Every MMORPG currently available employs some method of grinding for advancement. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.
Grinding is the act of completing (typically repetitive) tasks primarily or solely for the purpose of character advancement by expending minimal effort. If the reason you are questing, killing mobs, chopping trees, or raiding dungeons is for ph4t l00t, levels, or to breach some gated activity then it’s grinding. Don’t get me wrong. I know some people like grinding. Grinding can be relaxing. Meditative even. But the entire market is saturated with grinding-centric MMORPGs so we really could use a game with a different approach.
The difficulty developers typically run into when combating grinding is keeping character progression alive. Many would say this is the greatest flaw of Guild Wars 2. They’ve created an advancement system that’s almost eliminated grinding at the cost of any interesting character progression post max level. Yet despite this if I wanted to create an alt and level him to 80 then a grind would still stand in my way.
Like the good MMO Bro that I am, I have compiled an eight item checklist to combat grinding without sacrificing character progression.
- Horizontal Progression – Think Guild Wars 1 here. Tons of skills that can be changed out. The problem GW1 had is that these skills were set once a mission or PvP round started. This stymies advancement because players only had a limited number of skills that would breach the ‘top 8’ for their role.
- Dynamic Combat – We MMO vets know that our classes or roles come with a right way to play and a wrong way to play. It’s ridiculous. It’s made more ridiculous by the fact that these roles are fairly easy to master. Combat should require adjustment to the situation at hand. Horizontal progression gives us this opportunity. Players should be able to change out and even buy skills or skill sets on the fly with some cooldown penalty or power up cost. This creates an ever changing battlefield.
- Useful ‘Level 1’ Characters – For some inane reason, game developers hate new players. Level 1 characters get less skills and less hit points. Then they get crushed. Then they have to grind. Good horizontal progression means new characters just have less options. OK – yes, they’re still at a disadvantage. But they aren’t useless. Give them some starter skills and let them participate from the start.
- One Character – There is no need for multiple characters or classes. Even if the game devs want to use a ‘holy trinity’ balancing mechanism, we still only need one character. Going back through the same content to get the same rewards is unnecessary.
- Reward Overcoming Challenges – I was so happy when I saw some instanced MMOs implementing challenge ratings for dungeons. Unfortunately, they weren’t really more difficult. They just required better gear. Even worse, some of them created systems were it was more efficient to farm the easier tiers. The best rewards should go to those stressing out and risking a loss. And it should be available from day 1.
- Dynamic Content – Not to be confused with dynamic combat. Dynamic content means never playing the same game twice. How? Think MOBAs like League of Legends. Think innovative shooters like Overwatch. Think randomized dungeons/enemies like Diablo. Think survival games like Don’t Starve. Think player missions replacing generic NPC missions. Think procedural generation like every game genre that’s not an MMO is implementing. Create game content that requires reaction instead of repetitively reinforcing the status quo.
- Rankings – Prestige. It’s all about prestige. You can replace some character progression with prestige by implementing rankings. Don’t make people feel bad about themselves though. Hide rankings below a certain point or create casual vs. competitive rankings. Casual = Progressively increased, mostly effort based rankings. Competitive = ELO ladder type rankings (yes, this can be done for PvP, PvE, and even crafting). Implement season ladder rankings alongside permanent ladder rankings if it makes sense. Rankings are extremely underused in MMORPGs.
- Eliminate Legendary Gear – Don’t force best in slot gear ‘choices’. Epic loot is bad. Give people real choices by creating gear with randomized stats like in Diablo style games. This can lead to interesting changes in how people build or play, but wouldn’t be imbalancing. All this gear would be roughly the same effectiveness but with different stats or different skill modifiers (see Dynamic Combat above).
I’m not saying doing all of these things is easy. There’s a fine balance to making an intricate and dynamic system work. But the point is to incite and reward critical thinking instead over rote grinding.