[In this analysis, game journalist Rowan Kaiser takes a deep dive into what makes grinding work as a play mechanic in Dragon Quest IX, the latest in the most popular game franchise in Japan -- which has recently picked up some steam in North America thanks to some DS releases.]
I normally hate grinding. I haven't ever really enjoyed a Dragon Quest/Warrior game, for precisely that reason. I hated it in World of Warcraft, preferring to use the Auction House if possible. I managed to do it enough to get a gold chocobo in Final Fantasy VII, but couldn't motivate myself to defeat the ultra-hard optional Weapons.
And yet I'm loving Dragon Quest IX, because it makes grinding work. I've played it for over a hundred hours, and have spent the last 20 walking in circles instead of progressing in the game. I find Alchemy materials here, grind levels there, change my characters' class, and return to the beginning of the track. I've even made a spreadsheet of the materials I need to create every item in the game!
How does Dragon Quest IX accomplish motivate me to grind? It's not any one particular game mechanic, but instead, a combination of several different factors which work in harmony to make grinding anything but a grind:
Paper Doll Graphics. What sold me on getting Dragon Quest IX instead of, say, Etrian Odyssey III or another old-fashioned RPG was its paper doll effect. I love paper dolls in games. I took screenshots of my character in World of Warcraft whenever she got cool new equipment.
DQIX accomplishes the paper doll effect almost perfectly, allowing you to create attractive, interesting characters and then giving them a fun variety of clothing, armor, and weapons to put on. It's above and beyond the usual RPG fare of simply improving your stats -- although there's certainly that. I want my characters to have the most effective and entertaining-looking gear in the game. Some of that can be purchased, but most of it is acquired with Alchemy.
The Alchemy Gestalt. In DQIX, you can make new items by using "Alchemy," which is simply an item combiner. Want to make a longbow? Put a shortbow in the pot with a laundry pole, and the longbow will be created. You find recipes for alchemy scattered throughout the world, which usually roughly line up with your progress through the game. The most interesting items come through Alchemy, and then those items get combined with one another to create even more interesting stuff.
In DQIX, Alchemy stacks and feeds off itself. Once you've done a couple items here, you're only other item away from combining those into something better. How do you get that last bit? Grinding, of course. But how do you know that this is the item you need, and where can you get that last piece of the puzzle?
All the Necessary Information is at Your Fingertips. Dragon Quest IX has an in-game encyclopedia, somewhat misleadingly named "Battle Records" on the main menu. Once you learn how to read the Battle Records, you have all the information you need to find what you want. Search the recipes to find out what you need, search the items to find out where they appear, and search the monsters to find out what they drop.
This kind of thing is available to most game players in strategy guides of online FAQs, but that level of research creates a slight wall of inconvenience and artificiality. By putting the information inside the game, Dragon Quest IX invites and encourages you to play as a collector and a completist, instead of merely offering that option for the most hardcore players.