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The Gestalt Effect of Dragon Quest IX, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grind
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The Gestalt Effect of Dragon Quest IX, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grind

February 17, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

How Complete Is It? It also keeps track of various percentages of completion: different monsters defeated, number of recipes Alchemized, amount of wearable items you've owned. It invites you to be a completist, and then tells you how well you're doing at it. This is a small, fairly common game mechanic, but it's still motivating. Ironically, DQIX also offers achievements, but these semi-external motivators aren't interesting to collect on their own -- they follow naturally from the intrinsic motivations that the game has already provided, such as its class system.

A Robust Class System. It's been 20 years since Wizardry VI, and it finally has a worthy competitor for the crown of best and most interesting class-changing system. DQIX uses a similar mechanic to Wizardry VI/VII in that skills you learn in one class transfer over to the next when you change (it's not as complex, however, in that you really can't mess up).

It's to your advantage to change classes regularly, as this piles up skill points as well as opening up class and skill-specific quests. So it's to your benefit to to switch to classes your characters haven't yet used, and therefore to go back to different areas to level them up. Sounds boring? It probably would be, if there weren't also benefits to going back to already-explored areas.

Non-Random Item Collection. Certain spots scattered across the world map have specific items to gather. Here's a graveyard with Thunderballs, there's a waterfall with Fresh Water. These items regenerate based on playtime, so every couple hours, it's worthwhile to run around and collect them all again.

The number of each item may change, but the fact that there's some there -- and that this is by far the easiest way to collect them -- doesn't change. If you want to grind this out, there's more efficient paths to get all the stuff, and gain your levels on the way. The only problem is that sometimes, they don't respawn quickly enough.

Controlled Random Item Collection. Most of the items you need are held by enemies, but their drop rate in combat is very low. By targeting specific enemies with a party of skilled thieves, you can ensure that with time, you'll be able to get the items you need.

Thievery has a low chance of success each individual time you use the "Half-Inch" skill, but eventually, you will get what you need. It may take thirty seconds, it may take five minutes, but it will happen. In older RPGs, this could be incredibly frustrating. You didn't know when combat was going to occur, or what kind of enemy you'd be fighting.

Enemies on the Map. Dragon Quest IX puts the monsters that you fight on the map, making it easy for you to target the appropriate enemies. Goodybags from which to steal Brighten Rocks occur maybe 1-in-10 times on the map where they show up initially, which would be ghastly in random combat, but not here.

Want to find metal slimes to grind experience? You can run by all the other enemies to fight them. Of course, the slimes themselves are tougher to kill than most enemies.

Uncontrollable Randomness. Metal slimes (and other similar creatures, like Metal Medleys) offer much more experience than other creatures that can be found at that level.

However, they tend to flee combat randomly, making hunting them much less controllable than any other monster (You can do a few things like equipping random instant-kill items to increase your odds, but they're still low). The experience haul is still worthwhile, though it of course can be frustrating.

Likewise, certain blue-colored chests scattered throughout the world offer almost totally random items when opened. They respawn, much like the spots on the world map that offer Alchemy ingredients. Getting lucky with a blue chest by picking up a higher-level Alchemy creation, such as an Enchanted Stone, can save you 10 or more ingredients.

By offering different levels of chance and control to get the Alchemy items, Dragon Quest IX manages to provide equally varied methods of motivation. Each one applies its form behaviorist psychology to your motivation.

Hunting metal slimes, repeatedly stealing the same items, and exploring the same area of the map and opening the same blue chests every couple of hours each have a finite amount of appeal on their own. But together, they give you the ability to continue grinding in a slightly different fashion. Each of them help to build your characters and item collections, so cycling between them becomes natural.

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Jason Weesner
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As much as I love the Dragon Quest series, DQ IX is probably one of the weakest entries in the series due to the fact that it is entirely grind-based with very little payoff. In previous installments, grinding was necessary to advance the story and characters (a more traditional approach based on the ramping difficulty of the game) while in DQ IX, it's all about item collection that only serves to fill out lists of items, beasts, and alchemy recipes.

The class system isn't that robust. Some additional spells and skills hardly make the grind worth it when the base classes are well-balanced enough to cover just about anything you'd need to do in the game. Again, the class system only seems to fulfill a player's need to complete more lists of things to get.

As far as monster hunting is concerned, Metal Slimes are incredibly easy to hunt due to the fact that monster spawns are zone based. Once you identify the edge of a zone, you can walk back and forth watching monster spawns / despawns until the target you want pops up. Perhaps this is one of the disadvantages to not having truly random encounters where you can't see the enemy first. It's a bit of a mixed blessing.

Even though I'm not as big a fan of DQ IXas you, your article was still a nice read. Thank goodness DQ VI just came out so that I can get my fix of a more traditional Dragon Quest experience! :)

Daniel Kinkaid
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Amen. VI was the best in the series [aside from DQIII; they're pretty close], and one of the best JRPG's ever. Really, IV, V, and VI are all great in their own unique ways.

Can't get used to the localizations though; I miss the gold old days of Fireball, Firebane, and Firebolt, instead of the new scheme they use...

And VII had the best class system, with second and third tier classes, with VI right behind [second tier classes and the Hero class].

Adam Miller
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I found grinding in DQIX to be more enjoyable than in most games too, the alchemy recipes book and "paper dolls" being the two biggest reasons. It's true about the story being forgettable -- I actually grew tired of the game right at the last boss, and didn't think twice about not finishing (I would have had to gain a few levels to find success). Also, finally, a Wizardry VI/VII mention -- those games are so due for a portable remake.

All that said, I'm really mixed on grinding. I've probably spent the most time "grinding" in Virtua Fighter 5, of all things, where winning battles against teh CPU gives your character rankings and fun costume items. Here, the new gear does nothing to enhance your power; rather, you, the player has to improve his abilities as you fight increasingly challenging opponents. In games like DQIX grinding is ultimately hollow because each battle plays out identically aftrer a point and few require much thought.

Insofar as RPG/MMO style grinding games are concerned, to me the more randomness in both ability and appearence offered by items and monsters the better the grinding. I would actually like to see an RPG where item and monster stats are invisible to the player, but the graphics are clear enough that you can get some sense based on how these things look and also how they perform when you use them. So, part of grinding is actually learning about the equipment you've found.

Simon Fraser
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After reading this I have to wonder if a significant fraction of players feel the same way. It sounds like this game requires a bit of obsession in order to fully enjoy the grinding aspect of it, and I don't think most gamers are that obsessive. I don't think making the grind more streamlined and more bearable is enough to make it fun. Would you use grinding as a central game mechanic based on the lessons from this article? I wouldnt; it still doesn't seem intrinsically fun.

Where I do think these ideas would shine, however, is in an MMO. MMO players are almost obsessive by definition, so finding ways to facilitate and feed that obsession will probably be successful.

I would really like to see these ideas applied in a measurably succesful way.

Interesting article, thanks!

James Stanard
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DQ8 was amazing to me, and I thought surely a new entry in the series built explicitly for an aging handheld couldn't be as good. Boy was I surprised. If you judge the fun factor of a game based on how much time you spend playing it, how much time you spend thinking about it when you're not playing it, and how much you wish there were other games like it, then DQ9 must be my new favorite Dragon Quest, and I've played them all (except 6 which just arrived.) I spent over 100 hours playing the game and at least half of that was not doing the main quest. I only wish there were more DQ nerds like me that I could have played co-op with for the treasure dungeons.

I agree very much with this article. The design was ingenious in getting me to want to play and "grind" when ordinarily I'd find the concept to be archaic. Playing a game shouldn't be a chore, which is what I usually associate with grinding. Here, it felt like they bottled the magic that keeps gamers addicted to WoW and put it in a handheld experience you could take with you on trips--all in a very cute and happy package.

Aaron Truehitt
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Haven't played IX yet, but I loved VIII. Great Animation, Amazing Soundtrack, Wonderful World, Quick and Satisfying combat...I didn't even think of the word "grind" when playing that game, and I did quite the metal slime killing, but it was because it was so rewarding!

Grind...We use it as such a negative word. I first ran into "grind" in some Final Fantasy games. I'd get to a Boss and it's much to strong so I'd go grind. But I'd didn't want to because, I wanted to see the story. I didn't want to run around on a screen and wait for a random encounter. I explored yes, but I always went directly to the next event. Some people said "Well you move to fast through the game"...I didn't think so, dramatic things were happening and I wanted to go see what was next. That's why there should have been more side missions in Final Fantasy games as you go through the story, instead of just tugging you along the story, expecting you to raise up your level just by fighting for the heck of it ocassionaly.

To make grind good and keep it hidden by fun, you have to keep players in the "zone". That means don't make it to long without a significant change, keep the music good, world enticing,animations top notch, and lastly, reward your players.

Radek Koncewicz
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Some good points, although in my playthrough I didn't find alchemy less efficient than buying items. The "efficiency" tended to come on a case-by-case basis; some expensive items were easier to buy via grinding for gold rather than grinding for ingredients (especially the ones that relied on ingredients that were scattered around the world and had to be combined with ingredients randomly stolen/dropped by enemies).

I wrote a similar article about the grinding as well, but with a focus on why people (including myself, although I've long since put it down) spent so much time playing DQ IX. Here's a link if anyone's interested:

Rowan Kaiser
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Hey all, thanks for the kind words. For those of you comparing DQIX to the other games, like I said at the start, none of the other DQ/DW games have done anything for me. I gave VII, VIII, and I a fair amount of time before putting them away. DQIX had me hooked for over a hundred hours of gameplay. That's a pretty big step up.

Also, "grinding" is an interesting, almost always negative term that I don't think deserves some of its negative connotations. Every game is repetitive. The key is to make the repetition "fun," or at least, make the player think that it's "fun" or worthwhile (if you think that's a distinct difference, I don't, really.) Then again, I'm kind of a semantic contrarian, ask me about my reclamation of "manipulation" someday, if you're not dating me.

@Radek - it sounds like you were thinking about the game in almost exactly the same way I was. Good stuff.

Kenneth Barber
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I think the original Grandia had a better grind than this particular Dragon Quest incarnation.... It was all in the combat system...

Rowan Kaiser
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I'm with you 100% on Grandia I, but man, an article about that would be three lines. "You improve your skills by using them in combat. You get new skills by improving old ones. Why is Grandia still the only game to do this????"

Aaron Truehitt
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Grandia...Fantastic game the first one was. Still the only combat system that works the best in my opinion.

Kamruz Moslemi
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The level of padding and grind in the average JRPG amounts to about 80-100 hours of gameplay on average. Wither or not you feel that amount of investment returns a worthwhile experience is an entirely subjective issue.

Personally I felt JRPG's and their much more manageable 30-40 hour length were a much more sane proposition from mid 80's to about the mid 90's. This for the simple reason that the sort of engaging and lengthy experience they provided were unique among the decidedly shorter mostly linear and shallow action/platform games otherwise populating 8 and 16 bit machines of the time.

But in this era of games players are being offered very deep, vivid and intense experiences, both in terms of narrative and gameplay in a very manageable 10 hour portion. In that regard the body formed of all other genres has surpassed JRPG's in terms of worthwhile output and so today it is the JRPG that is giving the poorest, most throwaway output for time input when compared to almost all other types of games. In light of that I find the proposition of a 100 hour game that plays almost exactly like a title from 15 years ago to be almost laughable.

There are still players who feel the investment of time is worth what they get, but for the most part the zeitgeist would beg to differ. There are a lot more titles today vying for player's time and attention and since the average age of players has gone up and the older players are not spoiled for spare time to dedicate to gaming the padding, lengthy unfocused exposition and grind mechanic of this genre has grown to be an obnoxiously obsolete part of most of the games that it spawns.

Personally when given the choice of investing 100 hours into one title whose experience once divided by the total time required cannot hope to be anything but below average or instead spend that time playing 8 or so very good shorter titles I know where my sentiments will fall.

Mark Venturelli
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Disappointing article... the title made it seem more interesting than it really is, I guess.

keith burgun
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The problem is, he didn't explain why grinding is bad in his opinion, OR why DQ9 is an exception to that rule. To me, a grind is a no-brainer, a mechanism that is low risk, takes a lot of time, and has a reward. Basically, it's a mechanic that encourages the player to bore themselves. This is just BAD GAME DESIGN and no amount of slick meta-game can change that!

Daniel Kinkaid
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Personally, I disliked IX. Too much grinding, a poor attempt at an overarching story, and a continuation of basic class systems [VII had the best system, with second/third tier classes avaliable]. I'd recommend IV, V, and VI [especially VI] over IX in a heartbeat. And yes, I still have the GBA remakes of DQ I+II and DQIII at easy disposal.

Frankly, I liked DQ more when it was open; DQI, II, and III basically let you handle things in the order you wanted, and thats something most RPG's ignore these days. The openness of the first three Dragon Quests is part of their charm.

keith burgun
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This is a bad article. If you actually provided a bit of support for anything you're asserting, it might be useful, but you didn't. Case in point:

"I normally hate grinding" - okay, why? I mean, I do too, and I can explain why. I suspect that the reason you did not explain why is that you would be forced to admit that it sucks in DQ9 as well. You failed to explain why Dragon Quest 9 was an exception, you simply listed each feature of the game and said "I LIKE THIS FEATURE."

Daniel Gooding
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Yeah I borrowed DQ9 for a while, and decided not to buy it.

I'm not against grinding, in fact I did plenty of grinding, and like a good grind in games. However the storyline seemed to never pick up the whole time I played it. I got about 8 hours in, and still there wasn't any major storyline goal whatsoever.

I've played other games that didn't have major storylines right away like Breath of fire series, or early Final fantasy. The major difference with those games were they didn't have nearly the same level of grinding required as DQ9 did.

In my opinion, if you are going to make someone heavily grind early on, you should at least give them some vision of an end goal, or have a developing storyline early on.

Greg Wilcox
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Great, I follow a spambot...

Just picked up DQ and it's OK, but not the fun times of previous DQ games as some have noted. Yes, I REALLY think we need a Grandia remake on whatever portable can handle it (or hell, a total HD blowout remake on current-gen consoles - imagine that beautiful art buffed up with even more color and detail?)

Anyway, I noted Wizardry mentioned here, so I figured I'd point those folks who like that series (which, YES, is in dire need of a comeback) to a short piece I wrote here (not spam, dammit!):

K Gadd
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I disagree with your statement that DQ9 makes grinding work, because I've played games that do, and DQ9 isn't one of them. Furthermore, the game as a whole is deeply flawed. Let's see here:

First, the pacing. DQ9 arguably uses grinding as a pacing mechanism. Other DQ games have done this, and other series like Shin Megami Tensei do it as well. Unfortunately, DQ9's use of grinding as a pacing mechanism is completely inept.

First, the difficulty curve is wildly unpredictable, making it difficult to tell when you will need to grind to progress, if ever. Most of the fights you will encounter in the game are ridiculously easy, but occasionally you will encounter a boss (or even random battle) that can flatten your party in a few turns. This gets worse once bosses regularly get two turns in a row, because that enables them to 'get lucky' and choose to use two actions in a row that will obliterate your party unless you've levelled up enough. Maintaining a fairly predictable difficulty curve is a very important thing for a grind-based game, because it gives the player an easy way to identify whether they need to grind in order to advance the story. DQ9 fails at this. The unreliable difficulty curve might be acceptable if the game managed to present an enjoyable challenge, but for the most part, every foe in the game is a boring exercise in spamming attacks and healing spells until it dies - in part, due to the fact that most players will end up grinding 'too much' and destroy any real challenges.

Furthermore, grinding in DQ9 becomes a soulless affair: Until late in the game, your best way to grind is to just wander around fighting random enemies on the overworld. These enemies are too weak to ever present a challenge, and provide minimal XP and gold rewards for each kill, because they were always intended as filler. As a result, it can take hours of mindless button spamming and wandering in circles to make sufficient progress by killing these enemies. Later on, the game finally gives you access to a series staple - the Liquid Metal Slimes - that you can use to level up characters more efficiently, but this is done far too late. Liquid Metal Slimes are also a good example of how flawed the game's combat is, which I'll go into...

The combat in general has issues: Players are given a wide array of abilities (though most of them are locked away behind painfully long class progression curves), but many of them are of dubious value and you may never find a good use for them. Ability descriptions are not made available to you until you've spent the skill points to unlock them, which makes character progression either an exercise in painful disappointment, or an exercise in visiting GameFAQs before you spend skill points. Many of the classes are locked off for a long portion of the game, and unlocking them requires locating a special NPC and performing a series of tedious, grind-filled tasks. Even after doing this, the classes start at level 1 with no useful abilities and possibly require new equipment, guaranteeing that the player must spend plenty of time grinding on weak early-game enemies to get their characters' new classes up to the point of usefulness. Doing this one or two times may not feel frustrating, but around the fifth or sixth time you consider changing character classes, you realize how boring it is - if the game had made it feasible to grind your new Level 1 character up by fighting late-game enemies with the rest of your party, it'd be fine, but the game's AI and mechanics mean that a low level character will get instantly murdered by even relatively weak enemies as soon as they enter battle, preventing them from earning XP. In some cases, this means you may need to travel back to an earlier part of the game, retreading old ground while you farm boring enemies.

Many of the game's abilities are built around random numbers, with most abilities having a significant chance to fail when used, but these failure chances are never exposed directly to the player, making it feel like the game is randomly screwing you over at every opportunity. If the random failure chances were exposed more clearly they could be turned into a tactical judgement (do I use this skill that might fail, or this less powerful one that always works?) but this is only done in a few specific cases. The nature of this randomness is made clear when fighting Liquid Metal Slimes, where no matter the player's stats, they can easily go 8 turns without a hit connecting in one fight, and have 8 hits land in a row in the next. Randomness is a powerful tool for a game designer, but it is essential to use it carefully and with discipline, and DQ9 fails in both areas by using it too much and using it in a way that causes the player to feel as if their efforts amount to nothing.

The use of buffs and debuffs has been a staple in DQ games, and DQ9 fails here in a way that previous DQ games also failed. Buffs and debuffs can both be stacked on a target, allowing you to reduce or increase their attributes multiple times. This is an important strategy for when fights become difficult. Unfortunately, the game does not clearly demonstrate that debuffs and buffs can be stacked until late in the game, and an unlucky player may try to do it and discover that it doesn't work, due to the fact that a wide variety of enemies have random and confusing immunities to debuffs. These random immunities mean that a player's only choice is to waste turns identifying each foe's immunities, and then likely restart the battle after losing it due to wasting all those turns. When some of the boss fights are prefaced with unskippable cutscenes as they are in DQ9, this is simply inexcusable.

The item alchemy system's failures are a variation on the class system's failures. Alchemy recipes are numerous, and you get them by exploring the game world. Unfortunately, 'exploring' in this case means 'walking up to every physical object in the game world and pressing the button a few times', because almost all of them are tucked away in random bookshelves and cabinets. Sometimes, this sort of environment exploration can be a good thing - there are games that do it very well, and do it in a way that isn't frustrating. DQ9 fails to make this accessible, by tucking far too many useless items in the game world and making it too difficult to identify all the places you need to search. This means that most players will miss a lot of the game's alchemy recipes unless they consult a FAQ. Unfortunately, many of the alchemy recipes feed into each other as prerequisites, so you may find that a large number of the recipes you have require items you can't get, making them useless. Much like special abilities, an alchemy recipe's resulting item is basically a secret unless you've seen it before, which makes it tough to tell whether it will be useful without consulting a FAQ - so players may find themselves creating an item, then reloading a save once they realize it's worthless.

Finally, I'll devote some scorn to the game's plot: It has shallow characterization that fails to expand on most of the game's most interesting characters, the actual plotting is linear and predictable, and the characters' motivations are dull and hard to believe. Furthermore, the game's 'benevolessence' conceit undermines the significance of many of the player's actions during the course of the plot, turning events that would otherwise be an example of the player's heroic nature into self-serving, box-ticking quest completion. This is hardly unprecedented in a grindy japanese RPG, but after playing games like DQ5, I personally expected better out of this series and was sadly disappointed to discover how badly DQ9 failed in this area.

Ultimately, DQ9 is a deeply flawed sequel that fails to improve on its predecessors in any significant way that I could identify, and actually takes steps backwards in some areas. I wasn't expecting a work of art, but I was at least hoping for some forward progress. If you enjoyed grinding in DQ9, it's because you enjoy grinding, not because the game did it properly. For a few examples of games with arguably better grind, try the Persona series and Valkyrie Profile.