The Casual Gamer: Grinding, Energy Caps, and Other Arbitrary Limiters

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series The Casual Gamer

If you happen to be one of those individuals lucky enough to make video games for a living, then do me a favor. Have a seat, grab a drink, and listen up. Because as a gamer, I’m about to have a chat with you about a couple of elements of certain types of games that infuriate me. This isn’t because I want to hear myself gripe, but because I want you as a developer to start making better games.

So, comfortable? Good. Now pay attention. I want to chat about game mechanics that block forward progress.

Grinding

Everyone’s played the kind of game that forces you to grind, that send you out into the world to complete the same quests over and over again until you’ve gained enough experience to be able to tackle the next chapter of the game. It’s a pretty element in RPG-style games. Final Fantasy, in particular, is infamous for this particular mechanic. The Fable series falls prey to it from time to time. Many MMOs are especially bad about it.

What’s even more frustrating about this approach to character leveling is when the quests get nerfed upon repetition, yielding up just a fraction of the experience points (XP) on subsequent go-rounds as they did when they were first encountered. A quest that gives the player 1,000 XP on the first encounter, say, might only give 300 XP on subsequent encounters. This has the effect of dragging out the leveling process even further because the player now has to complete three times as many quests to get the same effect.

Let me tell you, this is the exact opposite of fun. It is discouraging and disheartening as a player to be forced into mundane tasks because it is the only option for making progress in the game. It can even cause a player to put down the controller and walk away from the game, perhaps permanently. I watched my wife play Final Fantasy XIII, for example, and her experience with grinding the higher levels was all I needed to decide I didn’t want to play the game. So, developers, if your game requires this type of mechanic in order to move forward, kindly rethink your approach.

Energy Caps

Another mechanic that’s frustrating is the energy cap. Again, this is a common element I’ve seen in MMO-style games. The energy cap exists to limit how much of the game you can play in any given day. On the one hand, I understand that this mechanic exists to prevent power players from dominating the game and destroying, repeatedly, more casual players. On the other hand, if it’s possible for players to unfairly tip the balance of power in the game’s universe just by playing the game a lot, then I respectfully submit that your game environment is broken. Putting an energy cap in place to ‘fix’ the problem is no true fix at all.

Pay-to-play

The final mechanic is a product of the micro-transaction generation of games and involves the ability of players with deep pockets to progress through a game much more quickly and much more powerfully than those with the budget or the interest to sink small fortunes into the game. This has come to be known in gaming circles as pay-to-play or pay-to-win, and I think it may be one of the most hated aspects of certain types of games. A lot of players like to play a game to experience it, to work through the challenges of each campaign, level, or mission, and develop their characters through the game’s natural progression. It is exceptionally frustrating, then, when another player simply blows right past and to the top of the leaderboards simply because they’re both willing and able to dump large sums of cash into the developer’s pockets. On the one hand, it’s good business for the developer/publisher of the game. On the other hand, it’s a finger in the eye to players who simply want to enjoy a game. It’s kind of like going to the park to enjoy a picnic with the family — only to have a biker gang drive their Harleys up onto the lawn and through your carefully laid spread. It’s both deeply unfair and exactly counter to the way games ought to function, and it’s a shame when developers care more about making money than about creating an enjoyable gaming experience for their players.

I have a tendency to avoid games that employ any or all of these mechanics, so take note, developers. In using these methods in your games, you run a very real risk of alienating a non-insignificant cross-section of your community. Then again, maybe you’ve done the math and decided that’s a cross-section you can live without.

Have anything to add to the conversation?