Keith Burgun is a well-known and respected game designer, and I've had the pleasure of interviewing him before (for my book #shamelessplug). His game 100 Rogues is considered by many to be one of the best rougelikes on the iPhone/iPad, and I'll likely be among the first to purchase his upcoming book on game design.
Despite my immense respect for Burgun, I disagree strongly with some of his thoughts on RPGs. Burgun believes that "grinding" (which is when players can fight random enemies indefinitely to level up) makes RPGs "a bad idea." The crux of his argument is this: "Grinding is a low-risk activity that the player can do repeatedly for a real gain. In any game that has grinding, grinding is the optimal move. In any game that has grinding, it becomes a matter of not 'what is the best move?' for the player, but 'how much can I stand to bore myself for my own gain?' Call me crazy, but I think games should motivate players to do exciting things, not repetitive and boring tasks over and over again."
I definitely see Burgun's point. There are far, far too many RPGs that force players to grind away for hours on end, simply so they can artificially "increase their abilities" by slowly leveling up. The original Final Fantasy games are perfect examples of this, as are even the most recent games in the Dragon Quest series. However, it is possible to design a game that implements grinding as a worthwhile, interesting element. My favorite go-to example: the Pokémon series.
I've been re-playing through Pokémon Yellow recently, so I'll stick to that as the basis for my argument in favor of grinding as a good game design element.
In Pokémon Yellow, players are given total freedom to grind as much as they want. If you're a maniac that wants to hang out in the grassy fields near Pallet Town for dozens of hours, mercilessly slaughtering hundreds of Pidgeys and Rattatas, you're free to do so. You could theoretically never leave these fields, slaving away to shape your Pikachu into an invincible killing machine.
Obviously, no player would actually play the game this way. The amount of experience you get from each battle would slow to a trickle as your Pikachu got stronger, making your time investment pretty worthless.
When I recently played through the opening sequence of Yellow, I was aware that I'd need Pokémon capable of taking down Brock's rock-type team (he's the first gym leader). I had several options here:
1) Spend a couple of miserable hours leveling up my Pikachu by grinding against wild Pokémon, then brute-force my way through Brock's team.
2) Catch and train a Mankey, which is a fighting-type Pokémon (his moves are super-effective against rock-type Pokémon). Even twelve-year-olds know that Mankey sucks, though.
3) Catch and train a Nidoran, which learns a fighting-type attacks at level 12.
The problem with option one is that it would take forever, and would be terribly boring. Becoming overly dependent on my Pikachu would also mean that the rest of the game could become difficult.
Option two is the fastest solution, but only a Digimon fan would be dumb enough to play through the entire game with a Mankey in their party.
Ultimately, I went with option three. I trained up my Nidoran (which I'd lovingly nicknamed Jay-Z) until he learned the fighting-type move "double-kick." I then double-kicked Brock's face and moved on to the next challenge.
The Pokémon games are full of challenges that give players these sorts of decisions to make. While you are always given the choice to grind your way through situations, there's also always another more intelligent solution. Whenever you find that better option and win battles by implementing it, you feel like you've really earned your victory.
By giving players the freedom to grind if they so choose, the designers of the Pokémon games have given players incentive to think creatively—to find the quicker path and increases the flexibility of their team. Playing the game intelligently (by choosing a diverse team and doing well in battle) removes the need to grind and makes you feel smarter than your friends.
Especially those friends that like Digimon.
Date: January 25, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*