At its best, grinding assures the player that victory is possible if they just keep playing.
At its worst, grinding artificially extend the game's length, and exploits the player through Skinnerian principles and addiction mechanics (as in certain facebook games*).
*Full Disclosure: I work on facebook games for my day job.
Grinding is simultaneously crude and elegant.
It is crude because it punishes weaker players, who must spend more time grinding, and who often have less time to spend in the first place. Furthermore, grinding itself is usually tedious.
It is elegant, however, because it lets the player smoothly adjust challenge just by playing the game, without any up-front commitments. Not only can a casual player lower the bar by grinding, a hard-core player can raise it by refusing to grind, like trying to beat the Final Fantasy I at level 25.
When done correctly, the game's challenge becomes self-regulating. The player can naturally adjust the challenge level up or down as she progresses through the game.
Sam is a player that has weaker skills than the designers expected, below even what the game considers a "casual" level of play. Sam thus has to grind throughout the game to keep the challenge low. Sally grinds a little bit, keeping the game around the "normal" level of challenge, whereas Bob refuses to grind except for just once late in the game, raising the bar as high as possible.
Now, let's see what happens to Sam's experience if we remove the option to grind. Sam must now pick from "Easy," "Normal," and "Hard" difficulty modes at the start. Being a weak player, Sam opts for "Easy" mode, only to find that most of the experience is still too hard for him. Game designers often misjudge what counts as "easy," so I will join with Ernest Adams' in demanding that "Easy Mode is Supposed to be Easy, Dammit!"
The dark blue curve represents the level of challenge Sam would like to pursue, but without the ability to grind, he has no choice but to follow the difficulty curve dictated by the game's so-called Easy mode. With no way to adjust this, Sam will probably quit soon after Dungeon 1.
Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment
A common solution to this problem (besides grinding) is "dynamic difficulty adjustment", or DDA. In this method, the game adjusts the difficulty mid-game in response the player's performance. One of the earliest examples of this is the arcade shooter Dragon Spirit. In this game, the first level was a hidden test - if you die, instead of losing a life you simply continue the rest of the game in "easy" mode, but if you survive, you continue in "normal" mode. This effect is largely invisible to the player.
Of course,when the player finds out they can feel cheated, and might respond by resetting the game whenever they die on the first level. Other approaches to DDA, such as in God of War and Devil May Cry, fix this problem by explicitly offering the player the choice of an easier difficulty mode after several deaths. This puts control back in the player's hands, but sometimes feels like an insult:
DDA works, but it's not perfect. The problem is that any pre-ordained difficulty mode can never match an individual's unique challenge curve, and switching between difficulties mid-game often just means choosing between "too hard" and "too easy."
Grinding doesn't work for all genres, but I prefer it to DDA for RPG's. Both methods lower the difficulty bar, but grinding at least makes me feel like I've done something. DDA just makes me feel like a loser who needs to go back to the bunny slope.
Another solution to the difficulty problem is to let the player set their own goals. Donkey Kong Country 2 is a great example, which I'll leave to David Sirlin to explain. Summary: simply beating DKC2 is "fairly easy," but finding all the secrets and going for 100% completion is difficult, and the player gets to decide for herself what she wants to achieve. In this way, DKC2 lets the player chart her own difficulty curve. When the game is "too easy," she can go after more secrets to ratchet up the challenge, but when the game gets "too hard," she can settle for just beating the level.
I'll disagree with David on one minor point - simply beating DKC2 is not "fairly easy" - either that, or my wife and I totally suck at classic video games. Either way, my point is that so long as the player is free to chart his own path, you can't go wrong by both lowering the floor and raising the ceiling on the game's difficulty.
Back to the Grind
For Defender's Quest, we combined player-driven goals with grinding in a way that we feels expands the game's appeal to as wide an audience as possible, without watering down the core gameplay or wasting anyone's time.
Let's start with a screenshot:
In keeping with the conventions of tactical RPG's such as Final Fantasy Tactics, and other tactical games like Advance Wars, each battle is a unique set-piece on a large map. This comes at the cost of foregoing a free-roaming overworld, but given our non-existent budget and disdain for random battles it felt like the right choice. Our game tightly focuses on battles, customization, and story. Exploration will have to wait for the sequel.
There are exactly zero random battles in Defender's Quest. Each battle is uniquely designed, and comes with several challenge variations ranging from very easy to very difficult. To progress to the next battle, all the player has to do is survive a battle on the easiest challenge.
The three "main" challenge modes are normal, advanced, and extreme, which correspond to the three stars underneath each battle on the map. The different modes are balanced such that "normal" is the natural starting point, with "advanced" and "extreme" being extra challenges the player should come back for later when they've gained a little experience.
This lets the player set their own goals, as well as making grinding less boring. If the player just wants to play through the game, they can ignore the higher challenges. If they do get stuck, however, they don't have to waste time playing the same battles over and over again - instead, they can try some of the harder challenges from earlier levels, which are now within their reach.
Furthermore, each of these different challenge modes features a unique variation on that level's basic design. This lets achievers ratchet up the difficulty and go for 100% completion, while still allowing weaker players to progress without getting stuck or bored.
Even with these challenge modes, however, we found that some players still needed the ability to "drop down" to something easier than the baseline. This caused a bit of a dilemma, since we didn't want more advanced players to get turned off if they accidentally picked the easiest challenge, mistaking it for the intended starting point.
To solve that, we added a vertical separator, made the star smaller, and gave the new challenge mode the name "casual," as well as tool-tips to explicitly spell out the differences between challenges.
And, rather than adding a fourth star underneath each battle, we made beating casual mode simply fill the first star half-way, so that "normal" mode is still clearly the baseline and intended starting point:
Casual mode was a hit with many of our testers. It not only opened up the difficulty space, but also increased the game's appeal to an unexpected audience. Many testers mentioned that since they'd grown up they have a lot less time to play games, especially 60+ hour epic RPG's. Not only does casual mode offer a solution to getting stuck, it offers a solution to not having time. The upper and lower bounds for completing Defender's Quest now sits at roughly 5-50 hours. Players can fly through in casual mode (ideal for the sub-set of RPG fans who are "just here for the story"), or they can squeeze every ounce of tactical goodness out of the battle and upgrade systems by trying to go for "perfect" on every single challenge.
We made one last choice, however, that I feel might be controversial:
Story is never held hostage by difficulty
Beating a level's casual challenge with only a passing score is all that is necessary to progress and see the next cut-scene. Furthermore, the game has multiple endings, all of which are equally achievable no matter which challenges you beat. Let me relate a quick story so you can understand where I'm coming from on this one.
Certain games are appealing because they are difficult. The reward of conquering an insanely-hard game is all that much sweeter, especially if that reward is a better ending. For instance, I will never forget the feeling of triumph I had when I beat the "Running Hell" challenge in Cave Story for the first time, unlocking the best ending, which prevents the death of a beloved character I previously thought to be inevitable.
Conquering a tragedy by being totally freaking awesome adds punch to a happy ending in a way that schmaltzy Hollywood fare simply can't match. It ranks among the best experiences I've ever had in a video game.
As a designer, however, I wonder how many Cave Story players ever made it that far. Furthermore, this particular challenge was right at the edge of my abilities. Wouldn't a weaker player have felt the same sense of challenge and triumph if he could play right at the cusp of his skills? Would allowing him that triumph cheapen my victory, knowing that I could have lowered the bar for myself? And even if supposing it would cheapen my victory, why should the game's designer pander to me rather than the other guy?
Inevitably, some small fraction of players will find ways to see the endings to games they can't beat. Either they will use a cheat code, hack the game, or wait for tools like emulator save-states to arrive that let them play the game in a way they can handle. Rather than forcing these persistent few to jump through hoops simply to enjoy a video game, why don't we as game developers meet them half-way, and just give them well-balanced tools up-front that don't spoil the experience for anyone?
Those are my thoughts. I'd be interested in hearing yours!
And for those of you who are wondering, yes, I beat the "Running Hell" challenge in Cave Story, as well as the punishing spike-fest that is VVVVVV, but somehow never beat Donkey Kong Country II, even after 16 years. Those bramble levels with the stupid parrot are tough, man!