I think that a lot of us have been at a certain point in video games. The bottom of the grind valley. That dreaded moment where you put hours into getting that one item, build, or level threshold and you look forward to the next slope to climb. Yeah, behind you is where you finally got that carrot, but man oh man does the carrot up the next hill look so much tastier. So get climbing for that carrot again, right? But you just put hours into getting THIS carrot.
Whether your preferred carrot farming method is shooting bad guys, dungeon crawling, or walking back and forth over and over to get the next random encounter, there is one core fact. Grinding, by itself, is not fun. The payoff for the action of grinding is what likely keeps you going. Whether it’s getting a level upgrade, new equipment, or just trying to break that RPG, the payoff drives the long, potentially monotonous grind.
That being said, gosh darn it, I love a good grind in a game. I was that kid who would circle a town in an RPG for hours just to save up for that new shiny weapon or armor, in spite of the fact that I was about 90 percent sure that whatever I bought would be immediately invalidated in the next dungeon. Was walking around that town for an hour or four fun? No. Was fighting monsters from the same four encounter pool over and over fun? Nope. Did I get sick of hearing the overworld theme of those RPGs and possibly hear them in my sleep? Hahahaha… Is someone playing Dragon Quest right now? But did I regret going through this process to get that shiny, new, totally replaceable thing? Not in the slightest. Why?
It’s because it was something to work towards, the proverbial carrot on the stick that takes many forms in video games. Some gamers see the carrot as the story, others a difficulty curve, and for others, it’s all about seeing that stat number go up. Granted, the last one often makes players temporarily forget about exactly where they are in a story, and it does an exceptional job of kneecapping the living daylights out of difficulty curves (especially in any turn-based RPG format). But man, does it feel good to see that strength stat go up, that new weapon obliterate enemies, or see that struggling party member hilariously one shotting adversaries with a new skill.
At the end of the day, when you play a game where numbers are a core representation of your character’s power, it feels good to see those numbers go up. Now, there are certainly tiers to where an individual tends to sit on the grinding spectrum.
The most common tier would be the least involved one, as the act of grinding is not that fun. The people engaging in this level are likely trying to grind for the sake of progression. Buffing up for that boss that came out of nowhere and wiped their party, or that area that just has a few too many, too common enemies that give you a hassle. This tier is mostly fueled by the first two carrots I mentioned, the story and difficulty curve. That curve suddenly got a bump, and you need to see what’s happening next.
The next tier of grinders is those that have been preemptively trying to stay ahead of the curve to avoid any forced detours on their consumption of the game’s story. The story is still a main focus, but they view the difficulty curve of a game as a looming threat that can be avoided with a little preparation. As in the first tier, the story is a driving motivation, and the curve is being taken into consideration, but instead of being forced to grind, the player is doing it of their own volition. These two tiers can be occupied by the same players a fair amount of the time. One can consistently stay in one group, but I think a lot of us have been in one of the two following scenarios:
Boss A was a nightmare, and I had to grind a ton and absolutely wrecked it, then I sailed through the next area with no issue and rocked Boss B.
Boss A was no problem whatsoever, well, time to inhale this story and push over to Boss B, and proceed to get stomped.
I have been on both sides of the scenario and bounced between the first two tiers of grinders. Depending on the game itself it can be more common to rest on one mindset or the other depending on the game’s progression by itself.
The third tier is those that the number progression takes a more central focus. The moment where you see that new skill or weapon on the horizon and aim for it just to have it. Are you struggling with any road bumps at this point? Probably not if you’re in this mindset. You’re not getting blocked from progression, but damn, that shiny thing over there looks super cool. The story still matters, and that difficulty curve is still looming, but from much further away.
A base example of this mindset can be found in Pokemon games. Your Charmeleon has been tearing through battles. Though, you did just hit level 33, which is just so close to 36 and evolving into Charizard. So instead of progressing through the game and tackling the grass type gym that would give you no issue, you grind.
Next up are the players who attribute hitting max level to completing the game. Could they beat the game right now? Oh yeah, like 20 levels ago, but they want to complete everything, and that includes offing that final boss and not getting a pip of experience from it. For these players, just hitting the end credits of the game is not true completion. These players want to be 100 percent done with the game, whether it be in experiencing the story or seeing the end results of their character’s progression.
The final tier is likely more irrational than the previous one, but not to be invalidated. This is your Metal Slime, your Audino, your king of experience. The players who get that leveling progression handed to them and go “Oh, I’m going to finish this NOW.” You have seen the articles, heard the rumors. Those people who hit max level on Aeris in FF7, or in a starting area in World of Warcraft. These people see that experience mountain and immediately go “I’m going to climb that.”
At the end of the day, all that matters is that you have fun with the game that you’re playing. Whether it be by engaging in the story, the gameplay, or the feeling of getting to Viridian City with a level 100 Pidgey and invalidating the progression altogether.