Level, Grinding (Games' Alteration of Terms)

(Thanks to RaikohBlade and later Astras for heavily hinting about Grinding.)
 
Wherein Hooded breaks out a few modded gaming terms and examines them, at the end of a 50 foot rope, at least. 
 

Level

 
It's a pretty utilitarian term that most people are familiar with in real life, whether we're talking levels in a building (floors, storeys, whatever) or takin' it to the next level if you're stuck in the 1990's. 
 
Level in games actually gets rather convoluted, due in part to the influence of pen and paper role-playing games, I'm betting. You have character levels, which are tiers that characters reach as they gain experience (there's another word for later, I guess. Two if you count character), you have levels in a dungeon, which is as close to the real world examples above, and you have the one I'm going to focus on right now: game levels.
 
Levels in a game have been around pretty much from their popular inception. When you cleared one level/wave/stage, on came the next one. In arcade design this means you upped the difficulty, sometimes upped the points and the sights you could see, all with the purpose of murdering the player-character so the user will pay you more quarters. This meaning of the term stuck with gaming long after it ceased to have meaning in a lot of games. Level still suggests a discreet beginning and end, and many games sort of intertwine their locations, allowing you to go back to places you've been, so level in that rigid sense doesn't quite work. Yet people who don't know a lot about games will often talk about "beating a level", whether or not the game even has levels. There are no levels of this sort in, say, Elder Scrolls. You'll have character levels and dungeon levels, but it's not a game philosophy that complements the linear progression of areas you think of when you hear "level."
 
My verdict on this one is pretty simple, despite all the complexity: level has been used way too much for too many different things. In pen and paper RPGs it's actually a bit sad to see it being used too much, because it can actually cause confusion, especially for new players. Vidya Games too have this general learning curve with nomenclature, and so while I don't expect "level" to fall into disuse, I do understand why non-gamers often look at those who play games as cultists. As Astras showed in his comment on my previous entry in this series, we talk funny.
 

Grinding


The two real-world examples that come to mind are grinding in skating, and "the daily grind" and related meanings, which is probably a direct precedent to the gaming meaning.
 
In gaming, grinding is specifically about working an often repetitive task to reach a new tier or tiers (levels, if you like). Its ubiquity often spills out to just mean any sort of indirect increase in character abilities, wealth, stats, whatever. You grind to get to this point, even if you're completely involved and there's no repetition, which I feel is taking things a bit too far. Grinding suggests that it sorta sucks or is a distraction.
 
Grinding, though, is not something I'm terribly familiar with. I'm more the kind of person who will try to go into an area that's too high level for me and get by with a minimum of repetition. Once I realized that grinding was a tactic people used to get ahead of static difficulty curves, I pretty much set out to DEFY that and see how well I could inch by big problems with an extra challenging battle. In games with full scaling grinding doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it is a legitimate tactic when the difficulty doesn't change as much relative to player-character ability.
 
This term seems firmly entrenched, and it's one of the few terms I've talked about so far that is more reactive, in that it actually might disappear altogether if designers move away from styles of play that seem to require this sort of behavior. It's a world I'm largely ignorant of, though; even in games like Phantasy Star or Final Fantasy, where people consider grinding almost required, I tended NOT to play that way. Probably one of the reasons I never got top-level techniques in the Phantasy Star games or Knights of the Round in FF7.
 
Any terms you all can think of that have taken on new meanings in video games? You find these changes irritating, or improvements, or something else entirely?
11 Comments
12 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

(Thanks to RaikohBlade and later Astras for heavily hinting about Grinding.)
 
Wherein Hooded breaks out a few modded gaming terms and examines them, at the end of a 50 foot rope, at least. 
 

Level

 
It's a pretty utilitarian term that most people are familiar with in real life, whether we're talking levels in a building (floors, storeys, whatever) or takin' it to the next level if you're stuck in the 1990's. 
 
Level in games actually gets rather convoluted, due in part to the influence of pen and paper role-playing games, I'm betting. You have character levels, which are tiers that characters reach as they gain experience (there's another word for later, I guess. Two if you count character), you have levels in a dungeon, which is as close to the real world examples above, and you have the one I'm going to focus on right now: game levels.
 
Levels in a game have been around pretty much from their popular inception. When you cleared one level/wave/stage, on came the next one. In arcade design this means you upped the difficulty, sometimes upped the points and the sights you could see, all with the purpose of murdering the player-character so the user will pay you more quarters. This meaning of the term stuck with gaming long after it ceased to have meaning in a lot of games. Level still suggests a discreet beginning and end, and many games sort of intertwine their locations, allowing you to go back to places you've been, so level in that rigid sense doesn't quite work. Yet people who don't know a lot about games will often talk about "beating a level", whether or not the game even has levels. There are no levels of this sort in, say, Elder Scrolls. You'll have character levels and dungeon levels, but it's not a game philosophy that complements the linear progression of areas you think of when you hear "level."
 
My verdict on this one is pretty simple, despite all the complexity: level has been used way too much for too many different things. In pen and paper RPGs it's actually a bit sad to see it being used too much, because it can actually cause confusion, especially for new players. Vidya Games too have this general learning curve with nomenclature, and so while I don't expect "level" to fall into disuse, I do understand why non-gamers often look at those who play games as cultists. As Astras showed in his comment on my previous entry in this series, we talk funny.
 

Grinding


The two real-world examples that come to mind are grinding in skating, and "the daily grind" and related meanings, which is probably a direct precedent to the gaming meaning.
 
In gaming, grinding is specifically about working an often repetitive task to reach a new tier or tiers (levels, if you like). Its ubiquity often spills out to just mean any sort of indirect increase in character abilities, wealth, stats, whatever. You grind to get to this point, even if you're completely involved and there's no repetition, which I feel is taking things a bit too far. Grinding suggests that it sorta sucks or is a distraction.
 
Grinding, though, is not something I'm terribly familiar with. I'm more the kind of person who will try to go into an area that's too high level for me and get by with a minimum of repetition. Once I realized that grinding was a tactic people used to get ahead of static difficulty curves, I pretty much set out to DEFY that and see how well I could inch by big problems with an extra challenging battle. In games with full scaling grinding doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it is a legitimate tactic when the difficulty doesn't change as much relative to player-character ability.
 
This term seems firmly entrenched, and it's one of the few terms I've talked about so far that is more reactive, in that it actually might disappear altogether if designers move away from styles of play that seem to require this sort of behavior. It's a world I'm largely ignorant of, though; even in games like Phantasy Star or Final Fantasy, where people consider grinding almost required, I tended NOT to play that way. Probably one of the reasons I never got top-level techniques in the Phantasy Star games or Knights of the Round in FF7.
 
Any terms you all can think of that have taken on new meanings in video games? You find these changes irritating, or improvements, or something else entirely?
Edited by Tennmuerti
@ahoodedfigure said:

  Any terms you all can think of that have taken on new meanings in video games? You find these changes irritating, or improvements, or something else entirely?

To this specifically. I believe these changes are quite natural and happen in pretty much everything, any hobby, sport, work and expertise area has it's own more or less altered terminology. We say words in our every day life that actually have altered meanings (specifically for the circle in which they are used) without noticing, at our jobs, with our friends, etc. Games are really no different in this regard.
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Tennmuerti: Yep. And this column is an examination of those specifics, pretty much.
Edited by Tennmuerti

btw I think something like Tank is a fairly interesting term :)

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Tennmuerti: Heh. That's the spirit! :)
Edited by ArbitraryWater

When I think of grinding in the real world, I think of "thing we weren't allowed to do during our High School dances". I also think of grinding wheat to make flour, which is pretty much a similar sensation to whenever I run into a JRPG or SRPG where I have to constantly fight random battles over and over just to be able to progress. It's what killed my interest in Disgaea, and it's what killed my interest in the DS remake of FFIV. I guess the general lack of grinding one of the reasons I find the earlier Might and Magic games (and by that, I mean III and World of Xeen) to be substantially more playable than their counterparts from that era. I spent far too much money on a copy of Wizardry VII only to realize that: A. Wizardry VII is a hard game and B. I probably need to grind if I want to not totally get stomped. At least Wizardry 8 "fixed" this problem by introducing blatant level scaling, usually to the tune of "All these enemies are several levels higher than you"

Posted by Bollard

I've missed reading your blogs @ahoodedfigure: :( I can never find them anymore now that there's no Followed User's Blogs list on the front page... It's a real pain!

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Chavtheworld: I just go to my summary page and I can find the blogs I'm subscribed to. Like, when I click on my icon, everyone's there toward the bottom right of my page.  I have my complaints about that, especially when I get more blogs than 10 and people get lost, but it seems to work for me OK. RSS me or sumpin' :)
 
@ArbitraryWater: Ah, frick. Of course. I was going to mention that grinding and I forgot.  I guess one can tell I wasn't in danger of that during the few school dances I went to.
 
You given Xeen much of a chance since we last talked, or you are you enjoying your upper-caste gaming experiences too much? :) 
 
Might and Magic: WoX really does have good balancing in that respect, you're totally right. You know my bias toward that game, but it really does deserve its good reputation, assuming it has one. If you follow the plan you'll follow a pretty straightforward ladder to the top. If you're a crazy idiot like me who likes to run in naked screaming and headbutting boss-level monsters way too early, you can do that too. I guess when people about level scaling being absolutely necessary I just shake my head and think of Xeen. It may take more planning overall, but it's just about planning ahead when designing everything and then scaling to fit as characters would increase in abilities. I suppose there could be grinding in Xeen too, if you want, and there are places that regen encounters so that you don't have a resource shortfall, I think, but I don't remember that being a big deal.
 
I beat FFIV without too much grinding, I guess, but my memory's a bit fuzzy on the specifics. I don't remember leveling an inordinate amountt, but I do remember having a tough time sometimes. Most of my memories of that game was feeling sad when people died, then feeling betrayed that everyone was suddenly fine. You know, maybe I'm not an efficient player, and I wind up grinding just because I try to explore the map too much. I wind up "grinding", in effect, just because I expose myself to a greater amount of encounters.
 
I guess all this shit translates into: If you have a decent challenge but feel like you're going somewhere, it works well enough. I guess I just prefer being able to adjust my challenge level through behavior rather than have the game assume it knows better than me. Has me sort of eager to try out Gothic 2...
Posted by ArbitraryWater

@ahoodedfigure: I was directly referring to the DS remake of FFIV, because square thought it was a good idea to jack up the difficulty for that one. I beat the GBA version otherwise, when I was like 13. Or, at least I think I beat it. I do remember fighting Zeromus, but I'm not sure if I beat him or not. It's weird though, in that I was totally fine with grinding in Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. Maybe because the battle system in those games is still very reliant on player skill to succeed?

No, I still have yet to resume my attempt to conquer the Darkside. I probably should at some point, but since I wrote that Invisible War blog I've mostly been spending my time with King's Bounty Armored Princess and TF2, both of which serve their respective genres well enough. I dunno. Now that I can run Vampire the Masquerade at a not terrible frame rate I was probably going to do that next, since I am very much interested in how Troika's final game pans out.

Also, despite it being in my GOG library since last holiday, I have yet to actually play Gothic 2. If it's anything like my experience with the first game, the controls will be ultra clunky, I will walk around getting fairly vague quests from people, and then I will take a single step outside the opening area and get destroyed by monsters, only to realize that there is no autosave and I now have to do that introductory sequence again. You'll probably fare better than me, but that game seems like everything I don't like about Morrowind on crack.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater: Ah, OK. And yeah, grinding is less of a grind if the player is involved. I remember some older RPGs would have a pretty small set of encounters, even FFIV, so you'd have some pretty similar strategies assuming the monsters behaved themselves, and it was more about long-term resource management. That feels more like farming, another useful word, than actual combat. Games that give you a lot of deadly variations really help.
 
Hmm. Now I really want to play Gothic 2 :) At least to test your hypothesis. Can't yet, though.
Edited by Knite

Getting the Knights of the Round Table in FF7 didn't even involve that much grinding, you just had to know where to go and what to do. If you weren't following a guide i guess the only way to know is to follow the vague in-game instructions and experiment yourself.

Since i basically grew up with Diablo 1 and Diablo 2 i really welcome hack-n-slash style games with open arms, and they always boil down to grinding the same bosses over and over again for better gear, for the sake of either being able to advance deeper into the games difficulty levels or just for the sake of having good gear.

The thing is that kind of grinding doesn't really tend to work with any other genre, except for some mmorpg's of course. Sometimes developers or, someone in the dev team that swings the whips around gets the wrong idea of how to implement grinding, sometimes its just designed to be some kind of time sink to make the game artificially longer, other times it's just a bad decision making of "Hey, i know, people like to grind, so let's make this mission require the player to kill 20 of the same monster, in our single player game."

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Knite: Yeah, and it's that latter pseudo quote that really worries me. I mean, Diablo has a sort of crunchy mind-numbingness that doesn't quite wear you down, since you know that what you're going to get may be really cool (so it taps into the gambler's mentality where you pay time and in-game resources for the chance of a payoff). If the process itself isn't so bad, then it doesn't feel so much like grinding. 
 
And the time sink thing...  it's actually a pretty common deliberate design philosophy, along with farming, above (maybe those terms are analogous, in a way). I do believe a lot of online games tend to push grinding as way to either increase the time it takes to reach more content in a subscription game, or to make the goals so far ahead in a micropayment game that you feel pressured into spending bucks to not take forever. I don't think it's necessary, but naturally if you have lower barriers to the next content area then you're either going to have to work a lot harder to diversify the content, or expect players to reach the end of the human-created stuff before too long. I feel like the better we can make computer-made stuff, like design assistance rather than just dropping a random blob into the world, the easier it'll be for people to extend content and reduce the need for grinding as an artificial barrier (since that causes user exhaustion anyway, so that they might give up rather than reach the end!).