day and a game like Path of Exile or Warframe that knows what kind of game it is and isn’t trying to hide it. Or, to put it another way, maybe you’d be better off not believing the surface-level marketing and digging deeper before you get too hyped up over the next big game. Manage your expectations.