Has this ever happened to you?
If so, then you know the feeling that comes from realizing your Pokémon are horribly outclassed and you have to go back to the last area to grind for the next several hours. Ugh.
For a definition, a grind is when you take a lots of time to train levels. We all hate the grind, but for some reason games that involve a lot of grinding can do pretty well. One of the biggest examples is the MMORPG Runescape which is virtually nothing but a grind, but last I checked it seemed to be on its feet fairly well.
Of course, not all RPG’s have this grind. Skyrim, for example, with enemies that level with you, nullifies any benefits of grinding other than the ability to do more awesome stuff. Even the new generation of Pokémon introduced a new and sparkly exp share which instead of splitting the experience between Pokémon with it, anything that participates in the battle gets full xp, and everything else gets half xp. Because of this, with very little grind, all of my Pokémon were 10 levels above the 8th gym leaders by the time I got to him.
However, the point still stands that I went and pre-ordered Y version fully expecting a grind. Why was I so willing to spend my time doing the same thing over and over again?
The answer is the possible reward. Every time your Pokémon goes up a level, it gets those stars around it and you get to see how its stats increase. Every now and then it learns a new move, and sometimes even evolves. It’s looking forwards to these moments, these goals, which can keep a player grinding to get them.
My fellow Pokémaniacs will understand that one of the biggest grinds actually came from a mechanic called EV (Effort Value, not to be confused with Eevee) training. For those of you who don’t know, each of the six stats has an EV that reflects how high above the base case it will be. EV’s are independent of levels, so you could get a Pokémon to max EV’s before it even hits level 6, at which point it proceeds to school every other level 6. However, any Pokémon can only have 512 EV’s in total and 254 in any stat. The main way to get EV’s is just to battle, but each Pokémon you knock out gives different EV’s (eg. Fast Pokémon give you speed EV’s). The problem, however, is that you might come across something that gives your Alakazam attack EV’s, and if your Alakazam uses physical attack EV’s it’s doing something wrong. Thus, if you want to optimize your training, you have to train your EV’s before your levels or you’ll get points that only clog your total. And at a rate of roughly 2-4 EV’s per encounter, it becomes a grind.
X and Y solved this problem with super training, a minigame that lets you train your EV’s in a very specific, enjoyable, and much less grindy way. I did this to train my Yveltal, and it was so much less boring than fighting a million Litwicks.
So some games can benefit by reducing the grind, but in any RPG it’s still there. The grind is what keeps people playing long after they’ve gone through all the real content for the simple goal of improving their numbers.
There is a definite balance to walk here; we want our games to have enough grind to keep people playing, but not too much so that they get bored. One solution is to make it feel like less of a grind. Like with super training, we can make training a minigame. Other ways would be to make the training visually appealing, though this could wear on the player quickly if all they want is to level up.
Overall, an RPG designer really needs to keep in mind how much grind they put into the game and what they can do to make it not feel like a grind. Grinding is really a dirty trick to keep players occupied while you scramble for new content, but MMORPG’s wouldn’t work without it. For the idea of a living story, sometimes a player may not want to do all the quests the GM has in mind, and so they need an alternative. Grinding, I think, would be a good fallback, but we have to make sure that it rarely becomes the only option.