Grinding is something that nearly every game player is familiar with at one point or another. Grinding is best known from JRPGs and MMOs, and is almost universally reviled.
First, I’m gonna define what grinding is so we can all be clear on terms. Grinding is the repetition of a relatively simple series of actions that do not directly advance the game.
In an article on Critical Gaming, KirbyKid explores what grinding is by attempting to come up with examples of grinding, and ultimately concluded that as long as players are having fun and voluntarily choosing to play there isn’t really any such thing as grinding, and I kind of have to disagree, because I think his examples weren’t really on point.
The first example he gives is repeating Mario levels, and then he argues about how this isn’t grinding, and largely his point is correct. Having mario levels repeat themselves, beating each level twice, isn’t really grinding. But imagine that there were a block in mario that generated a coin every time you pounded it and never stopped (or at least had a very large number of coins). Now imagine stopping and getting a ton of extra lives from that block. You’re no longer progressing in the game or engaging in the game, you are staying in the same place and pressing A for a long time. Grinding is a cessation of progress. A modern example of this, in New Super Mario Bros. no less, is returning to the first level and abusing the giant mushroom to get a ton of 1ups. The result is players repeating the same section ad infinitum until they have enough 1ups. The old infinite life trick on a turtle shell is only vaguely more tolerable because you don’t have to actually stick around for it. A lot of people did similar in Oblivion by making spells that did nothing and binding their keyboard to cast them forever while they did something else and their skill levels rose.
The issue with Kirby Kid’s example is that even with repeated levels, you are still making progress as you play those levels, unlike repeating 1-1 over and over to get extra lives.
A big reason I quit Disgaea is because of institutionalized grinding. I reached a certain stage and realized that to get any further, I’d have to go back and repeat prior stages until my characters’ levels were high enough to continue. Then my items all had levels too, and I had to grind to beat each of their levels. The entire game is built around forcing the player to sink as much time as possible into it. Then the sequels gave you the option to restart from scratch with better base stats. It’s one thing to provide a lot of content, but to require close to mindless repetition in order to access it all is positively painful.
Dark Souls was a huge step up from its predecessor Demon’s Souls because it eliminated a lot of the grind based elements. One of the things demon’s souls players still have nightmares about is grinding for pure bladestone. Dark Souls by contrast seriously eased up on absurd random drops, and gave the player some of the rarest random drop items guaranteed. The big grind issue in dark souls is only really present for people who play online and even then those who lose at online. In dark souls to play online you need humanity, which is an item that is dropped by sewer rats (and gained by defeating an enemy in online play or assisting someone with a boss). This means that to play online consistently, you need to go back to the depths every so often and kill rats and hope they drop humanity. This can be mitigated somewhat. Drop rates on humanity in the last patch were multiplied by 20, and you can use humanity, enter human form, and wear various items to increase your drop rate further. Also an option is to skip beating the boss of the depths, the gaping dragon, allowing black phantoms to invade you while you are farming. All in all this is a step up from the prior method of online play which required you to beat a boss every time you wanted network functions enabled, but it’s stull pretty tedious.
One of the Castlevania series’ advantages after going the Metroidvania route is that they never forced the player to grind in order to beat the game. The level progression enables the player to keep up their health and damage output as they progress through the game and never really fall behind the enemies, meaning that they will never need to grind. The big trouble is though that these games included random item drops, which boiled down to exiting and re-entering rooms to kill the same monster over and over again for hours on end to get rare items, including weapons. Order of Ecclesia eventually solved this problem by having new weapons (in that game represented by glyphs) obtainable by absorbing them when enemies cast spells or at specific hidden locations. It still had randomly dropping items, but these were less required than ever.
The classic deal in every JRPG or MMO conceived is that the entire game has become less about overcoming challenges and more about making your numbers go up. This is why people raid, this is why people battle monsters outside of town for hours on end. The reason for this being popular or people subjecting themselves to this arduous process at all is detailed in my skinner box and sunk cost fallacy essay.
The reason this is bad should be obvious, it’s dull and unengaging. It doesn’t require anything beyond minimal interaction or thought from players. Even in a game with a combat system that has depth, grinding boils down to a tedious repetitive process.
Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga are great examples of this. They have perhaps the best and most strategic combat systems of any JRPG, but they also practically mandate grinding to succeed, which makes them a lot more annoying to play, which is why on some of the DS titles, I ended up using experience multipliers on new game+ so that I could focus on playing the game instead of wasting time on grinding I had already done.
The next question to ask is, what can be done about grinding? There are a few possible solutions. These include, tying experience gains to plot events, having a finite number of enemies, having anti-grinding algorithms for experience gain, having ability gain be attached to player performance instead of random drops, decreasing level caps, and creating combat systems that enable a low level player to defeat a high level enemy with enough skill.
Tying experience to plot events is something that was done by the original Deus Ex and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines. You gain experience when you finish quests, side quests, or complete objectives. What this means is the player is only capable of gaining experience in proportion to how far along they are in the plot and they cannot farm enemies for experience, and now have no real motivation to do so.
Finite enemies is very similar to tying experience to plot events. This can provide a more direct reward for combat and can similarly prevent infinite grinding. However without regulation it can lead to grinding just the same. On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness is a great example of finite enemies done right. Every enemy encounter is given care and instead of grinding, it turns into a game where the player actively looks forward to finding new battles. Players are forced into enough battles to ensure their stats are never particularly low, and it’s impossible to grind your way up and destroy the difficulty.
Anti-grind algorithms would be something along the lines of scaling exp drops in proportion to how strong a character should be at a given point in the story. A diagetic rationale for this would be that a character does not gain much by facing the same enemies over and over again, nor enemies below their skill level. By regulating experience more directly like this, it can limit the effectiveness of grinding and generally keep characters on track with where they should be. Underleveled? Defeat monsters way stronger than you for scaled up experience so you’ll be on track in no time. Overleveled? You’ll earn less and less to prevent you from getting too much of an edge. The big trouble with this method is that it takes a lot of effort to balance on the part of the designers, but difficulty is always hard to balance.
Random drops are a big feature in a lot of RPGs with respawning enemies, and frequently players are required to kill the same enemy for long periods of time to farm a resource or obtain a rare weapon. In general I think systems like this are best left out, attach rare weapons to bosses, or secret locations or puzzles. Don’t waste player’s time, give them real nonrepetitive goals. Dark Souls did this by having every unique item and a lot of rare non-unique weapons be tied to a specific location instead of forcing the player to grind for them. There is no item in the game that requires players to grind in order to get it, and that is a good thing.
Level caps should probably be decreased across the board. High level caps are not inherently good nor bad, but it’s better to have fewer levels and make them count than long gradual progression, which almost seems to demand lazy filler level design and grinding to fill out (see Disgaea).
EDIT: Add Ys solution example with enemy quota.
The final thing that can be done is creating battle systems that enable players to win even when locked to level 1. Examples of games that do this are Dark Souls, Castlevania, and The World Ends With You (notable for people frequently doing level 1 runs). The primary thing that creates a game like this is the ability to avoid damage via rock paper scissors type systems. It’s possible to beat all these games without taking damage. An alternative to this is keeping lethality levels consistent throughout the game (such as in legend of zelda which almost never has an attack that knocks off more than 2 hearts). This can help deal with grinding by largely making it unnecessary. If you do not need to grind to win, then it frequently creates a more natural level progression. Dark Souls in particular is notable for penalizing high level players (200 and above roughly) by preventing them from easily invading and being invaded by other players due to how the matchmaking system works (in demon’s souls matchmaking would fail completely).
Not all of these systems are suitable for every game, but between them they can help empower games to be more capable and interesting while also being less repetitive. Grind based games have always had the particular flaw that the player is not really asked to improve nearly so much as their character improves for them and the game actively conspires to force the player to sit through the same content rather than allowing them to keep moving onto new content. It means making battle systems that are themselves engaging rather than the (dying) trend of trying to sell an RPG on story alone.