It seems like the biggest mark that any MMO can have against it is that it is too grindy. It takes forever to attain some goal or another. Normally it is levied against leveling but often it is also attributed to obtaining other objectives gated behind some set amount of repetitive action. Oddly many people who say that an MMO has an unbearable level grind are the same people who will spend hours each week in instances to down bosses to obtain a random chance of obtaining a piece of gear they covet. They often do not recognize that as a grind.
I am of a different opinion. With rare exceptions I do not believe there is a grind. Well, at least not in the manner other people describe the grind. I admit that MMOs tend to be repetitive in nature and often progression is gated behind an unseemly amount of repetition. The problem, however, is that people tend to feel compelled to tackle the repetition in a single block. I argue that it is this compulsion, not the repetitive nature of the gate, which defines the grind.
Let me give some examples to back up my line of reasoning. I’ll use two games, Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO) and Team Fortress 2 (TF2). I chose them mainly because I currently play several hours a week in both and have put in an astounding amount of time into both over the years. I am closing in on 400 hours in LotRO and have surpassed 500 hours in TF2.
First lets look at TF2. It is a multi-player, PvP first person shooter. Like most FPS games the levels, while intricate, are quite static. While Valve has done a wonderful job of releasing new maps during TF2′s 3 years of release I play many of the maps originally released with the game. I play them with glee. There is nothing new left in those maps for me to discover. Even the newer maps are thoroughly discovered within several rounds of play. Only the interaction with the other players varies from round to round. However I shy away from servers which play the same maps 24/7. I prefer 20-30 minutes per map and generally stick to game types I prefer to play (5-point CP or PL maps) while shunning play styles I dislike (KOTH, CTF, 3-point CP/PL maps). This behavior is key to the longevity of not only this FPS but any FPS I play.
In LotRO there are plenty of areas the game can feel grindy. First there are the levels themselves. LotRO’s leveling is not as glacial as the original MMOs were but it certainly isn’t the 2-week whirlwind-to-level-cap most modern MMOs aim for. My first character to reach the level cap of 65 took a good 3 months of playing with a few hours a night. Call it well over 200 hours.
Then there are the deeds. These are a way of improving your character independent of just leveling up. They are often gated behind repeating a certain action hundreds of times or defeating a certain type of foe, in a certain zone, hundreds of times. There’s also crafting, Legendary Items, Skirmishes and so on.
But LotRO is no more a grind to me than TF2 is. The reason is the same in both cases. I don’t feel compelled to tackle any one task in its entirety in one, prolonged sitting. In TF2 I only play maps I like for 20-30 minutes at a time. Then it is a new map, and new distribution of players per team. In LotRO when I got tired of leveling (often via quests) I’d take a break to gather materials for my crafting. If I got tired of that I’d run Skirmishes for a while, or do some exploring. For the deeds where I have to kill hundreds of mobs in a given zone I just make it a point to tackle the requisite mobs while doing other things in the zone. In this way I often find I have a completed a deed before ever really starting to thing about it.
Simply put, if what I am doing is becoming tiresome and boring I stop doing it. Since the grind is doing some repetitive action far longer than you wish to by not performing that action more than you wish to there is no grind. This is why players who feel that leveling is a grind can spend twice the hours per week running the same instances over and over just to get a chance at a random drop for a piece of gear that will be replaced in a month or two by doing the same thing in a different instance. It is because they prefer the instance runs to the often solo-play of leveling via quests. They push themselves to quest for levels far beyond what they want to. They self-inflict the grind. Much how some people, like myself, view the instanced gear gating of the end game a grind when coupled with guilds that have mandatory attendance requirements.
So rejoice, gamers, and realize that the grind only exists when you choose to inflict it upon yourself. Rejoice in knowing that it is a choice and you can choose to simply do something else for a time. Nothing but yourself is saying you need to do that action over-and-over in a single, protracted sitting. Knowing that you know how to free yourself. Just say “No more” when you get tired of doing something. A know when someone else says such-and-such an MMO is too grindy, remember it is more a reflection on them and their playing habits than of the game in question.