By “character development”, I of course mean the process of making your character more powerful or developed. In early Mario games, this doesn’t happen at all. In Deus Ex, you found weapon mods, improved skills, and installed nano-augmentations in your own body as the story progressed. In Final Fantasy IX, you got four coral rings and went to the cliff outside Gizmaluke’s Grotto and killed dragons for a while. In Diablo III, you hurried the fuck up to get to level 70, then ground on forever to get high level equipment drops.
In one of my favorite games, NoX, progression is controlled by limiting the supply of enemies, money, and equipment. You can be extra thorough and reach maximum level several maps early. You can use as few resources as possible for most of the game in order to purchase the best sword in the game at the last vendor — or you can spend every gold piece as soon as you get it, always trying to stay ahead of the game. Except the game doesn’t have enough useful purchaseable items, so if you want to be terribly resource constrained near the end of the game, you’ve probably bought pretty badass equipment recently or just avoided any semblance of exploration.
This is a relatively controlled type of leveling. It tends to result in only one option for difficulty. Better players will complete the game with ease while worse ones will struggle. Rewarding exploration with items and experience can help to make up for low skill levels. Like grinding, it’s the optimal strategy. Unlike grinding, exploration produces finite benefits, which means you have to put more effort into tuning the difficulty and will still end up excluding some players.
I remember in Final Fantasy IX, my party went from level 25 to level 65 in about half an hour, at which point random encounters became an annoyance — my party could crush everything it found. I would have been happy with them if they were rarer, and even happier if the battle intro animation made it clear that I was so much stronger. When I go into boss battles, the bosses get their own groovy intro sequences; when the odds are even more in my favor, why don’t I? And destroying your enemies with extreme overkill is fun sometimes. But when it gets to be every encounter, and you only get to travel fifteen or twenty seconds on the world map between random encounters, something’s wrong. It’s rather realistic, but it throws annoyances at you constantly.
Diablo III takes a much different approach to grinding. Final Fantasy allows it; Diablo III demands it. You replay levels and gain more experience, but the game doesn’t become easier simply because you’re level 60 rather than level 10. Rather, you have access to a wider array of abilities, and the enemies that gave you trouble before are just as tough as they were, kill you in the same number of hits, take the same number of shots to die.
You defeated the Prime Evil! You killed the seven greatest demons and Diablo himself! You did what the assembled hosts of heaven couldn’t! And then you go back to New Tristram and nearly get killed by a pack of shambling corpses. It’s grinding without the satisfaction. The only thing worth grinding for is legendary items that give you special buffs, and even that is boring.
And conversely, if you managed to get to Diablo at level 1, you could take him out. Apparently the correct thing to do when faced with the most fearsome foe of all time is to identify roving adventurers with murky pasts, sit them in a cellar, and keep them there while your assembled armies take care of the problem. Otherwise your problems will just grow uncontrollably. It’s absurd and unsatisfying.
That’s two bad examples of grinding and one example of not grinding. I’ll speculate about how to implement grinding properly next post.