Another issue that stems partly from die-roll combat is that of “grinding.” Grinding is the act of playing in a repetitive, unexciting, or otherwise un-enjoyable fashion in order to make faster progress. Since die-roll combat is based on two factors that are generally very easy to quantify and predict (the player’s power and the enemy’s power), it follows that players almost always know at the start of a battle who the winner will be. This knowledge lessens the excitement and tension of battles. As players are able to predict outcomes with a high degree of accuracy, games are balanced with the assumption that players will win a very high percentage of their battles. In other words, the punishment for losing a single battle far outstrips the average reward for winning a single battle. Players will spend hours at a time churning through feeble, ineffectual opponents rather than taking on more risk, because the game rewards them more for adopting this style of play.
Another factor that leads to “grinding” is that PEGs tend to be balanced in a way such that players run out of new things to do well before they have advanced their characters far enough to move on to new content. As a result, they must do the same things over many times before they can progress.
Finally, players are willing to “grind” because the primary goal of most PEGs is to reach the maximum level. This problem is discussed further in the next section.
Solution 1: Encourage players to play in fun ways
All things being equal, players will choose fun activities over dull ones; all a game designer has to do is to ensure that players are not rewarded more for choosing the dull ones. Once the reward for “grinding” is less appealing than for playing in a fun way, players have no reason to “grind.”
In particular, games should give players who take on tougher or more unpredictable challenges, even if they fail often, better rewards (such as faster advancement) than if they had 100% success with weak or predictable challenges.
“Raids” (high-risk, high-reward challenges) are already an important component of many PEGs, but unfortunately, the average player does not benefit from raids until reaching the maximum level. This kind of challenge should be available to the average player (not just guilds, not just players who looked up the super-secret quest on the web site), and it should give better, longer-lasting rewards than grinding does. However, in their current form raids have their own set of problems, as discussed further in sections #4 and #6.
Solution 2: Tune advancement to match game content
If players get bored at level 24 because they can’t have any meaningful new experiences (such as exploration, loot, enemies, and quests) until they reach level 30, then players should reach level 30 sooner, or the designer needs to add more things for them to do until they reach level 30 (besides repeating the same things they have been doing). Players should still need to “earn” their advancement, but the best way of earning it should involve overcoming interesting challenges, not by subjecting oneself to hours of tedium.
Voluminous discussion (including the lion’s share of all gamer and developer “rants”) has been conducted on the subject of PEGs. Most of it, unfortunately, assumes the inclusion of boring gameplay mechanics, then goes on to debate implementation details such as game balance issues (whether progression should primarily take the form of character skills or levels, whether one type of character is more powerful than another, etc.), how best to prevent real money from influencing in-game accomplishment, and other secondary issues. They rarely address the problem described in section #1: boring gameplay mechanics.
This misplaced focus reflects one of the problems of the genre: issues related to advancement comprise the bulk of the discussion because the game’s appeal comes almost entirely from character building. In fact, designers treat it as the game’s ultimate goal. Everything else—quests, game mechanics, social interactions—are an often undesirable means to a desirable end; namely, acquiring levels and loot. Players have learned that the best rewards in a PEG always come from burning through the game as quickly as possible. Nothing in the game is worth experiencing for its own sake; if it doesn’t give experience or loot, it’s a waste of time in players’ minds. Designers, unfortunately, make little effort to discourage the player from thinking otherwise, as they put very little content into the game that is worth experiencing for its own sake. In other words, they encourage players to play this way. This model is the exact opposite of single-player games, where character advancement (skills, items, levels, etc.), though still a reward, is primarily a one of several tools the player uses in his primary task: advancing through game content.
As mentioned in the section on “grinding,” this focus encourages players to do whatever is necessary to advance quickly so that they can feel more powerful than their peers or “get to the good stuff.” Quite often, the fastest way to advance is the least exciting in terms of minute-to-minute enjoyment. This is backwards; designers should use the appeal of advancement to entice users into entertaining experiences, rather than using it to make up for the lack of fun in other aspects of the game.
Character advancement holds powerful appeal, as has been discussed; it is natural for players to want to empty the cookie jar of quantifiable accomplishment as quickly as possible, even if they get a stomachache in the process. When players zip through the advancement system as quickly as possible, it hurts both the player and the developer. The player does not get to enjoy the game to its fullest, and the developer loses customers as players reach the end quickly and become bored and dissatisfied.
Solution 1: Provide worthwhile alternate goals
Players like advancement because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment, acknowledges their abilities (or time spent on the game, unfortunately), and in some cases, gives them the feeling that they are getting closer to the best parts of the game.
One way to tempt players to play for something other than numerical advancement is to offer other avenues for accomplishment. For example, a game could allow players to create things in the game (and allow other players to see them) – art, music, writing, a pet, shops, museums, etc. Of course, there would need to be some potential game benefit—fees, royalties, prizes, the power of a trusty sidekick—attached to any alternate type of accomplishment. Players should not have to choose between building their persistent entity and doing something fun.
Solution 2: Make the journey interesting
The “roller coaster” game has a designated start and end point, as well as a pre-defined path connecting the two. Experiences as the roller-coaster travels from the start to the end provide the enjoyment—visuals, play mechanics, story, characters, enemies, animations, scripted events, settings, novelty, etc. Examples of well-received “roller-coaster games” include Half Life 2 and God of War. Although there are different ways to play and customize the experience in these games, the player does not deviate from the pre-defined path in any meaningful way.
Many PEGs are primarily of the roller-coaster variety. Although they allow the player to roam around, customize characters, etc., the point of the game is still to travel along a relatively pre-defined path from the start (level 1) to the end (maximum level and best equipment). There is rarely creativity involved, and the only meaningful customization is typically a series of one-time choices made at the start of the game (character creation). Players who have reached the “end of the game” and made the same initial choices (class, race, skills, etc.) often have nearly identical play experiences and characters. In itself, this is not a terrible thing, as the same is true of many high-quality games. However, instead of being like a roller-coaster, PEGs of this ilk are more like freight trains. Although they are still constrained to the path dictated by the designer, there are few interesting experiences between the start and end, the trip is painfully slow and entirely predictable, and the whole point of the journey is to get to a destination, not to enjoy the ride.
Obviously, it can be prohibitively expensive to build a 2000-hour thrill ride. However, someone will find a way to do it, and everyone else will have to follow to stay competitive. Finding low-cost methods of creating entertaining content is a subject that is more suitable for a book or a game design document than a small section in an article, but a short list of possible methods includes: giving users tools and incentives to create compelling content for the game (and providing a quality filter for this content); designing the game such that interactions between users provide the bulk of long-term entertainment (real-time content creation); procedurally generating content; and designing content/experiences such that they hold their entertainment value over many repetitions (re-using old content/assets falls into this last category). Outsourcing to low-cost professional content developers and development of good content-creation tool sets are also good methods that are already in widespread use, but they generally do not provide the radical improvements in cost possible with the other methods.
An alternative is to design the game as a “creation” game, rather than a “roller-coaster” game; this is discussed further in section #5.