RPG Confessions: I Love Grinding
We love RPGs here at SwitchRPG – that should be obvious- but there are many out there who do not. They might feel that RPG battle systems are slow and lack excitement, or that the overall focus on story is better left to books, television, movies, or other storytelling media. They might get dizzy from all the numbers and statistics one has to track to optimize their characters, or with the ridiculous customization options it takes to build a party of heroes.
Others, however, simply hate the grind. Grinding has been a fixture in RPGs since the earliest days of the genre. In fact, the majority of playtime in legacy titles like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy is taken up with grinding. Fans of other genres look on grinding with scorn, calling it pointless padding and mindless repetition. But today, I’m ready to make a confession that I have long held in, but which now bursts to the surface:
I love grinding.
Good Grinding vs. Bad
That is to say, I love good grinding.
I think all RPG fans have at least one title that comes to mind where the grind simply became too much. Dumping hours and hours into an unending series of repetitive battles will bore even the most diehard of fans if there is very little to show for all the effort. Bad grinding withholds progress like a child clutching its favorite toy. If you want your characters to grow, you have to pry that growth from the developer’s cold, dead fingers. This bad version of grinding – the one many people picture when they hear the term – usually comes down to one of two factors: an arbitrary difficulty spike or overpriced resources.
A prime example of this kind of grinding is the original Dragon Quest, not the revamped version available on smartphones and the Switch eShop, but the classic, genre-defining first edition released on the NES. This game is about 95% grind, as you’ll need to fight, and fight, and fight, and then fight some more to gather the gold you need to upgrade your gear and take on the next set of mobs on the world map. Even the modern versions of the game, which offer lower prices, faster experience gains, and other quality of life features, struggle to unbind themselves from this core design element. There simply wasn’t much to DO in Dragon Quest other than fight mobs, go on a few fetch quests, save the princess, and defeat the final boss.
I don’t mean to disparage the game – it’s a quintessential title for a reason, and still enjoyable, at that- but I do mean to point out that arbitrary grinding like this, especially when found in modern titles, can be a slog to get through. The Disgaea series comes immediately to my mind as another example; the tactical RPG series being largely built around doing ridiculous amounts of grinding. Enjoyable for some, I’m sure, but not at all the kind of grinding that I love in RPGs.
Granting a Sense of Mastery
When I talk about loving grinding, I’m talking playing Final Fantasy Tactics and taking the time to unlock advance job classes before reaching Dorter, Trade City. I’m talking about playing Final Fantasy VII and ensuring a certain character gets all the last hits on each monster to unlock their limit breaks faster. I’m talking about gaming the class system in Bravely Default, taking the time to unlock specific abilities and using them in tandem to overwhelm common enemies and bosses alike.
Good grinding, the kind that is totally optional, provides a sense of mastery to the player. It encourages them to take the time to maximize their resources, dive deep into the character progression mechanics, and make them feel like they’ve accomplished something great when they make the game easier for themselves. This isn’t about raw difficulty, being forced into a grind because the game decided it needed to knock you around a little before you progress in the story. This is about player agency.
Providing Both Freedom and Control
Agency really is the name of the game when it comes to a well-implemented grind, because while mastering unique character progression mechanics, class systems, and ability interactions is all well and good for many, the most basic of reasons for grinding is also a powerful one – it lets you decide how hard you want the game to be. Some players love throwing themselves into the story, taking on each challenge the game has to offer as quickly as possible. They find having an under-leveled and poorly equipped party a fun obstacle to overcome, and oftentimes, these are the very people discovering unique tactics and exploits within an RPG community.
Meanwhile, other players want to enjoy the story at a more leisurely pace, unfettered from repeated deaths and mind-numbing difficulty. They want to be able to choose when to fight the same battle over and over again to progress and when to charge from plot point to plot point. Grinding gives them the means to set their own difficulty level, in exchange for some idle time spent cleaning up low-level mooks. These two types of players lie on a spectrum of all RPG fans, with many in the middle grinding between towns or getting themselves just enough gold to keep their characters equipment up to date out of sheer habit.
Good developers build the difficulty curves of their games – from enemy HP, character growth, experience gains, and more – around making grinding a rewarding experience. And it’s in these quality games, which offer freedom to players, that I find myself loving the grind. Not because it’s forced upon me, but because it’s what I choose for myself.
Unlocking Powerful Rewards
Of course, developers have other ways of encouraging grinding beyond a satisfying difficulty curve. Many also choose to pepper satisfying rewards for diligent players throughout their games. Optional boss battles, side quests, amazing gear, and magic items all await players who tough it out through the hardest challenges the developers have to throw at them. This might mean fighting the same enemy over and over in the early game, looking for the low percentage steal of a powerful weapon, or it might mean grinding out your party in the final dungeon to give yourself a shot at an optional boss somewhere else on the world map.
Of course, this is one area that can often be even more subjective than the general idea of grinding itself. I personally despite end-game grinding in RPGs and typically just wrap up the main quest and call it a day. I play RPGs for the story first and foremost, so having some non-story related boss to challenge isn’t a great incentive for me. But for others, these types of challenges are the entire appeal of their favorite games. The Disgaea series once again rears its head, as it’s built a huge part of its reputation around extensive endgame activities, ridiculous level-caps, and other features that encourage hundreds of hours of playtime. It may not be for everyone, myself included, but I respect it as another example of how grinding can be an essential gameplay feature, rather than a nuisance.
Love it or hate it, grinding is a core gameplay element in the role-playing genre. If, like me, you love gaining that sense of player agency, exploring what a character progression system has to offer, and maybe making the game a little easier for yourself in the process, then I hope you’ve realized just what a gift the grind can be. Feel free to share one of your personal grinding stories in the comments and let us know what you think!