Postcards From The Clipping Plane e
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach asks: should devs cater to grinders, or ignore e them?
Nearly every developer I’ve ever met has also been a great lover of playing videogames. It’s obvious, really. Love of videogames plus chunk of talent equals job in the videogame industry. But gaming is a very different experience for those who know how they’re made. First off, we love looking for imperfections. It’s not enough that we make games and people like buying them; others make games and we must find their mistakes and errors. I’m not talking about crashes and show-stopping bugs. Finding those in games is just heartbreaking. No, I mean the little things. The bad animations, the glitches, and, for me in particular, the misread or badly delivered lines of dialogue.
Not only do dev types analyse every game, but they play them differently. I have seen AI programmers defeat hordes of NPCs simply by knowing how their algorithms are put together. It was like watching someone employ god mode. And others intuitively understand shortcuts, tricks and other devices in games because if they’d worked on those titles, they’ve had done the same. Sometimes it’s as simple as just knowing where the hidden collectible items are going to be located. You just know.
Back when I was reviewing dozens of games a month, one of the things I had to be good at was getting as far into a game as possible in the shortest time. Owing to our magazine deadlines, we simply didn’t have the luxury of days and weeks to fully explore the nuances of every game. Luckily, though, these were simpler times, and not many games were particularly nuanced, so it usually worked out fine. As a reviewer, what was important was that, if you sometimes couldn’t see all of a game, you had to have seen as much of it as possible. It’s actually a bit shocking, really. Imagine writing a film or music album review without having experienced it in its entirety. But if you have two days in which to turn out 500 words about a game, it’s likely that there are bits of it you will never have seen.
Now, I play games for two reasons. The first is that I’m working on them, so it’s got to happen. The second is that I enjoy them. I love everything from the unboxing to the ragequitting to the restarting to the hopeful completion. Getting to see everything is a bonus, and I like to think it’s a way of nodding some respect to the developers – that what they’ve put in will get appreciated. (Unlike some of the lines of dialogue they should have re-recorded. I’m not too generous.)
So while I think I know my way around playing and, in a non-coding sense, making games, I still get surprised. I noticed that a firstperson shooter I worked on a while back contained a side mission which was far easier than it should have been, and earned the player more points than it warranted. I asked about this weird little anomaly and it turned out that the mission was there purely so that players who wished to could grind up their points and levels. Am I alone in finding this shocking, astonishing and somehow… wrong? There are missions in games that exist solely to reward those who want to max out their points or stats?
I had quite an interesting debate with the guys who were making the game. Should grinding be discouraged? Should it be encouraged? Or perhaps it should be simply ignored. I reckon the latter. But it’s odd that I should actually get upset that we’d put a dedicated grinding mission in a game, and yet I’d have no problem if the same game contained a secret level in which the player couldn’t be harmed. Or, as discussed above, the player could sidestep and mangle armies of AI-controlled enemies by simply learning their behaviour.
The more I think about this, the more unreasonable I think I’m being on this issue. Having a place where people can grind is not unlike having a drop-in centre where people can get clean new needles with which to take drugs. You’re not condoning the druggy/ grindy behaviour by acknowledging that it exists and providing a safe place where it can take place. If anything, it’s a highly enlightened and mature attitude.
Perhaps it’s simply my view of grinding that’s the issue. It simply didn’t exist when I did the vast bulk of my game playing, and, like my forefathers before me, I take a dim view of anything newfangled. In my day you simply had to play for long enough in proper levels
and know which crate to destroy in order to earn yourself a decent railgun. It’s not like that any more. Mercenary assassins today really don’t know they’re born.
Having a place where people can grind is not unlike having a drop-in centre where people can get clean new needles