From Stretching to Grind

It is a common practice in game design to try to stretch out the length of a game by padding out the content. This could be done by insidiously layering out difficult, repeating levels or by simply varying out the already introduced elements into new configurations.

I’ve recently thought about this after seeing a few new puzzle games. I have quite a low tolerance for those unless they introduce something really interesting (i.e. Ronin) and even then, they should probably be short enough to not over stay their welcome. And so, when looking at those puzzle games, I played two or three levels, understood what they’re doing with it, and decided it wasn’t interesting enough to invest time in.

The problem is, again, a conflict of expectations, exacerbated by the sheer quantity of quality games out there. Meaning, if I’m playing a game that I’m not enjoying as much as I thought I would and I know I have other games that will be at least as enjoyable if not more, why should I keep playing?

I’ll take a look at it using three examples I think, at least in my case, symbolise different levels of padding/grind vs my innate interest in those genres of play: The role of grand strategy game will be played by Civilization: Beyond Earth. The role of the endless runner will be played by Relic Run. And the role of the Action RPG will be played by Path of Exile.

Grand Strategy / Civilization: Beyond Earth

The Civ games are very highly regarded and while the series had its ups and downs, Beyond Earth did take some brave leaps and it did try to channel the old Alpha Centauri game — which I dearly love. And so, playing it, I did recognise its harking to the old days, the interesting new mechanics they added and the overall effort invested in the game. However, after a couple of decades playing games, especially with how the scene changed in recent years, adding a massive amount of new quality titles, I realised that of all the games I play and/or played, the grand strategy genre, even if Civilization doesn’t quite fit that categorisation, isn’t one of my top favourites. While I like tactical games like X-Com or real time strategy games like Starcraft, when the strategy gets so grand like the Civs, I’m not really into it, despite all the good design that went into it.

And it’s even difficult to call Beyond Earth padded. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And the way I like it, I played small, tight games, on dense worlds to force a lot of interaction. But it didn’t help. I played half a game and then I quit, never looking back.

Endless Runner / Relic Run

Endless runners have been around for a while. And while it might not be the first of its kind, the populariser of the genre is most likely Canabalt. And Canabalt is great. It’s simple, it stretches its mechanics only slightly and it lasts just as long as it should, having only score to signify how good you are and your “progression” in the game.

Relic Run is one of the latest entries to the genre, taking Lara Croft as its main character and thrusting her into endless tracks full of coins, relics and other tidbits. And Relic Run introduces a lot of things, especially if your base is Canabalt: Like many other runners, it has collectable coins; from an over the shoulder 3rd person perspective it features side stepping as well as jumping and sliding; in certain places you need to perform special “parkour” moves or fail; it has wall running segments, thus shifting the perspective, as well as ATV segments, which twists the basic mechanic slightly; it also has shooting segments, shifting it more towards the shooting gallery genre, and boss battles which are staged shooting segments; and it offers play area progression and purchasable upgrades.

It’s interesting, it’s engaging, it offers a lot of variety to the regular play and so should be playable for a long time. But, in my mind, they fucked up the progression speed. And my main problem is the fact that they almost had it. It was just a little bit too grindy: The collection of coins was a little bit too slow; the prices of the upgrades, especially the single use ones, were a little bit too high; the hard currency was a little bit too sparse; the random bonuses were a little bit too random and meaningless.

I am pretty ambivalent about endless runners. I enjoy the occasional Canabalt run when I’m bored and have a few minutes to kill but I never really engaged with the genre. I liked Relic Run but then I realised what it would take to actually get some meaningful progress and enjoyment out of it and decided that I have better ways to spend my time.

Action RPG / Path of Exile

I love action RPGs. It’s one of my favourite genres. I started with Diablo and I think my Steam count of over 200 hours invested in Torchlight 2 would attest to my devotion. So, when I heard that a very ethical free to play one is coming out, I was genuinely excited. Especially when I found out what they were doing with it (The single interconnected progression tree, the socketed gem-based skill system and the varied economy).

I played in the beta for a little while to get the feel of it but I wanted to save my experience for when the game was complete. And when it came out, I hopped on, playing it at almost any opportunity. Progression was speedy at first and I quickly made it to the second act. But then I started to fill the grind. I realised that I wasn’t getting a lot of the currency items, that I wasn’t getting a lot of XP and that big mobs and bosses were starting to really kick my ass. And I was playing a very defensive, survival build. That’s when I thought I should have known better.

Being free to play comes with caveats. And it was probably accentuated, being very ethical. As the only remotely mechanical thing you can buy is extra stash pages — with the rest being only visual upgrades with no mechanical influence — what Grinding Gear Games did to enhance the possibility of a purchase is to extend the time it takes to complete the game as much as possible. And as the game content is completely hand made, no procedural generation, the way to do that is to slow down the players. And they overdid it. I quit playing a very good action RPG with some very interesting mechanics I enjoyed, just because of the grind.

Surprise Appearance / Hearthstone

Blizzard’s computer card game is, in my view of the stretching for payment vs grinding situation, meta-stable, teetering on the edge and threatening to fall into the grind side. Hearthstone is free to play and although you can pay for a form of progression – that is, card packs – it’s not pay to win. You still need to build a good deck, count on some luck, know your opponent and play well. “inferior” decks can beat “superior” ones if played well. And you can also get the same random packs you pay real money for using the game’s soft, earned currency. It just takes longer. And that’s understandable. They want to get paid after all.

So what’s with the teetering bit? It’s because of the way you get that soft currency. To get it, you need to complete daily quests. You only get a new one once a day; And you need to play the casual/ranked play mode or the arena. And they don’t really change. And thus, they get tedious after a while. To the point that after completing the Naxxramas adventure, peaking at rank 15 on the ladder, and playing a few arena games, I quit playing for a few weeks. I only really returned to play the new Blackrock Mountain adventure.

So it’s not really teetering, it fell into the grind pit a while ago, right? Almost correct. It was rescued by the Tavern Brawl mode. Tavern Brawl keeps it interesting. It changes every week, bringing a new style of play and, the cherry on top, you’re guaranteed to get a new card pack with every new brawl style. So, the rate of progression is up, the variety of play is up and all seems well in the kingdom of Azeroth.

The only problem I see right now: How long can they keep this up?

Posted in Gaming, Practice, Thinking Out Loud by with 1 comment.


  • yaron says:

    Based on this i am actually hopeful it might be able to go away for a while.
    Free to play was the reaction of both rediscovering arcade coin “continue” psychological manipulation with the rise of hacked games and ease of obtaining good hacked software rather then malware.

    however there is “the rise of immunity” meaning the loss of a psychological manipulation’s hold on people through repeated, over saturated, exposure.

    coupled with the hackers actually starting to lose the hacking wars again (i don’t think they’ve lost in over a decade) and i think we shall see a shift.

    with the loss of effectiveness of “padding” coupled with an ability to actually make most of your money from a game at launch we might be going back to an older more civilized model of game making.