We’ve really gotten used to the idea of video games being a young medium—and in many ways, they very much are. We’re still arguing about whether or not video games are art, whether or not video games should be archived, and even whether or not certain video games are video games at all. But in being so young, we sometimes overlook certain tropes, character archetypes, or other so-called “staples” of the genre that are getting old. The following are four old-school game mechanics that used to make sense, but, like your “cool” uncle, have begun to feel more annoying and out-of-touch with every passing year.
I’ll tell you one of my shameful secrets: I didn’t finish a Pokémon game until Gen IV. Don’t get me wrong—I played all the previous generations, starting with Gen I. I loved Pokémon. I was fanatical about it. I would play day and night from sun-up ‘til sun-down. But all those playthroughs followed the same pattern: I’d start playing and running around exploring to my heart’s content, gathering up only the few Pokémon in the game I liked, and bonding with them as only a true Pokémon fan can. I’d take out all the gym leaders, then I’d travel through Victory Road to reach the Elite Four. And then, like clockwork, I would stop playing.
Why? Easy: the Elite Four were all way higher level than I was. As a kid, I couldn’t understand it. I’d played the game through, just like it told me to. My team had had no trouble defeating the final gym leader. Why weren’t my Pokémon strong enough to defeat the Elite Four? It took me until I was almost 20 to understand the crucial part of the game I’d missed: grinding.
Techopedia defines grinding as the act of “doing repetitive tasks within a game to unlock a particular game item or to build the experience needed to progress smoothly through the game.” It’s a standard feature of most Japanese RPGs and action/adventure titles—Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and Fire Emblem all have it—and it’s also found its way into Western games (most prominently MMOs). Grinding is a fantastically common way to extend gameplay time without building any new game content. On the development side of things, it’s easy to program and easy to produce.
But here’s the thing: grinding sucks.
That’s one of the reasons it eluded me as a kid. Grinding isn’t just repetitive and unintuitive—it’s tedious. It’s a chore. There are scores of videos on the internet about how to grind in the easiest way possible because so many games demand it, and, much like any other chore, nobody likes doing it. Nobody likes vacuuming, nobody likes taking out the trash, and nobody likes grinding. Grinding may be a mechanic that’s cheap to produce, but it comes at the expense of player experience. In most games that utilize grinding, you could be stuck doing it for days—tens of hours of gameplay effectively wasted just to get to unlock the next part of the game. Grinding demands that you stop having fun for a while and work for it.
It could be argued that grinding makes you earn that next bit of fun. And maybe, in some cases, that’s true. When a game is built around grinding, it can make all the difference. For me, Kingdom Hearts comes to mind. In KH, grinding involves doing non-essential story missions that expand the universe and the cast, or killing huge groups of enemies. Grinding is part of the fun. But when the fun payout is disproportionate to the time spent earning it, it takes a toll, especially when players know that they’re just going to have to spend more time grinding once the fun is over. More often than not, grinding turns an entertaining experience into a mindless slog. For that reason alone, I think it’s about time the mechanic retired.
If grinding is a flatulent retiree overstaying its welcome, farming is its over-invasive life partner. Farming is the act of repetitively collecting items or currency one needs in order to gain access to upgrades or game content. Usually, this demands killing enemies, breaking objects, or camping in a specific area of the game to collect item, currency, and EXP drops.
There are a million variations on farming—gold farming, EXP farming, orb farming, soul farming, actual farming (in Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing), etc.—and in a lot of online circles, you can pay other people to do it for you. But that doesn’t reduce the tediousness. Often times, it’s exactly the opposite; game economies inflated by gold farmers, for example, demand that players farm more, longer, for progressively more useless yields.
Farming, like grinding, is meant to forestall player progression. In the immortal words of Arin Hanson, “These kinds of things are meant to elongate a game. They are made to manipulate you into thinking you are achieving something more than you are actually achieving.” The longer one has to work at farming experience, currency, or a specific item in order to progress in the game, the longer a gaming experience ultimately lasts. But, like grinding, this isn’t time a player spends having fun or immersing themselves in the game world—it’s time they spend doing one repetitive task over and over to buy passage on the S.S. Funtime.
Although grinding could arguably be said to level the playing field between naturally skilled players (who will progress more easily than 80% of their peers), farming invalidates this almost entirely, both by allowing online players to literally outsource their grinds, and by making avatar strength disproportionately more important than player skill. If you’ve ever played MMOs, you can attest to this: player skill means basically nothing if you don’t have the best weapons, the best armor, or the highest attainable level in the game.
Some developers have tried to address this by setting level caps for PvP matches and other online features, which kind of works. But the fundamental problem remains—with farming as a mainstay feature, players aren’t rewarded for being good at the game, they’re being rewarded for sinking a requisite amount of time into the game. And while that might be a decent business model, it certainly doesn’t feel very nice.
There’s another way that games cheaply block progress: backtracking. “Backtracking” describes the act of traveling back through areas you’ve already beaten or traversed after encountering an insurmountable obstacle. This occasionally happens when you defeat a boss at the end of a level. But usually it happens in the middle of a level, when you find a roadblock—something that demands you go back to an area you already visited in order to retrieve something you either didn’t know you needed or couldn’t retrieve before.
Now, there’s a way to do backtracking right—by setting up new obstacles and enemies that weren’t there when a player went through the first time, or by creating new methods or paths to allow players to travel much faster than they did on their initial approach. But there’s a way to do backtracking wrong, too, and it’s vastly more common than the alternative. In the Pokémon series, it manifests in errand-running: going through a level, retrieving something on the other side, and then backtracking through the same level to deposit that thing at the entrance or into the hands of a companion: Bill, Lance, Professor Oak, etc. In the Tomb Raider franchise, it manifests in forcing you to backtrack all the way out of a tomb you’ve completed, rather than just teleporting you directly to the surface. Backtracking—the annoying, unfun kind—is so prevalent that it can catch players really off guard in games where it doesn’t exist. I was totally caught by surprise when I couldn’t backtrack through tombs in Assassin’s Creed 2; not because I wanted to, but because I expected to have to.
Backtracking allows developers to reuse environments they’ve already created and coded, which saves on production resources. But, like grinding and farming, the need for backtracking forestalls entertainment. And, unlike grinding and farming, backtracking never makes you feel like you’re earning anything special. Ultimately, you can opt into grinding and farming. Your gaming experience will probably blow some pretty massive chunks if you skip it entirely, but if you want to, you can. Backtracking isn’t optional in the context of the game—if you want to continue playing, you have to backtrack. You have to go back the way you came. And there’s nothing exciting about that. If grinding and farming are chores, backtracking is the daily commute—the same level of tediousness without any of the reward.
By this point in the article, you’ve probably figured out that I have a real problem with games forcing me to wait to enjoy myself. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have an even bigger problem with games that explicitly ask me to wait to enjoy myself.
Arbitrary wait times are what they sound like. They’re wait times determined by a game apropos of nothing, for HP/MP restoration, task completion, enemy or item regeneration, etc. Arbitrary wait times are generally associated with mobile games or MMOs, but they’ve been observable in Japanese games since the 1980s. (I’m thinking specifically of Takeshi’s Challenge, but more recent games like Animal Crossing employ it, too.)
Like a line at the DMV, arbitrary wait times are things one just has to endure. They aren’t something you do; they’re something you literally have to wait out. As a dev, arbitrary wait times alarm me. They seem like the thing you’d most want to avoid as a developer: a mechanic that all but begs players to turn off their console and walk away. Hope you can find something else to do, because at least for the time determined, you won’t be playing this game! Why? Because the game says so, that’s why.
Moreso than anything else I’ve listed here, I want this mechanic removed from gaming altogether. I want the person who came up with it to walk straight into glass doors every day for the rest of their life. It just seems like something that was imagined in the absence of talent or ability. It doesn’t even reuse an environment or build up avatar strength; it just drops a roadblock in front of the player, one that may not even have the decency to disguise itself as anything else.
Don’t even mention the one time arbitrary wait times were clever and funny. The laws and limitations of this plane of reality do not govern Hideo Kojima. They never have.