04 October 2012

Thoughts on Pixels - Grinding should be fun

Or how I learned to stop playing Oblivion and love gaming instead...

So, here it is: I stopped playing Oblivion six months ago. Martor is on ice, probably forever. Why is that? Allow me to explain and get into a broader topic on gaming in general: Grinding. The word itself implies something tedious and that opens up a lot of questions on why one would even want to play something that is based on grind. Follow me into a new article. Also, I'll write more regularly again, now that I'm back from Asia. I promise to all three of you who may or may not care. God this place has fallen apart after my mom died...

Aaaaanyways. Grinding. WTF? Aren't games supposed to be fun? Well I didn't really think about it for a long time. I had stopped playing Oblivion after day three of my experiment (which was like two months after day 1 but it was day three of actually playing) but I didn't really analyze why. I just didn't feel like playing it anymore. It felt horribly tedious. The magic was gone.

So, last month I started playing a new game, FTL. If you like space-exploration, roguelikes or having adventures in general, you should check out some Let's Plays on Youtube and then decide to buy it (or not, you boring, boring person!). I played it quite a bit and then, at one time upon re-starting, the usual hint at the bottom of the starting message told me that I should stay in what the game itself called 'the grinding sectors' for longer if possible as to gather resources for the later stages of the game while it was still somewhat harmless to do so. This got me thinking, because while I had done just that before already, having found out fast that getting to the end quickly is a recipe for getting overwhelmed real soon. But it never felt like a grind to me. Why? Because this was the meat of the game. It was fun. Why do we play games? Because they are fun, mostly. Well they may evoke other emotions (Silent Hill 2 certainly wasn't fun and Shadow of the Colossus made me feel like the weight of the world was on my shoulders but I digress) but tedium shouldn't be one of them.

I have never played an MMO. Lacking any friends into such things I just never got introduced to the concept and when I first saw World of Warcraft actually being played by a friend of mine in my first semesters at university, I was horribly disappointed. There was no mystery to it. Yes, there was a rather large world to explore but beyond that the whole concept seemed like pointless tedium to me. I do not pay money and spend time to kill a specified number of fucking rats. Or spiders. Or whatever. I do not click to increase numbers. That isn't fun to me and as Yahtzee once said: If aliens invade us and need a huge slave-force for data-entry, it's awesome that we have the MMORPG-crowd at the ready.

So I guess there are four types of enjoyment I get from gaming and I'd say that a game better fulfill at least one of them to keep my interest. A combination of them is even better, of course. Let's look into them:

The first type of fun is mechanical fun. Why play a game if the act of playing itself isn't fun? There are games that live off of only this factor and they work well. Any older arcade-style games. Most social games (and I mean games you may play with your friends in the room, I'm not talking about facebook-gaming, okay! I'm talking four people, a Wii, Mario Party vol. Whatever and a lot of alcohol. Whenever someone wins a minigame, they gotta drink. Try it, it's a built-in handycap for the best player present!) do this. Fighting games and Jump 'n Run games do this. It's pure, visceral enjoyment of playing that doesn't require more than itself to entertain you.

The second type of fun is exploration. When I first heard about MMOs that was something I had wild ideas about that were all smashed when I saw what most of them were really like. Exploration is a broad word and may include more than just the game-world itself. I'd extend it into other players when it comes to multi-player games because let's face it, looking at a fancy character-build can be interesting and seeing famous avatars strutting about may be a turn-on for a lot of people. I am very much into exploration, which is why I like games that are good at random world-generation as that allows for a lot of exploration, if it's done correctly and doesn't result in samey-stuff repeating ad infinitum (as, say, Diablo or more primitive roguelikes will offer).

The third type is progress. Progress can be winning a fight and feeling victorious afterwards, but it can also be progressing through a story or leveling up your character. Most more complex games have progress but even early games had it, assuming they had something like a scoring-system. Progress is usually what keeps you going in adventure games and is what really hooks up people to MMORPGs. Just fifteen more kills and you see another number rise. I may sarcastically link to Progress Quest here. Have fun with it.

The fourth type is intertwined with the story-aspect of progress: Emotion. I don't mean the pure enjoyment of a good game-mechanic but relating to something happening in-game in a way that makes you feel something for the character(s) involved. This may be happy or sad emotions, just like watching a movie. I cried when I lost my horse in Shadow of the Colossus, after feeling dread and guilt after every victory of the game and I loved it. Emotions do not necessarily need a fixed story as a framework - I have felt fear and dread and sweet victory in roguelikes like Rogue Survivor...

So how did it go with Oblivion? Well at first I was stuck in that dreadful sewer-level but there was some sort of progress. I was waiting if the story might get interesting and less cliché. I gave the game the benefit of doubt as it was forcing me through this tutorial-type scenario. Then Martor crawled out of the sewer and into the greater world. This was the point where exploration as a concept started. There was some progress mixed in there too.

The game kind of failed me when I had visited most locations, killing exploration, emotion wasn't too much in the game from the very beginning and then progress died because I was refusing to grind due to the lack of mechanical fun in that one. So it all fell apart at that point. Killing bandits and wolves was no fun whatsovever. This is not a problem of repetition, it's a problem of the game mechanics not being any fun to me. If you'd ask me to play the airport-level of Oni fifty times in a row I'd be like "Hah! I beat you to it already. Done that over a decade ago!" But have me do ten sidequests in Oblivion and by now I say "no. Why?"

Why indeed. Why do I pile hours into a game that isn't fun? For the progress? Is that worth it? No, not with the time-constraints I have as an adult. The game just doesn't add up for me. Which gets me back to FTL. I sank around thirty-five hours into that game within a month. That is a lot when you're a grown-up, kids. As the game has perma-death and is rather unforgiving and sometimes simply stacked against you, most of that time was repeating things. There was some exploration but it was mostly simply mechanical fun. At no point did it feel tedious. THAT is grand design.

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