Oct 7, 2010

Posted by in News | 7 Comments

GDC Online: Damion Schubert on The Grind

[UPDATE] – Damion has posted his entire slide presentation for download from his site.

Today here at GDC Online, BioWare’s Principal Lead Systems Designer Damion Schubert gave a talk entitled “How Online Gaming Has Adopted The Grind.”

TL;DR: The grind is not always bad, but it has to be justified. And in listening to Damion speak for an hour, I’m confident he and BioWare are doing everything they can to make sure that where there might be a grind, it is very well disguised and possibly even fun.

Now, onward…

Since Damion is a senior member of the design team on Star Wars™: The Old Republic™, it’s a reasonable expectation that this talk might give us a glimpse into how “the grind” might be handled in TOR, even if indirectly.

Damion was sure to point out however that this talk was all about design theory and didn’t necessarily apply to things we would or would not see in TOR. This was a talk by a game designer, intended for other game designers.

We’ll be talking about some things today that are slightly evil… and I am in no way saying that this evil will be in Star Wars™: The Old Republic™. I deny it all.

So while there wasn’t a whole lot of Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ content within the talk, there were definitely some points made that will be open to interpretation, speculation and discussion as to what they mean and how they might apply to TOR.

Let’s start off with the definition of the grind, as presented by Damion:

The Grind is what happens when you make the player do something he doesn’t want to do in order to do something he does want to do.

He said that this definition works in about 95% of the cases, although exceptions do apply.

So, instead of providing interpretation and speculation in this article, instead I thought it’s be better to have a discussion about it. What follows next are some of my notes from the highlights of the talk (accompanied by of some of the slides.)

What do you think? What is your interpretation of what Damion is saying and how it might apply to TOR?

There may be good reasons for a grind, but it’s important to understand that players may not always be sympathetic to these reasons.

Damion referenced the idea that a for of a grind in racing games may require you to play the single player game in order to unlock the multiplayer – intended to combat rentals and encourage purchase instead. But why should a player care about those things? Often times, they don’t. They just feel like they’re stuck in a grind for no reason.

The grind is a matter of perception – To players that want to raid, the level game is a grind. To those who don’t’ care about raiding, leveling IS the game.

One of the nice things about TOR is that we gave every class their own class story and one of the nice things about that is in terms of the replay factor that every class has a certain amount of novelty snide their game experience when they’re leveling up. So at least that much of the experience is fresh when you decide to replay the game.

Grindy content is usually seen as inferior by most of your players, and they’re usually right.

Grinding is sometimes ok – or even necessary. We legitimately want to have crafters work for their craft so that those devoted to it can feel special and are not competing with anybody who wants to knit a pair of socks. That’s a legitimate reason to but in a grind. Is there a more interesting way? Maybe.

Not all grinds are bad. The push for a mount at level 40 in WoW and earring your last name in EverQuest were both sited as examples that are extrinsic rewards that bordered on intrinsic because of the way the grind was presented.

In early tests of TOR, players were overwhelmed with the amount of story quests presented to them at one time, making it feel kind of grindy. So we got rid of the bad quests and also spaced them out, instead of putting them all together in a town. But then, we found out we didn’t have enough objectives, so we added what we call Bonus Quests… These are quests that you get on the fly.  For example, while you’re killing stormtroopers for one quest, another quest pops up on your tracker that asks you to kill some lieutenants too – no story, they solely exist to give you more goals in the direction you’re already going… they are little tiny grinds. But the important thing is that this simpler content allowed our gold-stadard content – our class quests – to breathe and allowed players to really process it and allowed the story to really shine, and that is something that was really important to us

Don’t ask players to kill 5000 of something. It’s not necessarily bad to have things where layers can prove their devotion, but you want to put those off of the main path so they feel they had to dig for it (and you don’t freak everyone else out.) The classic example was the Bloodsail Admiral’s Hat in World of Warcraft. People that want to do these things are often the pillars of our community and we want to give them these places to prove they are different – but we don’t want to give them sticker shock.

Having multiple avenues for progress smears the player is always close to progress somewhere.

In reference to offline grinds, giving the players a little something for free when they log in is a nice little welcome back. And also a way to encourage to log off from time to time.

Increased death penalties, while desired by some designers and some players, discourage layers to take chances or explore places.

MMOs used to have social grinds, in that in order to level up you had to find friends. We’ve retired that concept partially (not entirely) in our games.

Do you really need to occupy as much of the players time as you think you do? Do you really need 500 hours to reach max level? Can it be done in 50? Are daily play sessions healthy? Or is an optimal login once a week?

A lot of us are trying to build really cool end game content, to us that’s the secret sauce. Is your grind keeping people from seeing the content you really want them to see?

Your competitor’s grinds are an opportunity for game designers. You can give the milk away for free. This is the reason these grinds have been getting easier over time.

This is not to say that if we remove or soften the grinds that we need to abandon the hard core, it just means that we need to be sure that we have stuff targeted toward the hard core to keep them happy.

The grind is not always bad, but players will perceive it that way. Designers have to understand that players will operate from that viewpoint and work from there.

Slide Gallery

  1. Great article! I *hate* grinding, and I don’t really care about min/mixing my stats and gear, so I tent to just start an ALT instead of grinding. The introduction of Radiance Gating for Raining in LOTRO, for example, basically caused me to stop playing, since even f I got to CAP, I would never do the required grind to be able to raid with my friends. I’m glad that’s gone now, actually :p

    • Lethality says:

      Yeah, The BioWare guys are serious about not wanting players to feel like they HAVE to do something… so they’re putting a lot of effort into making it all feel like fun and not putting anything “tasty” behind something that’s unnecessarily “grindy”.

      I’m confident there won’t be any grind in the game that will be there “just because” and where there is, it will make sense in the context of the goal.

  2. cdstephens says:

    Why ARE there dips in that graph?

    • Just a hunch, but those dips are right before milestones in progress: people used to get their first mount at lvl 40 (first dip), and a faster one at lvl 60 (second dip).
      lvl 60 was also WoW Vanilla levelcap, so that was some goal people felt to be “within their grasp” when they got near. So reduce the time to get there a little bit, and people will play more to reach it, because it feels so easy, as if they’ve “mastered the game”. With this, you alter their playing habits, and make them a little more addicted to the game.

  3. I have never seen an article with the word “grind” used so many times in my life!

    Anyway, it looks good. I love how its shaping up and it looks like it may actually compete with Guild Wars 2. Because Guild Wars 2’s quest system and open event system looks and sounds good.

    I am, however, curious about the part where he talks about the leveling time. I’m game for a shorter leveling time, especially with a game like SW:TOR where story matters and the replayability will be good. But how short are they going to make it? 50 Hours seems way to short for an MMO. 100-150 would be good. I guess, but that also depends on the amount of end game content they have, if it will be fun, and how long the story they’ll be giving us will be.

    • Lethality says:

      Judging by the way Damion was speaking, he’s also aware that you never want to make it too short. He felt they did that with Shadowbane (I never played it.) I think they’ll find the sweet spot with TOR.

  4. Very good writeup. I’ll definitely be referring to this article. Thanks!

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