The grinding safety-net

So I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni lately, and for the most part it’s a lovely experience, until you get to the combat. The trouble is that it claims to have both skill-based gameplay, as well as grindy/time investment type gameplay.

To explain, in skill-based games players rely on their own ability or understanding to succeed. however in time-investment/grinding games, the only thing a player must do to succeed is invest time. so long as the player has more time to spare they can grind whatever variable is holding them back until the chances of victory approach 1.

Few games are *purely* about time-investment, though some come close. Even the most grind-heavy J-RPG tends to have systems where certain attacks are better in certain situations, party formations impact performance and so-on. But even with the perfect strategy and technique, Sephiroth is going to win every time if I fight him at the level I start the game at.


The entire point of grinding/levelling systems is so *anyone* can win, it’s a self-adjusting system for varying skill (in theory); players who struggle using skill alone  can grind a little and have an easier time playing with their skills, or grind further and not have to worry about the skill challenge at all. (In this respect; grinding is like a difficulty setting in the options menu, except takes hours to adjust.)


If you look at the history of grinding in games, it sort of makes sense; it’s a way to represent a character becoming more experienced over the course of the game, and prevents them from overcoming certain obstacles until the character is suitably experienced. It’d be like if a hero in a movie stepped onto the dance floor for the first time, won the trophy right away and never had the training montage. (In this respect; grinding is like a training montage from a movie, except it takes hours to watch.)


The thing is, though characters may not have it early on in the game, many players do have the experience required to overcome the obstacles already. I spent many, many hours grinding in many, many games. I already know if you don’t equip the right accessory when you face an enemy with a bunch of status-effect inducing spells you’re gonna have a bad time. But little Oliver, he doesn’t know that. He still has to grind, he still has to collect that experience until he becomes anywhere as close to a master wizard as I am. This kinda sucks for me.


But here’s the thing; almost nobody is using time investment/grinding for the purposes of conveying ‘narrative of character improvement’, or even as a difficulty setting; it’s a safety net for designers.

You can make the game you think sounds cool, “it’s all about skill and tactics and stuff”. but you implement a levelling system so that when you screw up your design players can just grind a little, to improve the odds and get through that skill bottleneck that you didn’t have time to fix. This is precisely what it does in Ni No Kuni and so many other games. Narrative-wise, Oliver is a great wizard because it is his fate and <spoilers>it’s in his blood</spoilers>; the kid doesn’t *need* experience. Grinding serves no mechanical purpose, other than to allow players to up the victory odds because the skill-based part of the combat is massively flawed.


Whenever I see levelling up in a game these days, I consider it as an admission of failure. “I know *players* can’t improve as they play the game, so I added grinding” or “The game doesn’t take as long as I want it to take, so I added grinding”, perhaps “I couldn’t make a consistent skill-requirement throughout the game like I wanted, so I added grinding” or maybe even the worst “Every other game was doing it, so I added grinding”


There’s simply no good argument *for* levelling up mechanics in a video game.

  • As a difficulty safety-net so anyone can finish the game; if anyone can finish, why force weaker players to waste more time to progress?
  • As a narrative technique; Do it like the movies do montages; keep it short, address that it happened and then let the players get on without having to do repetitive nonsense.
  • As padding to keep the game longer; fuck you and wanting to waste people’s time, don’t you know your players are all going to die someday? Why are you wasting their precious moments alive?

There is one thing I’ll say for grinding; it’s realistic. Everything I have gotten good at in life I grinded to get my own skills there. To be able to make games in a weekend without a second thought has taken thousands of hours screwing around with code, studying and experimenting. Same with drawing, 3D modelling, and even getting amazingly exceptionally good at pure skill-based games (hello SSX, guitar hero etc).

But I don’t get into games for realism (usually). Games don’t start at the ‘beginning’ usually after all. all the characters tend to at least have made it through puberty; there’s no playing Vaan as a baby, collecting experience every time he shits himself until he’s a high enough level to hold it in and use a toilet. We can just take it as read he has that experience and get on with playing the game. We players don’t need to experience it *all* with him, and the same is true for ‘gaining experience’. If we need to see the characters (as opposed to the player) get get more skilled, montage that shit! Games don’t have to be so… ‘narratively real-time’, give Thirty Flights of Loving a go to see what I mean. There are cuts in it much like you see in movies, there’s no reason Cloud couldn’t walk into a dojo someplace and walk out tougher seconds later in player-time. Or even have him walk away from any battle with the strength required to overcome the next one.

But this is besides the point really, it only helps solve the issue of wasting players time. My real point is if you’re going to have skill-based gameplay, don’t make it redundant through grinding, get rid of that safety net.

Let’s look at Dark Souls (I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to pull design tips from Dark Souls at this point but you’ll get over it). You can beat Dark Souls at level one. You don’t have to, but you can. You can grind to make it easier on yourself, but because grinding is entirely optional it means the skill-based play aspects are working just fine. The safety net is there if players want it, but they can totally play skill-only if they want.

Compare Ni No Kuni; You automatically level up as you play so level one runs are impossible, but that’s not the problem. The real problem is there is no way in hell you finish the game without grinding. If you just run through the story you will come against enemies that can’t be beaten until you are a higher level. The game has skill-based play during battles but it’s all irrelevant; at high levels you win whatever, at low levels you can’t win at all, and in-between you need to rely on luck because the core combat system itself is massively flawed.

If your skill-based gameplay doesn’t add anything to the game; take it out. Take it right out of there, you’re mocking the player by leaving it in. There is little more frustrating than being told “it is within your power to effect the outcome” when any possible action is going to result in failure.

So, some final summary to tie this up I guess;

– Using Level-up mechanics as a safety net is admitting your game is broken, grinding is a quick-fix that makes players suffer for it.

– Don’t be afraid separate the character and the player for a time, the player doesn’t need to be there as the character builds up their muscles/reflexes/whatever

– If you have a skill-based system, it only counts if the player can win using their skill alone, otherwise it’s a grinding system with crap tacked on to hide how ugly it is.

– A player’s time is valuable, don’t force them to do the same stuff over and over to progress. (if it’s fun to do repetitive bullshit, they will opt to do it themselves, heck knows how many times I’ve dropped down zombies with jetpacks)

just some stuff to think about 🙂

21 Comments on “The grinding safety-net”

  1. Kimiko says:

    Hmm. I dunno.

    – Not every game maker has the skill (or time) to make proper balanced mechanics.

    – Games are more effective at stories because the player is there with the character, guiding the character’s hand. A training montage (or cutscene for that matter) just isn’t the same.

    – Remember that saying ‘life is what happens while you’re busy making plans’? Playing a game is what happens while you’re busy grinding. The game is not just the story or the mechanics. Some repetition is also part of gaming. Why else would people still play sports if they already know how to hit a ball?

    Just some counter-considerations.

    • Sophie says:

      -Not every game maker has the skill (or time) to make proper balanced mechanics.
      like I say, it’s an admission of failure to use levelling up to cover the gaps in your design

      – Games are more effective at stories because the player is there with the character, guiding the character’s hand. A training montage (or cutscene for that matter) just isn’t the same.

      this is true, but beating the same type of enemy over the head a hundred times because it yields the most exp isn’t a way to build a relationship with a character, unless that relationship is stockholm syndrome 😛

      – Remember that saying ‘life is what happens while you’re busy making plans’? Playing a game is what happens while you’re busy grinding. The game is not just the story or the mechanics. Some repetition is also part of gaming. Why else would people still play sports if they already know how to hit a ball?

      Like I say in the post; if people want to do it over and over for it’s own sake they will, don’t make it compulsory 🙂

  2. st33d says:

    So Brogue removed levelling. And it became a rather good stealth game.

    But I had no reward for murdering things anymore. This is fundamentally why I like experience points, they’re my reward for bludgeoning an imaginary person to death – what’s more, I get extra points for finishing off their family.

    Conversely I hated the levelling and grinding in Bastion.

    So I think levelling is really just a mechanic, not a crutch, or a necessity.

  3. Leshy says:

    I think that saying, there is no good argument for leveling up mechanics in a video game, is being a bit too harsh. After all a leveling mechanic does not equal grinding.

    A great example of a game of having both a leveling up system and a skill system with *no* grinding at all is Deus Ex (all three of them :D). You could finish the game without augmenting your character at all, but doing so made some challenges easier and more importantly opened totally new possibilities for you.

    For me a good character progression mechanic is a base for a great game. Without it most games show everything they’ve got in the first 30 minutes.

    BTW. “Games don’t start at the ‘beginning’ usually after all” – I couldn’t help thinking of Fallout 3 😉

    • Sophie says:

      it’s true I’m being particularly harsh on levelling up mechanics, but most often they are harsh on me so fair’s fair 😛

      as for fallout, you didn’t play the whole childhood, so it’s a good example of how cuts in narrative-time work well in player-time 🙂

  4. Micah says:

    FFVII was the first J-RPG I ever played, and I had no idea what I was doing. So instead of figuring out how Materia worked, I spent FOREVER grinding in Midgar and using weak-ass potions every other turn.

    But when I finally stepped onto the Overworld Map (which I didn’t see coming at all), it was a really powerful moment. Because I had spent so much time wandering around a filthy, oppressive world, and suddenly there were pretty colors, and I could go wherever I wanted (sort of). That’s what I remember most about FFVII.

    This kind of goes back to your post on surprise in games. I’m not trying to make an argument for level grinding. But sometimes I feel that all games mechanics are a waste of time, if the only reward they provide is more variations on the same mechanic. Skill-based games can be hollow and monotonous, too. If the only reward they give you for mastering them is more skill-based challenges.

    I do agree that most level-grinding comes from a lack of consideration for the player. But I think it can also be used to provide meaningful gaming experiences, because it’s a way of cultivating expectations. And any time you have expectation, you have the potential for surprise.

  5. Ezra says:

    This is a big part of why I’m so stoked for Toki Tori 2: the character’s powers stay the same for the whole game; by the end you can do a lot more, but it’s all techniques the player has learned.

  6. And what about ‘fixed’ level-up systems such as the one in Chrono Cross ? You level up through boss battles, while you gain minor stat boosts from fighting normal ennemies (up to a point).

    There is also a range of gamers who like levelling up for the sake of levelling up, as in ‘seeing numbers go higher’.

    I think level systems should not be dismissed as a whole, even in games like Ni no Kuni (the grinding is a bit excessive, but the semi-real time combat still makes you feel a rush when you kill a boss if you are not *too* over-powered).

  7. KfZ says:

    Grinding is fun. Leave my JRPGs alone!

  8. arkades says:

    I agree with a lot of your points, and still fundamentally disagree. I think, with an example of something like Deus Ex 1, leveling that modulates difficulty is the problem.

    IMO, “good” leveling doesn’t modulate difficulty – it opens up new abilities/approaches, thus expanding the set of the player’s *options*. Essentially, a skill-tree should be a mechanism for enabling player agency by allowing customization, *not* something that replaces skill.

    I do, sadly, recognize that this approach to leveling is rarely used.

    • DJJoeJoe says:

      The easiest or simplest way to do that seems to be to only give Abilities to the player through leveling, rather than any sort of stat boosts. Or stat boosts only when they convey new ways of navigating the game, like small health increases to complement an more action skill approach, ideally along the way the player unlocks action abilities to tie into that.

  9. Mike says:

    I think leveling based systems shows you numerically that your character power is growing, not just to make “everyone” be able to win

  10. DJJoeJoe says:

    I very much enjoy that weird feeling you get when aquiring new ‘gear’ for your player character or group of characters you’re managing, there’s something to the loot angle and it’s hard to design a game with ever enticing loot without also carrying it along the grinding level progression traditions of past games. Most of the time leveling is pointless and actually boring, the player often mistakes the addiction loop for ‘fun’ or enjoyment and continues doing it in between stuff actually happening in the game when really all that leveling could be cut out for minimal lose… of course to simply cut that out you have to actually do it smartly, and in a way that hasn’t been seen in a video game often (or ever?). Thirty Flights of Loving aside, I’d love to see a game that melds mature direction in it’s pacing that circumvents traditional time investment and grinding, but keeps the joys of visual and stat progression specifically through loot acquirement.

  11. Matt says:

    I agree completely. Allow me to add a thought you brought to mind.

    It’s not that all delays to gratification are bad, it’s that the delay better bring some fun to the table. You mention the training montage a lot, but keep in mind the training montage also takes up time. They are meant to condense real time, but why not cut it out entirely and just put “10 years later” at the bottom of the screen and show your hero looking tougher and more like a badass? The answer is because, conveying that feeling of time spent has a value. Doing it in a way that also injects character development, humor, and excitement adds to that value. There’s nothing wrong with saying “you will need to take some time to get from point A to point B” if that time is spent developing the narrative, building on the experience for the player, or simply doing fun and interesting things. A perfect example is Shadow of the Colossus. I can’t just jump in the game and go fight the boss, even though there are no leveling requirements. To beat the final guy, I have to fight 15 others first. A few of those might have been padding, but there’s a narrative arc to the repetition. There’s narrative purpose to the long quiet moments spent traveling the bleak landscape. The first colossus you kill feels like a victory over evil. By the sixth, you feel like the jerk, and by the twelfth you’re dying to know what lies at the end of your quest. By the time the game is over, it feels like an epic experience, you have (as a player) learned some skills, and you feel like you’re in a different place than where you started. The repetition isn’t a problem there because the process is enjoyable enough to justify it.

  12. kentona says:

    I dunno… I think that RPGs are a blend of a time management/resource game and a strategy game, and it seems to me that you want to cut out half of the genre! (and if that’s the case, might as well switch to games that cater to that more to that specific genre, like Starcraft or whaterver – where the resource gathering is minimal compared to the stratergerizing). The time/resource management half of an RPG isn’t a “safety net” inasmuch as it is “core gameplay”.

    Just because someone has done a bad implementation of the time management side of the RPG equation, doesn’t mean the concept is without merit. (Personally, I enjoy the time/resource management side of the genre more than the actual battles).

    Basically, I heartily disagree with the conclusions you have drawn!

    • Sophie says:

      i dunno, time management is one thing, but I prefer if I’m managing virtual time. at least then if I’m not playing optimally, it’s less of my *real life* that I’ve wasted 😛

  13. Akira L says:

    I thought I loved to level up but then realised there was a sweet spot, in-between the all-powerful Viewtiful God Hand and Acolyte a just north of mid level tables looking into the big leagues at Dante Must Die no sweat speedrun but knowing I’m not there yet, I’m going. There’s 3 islands open but I haven’t unlocked the tank yet; there’s still shit to do, with a bit of skill instead of turning up at an escort mission in a tank.

    It’s the feeling of competence which is very hard to nail. Players have very different skill levels so without making a game derivative or simple to a fault I believe the grind is an easy achievement. I have long loved Max Payne 1 & 2’s approach to longevity; great gameplay mechanics increased in longevity by finding more weapons and harder or more time constrained difficulty levels. I spent little time in Payne’s 3rd attempt online. Levelling up to become more badass is an insult to the badass nature of the character Max. I will however jump thru the window in the nightclub level endlessly as I chart my own progress visually, using my own barometer of cool, my own score out of ten for how awesome that run was, because, the run has been achievable from the outset. It can be accentuated with new costumes or have parameters changed by different weapon sets but Max could always do it, if he tried hard enough. When I got good, Max just did it cooler.

    I found a guide to Harvest Moon outlining what you should and should not do, and also what within the game is “irrelevant” (see sec 12)
    I’d hope that nothing in a game was irrelevant (bar in games adverts) to the game experience. Harvest Moon, a grind but, like Viva Piñata, a game of constant montage to be grinded thru just for the journey, which is possibly why there’s a distinct lack of boss battles in both.

    Some things are to be won and some things are to be enjoyed. That’s why I don’t play CoD after CoDMW, there were no winners to war, especially when the aim was Prestige by an odd combination of skill and grind. People were there for a multitude of reasons (high levels, kill streaks, team based play, drunk, solo play, weapon unlocks) and the game had a hateful feel to it at times, an anger at the confusion of a kill, rectified by killcam which then bore another angle to play

    I don’t think the grind will leave us or be used in more meaningful ways, especially not with the rise in social gaming that increasingly resembles a gambling/casino type business model; the grind will be used to bait the whale

    My interest has always been piqued by the indie scene, if there’s anything that’s guaranteed to save (game)playtime from homogenised, yearly sequel nonsense it’s you folk. Today it was great to find out that someone else cared about grinding so much as to write about it at length, thoughtfully and eloquently and to find out you make games too is a bonus as based on that, I’m off to find some of your games to play.

  14. Rui Castro says:

    I love tactical rpgs, but I have always felt that grinding is like cheating. If I want to feel good of my achievement, that I won the battle with the best of my skills and finished with a efficient turn count, less damage possible, kill the most units in a battle, grinding is just out of the question. R-Type Tactics had a interesting feature, pilots did get some more experience but it had a cap/limit. It was more like you were healing your pilots, it just gave you just a little edge. But sadly it had another problem, resource grinding 🙁 , to buy better ships. I won the whole game without grinding resources, its a question of good resource management.

    Another question is, after I win my battles, I post my scores. How can I distinct a player that grinds and another that did at his first try? Almost like real life LOL which is a problem we have in society.

    I’ve heard the new trpg Super Robot Wars has a stats tracker. It will record how many tries you played that battle, now perhaps thats the solution for grinding? Grinding and get worst scores and don’t grind and be the best. Oh I do believe TRPG’s need a score system. Ops, damn thoses that reset the game to start there stats from zero LOL

  15. Gabriel says:

    Wonderful post! I agree with all these flaws in the way grinding is usually implemented. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately…

    There seem to be ways to combine skill-based gameplay and grinding in meaninful ways, although they are clearly not the rule. Ultimately I think it befalls on the outer game structure in which both the skill based mechanic and the grinded stats are inserted. Basically, you could frame the skill based aspect as in “how far can you get with your current level?”, and after this is answered, the player gets his stats boosts and is asked the same question again, this time probably being able to advance a little further due to new stats and seeing some new content, but again in a way where his play is framed by “how far you can get” that gives meaning to the skill aspect. One other way to put is that there is probably a way to get rid of the bad aspects of grinding while keeping the pleasure of increased stats… I have no answers, these are just things I’ve been thinking a lot lately 🙂

    One example of a counter intuitive implementation of grinding is Rogue Legacy, where the skill component determines how fast you can level, and basically that is what the game is about. It’s strange how both the skill aspect and the grinding aspect are very rewarding in that game.

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