Grinding myself down

Publication date: 30 August 2012
Originally published, in a much shorter version, 2012 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 08-Feb-2013.


Grinding myself down

I've written about grinding before, but the monkey's on my back again.

Not in an MMORPG, fortunately; I've avoided those in the same way that David Bowie should have avoided cocaine.

But Skyrim. Skyrim, man.

I've done it three times, now.

(It was only twice, when this column was first published in Atomic magazine. The disease continued to progress over the six months until I put up this much longer version of the column.)

You know how you can tell you've got a grinding problem in Skyrim?

Forge-jumping in Skyrim

You're jumping up and down in the Riverwood forge, burning and healing yourself, to level Destruction (for some reason) and Restoration.

Just raising your stats with console commands would be cheating, but jumping in hot coals to become better at shooting lightning out of your hands is clearly playing the game as it was intended to be played!

(Almost all forges can be used for this, but the Riverwood forge is especially good, because it has a low roof you can bump your head on to come back down faster, and thus maximise your jumping frequency!)

Boing, boing, boing.

Burn, burn, burn.

Heal, heal, heal.

On it goes, and one's mind turns to the philosophical question of whether one can truly be said to be enjoying this game at all. And why, if one is not enjoying it, one continues to play it, and not purer versions of the same experience, like Progress Quest or Cow Clicker.

There are a variety of other, almost-as-ridiculous grind opportunities in Skyrim. The Dwemer Museum in Markath, for instance, should be officially renamed the Skyrim Lockpicking Academy For Those Who Can't Be Arsed Talking To Those Wastrels At The Thieves Guild. And those Dwemer helicopter traps are great for chopping yourself half to death, so you can level armour skills from the damage, and Restoration from healing yourself. (Save frequently.)

I don't even particularly care for sword-and-sorcery games, so I was envisaging playing through Skyrim once and then putting it aside, perhaps forever, like I did with Oblivion after a mere 160-odd hours.

But I power-leveled my first character until he was an earthbound god and the game wasn't very interesting any more, and then the main quest bugged out and I couldn't progress, no matter how much I messed with numerous NPCs' minds using the console.

So I took that as my excuse to play through Saints Row 3 instead.

(I've done multiple playthroughs of that game now, too. About the closest you can get to grinding in Saints Row 3 is destroying Smart cars with a tank, in pursuit of an achievement for blowing up 50 of them, while listening to Jon Glaser telling you to stop wasting your life playing video games.)

But after my first SR3 playthrough, back to Skyrim I went, started fresh, and once again made an outrageous number of enchanted iron daggers and strangely valuable potions that simultaneously boost something and poison you.

Until someone in the Elder Scrolls universe invents some sort of effect-separating centrifuge to un-mix those combination potions, then Giant's Toe, Large Antlers and River Betty may create a potion that fortifies your carry weight even as it damages your stamina regeneration and slows you, but that potion should be worth less than three separate potions with those three effects.

But it isn't, so the Useless But Valuable Potion Production Line continues.

One could argue that the more potions you make with a given ingredient in them, the less using that ingredient should contribute to your Alchemy skill. Likewise with smithing and enchanting; forging a zillion iron daggers should only make you the best iron-dagger forger Nirn has ever seen, not the greatest smith.

(An early patch-version of Skyrim actually had a form of Enchanting-grind punishment, thanks to a bug that made enchanted stuff worth less the higher your Enchanting skill was. People at the time theorised that this might have been intentional, but since it went away if you saved and reloaded, that was a hard argument to make even before a patch fixed it.)

Open-world games encourage obsessive behaviour, because they're usually very "loose", allowing the player to do things in any order and perform many activities over and over and over. If those activities offer a benefit, certain poorly-wired brains, like mine, mistake the situation for something like exercise, or practicing an instrument, or a nine-to-five job. And we sit there in a stimulus-response loop for hours and hours, watching the bloody numbers go up.

(If I go for a holiday on a tropical island, I'll probably spend the whole time collecting coconuts.)

In a "tight" game, like to choose a recent example Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there's little to no opportunity to do this. In DXHR about all you can grind is running loot back to the shops, and doing that is particularly time-consuming (owing to a lack of inventory space) for the reward received.

If you choose to do it anyway, you can feel the game creators' disapproval. You know you're Doing It Wrong, just as you do if your attempt to sneak past bad guys fails and you find yourself hiding in a vent, shooting passing baddies in the shins, and then waiting for them to idiotically forget where you are so you can shoot their shins some more.

In Human Revolution, grinding is its own punishment, like pudding farming in NetHack.

But wandering aimlessly around Whiterun spamming Muffle? Yeah, Dovahkiin! You're awesome! Have a skill bump, buddy! And another! And another! Oh my god, YOU WENT UP A LEVEL!

I did stuff like this in Oblivion, too. Jumping everywhere until I'd jumped so much that I figured out how to roll, then rolling everywhere until I got to max Acrobatics and could out-leap Midnighter. Which was great, but not necessarily worth all of the space-bar thumb-strain.

I really would be happier if someone removed grind-rewards from Skyrim. Perhaps someone will, in a mod.

It's not as easy as it looks, though.

Most anti-grind ideas for open, "loose" games make grinding slower and more annoying. This'll stop some grinders, but not all of us. We'll just be sadder, for longer, while we do it. To truly cure grinding problems, you have to make grinding either pointless or actually impossible.

In a "tight" game, that's easy. If there's a set amount of possible experience points, submachine guns, lumps of iron ore or bear hides in the game, all an obsessive player can do is get all of them, and that's it. But loose, open games like Skyrim are so big, and have so many respawning baddies, that even if you never go further than a five-minute walk away from the first town you visit, you can grind like crazy.

Features that just make it more painful to do grindy things can also harm every player's enjoyment of the game, not just the grinders'. Getting loot and selling it to shopkeepers is a core mechanic of numerous role-playing games, but many games - including Oblivion and Skyrim - have the realistic feature that you can only sell weapons to a weapon dealer, potions and ingredients to an alchemy dealer, and so forth.

(Well, until you gain enough Mercantile skill in Oblivion or get the Speech perk in Skyrim that lets you sell anything to anyone, at any rate.)

This is realistic, as is merchants having a limited amount of cash to buy things from you with. But the actual gameplay effect of these features is to make the loot-and-sell cycle take longer, leaving the player spending a lot more time tramping between shops and staring at inventory lists than they spend actually doing the exciting stuff that was in the game trailer.

(Torchlight goes in completely the opposite direction; it lets you give loot to your dog and send him back to town to sell it for you, while you continue to click monsters to death underground. And Kingdoms of Amalur lets you just tag loot as "junk" when you pick it up, then sell it all in one blob when you get back to town.)

Single-player games that implement some sort of actual liquid economy can be particularly dangerous, here, if it becomes possible for the player to corner the market in some item so the price rises, sell their stock of the item so the price falls again, re-buy the same stuff to raise the price again, et cetera.

To take another example of anti-grind technology, let's say a game punishes repetition by giving less and less experience each time the player makes the same thing, or sells the same thing. Eventually, the dedicated grinder making iron daggers and hide bracers will be asymptotically approaching the next skill point, but will never actually get to it unless they make something different.

So they'll make iron swords, hide helmets, iron axes, hide boots, et cetera et cetera, moving on every time some item gets played out.

Likewise for selling things. It's plausible that Skyrim's total demand for iron daggers enchanted with Banish is about twenty units, but if that's the case then grinders will just make Paralyze daggers, then Absorb Health, then Turn Undead, et cetera. It's slower and more annoying, not fixed.

(The v1.5 Skyrim patch changed Smithing so that your skill increases according to the value, not just the quantity, of things you make. This made jewellery the new go-to grinding items; all us pathetic addicts now head early on to that place north of Whiterun that contains several bandits, lots of iron ore veins and one Transmute Mineral Ore spellbook. Whack ore with pickaxe - wield your pickaxe like a weapon and hit the ore manually to mine faster! - then grind Alteration by transmuting, then smelt gold ore into ingots, and smith them into rings and necklaces. Lather, rinse and repeat.)

At least enemy-grinding to raise combat skills isn't much of a problem in Skyrim. This is good, because that's a hard problem to fix if you scale monster type and/or level to roughly match that of the player.

In games that don't do that, a common anti-grinding technique is to give monsters levels just like the player, and award bonus XP for killing monsters above your level, and less XP for killing easy lower-level ones. The roguelike Moria and its descendant Angband do this; if a dungeon level gets filled with explosively breeding low-level monsters like worms or lice, tougher characters will get a small fraction of one experience point per monster killed. If you manage to kill a terrifyingly powerful enemy, though, you'll get a huge XP bonus.

(The Elder Scrolls games don't have experience points at all. You don't get a reward for killing things, per se; instead you get increases to your skills when you damage enemies, or heal yourself or others, or sell things, or whatever. Oblivion handled this in a way that positively encouraged immersion-breaking metagaming, and Morrowind had a similarly bizarre system plus background dice-rolls for everything based on your skills. So early on in Morrowind, you'd frequently swing your sword at a monster, see it hit, and be told that actually you missed, since your combat skills were terrible. Skyrim finally managed to prune all this stuff back.)

Another way of discouraging monster-kill grinding is to reduce the XP reward from a monster according to the number of them you've killed, or make monsters of a given type tougher and tougher as you kill more of them. The roguelike Ancient Domains Of Mystery has a "kills per level" number for each monster; every time you kill that many of that monster, all future monsters of that type are one level stronger.

Fallout: New Vegas has an unusual monster-toughness arrangement. In general, the monsters scale to match you, but several monsters have a minimum possible level, which is rather higher than "1". So if you wander off the major roads in New Vegas when you're at a low level, you're likely to meet monsters far tougher than you. Several areas, even at the very beginning of the game, contain quite-tough cazadores or extremely-tough deathclaws; go there at low level, or even quite high level for the deathclaws, and you will almost immediately do your celebrated impression of a frog in a blender.

And 50 experience points is the most New Vegas will award you for killing any monster. So even if a player devises some brilliant landmine-poison-and-heavy-weapons strategy that can bring down a couple of these powerful enemies early in the game, there's very little reward. (It's much easier to boost your XP by just massacring innocent bighorners.)

Numerous angry bloggers notwithstanding, Bethesda Softworks are not a pack of idiots. They have surely thought about grinding in Skyrim, and consciously decided to leave it the way it is, just as they consciously decided to classify clothing skill enchantments as Restoration effects, allowing one to use Fortify Restoration potions to create enchantment numbers with eight digits.

If you have to do crap like this to win a game, it's disastrous. But Skyrim doesn't make you do it. It's got level-scaled monsters and lots of loot; you can see everything there is to see in Skyrim without grinding at all.

But dammit, who doesn't want a better sword? And it's so easy to get one - just make a few daggers (or gold rings), man, and you'll get the skill!

It's easy, man. Just try it.

The first one's free.

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