Why We Grind in RPGs

"Grinding", for those who may not have much history with the role-playing genre is the act of repeatedly fighting enemies in order to gain experience so that their characters can grow stronger. Players may grind for various different reasons depending on the game. One might find themselves a few levels too weak to defeat a difficult boss. Or perhaps there are certain incentives for leveling up- skill unlocks or much needed stat points to allot. Regardless of the case, anyone who has played an RPG before can say that at least one point in time they have found themselves mindlessly grinding away.

I have been playing Square Enix's Bravely Default for the last month or so. While I have been enjoying the game greatly, I have yet to finish the story. With over 60 hours in and a general idea as to where the game ends, I can confidently say that I am not even halfway through. That is not to say that the game takes over 100 hours to finish (though I'm sure that might be the case for 100% completion), it's that I've spent so much time leveling my characters.

Why We Grind in RPGs

With Bravely Default, you have two leveling systems. There is the characters' overall level, and then there is the "Job" level. The overall level is indicative of how much experience points a character has and how many "Level ups" the character has received, that is to say static stat boosts. The Job level dictates which skills you have unlocked for any of the 24 classes. One of the glorious features of the game is that you can turn off either or both of the types of experience gain. So if I have a spare hour here or there, I turn off standard experience and grind out some job levels.

Though this might seem like a boring way to pass the time, another thing that Bravely Default does so well is the combat animations. While they aren't as spectacular as something one could find in a console game, they are satisfying to watch. I'll find myself lost in the flurry of hit sparks and effects, watching my damage numbers eventually get higher and higher. This is supplemented by the clever "Auto-battle" mechanic, which allows you to automatically use the same actions you used on the previous turn, negating having to go through the same menus ad nauseam. With this, your eyes are bombarded with visuals that you have to put minimal effort in to achieving.

Why We Grind in RPGs

When we compare that to games like those in Atlus' Etrian Odyssey series, the effects of grinding are far from the same. In Etrian Odyssey, you have one experience bar that fills very slowly. There are few safe zones to be found where one can harvest levels. The player needs to be constantly aware of the type of foes they are fighting, as at any given moment there could an enemy that the player is simply not equipped to deal with. Because of this, gaining experience at the beginning of the game can be found to be a bit of a slog as you're restricted to fighting simple monsters until you can afford that basic equipment upgrade or that vital skill necessary to take out the next dungeon's creatures.

Why We Grind in RPGs

While the newest Etrian Odyssey games include a simple auto-battle feature in which all party members perform the basic attack command, random encounters are still frequent, slow affairs. Hindering this is the relative simplicity of the combat screen. Early on in the franchise, the games used static images for enemies. While the art was fantastic and well made, it was far from engaging. Combine this with the fact that the series presents gameplay in the first person format, and you'll end up with a game that is visually unexciting. Even in the latest entries, Etrian Odyssey IV and the remake of the first game in the series, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, which transitioned in to using 3D models (again, which were crafted quite well) for enemies, the player probably won't be astounded by the visuals.

The player might not feel like they're making any progress, and might even feel bored, until they take a step back and realize exactly how far they've gotten. Eventually enemies you were fighting hours ago, enemies that used to hit like trucks, are dropping like flies. Even the elite class of monsters, FOEs, which are meant to be ignored at their first encounter, become manageable if you go in to battle prepared. As slow as progress may be, it feels much more rewarding when you take a second and acknowledge it. To see the effects of your effort and decisions feels particularly great.

Why We Grind in RPGs

Comparing the two games, the difference is apparent in the approach to grinding. Bravely Default practically encourages it, with a robust class system that is begging to be explored and exploited, and welcome additions to the genre that hasten the process. Meanwhile Etrian Odyssey demands it of the player, forcing them to tackle enemies over and over in order to achieve the skills necessary to move on. While one game has more zest in the visuals approach, the other actually gives a sense of reward once you finally topple an obstacle.

Despite grinding being something that is necessary at some time in most RPGs, it's important to keep in mind why it's there. At what point are we supposed look at our game and decide whether we are playing it just to rack up 9999s or if we're actually trying to finish it?

[Images via gamespot.com , nintendoworldreport.com , and technologytell.com]