Let’s talk about grind as gameplay and incremental games

The following is a script for a Youtube video on Grind as gameplay:

Hello I’m Kinglink Let’s talk about grind as gameplay. But really today I wanted to talk about something that bothers me, grindy games.

For the video, I’ll be showing a couple of games here of a certain genre. I’ll start with one of the most famous games. Cookie Clicker, we’ll also take a look at Clicker Hero, Realm Grinder, and my new… pseudo favorite game, NGU Idle. These are all of the genre “Incremental games” or Idle games, both names fit all of them. I will talk about them in a bit. But if there is one thing this genre is known for it is grinding. I’m going to put that aside though. (spoiler I do like these games and the genre as a whole)

So with that said, what is grind? Well… the Oxford dictionary says it means to gyrate your hips erotically. Maybe I’m coming around on this idea.

But really allow me to define it for games. Grindy games are games where you do repetitive actions over and over to work your way up to some goal, some achievement, or to make progression. There are a lot of caveats and asterisks with that statement there. Let’s throw a huge net and catch everything.

Let’s say the grind could be anything from waiting for health energy to come back, killing millions of the same enemies over and over as in Dynasty Warriors, playing MANY multiplayer matches to achieve some goal in pretty much any multiplayer game with progression, gaining a small amount of points or coins for a larger goal as in Tsum Tsum, or clicking a cookie one hundred times to unlock a farm in Cookie Clicker.

The big thing though is grind in games requires the player to do repetitive actions over and over, whether it be to beat a level and hope for some item to drop like in EDF, Diablo 3, or really any number of games.

But really, life is a grind. I mean I write one letter into this document at a time, I earn one dollar at a time, and eventually hopefully earn more. I write one line of code at a time and it makes a bigger thing. The idea of grind is nothing new, and honestly, I mean Pac-Man is just eating pellets so what’s the deal.

Well, the problem is not just grinding. I mean ultimately every game has some level of grind, the problem is when grind becomes a core gameplay mechanic. An easy example of this is RPGs. Now not every RPG has this problem but if we’re honest, most do, but let’s talk Final Fantasy, really any of them, but just for an extreme example, the optional bosses at the end of Final Fantasy VII, but also maxing the materia system in that same game. Or maybe Final Fantasy IV hunting for that one in 64 chance of appearing enemy, that dropped the pink tail for completionists anything like this.

The thing is RPGs really get away with grinding. I know some RPG fans will be angry that I am saying this, I’ve had this conversation multiple times, but RPGs tend to be time wasters. A lot of them have entirely too many enemies, and by that, I mean enemy encounters, not unique enemies. When you’ve killed the same guy 20-30 times in a row without taking damage, do they really challenge you?

And yeah you do that to gain levels to be more powerful, but RPGs could just double the rewards for a battle and half the number of enemies, it also can lower the levels of the bosses and so on. The fact is RPGs tend to be grindy by design, and it’s the design here I take offense with.

Now, I grew up with RPGs, I still enjoy them, I do need to play Ni No Kuni 2, though the grindy parts are one of the reasons I haven’t tackled many RPGs, because… I’m not sure if it’s just repetitive battles for the long play time or if it’s something like Witcher 3 which had a massive sum of content for a 60-hour RPGish game. The same is true with games like Record of Agarest War, if I said that right, even if the idea of breeding my characters does sound interesting it’s like 80 hours for just the main story.

The problem is the time spent in a game isn’t a measure of quality. I’ve been on both sides of that argument, mind you, game length is important, but also it’s important to note, Witcher 3 being 60 hours didn’t make Witcher 3 a great game. Witcher 3 being consistently great for the entire 60 hours makes Witcher 3 a great game. I can go make a game where you have to sit there and watch it for 100 hours just holding a button, but that doesn’t make for compelling gameplay even if it’s 100 hours.

Now, my issue with grindy games, especially those that use grind as a core mechanic, is that the game’s length doesn’t come from gameplay, but rather a repetition of gameplay. Now if you love Call of Duty, playing a thousand matches to unlock levels or doodads, or prestige, it won’t be a horrible experience for you. Multiplayer games have gotten away with the repetition because it’s part of the expectation and, you know what, I’ll give it a pass.

My problem is a lot of games do that for single player as well. Final Fantasy with the repetition of the same enemies over and over, Diablo 3 gets away with it for making players chase gear and rarity systems, Samurai warrior 4 and 4-II gets it by having each character have to play through the same story mission.

The reason I find it really infuriating is that a lot of times, it’s artificially lengthening the game without making it better. If the Resident Evil 2’s remake came out and there were twice as many corridors that looked the same, or even Leon’s walk speed was halved, it would make the game twice as long, but not twice as good.

The thing is grindy games do this exact same thing. “You beat that level? Well, beat it two more times to show you’ve “mastered it” or “Fight the same enemy over and over, you need more experience levels.” or currency gains and so on. The thing is, this isn’t game length I have an issue with. If Final Fantasy VII’s story was twice as long, it would take a ton more work from the developers and hopefully be twice as interesting. But if they wanted to double the length of Final Fantasy VII it’s just as easy to double the chance of an encounter of an enemy, and half the rewards given by the enemy. You get the same challenge from the game, but it’ll take longer to beat.

Mechanics that I would call grindy tend to be mechanics that cost the development team minimal time to implement or tweak and the player a long time to play through. Thus, the repetition is at the core of these problems. Think of it this way, not many people would complain about the game’s story as grindy. There are probably a couple of exceptions, let me know down in the comments, but overall it’s not a common criticism because the developers tend to spend just as long on a story as the player. They might call it long-winded or boring but not grindy.

But, hey, killing 100 rats to proceed is a really grindy quest, because it only requires the developers to create one rat model, and then spawn it at a fixed rate and it means they can control the speed of progression but also have the player do something that sounds meaningful but really is just a treadmill.

Most of the times people call games grindy it’s for systems like this. Either multiple quests that take very little thought or effort, like fetch quests or just copied and pasted instructions, or repetitive actions that are done for some reward.

Now I have heard a defense of grind as gameplay, and I can somewhat see it, but I think it’s a flawed thought. The big one is games like Warframe or Diablo 3 where the grind is important, or grind gets you farther or the grind is what you come for? What?

No, you come to play Warframe because it’s a great shooter, good controls, and while the levels are similar, there are a lot of different tasks to go for. When you’re sitting there and playing the same mission 10 times in a row hoping for something to drop for progression, that means something’s probably wrong. Similarly Diablo 3’s first playthrough is rather good, and honestly, the way they handle the post game is usually pretty good. But the problem is the grind to get better gear to get farther to get better gear is problematic.

In fact, both of these games and really this topic is on the fringe of a major issue. Grind is being added into games and microtransactions are being offered to improve the experience. There are items in Warframe that players tend to grind but Warframe also offers the ability to buy those items for a “reasonable price.” Diablo 3 doesn’t have microtransactions right now, as far as I know. But hey… remember the real money auction house? Yeah, you paid money to get better items from other players, and Blizzard took a nominal cut. I mean… that’s the problem right there with microtransaction systems.

Does anyone remember what happened after the real money auction house shut down? Well first, the gold auction house was still around so the auction house still existed in some form. But suddenly players noticed more items dropped for their current character’s class. Hmm… the game was made less grindy because it’s less profitable to do so….. Something to think about.

Similarly, games that allow you to grind currency or buy it tend to have similar problems, and a lot of times there’s psychology added in. How long will you grind for to get X, how can we make you pay for a second X because you want it? Grind as a core gameplay construct is iffy though I would say it’s a negative. Grind as a core gameplay construct when money is involved is a huge red flag.

So grind as gameplay is bad. Yeah, I mean there are cases of it working, and let’s be honest, some grind in RPGs is fine, some grind is ok, there is still grinding in Diablo 3. I don’t like it but some people do. Dynasty warrior is very grindy, you probably hate it but I love it as a series.

But there’s another way to look at the grind. What about grind as a gameplay element? You’ve been watching me play four games, they’re all incremental, or idle games. But here’s the thing. I chose all four because they are … well to be honest grindy. But when I play cookie clicker, I admit I don’t really think of how grindy it is. I usually think more about how long it takes to reach the next tier or goal or getting a factory, or when should I ascend and start over to become more powerful.

You see in incremental games, grind definitely exists and it’s bad… but unlike most of these games where the grind is just something to do to get some reward, Incrementals treat grind as a villain, one you will constantly fight to win the game, or accomplish some goal, whether it be 1 million cookies, the end of a story (these four games don’t have an end but Spaceplan another idle game does), there are games like Kittens or Candy box that are similar that have a ton of features that appear over time and so on.

Most incremental games tend to have very small amounts of true gameplay and it’s the grind or the waiting for the rewards that become the game. They might have a small adventure mode or something minor. There are a ton of one-offs I can mention, Anti-idle, and NGU has a simple adventure system, Trimps has the player have to go fight in little zones, and so on.

But the one thing I notice in most of these games is that automation quickly takes over. In fact, there are very few idle or incremental games that don’t have some level of automation so you can check back in 24 hours or so and see how you’ve grown and clicked a few buttons. But the thing is in almost every incremental game, minimizing or reducing the time it takes to grind becomes key to the game.

So is grind good in the case of incremental? I mean… Yes or no. It really depends on what you want. Are incrementals fun? Yeah, I really like them, especially novel or unique ones. I’m currently LOVING playing NGU Idle, I’ll probably break down and review that when I run out of other games. I’ve played all of these games at some point, Cookie Clicker is still amazing, Realm Grinder is really different and good, as is Clicker Heroes, I do know they’re making a Clicker Heroes 2 and that’s in early access, honestly I haven’t taken the dive yet.

Of course, all these games tend to be time sinks or time wasters. As much as I like them, I’ll be honest they tend to be addictive in odd ways, and watching the numbers climb is really the game. It reminds me of Progress Quest the first true idle game, and honestly still one of the best at ABSOLUTE idle.

Are they problematic? Perhaps, I mean, they are huge time sinks, and it definitely depends on the player. I might stare at NGU Idle a bit much, a lot of people try to play these games “Active” And while some like Clicker Heroes allows that in some manner, the fact is, these are the games you should be checking on once every 24 hours, but you can play it any way you want.

So what can we say about Grind as gameplay? Well you know, unlike Microtransactions this isn’t a topic people should flip out about. If a game is grindy, call it so. Developers really need to stop using grind as gameplay to extend games. It’s not a very good system, it’s used often along with Microtransactions, and games as a service really love to use it in bad ways. But if you enjoyed Diablo, you play Diablo and level up new characters or go through the story again. Gating it until you get certain drops or certain power system… it’s not good game design. Let’s just say that.

Can you enjoy Diablo 3? Yeah. And that’s the thing, Diablo 3 doesn’t annoy me that much because Diablo is a really fun game, the grind is annoying but you are still playing the core experience that you’re enjoying, and Diablo really only gets grindy in the late post game. The same is true for almost every multiplayer game ever and I get that. The issue is more stuff where you have to do the repetitive tasks multiple times to get back to the story or to earn progression in the main playthrough.

Now, this could be RPGs that crank meaningless encounter rates higher or just games that don’t value players times. It’s one thing if a game is challenging and dangerous and you have to repeat sections like Dark Souls where you’re memorizing the level, that’s not a bad grind necessarily. It’s another if you’re just chasing after some object you need to drop or having to play through a game 30 times to get every achievement. EDF 4.1, I’m talking about you here.

So call out developers who do grind as gameplay with the offer of microtransactions to speed up your progress in some way, that’s never cool and I think we all should know that now. Seriously respect the player, I mean that’s really what much of my complaints are. If it doesn’t take you a long time to build, will a player want to do it ad nauseum? The answer is probably no. And in that case, maybe it’s not a good game design?

And there we are. Thanks for listening, I wanted to get this off my chest, especially because we will be talking about grind in my next review. I’m working on a review of Forager, it’s a fun game, and we’ll talk about how it’s grind works and everything else then.

In addition, I want to throw a shoutout. Just calling out to r/incrementalgames on Reddit, that’s where I talk about incremental games entirely too much and find out about new ones. If you did enjoy looking at any of these games, they are all free, so you can check them out. I’ll try to put links in the description, but join r/incremental games on Reddit to talk about them or even newer games.

If you enjoyed this consider subscribing I’ll try to keep doing these discussions, they take a short amount of time, and stuff is changing in my life which means I might do more of them from what it sounds, we’ll talk about that another time. Otherwise, I’ll be back to reviews before long.

Until then, I am Kinglink and thanks for watching,

Links of Free to Play games mentioned:
Cookie Clicker: https://orteil.dashnet.org/cookieclicker/
Clicker Heroes: https://www.clickerheroes.com/ and available on Steam, Android, and iOS
Realm Grinder: https://www.kongregate.com/games/divinegames/realm-grinder also available on Steam, Android, and iOS
NGU Idle: https://www.kongregate.com/games/somethingggg/ngu-idle
Spaceplan: http://jhollands.co.uk/spaceplan/
Kittens: http://bloodrizer.ru/games/kittens/ also available on Android and iOS
Candy Box: https://candybox2.wordpress.com/
Anti-idle: http://www.kongregate.com/games/tukkun/anti-idle-the-game
Trimps: https://trimps.github.io/
Warframe: https://www.warframe.com/, also available on Steam, Ps4, and Xbox One
Tsum Tsum: Available on Android and iOS

reddit r/incremental games: https://www.reddit.com/r/incremental_games