The “grind” is a term that’s used pretty much everywhere these days to describe hard work over a long period of time. The word is thrown around by meat heads who just finished their three-sets-of-ten and 20-something college girls who just got their 500 dollar paycheck and need Instagram to know about the hustle.
In gaming, the term is used mostly in the same way, but with an emphasis on a sometimes (I’d personally say all the times) arbitrary design by the developers of a game to keep players engaged. For example, an MMO might have a ton of content in the end game, but requires a player to grind out roughly 50 hours of quests to level up enough to get there. This grind to the end game is arbitrarily designed, long, and therefor qualifies as a ‘grind’ in the gaming community. Simple.
If all of the same quests in this theoretical MMO existed without blocking the player from accessing end game content, it wouldn’t be a grind to play the game, now would it? It would just be more content in a game, no grind required, see?
This is probably a bit confusing to a non-gaming person, as it seems like the better design would be to get rid of the grind altogether. The problem here is that “the grind” is something of a boon for a lot of players. A sense of accomplishment is created from having a journey be arduous instead of easy, and this is the soul gameplay model for many MMOs, not least of which being WoW, OSRS, RS, and pretty much any other game in the genre that’s ever existed ever. The grind makes doing X an actual accomplishment instead of just something everyone else has done.
That said, there is still a great deal of problems that come with this design. Namely, the fact that the grind can’t be too long without losing player interest, and it can’t be too short so that the accomplishments gained from a grind become meaningless. Walking this line properly has generated certain companies hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, while failing to hit the mark has made other games, and their respective companies, dead on arrival. It isn’t easy to understand how one developer concocts their formula for success compared to another, but it is easy to understand what the developer ultimately ends up creating. Enter Escape from Tarkov.
Escape from Tarkov and the Illusion of a Grindless System
Escape from Tarkov, or just “Tarkov”, is a first person shooter that mainly revolves around resource management, and it revolves around this kind of gameplay exceptionally well. Players are pitted against each other in a variety of maps with gear they choose to enter the match with: Armor, weapons, tactical gear, grenades, the list goes on. There’s a lot of items that are mediocre and common while others are exceptional and rare. And when a player dies in one of these matches, they lose all of the items they brought or found during the match.
As one might imagine, this makes the nature of failure in the game extremely punishing. As a counter to this, succeeding in a match, or a “raid”, is just as rewarding as losing is punitive. Players can accept daily tasks from the AI traders in-game that act as objective creators and help to speed the player’s advancement along. This advancement is used as advantages in the form of acquired levels and resources to gain a better hideout, which provides passive bonuses, as well as better items which, of course, can be used to go and earn more items. Rinse and repeat.
And it’s at this point that a veteran of the MMO genre would have no problem identifying the fact that Tarkov is actually an MMO dressed up as an FPS Battle Royal. I mean, it is a BR, but its managed to sneak in the various aspects of MMO gameplay that keep players coming back for their hits of dopamine: Daily tasks / quests, a ‘get gear to get more gear’ gameplay loop, heavy PvE environments with PvP sprinkled in (this part can be the other way around, depending on the type of player you are,) and an ungodly grind that requires daily attention and resets every six months or so when the game completely wipes its player progress for a full restart from level 1 (for everyone.)
And that’s the great formula for long term success that Tarkov has created. This grind that eventually hooks players doesn’t present itself until weeks of gameplay, at the earliest, for many players. For most players, the gameplay loop isn’t even a second thought yet. The complex mechanics, confusing map layouts, and punishing resource management systems are all they care about. And make no mistake, this isn’t an article knocking against Tarkov, those systems are very, very well done in the game. Brilliant design, no doubt about it. But it’s a fact that those same systems are the bait which reel players in for years and years at a time. The hook, as it were, is the grind. The “Tarkov Grind”.
This grind is just like any other in any game you’d like. As we’ve established, it takes a lot of its design from established MMO titles, and demands constant attention from the player. However, this hook, despite bringing the player back like an addict, is hiding behind the interesting gameplay to mask itself as genuine fun instead of addiction. The player would have already decided to ditch the game under any other pretenses, but since Tarkov’s grind is dressed up in such a way that’s pretty much in a league of its own, that decision doesn’t come until much later when said player is probably already hooked on the game, despite potentially being the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy a grindy game.
Its the incredible design shown by the developers over at Battlestate Games that created such an interesting title, and its their ruthless ingenuity that coupled said title with a gameplay loop that can drain literal infinite hours away from its playerbase. At the time of writing this article, its been about two weeks since I picked up Tarkov, and I’ve thrown roughly 50 hours into the game as though it were nothing. Its taken me a while to pickup on the fact that I was just getting hooked on the loop without actually enjoying the gameplay, but this article topic serves to acknowledge the fact that I’ve managed to escape it, no pun intended.
How to Avoid these Grind Systems as a Player
When trying out a new title, your first question should always be: “What am I playing this for?” You can ask this question on multiple levels, but for the sake of this topic, you should be asking the game itself. The Dark Souls Trilogy has a myriad of boss fights that are well designed, an intricate and deep story, and hidden philosophy on the nature of life itself. A player might ask him or herself why they play Dark Souls, and one or all of those things may be the answer. The key aspect of the game being that it does, indeed, have an end, and isn’t designed as an endless loop (despite being about life as an endless loop).
Now, you can grind in Dark Souls, and you can play endlessly, but that’s a decision that’s left up to the player. People have beaten the first game in less than an hour, and the other games don’t have completion times much different than that. That is to say, the grind in Dark Souls is one you choose, not one that’s required, and it isn’t endless or pointless, at least from a gameplay perspective. Some might call it genius, but the game is meant to satisfy you on completion, not leave you feeling like you have to play everyday for the next six months just to maintain progress on your character.
Try that same thought experiment out with any other game. “Why am I playing this game?” Story? Well designed mechanics? Incredible writing, acting, or art direction? Maybe its just fun? Really test yourself on that question, because in the modern age, its not unlikely that you find yourself playing a game as a means to progress to the next part in the game as apposed to enjoying the part you’re currently at.
Progress should happen naturally as long as you enjoy where you’re at. If you don’t enjoy where you’re at, get out. Don’t lie in wait, for those hopes of things changing for the better without your influence shall let the rust of a dull gear creep into your mind. By that point, you’ll be accustomed to your setting, and leaving will be far too difficult a task. You’re an addict, you’re unable to move, and no one is able to help you rekindle the first flame.
What were we talking about? Right, Tarkov. Fun game, innovative game, too much of a grind. 6/10.