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Overstuffed: Back to the daily grind

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My mind is telling me no, but my body is telling me yes!

[As he is often wont to do, Cedi gets at the subject of overstuffing one's self in games with the thought and analysis worthy of a scientific journal. Today's topic: Grinding in RPGs/mobile games! Do you, like Cedi and countless others, find yourself compelled to grind just to get so OP that you wipe that flamboyant grin off Kuja's face? Let us know in the comments! And while you're at it, contribute to our Bloggers Wanted prompt, where the Dtoid staff could find its front page overstuffed with user blogs! - Wes]

Level grinding is a very curious thing. Many times when critics refer to grinding in RPGs, it’s a complaint. Yet grinding has remained a staple mechanic of effectively every game within the genre, and even several games outside of it, for decades. It seems weird, doesn’t it?

The concept itself was borrowed from tabletop RPGs, which are built around characters growing stronger from completing encounters. Yet the vast majority of GMs don’t want players to be too strong or too weak for any given plot climax, so they always orchestrate encounters in such a way to provide just enough EXP or loot for their desired difficulty curve. Most video games don’t have the luxury of being GMed by a human brain, so they’ve instead settled into the trend of repeating encounters which (traditionally) never diminish. Strange how such a tiny change completely alters the dynamic of what EXP and leveling up means in two otherwise similar mediums, isn’t it? I myself am no exception to the trap of the grind. I’ve repetitively mashed buttons for hours, days, sometimes even weeks just to get a few more points into my stats. Too many for any practical purpose, for sure.

And yet even when it’s obviously too much, I feel as if I can’t get enough of it. Not in traditional RPGs, not in mobile games, not in Dynasty Warriors games, not in…anything.

RPG fans are intimately familiar with the feedback loop of grinding. You do stuff (which, 99% of the time, is defeating enemies) to fill your EXP bars. Fill the bars enough, you gain a level. You gain a level, you gain a bunch of stats, possibly with other bonuses, which make it easier to do stuff like defeating enemies. So you do more stuff and, after a longer time or with more effort, your EXP bar is full again. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a classic dopamine-fueled cycle of effort and reward feeding into each other. Usually, grinding is used as a means to an end, such as catching up with the difficulty curve of a powerful boss enemy, but it’s common to hear of people grinding for its own sake.

People often grind by seeking encounters in areas that aren’t too strong for them to clear. Repeatedly clearing such enemies is usually a low-risk, low-stress activity, since the party can probably spam basic techniques to easily clear basic enemies. Alternatively, the player might pursue more challenging foes that require more effort - such as the Elite Four in most Pokémon postgames - but the repetition will cause them to form habits and patterns that consistently lead them to victories, thus making it similarly trivial in practice. In either case, the lack of stress tends to make grinding a calming activity.

It’s easy to zone out and just fall into the motions, trading the high stakes of a climactic battle for a calm before the storm. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on things, take it easy, maybe multitask a little on the side while you hammer away at buttons or let Auto Battle do it’s thing. It’s like when you just take a moment and relax on a sofa or grab a drink; you’re taking a break from all the stressful things around you to make yourself more willing and able to face them later. I’ve watched many Twitch streams that just consist of players grinding as they chat with their audiences, and they’re a great way to unwind after a tiring day of work!

Another contributing factor to this habit, at least for me, is rooted in my love of shonen-style character growth. I enjoy seeing the weak become the strong. I enjoy nurturing the underdogs into the leaders of the pack. Struggling against increasingly greater challenges, discovering hidden strengths and abilities…gaining something from every little victory, progressing towards greater feats. Seeing arduous effort rewarded. Watching stats rise, skyrocket, multiply all the time! Me and my allies transforming into an overwhelmingly powerful team that can curbstomp the most threatening armies in the world! Kyaaaaaaaaaaaa!

You know, just that intrinsic human desire of striving to improve.

For these reasons, grinding is a rewarding and relaxing aspect of RPGs that moderates the pace of a game. It sounds fun, right? Well…let’s not beat around the bush anymore, most gamers already know why grinding is looked down upon by so many. Oftentimes, it’s an arbitrary limitation that forces repetition to surpass number-based walls, rewarding time invested more than skill. As for why the process itself isn’t fun? If you sit on a couch doing nothing long enough, your attitude begins to shift from relaxed to bored. And if you grind for a very long period of time? It’s so mind-numbingly dull you want to step away from it all.

And yet, even when I’m bored out of my skull by grinding? I keep telling myself to push on farther, until I hit a point where I feel I need to remove the game from my console.

Nippon Ichi Software develops a lot of RPGs that tout themselves for their grindiness, most iconically the Disgaea series. I love these games’ over-the-top style and gameplay, indulging in their creative worlds and creating my own armies of demonic "heroes." But boy, the advertisements aren’t kidding, these games do so much to spur me to grind. I can grind character levels. I can grind Mana to fund special features and upgrades. I can grind HL to fund new equipment and new party members. I can grind skill levels to make individual skills more powerful. I can grind stat-raising items to empower my favorite units further still. I can grind inside of my own equipment to make it more powerful. Everything you can think of and then some has a grinding aspect to it, creating multiple feedback loops that interconnect and overlap with each other. And it is exhausting.

More importantly for my case, Disgaea veterans often tell me these mechanics are structured in a way that mostly rewards overpowering a single character. But personally, I have no interest in making only one overpowered unit; I want a personal army of overpowered units! So I invest even more hours and days and weeks into trying to grind up my forces for the next big challenge! And what’s that you tell me? The Winged Warrior is a far underpowered class? Fudge that, I’m gonna transform this underdog into the strongest Overlord the Netherworld has ever seen no matter how much extra time it takes!

I convince myself to keep grinding even when I already have a team more than strong enough for the next story chapter, because I want to be ready for the next several battles after that! I tried so hard to overprepare myself that I end up burning myself out before I actually attempt to continue the plot! Even to this day, I’m still only at, like…Chapter 5 or so in Disgaea 5? And I never got much farther than that, if any, in Disgaea DS. I want to continue playing these games. I’ve enjoyed so much of my time with them, and I believe someday I will get back to them…but thanks to my grinding habits and the exhausting note they last left me on with these games, I struggle to find the motivation to do that at this point in time.

Yet somehow, I remain capable of consistently returning to another series (in)famed for its repetitive and grindy nature, Dynasty Warriors and its countless spinoffs. I think the big reason why is how the gameplay differs so much. It’s a very active type of game that often asks the player to juggle multiple tasks, and playing as different characters often brings different playstyles that radically break up the monotony of these tasks. While I am, in essence, doing the same thing for countless hours on end? I feel as if these games are always challenging me to find the most efficient ways to clear waves of mooks and protect my defensive objectives, given different variables in my moveset and the battlefield around me. It’s still repetitive, but it doesn’t feel as repetitive as it looks.

That still hasn’t saved me from burnout altogether. Hyrule Warriors is my favorite Warriors game by far, thanks in part to the Adventure Maps. It’s also a huge grind to 100% complete thanks to the Adventure Maps. There are so many different battles with slight variations that throw just enough wrinkles into the gameplay to feel distinct, yet remain similar enough to still fall into the same pattern as grinding. For the first several dozen hours, it’s a blast to discover new weapons and characters to play with and explore new battle rules! But there is still an overwhelming amount of repetitive content.

By the time you reach the end of the first map, obtaining every piece of loot becomes walled off by enemies who can ruin your S rank rewards within a few attacks, if not just one. The best way to counter that, unfortunately, is to grind enough so that your attack power overwhelms them just as much. Even with all of the helpful updates to expedite the forging of an ultimate weapon and the creation of new Badges and the training to level 99 (or rather, level 255 now!), it’s an extremely long journey to get the characters needed for 100% Adventure Map completion up to that point. I’ve managed to come far closer to clearing everything than I first thought I would - perhaps someday I actually will complete it - but probably not until 2019, if even that soon. I just keep burning myself out every time I go back to it, no matter how much fun I have. And I have a lot of fun with Warriors games, as my past blogs can testify. That’s just how hot the grindstone gets with the series.

And then there’s mobile gacha RPGs! I’ve already written at length what I think about them and why I enjoy them despite their controversies, but if there’s one of their trappings I can’t seem to escape, it’s the eternal grind. Always getting new characters I need to raise to the level cap. Always encountering new repetitive quests with valuable freemium currency as a reward. Always stumbling into limited-time events that give event-only rewards my teams can benefit from. Especially those events! Do you know how many hours you need to pour into these games to actually get every significant prize from them? The dozens of Raids in Granblue Fantasy you need to host to obtain and fully uncap the event exclusive SSR weapons? The hundreds of [insert event-flavored loot here] to get character level cap extensions in Tales of the Rays? The countless Tempest Trials you must clear to obtain every new event item and character in Fire Emblem Heroes!?

…Actually, FEH added a twice-a-day bonus multiplier to Tempest Trial runs, so that cuts down on grinding a ton. But everything else in that game! I grind so much, a part of me is actually grateful when my Stamina depletes so I can more easily divert my attention elsewhere!

Even as I’m writing this, I’m trying to grind enough Tough Lens in Tales of the Rays to afford myself a Stahn Nexus Shard. And I’m planning on temporarily uninstalling the game immediately after I accomplish that so I can make room for other apps! I am grinding for a game I'm planning to go on hiatus for. Well, I’m doing it in part because if I don’t do that first, I won’t get to use these items when I re-install later, but the fact remains that I’m choosing to grind instead of freeing up my phone space immediately. That says a lot about my tendency for grinding in mobile games.

I get into these games in the first place because they always do something fun. I don’t like to keep playing a game if I expect that it only becomes fun later. If I play a game that I’m not having fun with on its own merits, I abandon it with no remorse. That’s what I did with Dragon Coins, which has very little to it other than the novelty of using a coin pusher machine as an RPG battle system.

By contrast, Tales of the Rays plays almost much like a traditional Tales game, condensed for mobile phones. When I’m not grinding, it’s a fun and challenging thrill to command my little fighters to victory in active combat with careful strategies and skillful combos, even against foes with a far higher Pow. Lv than my team! Even the cutscenes are interesting to watch and read! But the timed events command so much of my schedule to get everything of value that at times, it’s far more practical to leave the game running on Auto as I type this blog out. At that point, I’m doing it for the end result, not to enjoy the journey. And that’s the point where I become overstuffed with grinding.

Am I ever going to stop grinding altogether in games? I don’t think so, and I don’t want to either. Like enjoying good food, this mechanic has an intrinsic appeal to my tastes that I proudly embrace. But am I ever going to stop overstuffing myself with grinding? I don’t know, but I’m reflecting on my tendencies now because I want to improve upon them. I enjoy gaming as an opportunity to explore and indulge in other worlds; not necessarily as a vehicle for escapism, but to gain creative experiences.

The fact that I’ve played certain games so much that I shy away from them as if they are chores runs counter to my goal in enjoying games. I’ve done a ton of fun time-wasting things in games because they are exactly that; fun. That’s the only thing I need to justify playing games. That’s why we call it playing games. But when the things you normally find fun start to taste a little stale? It’s a better idea to put down your plate and wait for your stomach to settle, rather than try to force it all down right away. You’ll enjoy finishing your meal much more that way.


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Yo! My real name is Christopher, but you can call me Cedi here! Obligatory disclaimer; my avatar and banner is art I commissioned Twitter user @kaizer33226 to make. Check him out if you have the ... more + disclosures


 



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