Grinding to a Halt: Why MMOs Should Really Rebuild Their Quest Structures
MMO games need grinding to give players the ability to achieve more, and go further. The same grinding process is also the reason why people are playing MMOs less and less, even if they seem to be very interesting.
Let me be perfectly honest with you; there is no chance that there will be no grinding in games -- especially true in MMO games.
Do I think this is ok? No, not really. Grinding is boring, and some serious TLC is needed to make it bearable and interesting.
So what should really happen to make sure that grinding is brought to a halt?
For starters, a game which is not even an MMO, but at the same time is the poster boy for a bad grinding system:
No Man's Sky
Let's forget the whole discussion about what NMS was/is, and if the advertising on the Steam store was actually cheating or lying. I believe that everything has been said by everybody about Sean Murray and his vision of almost unlimited worlds -- hint: they all just appeared to be a second class cartoon with a lot of limitations.
What is important though, NMS is a perfect example of a game with boring grinding for no reason. Or rather I should write -- grinding is actually THE reason for everything.
No Man's Sky, due to ill design, did not present any interesting aim for the players. Very quickly it was established that there is nothing in the heavily advertised "centre of the Universe" -- the endgame for NMS. I think someone got there in the first couple of hours of the game, and was transferred to exactly the same Universe (at least it looked the same). How very sad and a boring idea for the game finale it was.
Grinding in NMS is very bad, by waving some sort of blaster taking chunks of different coloured blobs. That's it.
If anybody thinks that I chose NMS as an example of bad grinding in games because it was easy target -- this is exactly the reason! But I will not feel guilty, the grinding of the games should feel guilty of being bland.
The reason I have brought No Man's Sky is, that the grinding in the game failed badly. There was no really interesting story behind it. It seems that Hello Games people one day were sitting behind the table and decided that NMS players must grind something. Otherwise the game will have no purpose.
I think this is the worst case scenario for any game -- when grinding becomes the aim for it.
What about Elite: Dangerous?
I love the game, don't get me wrong, but repetition in Frontier's version of the Milky Way can sometimes be concerning. It certainly drags player out of the game very often.
There is an aim here though. The reason for grinding in ED is to reach Elite rank in three categories: fight, exploration, and trading. Higher ranks are also responsible for the access to some of the solar systems, and also grant access to more sophisticated space ships.
Where is the problem?
I feel that the problem is lack of variety in the quests. It is not so visible at the beginning, but with time, when players have most of the space ships and ranks it becomes very apparent; there is not too much else to do.
I am just in the middle of a passenger trip taking 6 people to some sort of Nebula. Hours of jumping from star system to star system. Nice views -- I can admit -- but nothing more. This is where the problem lies; grinding is lonely and overly prolonged.
A lot of players who are leaving ED claim that they achieved everything. Sometimes two or three times, and that is it.
I can understand this point of view and I can see where those leavers are coming from.
I didn't quit though, and regardless that I am sure there is much to say about endless grinding in ED, there is also one thing, which makes it different comparing to many other titles. The reason why grinding can be acceptable is that you can interact with other players (when you are not on your way to a nebula) and create some sort of own story.
This is an important feature of properly designed MMO games, such as Elite: Dangerous; people are never alone and they can interact not only with the in-game world but also with each other. This makes a difference and provides sense to questing and grinding.
The same principle applies to every MMO game
Let's take a look at the really big titles. World of Warcraft is certainly top of the bunch. Highly acclaimed, easily playable but still based on the old MMORPG principle of waving your sword/axe/knife or shooting, and just in world doing repetitive quests to achieve higher ranks. Mega grind in progress...
Star Wars: The Old Republic? Exactly the same. After 2 hours of playing this game I was ready to uninstall it and forget it forever. And I actually did -- until a friend, who has been playing for the last 5 years, told me exactly why he is still playing and why I was unwise to quit.
He stays in game for the people who are playing with him. It is not so much about another quest, another skill or ability any more. What keeps him coming back, grinding another quest, achieving another skill is an ability to use what he learned during team escapades against other clans or teams.
It seems to be really clear, that to avoid grinding which will put people out of the MMO game, developers must re-think the position of quests/grinding in their game design.
Quest structure should be rebuilt...
...and players should gain deeper control over their own development paths.
The easiest way to describe a good grinding system would be our real life structure.
Of course people need to work, and work quite often reminds us of proper in-game grinding. The difference is that in life we are fully in charge of our decisions and choices. Therefore we are in power to stop our grind -- change of job, move to another country, write a book, or start to write for GameSkinny (editor note -- in our JTP program hint hint)...
Good MMO games should follow a similar pattern; of course games are not real life and never should be. The popularity of sandbox games, like Life is Feudal, Astroneer, Evochron Legacy, shows quite clearly that set quests and grinding becoming rather obsolete. Players want to decide about their in-game life and what to do next.
This is the reason why in Elite: Dangerous, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft, and so many other games, people are slowly adding an element of team cooperation though factions, corporations, any sort of PvP interaction, and more.
This is the way of bringing grinding back to life -- making it useful for the community and a force for good.
Therefore quest structure should rely on the choice of the players. They should be less designed as a path from A to B, and should be about choices with the support of others, skip a couple of levels, jump higher, and succeed or fail. Learn from experience, learn from mistakes. Learn from others.
EVE Online is all about players and learning
There is only one world in EVE. The world is cruel and requires you to learn from all the players. It can be a painful experience, dragging people out of the game, but they have the option to work with other people, have some advice, and above all support. In exchange they just need to be useful for the community.
A few days ago I was in my tier 1 frigate flying around. As a noob in space, I wasn't grinding. I was attacking space structures surrounded by players with tonnes of skills, and flying ships I was not be able to buy for another two years of playing EVE. I was still part of this story. It was fun. Much better than endless missions for local militia.
In many games I would need to level up for ages to even gain access to this kind of "boss fight."
I think that CCP, the developers of EVE Online, learned a long time ago that the best method of keeping your game interesting and popular is to give players an ability to mould the game and run it. This is why EVE has such a sophisticated economy system, lively corporations, and constant buzz around main alliances -- as well as space battles with thousands of players.
There is no reason to remove grinding from a game. What should really happen is developers making sure that grinding will not become the reason for the game.
With interesting, non-linear quest design, stunning visuals, and an attention grabbing believable story behind it all, every MMO game will be closer to being a better version of real life. Regardless that many look at games as an escape, we are also hoping to find something familiar there, as well as a life changing experience which would require effort but not constant boredom.