I hate grinding in role-playing games. I hate it. So it is not without irony that lately I am playing the original Diablo in my spare time, particularly the Hellfire expansion. The combination of playing that game while working on a game of my own with RPG elements has given me cause to think about the different aspects of the genre, which ones have a large impact on my enjoyment of a game and how.
And one of those aspects is grinding.
How Diablo Gets it Right
Diablo belongs to the roguelike sub-genre of RPGs. Diablo has an interesting story and setting, unlike most roguelikes I have played, but the overarching goal is still the same as the rest: make numbers go up. The gameplay always boils down to that: how do I make these numbers go up?
And that usually bores me to Hell. (See what I did there? Vintage Ritz-level genius.)
To complete Diablo you have to traverse sixteen dungeon levels and kill the big-bad-boss at the end. You can’t do that without a little bit of leveling up along the way. A lot of leveling up, in fact. So why do I enjoy Diablo when the core gameplay mechanic forces me to do something I have a strong distaste for? Because grinding does not erase challenge.
The Hellfire expansion allows me to play the single-player game on two harder difficulties, and currently I am playing through the most difficult: the aptly named ‘Hell’. Because your character carries over from new game to game I have already maxed out the stats of my Rogue. Strength, Dexterity, Magic, Vitality—I’ve pushed all of those numbers as high as the game allows. And yet I will still die in a matter of seconds if I do not approach situations with strategy and planning. That is so vital to why I do not mind grinding in Diablo: it does not assuage the challenge of the game. My character’s max stats to do not permit me to freely walk around kicking ass at-will. Even at the statistical pinnacle I must plan ahead, prepare spells to use, have an exit strategy for when things go bad, think about the equipment best suited for what I’m trying to do, and so on.
If I could grind my way to invincibility then I would have no interest in the game. But knowing that those efforts do not trump the challenge of the game make the work of grinding tolerable to me.
Another Great Way to Handle Grinding
Simply remove it.
I loved Final Fantasy 13 for many reasons, and one was the way it eliminated grinding for (almost) the entirety of the game. At any given point in FF13 you can unlock a fixed set of stat improvements and new abilities. So if you do that and go into a boss battle and suffer a beating—let’s say when fighting Lightning’s eidolon—then you cannot resort to the traditional thought of, “Well I’ll just go level up some more.” FF13 made this a non-option.
I thought that was a great design decision. Admittedly there is an element of grinding required in the end-game if you want to aim for a ‘one-hundred percent game’, obtain all the ultimate weapons, beat all the optional bosses and missions, and so on. I did not mind it since the game relegates grinding to the end. You do not have full access to unlock everyone’s full stats and abilities until after you complete the game at least once, and then you can go back and start farming experience points if you want, so you won’t get wasted immediately by the boss in Mission 64. God….
As far as completing FF13 is concerned, however, grinding was unnecessary by virtue of being invaluable. You could grind here and there to unlock the maximum improvements the game allowed you at that time, but this was not necessary as you could also take down bosses with strategy and planning.
That is what I want from a role-playing game: reward for my planning, not the feeling of forced manual labor just to increase some numbers because that’s the only way through a scenario. So that is the kind of balance I want to find in my own game, to reward players who invest the extra time to increase this-or-that stat, while not penalizing players who choose not do so by making parts so difficult that grinding is the only way through.
Grinding can be fine, but only when it plays a supporting role to clever play instead of being the primary medium for advancement.