Challenge and Grind in MMOs
There is a certain kind of achievements that I appreciate very much: the challenge-based ones; the ones that compel you to change that mindless strategy that had until then worked fine because everything around you succumbed to any button-smashing combination (WoW), or to your haphazard build order and unit-clogging (Starcraft 2). Most of the SC2 achievements fall into the challenge category. They are a great addition to the game, turning the campaign from a few hours’ trip to a long journey, sometimes an odyssey. Given that we play games to master them; or that we enjoy playing them because of the challenge of mastering them, the SC2 achievements extend the game and make it fun for those who were not there just for the sights. We may also play games for the narratives and find that the challenge is getting in the way, and thus story-driven modes as in The Witcher 2 were conceived.
In WoW the challenge category is vastly outnumbered by the grindy one, and often challenge is relegated to the raiding environment. This happens to such an extent that nothing in the pre-raiding world constitutes any kind of danger and, therefore, no mistakes are made and no learning is accrued. There is no challenge to distract you from the grind.
When my boyfriend and I were playing WoW, we devised a way to make instances interesting and to avoid the pain of LFD: we duoed them with a tank and a healer. Fun fact: they were still very much easy, they just took longer to complete. His healer never went out of mana, regardless of how much he spammed heals and lighting bolts. The only instance that was mildly challenging was Scarlet Halls, the cathedral part, and only because we had entered it as it was red to us. A two-man group in a red-level elite area only had a little bit of trouble with mobs that stunned. We came to realise that even if we were not facing a real challenge, this two-man way of doing dungeons was much more true to the original spirit of the game: you had to think a bit before you pulled, and often pull back, you had to avoid patrols, you had to interrupt heals and other nasty stuff. And you had to find the dungeon entrance and go there physically, what a blast of nostalgia.
After one of those long slogs we queued for a quick LFD to do Stockades because there was no way we could as Horde infiltrate Stormwind. I said hi, my boyfriend said hi; nobody answered. I pulled this and that, looted, moved at a regular pace. Until the hunter started ‘helping’ me pull, which I asked him to stop doing (but how foolish of me to expect anyone to reply or acknowledge written text). By then I was so mad at having to pick up what was coming at me and my healer that I no longer pressed any buttons in the correct order as I learned through our long slogs. It was still ok because mobs didn’t last for more than two seconds under the fire rate of so many bots. It was a very depressing experience. I wonder how people new to the game take this.
When all the challenge is gone from the game, the veneer of learning and self-improvement is effaced and only the conspicuous hill, mountain, to max level is seen. And even after you have reached that and think ‘I am done’, you never truly are. After all, if you were, there would be no more game. Some grinds are imposed on you by your gameplay choice (raiding, PvP, pet battles). Some others are even more abusive because they are disguised as status symbols: pets, mounts, titles. You saw a very cool-looking mount in your low-levels when you visited the capital and thought that you wanted it. An achievement is often required for those. But it is not of the challenging type most of the time: you just have to repeat an old dungeon at every reset (the Raven Lord mount), or grind enough archaeology (the ‘Professor’ title), or plain grind a lot of reputations (‘the Insane’ title). And what are these fluff items really worth? Certainly not worth the daily or weekly toil. They are not even fun to pursue. Perhaps the first time you have to figure out how to solo what once was a 25-man raid is challenging, but the future one hundred runs will not be.
I am fine with symbols of distinction that speak of your team’s (or individual) effort and great performance, as it is with Mimiron’s Head, locked behind a 25-man very hard achievement. The titles that commemorate something important like your completing the Vial of the Sands questline: ‘Hand of A’dal’. But rewarding a mindless grind encourages mindless grinding: is that really what we play games for? Do people ever ask themselves why they really grind?
It is pungently reminiscent of our society’s ideals: uncreative play that resembles work and constant positive stimuli for doing an easy task, locking us down into desiring always more (digital items, which is even more ridiculous than hankering after tangible objects with a use). This makes me very uncomfortable. Aren’t we supposed to escape reality through games? How come we end up in the same reality? Or perhaps that is the point: in real life, rewards do not come by neither as easily nor as quickly, and thus we become besotted by the digital alternative.
These games are not designed with social interaction in mind (LFD, soloable (or baby-able?) content, etc.), nor with challenge either. They are designed to suck you in to grind for the new pretty mount, pet, item. Raiding or team-based PvP are secondary; otherwise, the MMO could turn into a lobby game such as LoL and nothing would be lost. The only thing that most modern MMOs are adding to their lobbies are grinds in various disguises. WoW Vanilla was like that too, but it at least retained some form of challenge so that the process was entertaining and/or better camouflaged, and it threw in the requirement of grouping to many activities, so that people could meet other people and overcome something together (just meeting is not enough to form social bonds: you need a challenge that requires some form of communication or silent, bot-like LFD runs happen).
Yahtzee on why World of Warcraft is evil:
Even though Yahtzee lacks the experience of the more challenging and social aspect of MMOs, his analysis is of the achievement phenomenon and the grind are very accurate.
PD: I’m aware that this post is not one of my better-structured ones. I had several ideas of different levels of relatedness that I wanted to release all at once. Sorry for the disarray.