Ground to Dust

Game publishers are ruining their games with one simple mechanic

I’ve been ruminating a few weeks on the issue of cheating. It all started with Bethesda banning cheaters in Fallout 76 even though that game was so horrible and broken that cheating seemed the only option to make any parts of it bearable. I usually don’t advocate cheating in multiplayer games but considering the PvP aspect of Fallout 76 was so vestigial, cumbersome and unrewarding that I really didn’t see how cheating could even negatively effect it.

I admit that the article was poorly written for my standards, more akin to an angry stream of consciousness rant than a cohesive, well constructed argument. That said, it did serve as a catalyst for me to examine something that had bugged me considerably in the last couple of years. That subject is grind, or to be more precise, its rise in “AAA” games.

Most gamers will be familiar with the concept of grind, but for those unaware it is a term coined in MMOs (though precedes them) which means the investment of a great deal of time and resources in order to surmount an artificial obstacle in the game to unlock more content. Many MMOs are built around these mechanics as they are (or were) subscription based, and creating artificial barriers for progress encourages players to continue and pay for the experience. The form the grind takes may differ from genre to genre but it remains identical in essence.

An example of grind from an MMO I played are officer modules in EVE Online. Of course with the in-game market its possible to purchase them (at a high price) from other players but if a player wants to get them themselves they’ll have to find the region the specific officer spawns. They will then have to find which systems have the highest negative security which increases the possibility of said officer to spawn in the system. After that, they will have to scan belts and celestial objects after every scheduled downtime. Once they did kill the officer, they have to loot the wreck and hope the item they wanted spawned. Otherwise they’ll have to keep doing so until the correct item drops, which is all based on loot mechanics coded and controlled by the developers.

This is of course just one example, and there are many more, but its enough I think to illustrate the point. Grind is putting countless hours into a singular activity. I don’t think there is something wrong with grind in particular. I play a lot of games where grind is a key component. A lot of JRPGs for example, like the Final Fantasy or Yakuza series. Heck, the entire dungeon crawler genre is based on it (Diablo III or Path of Exile anyone?). That said the grind in all of them is kind of the point. You grind to become stronger, get the best gear and take down bosses.

I am pointing this out because lately the grind had seeped into games in which it has no business appearing in. Games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to name a few have all had grind shoved into them without any adequate reason. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that series about pounding tactical espionage action and assassins respectively had little to do with grind and loot. Of course I’d be very wrong.

The reason for these mechanics isn’t in service to the story or the experience because neither series had these mechanics to begin with. Metal Gear Solid had been up until then a third person stealth\tactical shooter with a somewhat bonkers premise, ridiculous characters and many botched ideas though with some poignant points (more on this in a future article) and Assassin’s Creed was about assassinating people in various historical settings and the occasional pirate adventure. So why was there an introduction of grind elements in the form of base management, unlocks, resources and weapon tiers? Simply put – Microtransactions.

In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain players could buy currency to speed up research projects or purchase the mad amount of resources needed to unlock more stuff further down the line. In Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey players can purchase experience boosts in order to level up faster, not to mention the usual loot box malarkey. Reading user reviews of the latter I got the same impression I got playing the former – A fast, smooth progression at the start which quickly hits a concrete wall in the middle game, forcing countless hours of repeated grind just to surpass what feels in every conceivable way an artificial road block.

I could feel in my playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain how the grind was negatively effecting the story and my own enjoyment. It became so slow, tedious and soul crushing that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit the game because I just couldn’t keep clearing these artificial road blocks even though I was enjoying the story (as weird and insane as it went). The grind was literally holding the story hostage for me and asking me to pay for it. Yeah, not gonna happen. I don’t negotiate with terrorists . And for what was all of this done? As stated above, microtransactions.

After all, these are genuine modern ills in genres that had never been truly plagued with them before. An experience that throttles enjoyment from a story, halves or even halts progress and threatens players with endless tedium. However this malady has a cure. Funnily enough, the same publishers that sell you this ailing game have the medicine to treat it. The only thing a player needs to do to lessen or completely ignore this disease is to pay cash. In return, the publishers will give them the experience boosts, top tier gear and all the needed resources to remove the blocks they imposed to begin with.

Of course, some people have been skeptical of this. They refuse to believe publishers will sabotage their own products to such a degree and often insist that the extra monetization is simply an aid for people who have less time on their hands. The excuses baffle me completely because they ignore the examples to the contrary. The biggest one is Middle Earth: Shadow of War. The sequel to the unexpected hit Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it was saddled with microtransactions from the start to such a degree as to cheapen its main selling point (the nemesis system) and turn the final act into a test of patience as players were forced to grind endlessly in order to unlock the game’s true ending. When the publisher saw no further profit from direct monetization, they had the developers remove it in order to score some publicity points and pick a few late sales. This forced the developers to revamp the entire game economy in order to remove the microtransactions.

Would the exclusion of microtransactions from the start had boosted the popularity of Middle Earth: Shadow of War and had players express more favorable opinions to its story? Possible. What is known though, is that the microtransactions had alienated part of the original game’s player base, caused a lot of bad publicity for the game itself and left a lot of actual paying players with bad taste. A good game completely ruined by a mechanic that had no point being included to begin with.

This is the core of it all. This addition of grind feels foreign in such series, because it is. Grind was never meant to be core to the Metal Gear Solid experience, and I certainly don’t remember Assassin’s Creed formula requiring endless faff to get better weapons. In fact, the story progression rewarded the players with the tools needed. Now though, if a player wanted a better weapon, they ought to grind enough hours to gather the resources for it, have it spawn as a percentage drop or perhaps buy a loot box and hope they get it – basically gamble.

This is the end result of the microtransactions and loot boxes. After all, for companies to get more digital currency sales, they need to create demand. For demand to exist, they need an incentive for players to purchase microtransactions. Just carving parts of the game and day one downloadable contents isn’t enough and often have negative coverage. Instead, put in soul crushing grind and offer people the ability to skip it with an easy payment. Its so scummy and transparent as to make my skin crawl. It is also very effective as microtransaction revenue keeps growing.

The worst part is that many gaming sites fail to report on this at the start. Grind itself is often set up at the middle\late game in order to trap customers. Give players the feeling of smooth progression, get them hooked on the rewards then spring the trap when they are already halfway into the story. Since many game sites compete to release early reviews, they fail to mention the effects of the microtransactions because they rarely reach the grind stretches. After all launch windows are small and writers need to push reviews out as fast as possible for consumers to read. Missing that window literally costs money for those sites. Whatsmore, if they lean too hard on the score due to the effects of over monetization, they may get blacklisted by publishers, which further decreases their launch window opportunity. Not to mention that nowadays many publishers simply keep the microtransactions offline during the review window and turn it up after the period where most game copy sales are made (usually the first couple of weeks).

The last part is that in order to accommodate these services and limit consumer recourse, many major publishers seek to introduce their own platforms. Electronic Arts’ (with the biggest quotation mark on the Arts) Origin, Activision Blizzard’s Battlenet and Ubisoft’s Uplay are all examples of platforms created specifically at first to sell the publisher’s games and now offload microtransactions. Even Bethesda has gotten into the game with their own buggy, broken launcher and I suspect we may see more major publishers go this route. The problem with such platforms is how cumbersome they become. The average gamer will often purchase a game from Steam, then will need to install a Uplay or Origin client, register in that client and make sure its online just to play the game. God forbids if that player loses connection to the internet. What happens in five – six years when the publishers’ turn off the specific game’s server? The answer is one non functioning game. So much for amassing a game library and replaying games.

Yet we continue to see the insidious introduction of more grind into games. We already lost the sports games to them and now they threaten all sandbox games. What will be next? Will we need to grind hours or buy a loot box in order to get a tank in a real strategy game? Will recruiting soldiers in grand strategy games take two real time hours unless I purchase a booster from the online store? Will a weapon in a first person shooter only become usable if I gather 230 pieces of metal playing online matches? If yes, then I suspect that I’d be turning to other developers for my games, or just cheat. Because cheating seems to be the only remedy for the amount of grinding required to play any modern game. So let us cheat and be proud of it. Fuck grinding!

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