I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time but not the longest time. My first serious RPG that I actually finished was Pokemon Red (1998) on the Gameboy. It’s important to note that as a handheld RPG the experience of playing it is/was much different than that of a home console RPG. It wasn’t until three years later that I beat Final Fantasy X (2001) on the PS2. While this was not the first console RPG I ever played, it was the first one I ever finished. The first one I can remember playing was Digimon World (1999) on the PS1. I put many hours into this game and enjoyed it quite a bit but was ultimately never able to complete it, which I actually blame on design flaws due to the nature of the generation style gameplay. Call me a noob if you want, but that’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. I had been aware of RPGs like the highly prestigious Final Fantasy VII, but I never completed any console RPGs before FFX. I consider this the true start point of my love for RPGs. And I still consider FFX the best FF after having now played FFVII, FFX, FFXII, FFXIII, and some spin off titles.
I would now consider myself a high level RPG enthusiast. I have and continue to play both Western and JRPGs such as SoulsBorne, Nioh, Elder Scrolls, The Division (I’d say it counts), Xenoblade Chronicles, Pokemon, Dragon Age, and of course Kingdom Hearts. This genre has evolved considerably since I first started playing it. Gameplay has changed from turn based to active and real time combat. The level of customization has evolved from a single weapon and armor to countless pieces of gear, accessories, skill trees, and even aesthetic appearance. Dialog has become dynamic and consequential. In a lot of ways we are kind of living through the golden age of RPGs. But one thing has remained consistent over all these generations of consoles and games. I’m of course talking about grinding.
Grinding, or training as we called it in my youth, is the process of battling enemies over and over again with no relevance to plot progression. It is merely a way to strengthen your character(s) in order to make combat easier. Often this occurs when you’re stuck on a boss or area and can’t progress forward in the plot. But often it’s just for the vanity of reaching the level cap. In any case, it’s the most mindless part of playing any RPG but is required to complete just about all of them, in some form.
Some games handle grinding better than others. The Division 2 did a great job of handling baseline grinding to the level 30 cap, in my opinion. It’s organic, as in you just play through the base game and by the time you clear all the missions and side activities you’re at or above level 30. You don’t have to really grind because you never have to replay any content to reach maximum level. But as this is a loot shooter, you will then spend an exorbitant amount of time replaying missions for better gear, which yes does count as grinding in its own way, but I won’t include it for the purposes of argument in the point I’m trying to make in this particular post.
Some games meet you in the middle with grinding, where it’s not required, ignoring trophies, but can be used as a tool. Final Fantasy X is like this. You can grind to pretty much unlimited levels, amassing unnecessarily high strength stats, making all bosses a cake walk. But you aren’t required to do this. You can challenge whatever boss you’re at whenever you want. If you’re good enough, by implementing strategy, you can progress without grinding. You will almost certainly have to do at least a bit of grinding though as the bosses get progressively harder and you need better magic spells. In general though, the model used for grinding in the game is very balanced. You don’t have to do it, but you can, and when you do there’s no reason to try to fully max out your characters. You just do it enough to get to the strength level that makes you happy/comfortable.
Finally, some games just shit on the players by forcing them to grind. That doesn’t necessarily mean the game sucks as a whole. It just means that the implementation of grinding within the game is predatory in nature because it acts as a time sink to artificially lengthen the game. This is most often done in games with either level minimums to progress past a certain point in the plot or stat requirements for gear. You see this a lot in Soulsborne games. You find a piece of gear and it’s better than what you currently have equipped but you can’t use it till you reach a higher specific stat. But raising stats is tied to leveling. So you then have to spend a bunch of time grinding out levels just so you can equip a new piece of gear. This is burdensome and honestly pointless. It’s not a level threshold that defines any sort of skill level or ability to move forward in the game. It’s just a wall from content placed behind time played vs dollars spent. Such a system may have been passable back in the days where there were few RPGs and kids needed games to last longer because of cost issues. But the mechanic was never really a good thing as far as objective game design criticism.
Making games arbitrarily longer with no ties/relevance to story is simply bad design. The saving grace of Soulsborne games in this instance is that you technically can progress forward without needing to use that piece of gear. Because of mechanics things like summoning help, you don’t actually have to take any time to grind in Soulsborne games if you don’t want to. So From Software took the time to balance their grinding system out, which is why I wouldn’t criticize those games overall on the issue of grinding, even though I’ve used them here to exemplify this predatory grinding mechanic.
As I said, I’ve been playing RPGs for many years and still do. Recently I finished Kingdom Hearts II on Proud Mode. It took me 55 hours including all the bonus stuff I could be asked to do. I maxed out all the drive forms, defeated Sephiroth, beat all the Organization XIII members/Absent Silhouettes, defeated Lingering Will, grabbed all the puzzle pieces, and solved all the puzzles. So it’s finally time to move on to the next game in the collection as I make my way to Kingdom Hearts III. One of the things I did was reach level 99. I always do this in main Kingdom Hearts games for a few reasons. Part of it is the trophy, part of it is that the amount of time it takes me to get all the materials to fully finish the synthesis list gets me close enough to make it worth going the rest of the way, and part of it is the difficulty of the Sephiroth battle. In the case of KHII, I spent an unnecessary amount of time grinding. Not a preposterous amount like I have in other RPGs, but more time than should have been wasted on mindless grinding. And if you count farming for materials as part of grinding then that amount of wasted hours balloons even more. But I did it because it’s just what you (I) do in these games.
As I was finishing up the climb to level 99, I asked myself, “why is this still a thing?” Why are we still being asked to grind in RPGs? For some games, such as the aforementioned Soulsborne titles, you’re not really grinding because death is a key mechanic to the gameplay. So while grinding does happen, you’re never really able to say that you’re mindlessly grinding. And since there isn’t really a level cap, you don’t have any reason to grind other than the need to get stronger. So I don’t really include games like that in the discussion. But in normal xp focused RPGs I don’t see any practical reason for grinding to be a thing in 2019. If I’ve already killed an enemy 100 times, clearly I’ve mastered fighting that enemy. So at that point why not just allow me to automatically level up to wherever I want to be rather that making me refight the same enemies over and over and over again? I know what level I want to get to. I know why I’m leveling up. I’m not looking for any specific items. I just want/need xp to reach my level goals.
It seems preposterous in 2019 to have to waste time mindlessly killing enemies for experience points that you don’t need to progress forward in the game. The fact is that I didn’t need to hit level 99 to finish the game. I probably didn’t even need to hit level 99 to beat Sephiroth. So what is the actual value in taking the time to reach level 99? Or more to the point, why is getting to level 99 such a time sink? It’s just making the game take longer unnecessarily. Now KHII is a game from 14 years ago, so obviously it’s not fair to cast a blanket shadow over the RPGs of today based on that game. But has much about grinding really changed in 14 years? Not really. Some has been done to make the grinding seem more justified like trying to tie it a bit more into the story or gear in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy. But it doesn’t change the fact that in the bulk of RPGs players are still forced to mindlessly battle the same foes over and over for xp, past any point of actual learning. It’s referred to as grinding because it’s a real grind as opposed to an entertaining, educational, or relevant experience. So at that point, why are we still doing it? And note that I’m not asking why as in we as players should stop hitting the level cap. I’m asking why as in developers should remove or streamline this mechanic in games.
I never played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. I played the PS4 HD port last year. And you know what, I’m fairly certain it was way better than the original. The PS4 port has cheats built into it. Not cheats that make the game easier. Just cheats that make the game faster. You can increase the speed of the game as far as how fast everything moves including battles, walking, and text. You can increase the accumulation of xp so you can grind less but level up faster. And you can increase the speed of special move/overdrive accumulation so that special moves don’t require you to go do a bunch of random battles to fill them up. And the best part is you can toggle these on and off at literally any time. This is not an easy mode. These are quality of life changes that the player has full autonomy over at all times. What used to take a hundred or more hours now can be done in under 50. The story isn’t affected. The gameplay isn’t affected. And unless you count the hours spent grinding as part of the difficulty, the challenge of the game isn’t affected. This was a great modern port and I’m glad I got to finally finish FFVII because of it. Which leaves me asking the question, why aren’t more RPGs like this?
I don’t mind farming for materials. It’s annoying but it’s a legitimate part of the challenge of the game. I don’t mind having a level up mechanic. That’s what an RPG is. But in 2019 with a huge backlog of games, many of them being RPGs, I just don’t want to spend tons of hours grinding. I don’t want to do it because it’s not fun and it’s not legitimately challenging. Grinding is not difficulty. It’s a waste of my time. Once I’ve killed an enemy x number of times, just let me pick the level I want to upgrade to so I can move on. Even if it just became an endgame mechanic in RPGs, that would be fine. Like once you hit that open world backtracking portion of the game and a certain minimum level or number of kills has been done, the game should just let you choose what level to upgrade to. Or at the very least let you increase the xp multiplier by a considerable amount. That was one of the things I didn’t know about KHII while playing the bulk of it. You can triple your xp accumulation if you’re using a certain keyblade, which I didn’t get until I was already in the high 80’s but could have gotten back at like level 50. That would have made the endgame way more efficient.
As long as it’s fun, I don’t mind. Like if there are new enemies to tackle and rewards to find, then I’m fine with leveling up manually. But if I’m reengaging the same enemies in the same areas countless times for items I absolutely don’t need, like in the case of KHII, then what’s the point? When you don’t have any other games to play and no money, it’s fine. As a kid, spending more than a hundred hours on FFX, Kingdom Hearts I, and The Elder Scroll IV: Oblivion was great. It gave me something to do. But as an adult with The Witcher 2, The Witcher 3, The Surge, Dark Souls 3, Final Fantasy XV, World of Final Fantasy, and Kingdom Hearts III all on my “short” list with countless other games on my backlog in total, I don’t need to waste a single minute on throwaway gameplay. And I shouldn’t have to. I don’t want games to be easier. I don’t even want them to be shorter. I just want them to be meaningful for every minute of the game. If it’s not a meaningful experience or at the very least something I haven’t done before, then I shouldn’t be forced to do it more than a handful of times to reach my goal. This is not a discussion about making Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice easier. That shouldn’t happen. This is a discussion about how a Final Fantasy VII HD Remake won’t be a better game than the original if you still have to pour in countless hours to level up just to fight a bonus boss for a trophy. I guess what I’m saying is can we just be done with grinding?