Grinding is supposed to be annoying. It is supposed to force the player to perform a menial task over and over again in order to afford some arbitrarily expensive thing. Sometimes we grind for experience to level up, sometimes we grind for gold to buy stuff, sometimes we grind for rare items, or sometimes we grind out side quests for that 100% completion statistic. The time that it takes to grind out these dubious achievements isn’t really a factor in why grinding is annoying. Even random battles in Half Minute Hero get boring and they only last a few seconds each. It’s the repetition that gets to you. Grinding isn’t supposed to be fun. That’s why it’s called “grinding,” a word that evokes a sense of slow, eroding destruction. If it was fun, could it still be considered grinding?
I’ve been grinding for 18 hours in Rogue Legacy, a procedurally-generated, side-scrolling, action-platformer. I’m supposed to be hunting down four bosses, defeating them in order to open a golden gate to the final boss. These bosses can be hard to find and even harder to kill, and every time that I die I have to start the hunt over again in a new castle. However, I get to keep any gold that I find, buying upgrades and thus bettering my character, making my next attempt to kill the bosses a little bit easier. This is the grind of Rogue Legacy: get gold to get stronger, all in the name of killing those bosses. That’s the whole point of this game. That’s how I am supposed to beat it.
Yet I’ve been ignoring the bosses for the past several hours of play. If I find a boss room during my exploration, I just walk right past it. My goals have changed. I’m no longer playing in preparation for an eventual boss fight, I’m just playing to upgrade my character. The grind has become the game.
Rogue Legacy is smartly balanced to ease you into this grind. In the beginning, buying upgrades is easy. Things are cheap. When you go into the castle, you’re almost guaranteed to come out with enough gold to improve yourself. But that ease doesn’t last. Every time that you buy something, everything else goes up in price. This means that as you better yourself, you also have to learn how to play the game better in order to keep upgrading. This adds a skill requirement to the grind. I’m not performing a menial task over and over again, I’m performing an increasingly complex task over and over again.
That increasing complexity makes the act of upgrading satisfying in and of itself because the upgrade isn’t just a reward for time spent playing, but a testament to how well I played. The further you get into the game, the more each upgrade becomes a badge of honor and skill.
Adding to the complexity of the grind, eventually you’ll gather enough equipment and runes that there’s actual strategy in how you outfit yourself. Do you outfit for power, for maneuverability, for gold gathering? I’m making a plan, and each grind session is an execution of that plan. Thus, grinding becomes a satisfying gameplay loop capable of sustaining an entire game.
But can this still be considered grinding? In theory, I’m supposed to be upgrading my character with the end goal of fighting bosses, so in theory, all this playtime is supposed to be in preparation for something else. In theory this is all still a grind, since that’s just how the game is structured. However, in practice the grind is better defined by the player than the developer. In this case, player intention matters more than developer intention, and I have no intention of fighting those bosses—at least not anytime soon. So yes, Rogue Legacy is technically still a grind, but it’s a perfect grind.