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What Defines Grinding

For a long time I always thought the idea of a grindy RPG made after the 80s was just a myth, just something from old games that stuck in people's mind even after the genre continued to grow.

Now that I'm attempting to make an RPG of my own, I wanted to do some 'research' to get an idea of what people in general like and don't like about the genre both by reading various forums and reading a lot of reviews for some modern rpgs, most notably Dragon Quest XI (I never realized how contentious this series was for a lot of people until recently). I've begun thinking maybe I was the one in the wrong, that I just didn't know what people meant by grinding.

I think most people can agree on a definition of "going out of your way for the specific purpose of gaining levels," but people have different views on what counts as going out of your way. For me, it was always the idea of running around in circles to get in random encounters. Not progressing toward in particular place, just screeching to a halt and picking one place to run around in circles because you believe the only way to progress is to get more levels. There aren't many games I've done this in from the SNES era onward so I figured grindy RPGs were dead.

In Dragon Quest VIII the world was massive and gorgeous. I wanted to poke every nook and cranny in it and find all the treasures, as a result I steamrolled most dungeons because I gained so much experiences from just enjoying the world. Was I grinding when I did this even though I wasn't really looking to gain levels when I was doing it? According to some people, yes, I was. To these people, Dragon Quest VIII is every bit a grindy RPG.

I've seen the phrase 'incidental grinding' thrown around to describe this. One reviewer for DQXI called himself a 'golden path' player. He sticks to the story path as he dislikes wasting time. Anything that's not the shortest path between two story points is considered wasting the player's time therefore levels gained via straying from the path are grinding. The phrase 'incidental grinding' is also used a lot to describe the levels you gain on the way to objectives as if everything that's not a story boss is just grinding for the story boss. Encounters can't just be interesting threats in your way. It feels like making a game that's just a boss rush is the only way to please this group.

Interestingly, I never see this mindset thrown at action-driven games despite having boring encounters a lot of the time too. In Zelda games there's tons of normal encounters spread all through the map that aren't worth fighting half the time and yet no one cares about them. I remember a conversation with a friend where he was talking about watching his roommate play Link to the Past and how his roommate just ran through groups of enemies without fighting them like this was baffling to him. My response was "yea, I do that too. They don't give experience so what's the point?" There's those blue knights that take three hits to defeat, but if you hit them once they get knocked back and have a few frames of hitstun before charging at you again. Just hitting them once neutralizes any threat they posed and you can just keep going. A lot of the time, it would put you in more risk to stay and fight them. Getting through a maze-like cave in Dragon Warrior III with random turn based battles feels a lot more threatening and interesting to me, yet so many people say the normal enemies in an action game are interesting threats along the way but are just bags of exp and loot in an RPG. I think any combat system no matter if it's action or menu-driven can get monotonous with a large enough dose of non-threatening encounters, I'm apparently in the minority.

Somehow, when you ditch random encounters for touch encounters, things get even messier. Now you have the problem that people run from everything and then get upset when they can't beat the boss and have to go back to grind. It's frustrating because you know if the game had random encounters instead then these exact same people would complain about how archaic and crusty it is (and yes, I know there's been attempts to make random battles more palatable like threat meters or Wild Arm's exclamation marks - people still complain though). At the same time, I can't blame them for running from all touch encounters. Once you give the player an option to move around something threatening them, of course the natural instinct is to avoid it.

With touch encounters it can feel like trying to read the developers' mind regarding how many encounters you should throw yourself into. I think some people would say "you should fight every touch encounter, the game's probably balanced around it" but that flies in the face of the fact that I can move around the encounter in the first place, and many game don't feel like they're balance around it. Sure, some feel balance for it (Xenosaga, Earthbound, etc.) but then there's Dragon Quest XI and all three Xenoblades which have giant maps with monsters everywhere, there's no way the developers intended for you to kill everything that moves, and if you do, you become grossly over leveled.

And then there are games that allow means to dispatch a threat on the field before entering a battle. Radiant Historia had a melee attack that would put enemies to sleep and then you could easily run passed them. Harder enemies took multiple hits to put to sleep. Then you start to question "should I always strive to do this and just fight the monsters I miss? What if I get good at it and hardly ever fail putting a monster to sleep? Should I still fight one of every new thing that I see?" It feels like the developers playing mind games. There's no industry standard on how touch encounters are balanced. I don't think there should be, but a game's got do something to tell me how it's handling it.

Perhaps the most balanced method is Mystic Quest and Chrono Trigger's way of set encounters on places in the map that are difficult or impossible to move beyond. This might be the easiest way to sell normal encounters as worthwhile threats on their own to a general audience. I find myself not enjoying this very much though. I don't like the idea of nearly every battle being mandatory. There's a part of me that does like how DQXI and Xenoblade are basically giant playgrounds to enjoy the battle system at my own leisure with monsters scattered everywhere. I like fighting monsters for the fun of it, and I like having a mix of non-hostile monsters where the attack is entirely on my part.

There's also this weird thing where players who don't enjoy the game very much are the ones who will stick to the 'golden path' and end up struggling through boss fights are also the one's who haven't had the patience to understand the systems well enough to fight stuff underleveled because they don't enjoy the game. It puts them in a weird loop where their lack of enjoyment in the game up fronts snowballs into situations that keeps them from liking the game. They walk away saying it was grindy and required no real thinking or strategy regardless of that being true. You try to show them videos or offer tips on how to handle a particular fight underleveled and they don't want to hear it. They've already made up their mind that gaining levels is the only strategy.

On the other side, players who enjoy the game are more likely to seek out optional content and get overleveled despite also being the ones who are more patient about learning the game's systems. These players would delight in the under leveled challenge that the hypothetical players in the above paragraph found themselves in. These players walk away saying they liked the game overall but it was just too easy and tell people there's no grinding required. I'm this type of player. It's like your punished for enjoying the game too much by gaining levels too quickly from optional content in addition to understanding the systems and your punished for not enjoying the game enough by being both underleveled and not understanding the systems.

Then you've got players who just like to grind. Grinding can be cathartic and they enjoy watching their characters slowly accrue power and the numbers go up from performing a relaxing activity. I can't blame them either. The gradual progression of power is a major hook to the genre and I've enjoyed fighting for the sake of it and watching numbers go up as well many times even when I didn't need it. There's a good video on the defense of grinding here that does a good job explaining this perspective (edited out the video - I hadn't watched in a couple months and realized the guy made a very distasteful joke in it, but trust me there's people who really like grinding).

So, how do you balance all of this? I know you can't please everyone but at the same time it seems wrong to shut out all dissenting views to your preferred style. You might miss out on learning something that way. But is it even possible to make a game that appeals to all these views to some extent? Most importantly how do you convince people they don't have to grind (especially when people can't agree on what exactly grinding is)?

Whatchu Workin' On? Tell us!

@Pyramid_Head:
Would it be possible to put the character's portrait to the side of the textbox? Looks like there's a gap between the right side of the box and end of the screen. I agree with dethmetal on having three lines of text like in the second screen, but don't care for the weird descending staircase look of the three boxes at different heights. I would push the textbox over to the right giving the portrait box room to slide down next to it, and then push the name box to the far left above the portrait box. If that's not possible, then I would just stick with the way you have it in the second screen.

As for myself, other then working on a lot of sprites and tiles, I've continued to tweak the menu layout. I figured it was probably better to post here opposed to the screenshot thread as I have some questions regarding navigation rather than aesthetics.

I've gone full Dragon Quest/Earthbound with the pause menu and have the listings split in two columns:

(Please ignore the graphics, I'm still in the early stages of learning pixel art and color theory type of stuff, you don't have to tell me it could be better, I know)

Now, I'm wondering what's the most comfortable and natural way to have the cursor move to a position other than the obvious ways. Like in a single column list, pushing up on the top listing moves the cursor to the lowest listing, I'm looking at that kind of thing.

So if you click right while the cursor is on 'Heal Up' you move to 'Party Order', but what if you click right again? Should it stay put or wrap around moving back to Heal Up?

If I tap up while it's on 'Heal Up' should it go to bottom of the same column and have the cursor jump to 'Fast Travel' or should it jump all the way to the last option of the whole list at 'System'? Same with System, should pressing down move you to Heal Up or Party Order?

Screenshot Survival 20XX

@PhantasmaX It's hard to know what more you need without knowing your systems, but it looks like the right amount. In general I think UI is about finding what's neccessary and sometimes asking what to taking away before asking what to add.

I do think the font for the health/magic/stamina numbers is way too small. No idea if it's a placeholder, but I'm straining to read it.

author=bulmabriefs144
I figured you were under the impression that I meant the blue next to Theas and <Shift. So it's some sort of transparency thing? Yeah, I didn't know because your last post before this seems to be a few pages back. It just kinda looked like what I get in paint projects when I copy and paste. You can probably fix that by tweaking transparency some more?

You're talking about this right?

That's the player character. When the menu goes away, he appears the same color as the blue box by Thea on the menu. You can see how it looks with Thea's sprite here:

Thea's not the main character, I just had her sprite done first since I made it by retooling a character sprite I made five-ish years ago when I last tried pixel art.

What do you mean by fix it? I can easily change the transparency by just punching in a different alpha value. Do you think it should be more or less transparent? I was trying to get to look close to the menus in the DS remakes of the Dragon Quests 4-6:


I did stretched a blank transparent black sheet across the screen on a layer inbetween the gameworld and the menu (which is why all the grass appears dark). So the actual menu is darker sitting on two layers of transparency. In the Dragon Quest IV screen here, they just have the bare game world beneath the menues. Does that look better to you? I thought the extra layer of transparency made things easier to read, but if it's really ugly I'll axe it.

I also changed the font, it's clean now.

@Sidewinder: I definitely meant funky in a good way lol. It's just a word I use with my friends. I think your thing's really cool, also the music is a perfect fit.

Screenshot Survival 20XX

@PhantasmaX I couldn't really tell there's different tile sets until looking at it for a bit. I think it looks nice, but would probably err on the side of the fancier looking ones. The fancier one on the left has very cartoon-exaggerated wood beams which make it harder to sell as being in the same reality as the house next door, but it's not like they're worlds apart. Hopefully someone with a better eye for this stuff can give you a meatier response, but overall your map looks very pretty to me.

@Bulmabrieffs144 The discolored squares are indeed the player character. If you look the screen with the grass tiles I posted in my last response, you'll see the one character with some sprites done is in roughly the same spot as the discolored square in the other screens. I didn't mean to imply you didn't know what blue looked like, I didn't realize I came across so rudely. It's just the transparency of the menu is very thick, it's barely see-through, which why the square is such a dark color.

I'm sorry I didn't mention I was working in a different engine earlier, but considering this is the screenshot thread, I was hoping to get more universal advice on the aesthetic principles of UI design. I really appreciate the gesture of offering some coding advice and even offering to teach me through pms. That's very kind, I do appreciate it. I just feel we're working with incompatible programs. To make things clearer, I'm using the methods outlines in these videos for programming the menus and databases: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ITZOrI2qkA .

I really didn't mean to cause a scuffle and derail the thread with this. I certainly never meant to imply I was calling you stupid or anything terrible like that. I just don't think there's more to say regarding programming this stuff. I don't want to bury posts talking about actual screens like PhantasmaX's lovely screen or Sidewinder's funky fallout-inspired skeuomorphic interface. I'm so sorry if my posts and ensuing scuffle derailed things.

@Darken Thanks for the note on the font! I think I will ditch the anti-aliasing.

Screenshot Survival 20XX

Thanks for the response! The blue squares on the menu are actually the player character behind the menu. Rosh doesn't have sprites yet so he's just a blue block. I didn't realize how silly it looked. Here's a shot with Thea as the party leader and my hideous grass tiles to give you better sense of the transparency:


I probably should've mentioned I'm using Gamer Maker Studio 2 for this. I'm unclear how much of your post is universal, some of it I don't understand. I don't know how to program a dummy hero so I may not be a programmer worth my salt.

I guess I just don't understand what you mean by not using variables. The other day I thought you were talking about something like drag & drop tools that did the variables behind the scenes but now I'm stumped. I mean, variables are everything. I hear you about making code as readable as possible, I try to be very careful about that. You say variables work against this and also mention the problem with ordering, but that's what enumerators are for.

Here's my setup for all information on characters, equipment, skills, and enemies, my homemade databases: Since GMS doesn't have classes and methods, I use objects to hold all my variables for these things. For instance, I create an object called 'characters' and on creation I have it make a large array as a local variable which I feed all the info into. At the end of the creation event, I use a script I made to turn the array into a data structure grid that remains in the object for the whole time the game runs and I reference it whenever I need to pull info on stats or anything out of it. It looks like this:

enum char_info {
name,
stats,
equip_set
}

enum stats {
hp_max,
str,
def,
mag,
heal,
dex,
agi,
luck,
hp_now,
sp_now
}

var char_array = (
(
"Thea",
(array holding stats),
(array holding equipment)
),
more character arrays go on from here...
)

And then I convert all this into a giant ds grid called ds_char_data

So when calling stats I don't have to remember that the array holding the stats is specifically the second value inside the larger array defining Thea, I just have to call characters.ds_char_data(# char_info.stats, char.thea). I could then turn that into a local variable called something like _stats and call _stats.(@ stat.def) when I want to get her defense value. It's super flexible and doesn't require strict ordering at all.

Same with the menu boxes, so much more flexible when using variables to be precise about the positions then making a bunch of images the size of my resolution. Every box you see in my screens comes from one 12x12 sprite. I have script that I enter the corner positions into and then it draws the rest of the box in the middle. I can easily resize and move around boxes with ease. It's a much quicker flow.

Maybe there's some differences in the way Game Maker and RPG Maker handle memory, but I find large images eat away at memory far quicker than any variable could. If I tried to draw all the box across tons of 384x216 images, I don't know if my game could handle it as opposed just having 12x12 image that I can stretched as much I want by just punching in different variables. Of course, if I do go for something less minimalistic like making the menu look like pieces of parchment or something then I may have to go with your method. But even then, I would still have to tell the image to sit at the top left corner of the view port which would require variables. Even if the x and y values are both zero, those are still variables.

My concern about displaying the numbers was more about finding an aesthetically pleasing way to fit all my stats on the screen. Originally I wanted to find a way where not all stats needed to be shown. Unfortunately that would mean reducing the amount of stats I could put on any one piece of equipment. If there's a lot more stats on screen than equipment slots then it becomes harder to make the menu boxes neatly line up like this. Same with the main menu. Right now, there'll be eight characters and eight menu options so it works out well to keep the menu boxes forming one greater box, but what if find I needed another menu option? Maybe it's okay for the menus to be a little sloppier instead of trying to fit all the boxes neatly together. Maybe my whole look for the menus is an eyesore to begin with and I need to go a completely different direction all together. I really don't know.

By the way, any thoughts on the font?

Screenshot Survival 20XX

@orange- I LOVE that costume design! Looks great.

I've been going back and forth on how much visual stuff I should have done before posting anything in this thread. My game will (hopefully) have all original pixel art, I've been practicing since October-ish, but I don't have too much done or integrated into the actual game yet.

I do have a lot of the UI going, however, and I figure it's best to catch problems early on, so I thought I'd go ahead and post to see if I'm on the right track. Now, only one character has some sprites done. The others are just different colored blocks so bare with me, but here's what I've got for a main menu at the moment:

I'm pretty sold on Dragon Quest's sleek minimalistic style. I'm not against making it fancier if people really don't like this, but clean and legible have to be the number one priority. The game world will be visible behind the transparent black that covers the screen. The floor in this room is just solid grey at the moment which is why it looks all black (though you can kind of see an enemy touch encounter on the right).

There will be eight characters in total to fill the right box. It doesn't look great when there's only one or two characters in your party. I'm thinking of changing it so only the active party (max four characters) appears in this window. I've also been debating nesting some of the menus. Equip, Skills, Attributes, and Party Order could all go under a 'Characters' menu selection. Too much nesting can be obnoxious though.

The font I made myself. I used Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight and Owlboy as references. I can't make up my mind on the anti-aliasing, Momodora did it, and it looked fine there, though I may have gone overboard with it. I'd really appreciate hearing some thoughts on the font.


Here's the equip menu. It's a little messier. Trying to align the boxes with the number of stats and equip slots is a pain. I sort of want to get rid of the weapon gems (the second slot), but then the stats window becomes too long, and I also can't decide whether to have a magic defense stat which would screw up the boxes even more.

I've also considered making it so only the stats that are affected by a piece of equipment are displayed in the right box. That falls apart when changing equipment, though. Any piece can affects a number of stats. If your changing from one piece of equipment with four stats on it to one with the opposite four stats then all eight stats need to be shown. That doesn't happen with any equipment I have in the game at the moment, but I want the system to be prepared for instances like that.

I'm pretty obsessive about UI especially for making a game in a genre all about menus. Any and all help with getting these to look nice would be appreciated.

EDIT: Resized images.

What are you thinking about? (game development edition)

author=Pyramid_Head
And while we're on the subject of terminology I was thinking of using the word Scholary as a place of learning instead of school. As with school is invokes the word Scholar, but part of me thinks the word is too stupid sounding and sounds too close to a scullery.


Scholary sounds and looks too much like the adjective scholarly. If I saw it in a game, I would assume it was a typo at first glance. Have you considered the word Seminary? Might also be too religious-y though. You could also make up an ancient scholar in your world that the schools become named after sort of like Lyceum.

Screenshot Survival 20XX

Oh, I see, so your ring menu doesn't rotate like in the Mana games. That changes things. Yea, in that case it doesn't really matter where you put the textbox. I thought you had it where the current selection was always at the bottom of the screen and if I pressed left then the treasure chest would move to where the compass is and the yin/yang would move to be the new current selection.

By the way, I made these if by chance you might like them:


I know you were unhappy with my suggestions yesterday, so I edited your icons to try and be respectful of the visual direction you want while finding a way to make them pop out against the greyscale better.

I added a black outline to the ones that didn't have it like the treasure chest and signpost, then I put a deep purply-blue drop shadow under them for the sake of adding depth. They're not perfect. I admit the yin/yang and the sword guy with a pink aura look a little wonky with a drop shadow added. I do think the treasure chest, compass, and wooden sign benefit a lot from this though. Just something to consider.

Screenshot Survival 20XX

The item equip screen looks fine. Reminds me a little bit of Momodora Reverie under the Moonlight with the slots. I guess my only quibble would be the black space. I assume it's where the item description is going to go. I would maybe snuggle a blank menu box in there. As long as every item has a unique sprite - which looks to be the case so far - then your golden, it's very Morrowind, I dig it.

I know the ring menu is centered on the screen, it was the character not being centered that was throwing me off. Admittedly, even after reading your post, I'm still not entirely clear on why that's case, but you obviously have your reasons. I wouldn't recommend the thing with making the character invisible and adding a new sprite to the center. It would look too wonky have character pop into a different place like that. You're better off sticking to what you got on that one.

Now the one thing about the ring menu I will say is egregious, and not a nitpick, is having the currently selected menu option(the treasure chest) all the way at the bottom of the screen, and the name (battle favored items) all the way at the top. If nothing else, I would try to fix this. Perhaps put the textbox at bottom of the screen and move the ring up by however many pixels tall the textbox is. That may require fiddling a little bit with variables, but it could be worth it.

Screenshot Survival 20XX

Looks good, though I think your ring menu could use a lot of polishing. Is there any reason it's not centered on a character? Regardless, the whole things needs to be squished a lot closer to the center of the screen. It's a bit of strain to have your eyes traveling the entire height and width of the screen just to find a menu selection. When you look at Secret of Mana, you see the ring is just big enough to fit the player character's sprite inside.

I would also suggest reducing the amount of colors used for the menu icons. I'm unsure how much of this is just a placeholder or representative of where you want to go, but it's hard to tell what parts of the UI are the ring command. After looking at a bit, I realize the ring menu's the only UI on the screen, but at first glance I thought that compass at the bottom was for a different UI element. Not to mention, some of the icons pop and others don't, there's a lack of consistency and some blend with the greyscale behind it.

Now, personally I would reduce the icons down to just three colors and darken the game world instead of turning it greyscale. Here's a small mock up I made to show you what I mean:


I favor flat design, obviously you don't have to go that drastic. I just wanted to show how fewer colors can really make your menu pop. Looking at what you have, it's clear you prefer something more skeuomorphic, which is cool, but I still think you can have greater consistency with that. I would actually suggest looking more at Sword of Mana rather than Secret:
http://www.rpgfan.com/reviews/swordofmana/ss-03.jpg

This is a great example of easy-to-read icons with a consistent small palette without getting too minimalistic as in my mock up. Also, notice how it's wider than it is tall? Yes, this was probably done to fit with the GBA's resolution, but it really works. It gives the ring design an oomph of depth, it's hot.

That's just me being nitpicky about UI design though. I'm a big fan of the ring menu, I think it's really cool you got it working in your game!