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009: Grinding the Rewards

Leaving the stream behind, our heroes make a discovery about experience grinding and reward mechanics, which will help them on their quest to find the most usable game.

Games talked about in this episode:

  • 2:02 World of Warcraft
  • 2:59 Dark Souls
  • 5:16 Mass Effect
  • 7:12 Bloodborne
  • 8:27 Cuphead
  • 15:26 Hellblade
  • 19:59 Monster Hunter
  • 26:51 Spider-Man
  • 34:16 Sea of Thieves

Introductory Guy  

Hello. Welcome to design thinking games, a fantasy and user experience podcast. Each episode, your podcast host, Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield, will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games. You can find every episode, including this one, on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at designthinkinggames.com.

Tim Broadwater  

We were talking about experience models, and grinding different games, depending on if they’re tabletop role-playing games, video games, what have you, even LARPing they have different kinds of experience models. And, you know, some have visualizations of that, like trees that you unlock for skill sets. Others just seem to be like, unlocking abilities as you advance in levels, you know, for your character class. But, still, then others are just like the heinous grind that is essentially unrelenting and unforgiving. So, like, are you like that type of player who loves that kind of experience? Or that kind of high difficulty, right?

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, experience model is an interesting way to phrase it. It’s, you know, it’s a reward model. Right. So you grind, you kill all the pigs in Warcraft, to either mine experience points, actual coins, look for that loot drop, but the reward is a gift from the game. You get a thing by performing an action. And I think difficulty makes that reward from having like a middling impact to being orgasmic. Right. And I think the folks who love the difficulty, the high difficulty type of gameplay, regardless of whether it’s a specific grind model, or something else, is because the reward the payoff for is so good when you get through it. So when you finally get through your first or second Dark Souls boss, you feel like a boss yourself, which is a different kind of gameplay model than, you know, churning XP, which you’ve gained by killing rabbits to get to level two.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I mean, I’ve attempted Dark Souls once in my life, and I think after 45 minutes, I was like, fuck this game and quit.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, we’ve talked about this before. And I think we were talking about, you know, for the umpteenth time, we’ll bring up the Mass Effect legendary edition, but we were talking about our different playstyles. And, you know, I’m trying to roll through this game on the insanity level because I want that sweet, sweet achievement at the end, but you’re here. So like trying to like, you know, enjoy yourself, which seems bananas.

Tim Broadwater  

Auto leveling, auto-leveling auto skill assignment, I don’t care, I just kind of want, I’m the exact opposite. I just like low maintenance, ease of joy. That’s why I’m here. And in. And I think honestly, beyond insanity, I have a friend who has a great YouTube channel where he does walkthroughs; he does professional walkthroughs and doesn’t for GameFAQs and stuff like that. And he’s a completionist. He will get every item in Final Fantasy 6, he will level up every character to 999, you know, will do 100% map exploration like and that’s what he likes, and you don’t get a reward for that at all. There’s no, you know, some games have it baked in, but some don’t. Right. But that’s just personally what he likes about it. And to me, that just seems it just seems painful, right? I have very limited time to play games, and when Do I want him to be enjoyable? And? And I feel like I don’t know. I’m not a completionist. And I’m not a person who wants to do something like …. What did you call it for Mass Effect, like in legendary mode.

Michael Schofield  

Insanity achievements? Yeah. And it’s pretty difficult and like, here’s here’s the thing. You, you kind of like tailor your tailor the reward for the kind of gameplay you like. For me, it’s different. So Mass Effect. I love Mass Effect. I talk about it all the time when I’m not talking to you. I play a Mass Effect Dungeons and Dragons campaign on Sundays. I’m all in. I went up to the insanity level for this time because I’ve played the original trilogy many times already. And I’m looking for a new experience. What Mass Effect offers in terms of its like player model is or as experience model is one where, you know, maybe the second time you play through a game, it is pretty darn different depending on your choices, the characters you choose to sidle up to. But for me, I’ve exhausted all of that, you know, I’ve completed 100% exploring the galaxy and that kind of thing. But I did that not because I am a completionist – I’m not; nor am I an achievement hooker – I’m not. But because I ended up knocking these things out as I was looking for these new kinds of narrative hooks that show up on different planets. I went for insanity level on Mass Effect because I was worried about being bored with something that I already love. So I kind of did it as a hedge against being bored with a game that I’ve been in a bunch of times. With something like Dark Souls, or Bloodborne, which I like a little bit better, the difficulty …. Let me backtrack the Mass Effects difficulty is hard because your AI is stupid. And then the damage done to you is dialed up. But it’s not hard because it requires great skill. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, that kind of experience, to an online experience – something like maybe like Chivalry which I’ve been looking at, or For Honor – the difficulty It is hard because the gameplay itself is hard because there are a lot of factors that you have to time that block perfectly you have to roll, so you don’t take bludgeoning damage. There is a game to not getting crushed. And it’s not simply, you know, dragging like a developer dragging all the way right on the damage level. And so the difficulty in Dark Souls or like maybe like Cuphead —

Tim Broadwater  

I was going to say Cuphead because to me, what you’re describing is like Cuphead. It’s baked into the game. The game is that difficult because it requires that level of execution.

Michael Schofield  

and getting to the next platform in Cuphead is a sign of your expertise. Maybe to a degree, it’s like Yo, I suffered like some dumb as AI, or I’ve I figured out how to get around this bananas boss. You know, where, where its difficulty layer is because it’s got like an annoying component. But for the most part, it is hard because I don’t know. Getting past it is a show of skill and expertise. And that’s when I love difficulty. I hate grinding. I hate the grind. I hate churning for XP, but I love a good hard game that requires badassery to get through. I love that feeling. 

Tim Broadwater  

So, yeah, we talked about that. I love grinding. I’ve played Cuphead for those who are not familiar with it, next to maybe Super Meatboy, which is notorious for being the most difficult side scroller game, right. And Cuphead has like maybe six to eight run-and-gun loops, meaning that you are just going right or left, and you’re shooting and jumping. But 98% of Cuphead is boss battles like it is one boss battle after another after another, and it’ll let you play it on easy mode. When you do that, you get credit for it, like you can get gold or something to spend, but you have to beat the boss on difficult mode to get that contract. Because you work for the devil, and you’re collecting his contracts. And the only way to collect a soul, like a contractor or someone is to beat them on this insane, difficult level, that is like Cuphead’s akin to like one, two, maybe three hits, kill your dad, you know, I couldn’t even, and I’ve played technical games before like Bushido Blade is one I played in the past where it was like you can block on the left and the right, you can do an overhead block and a lower block and a sweeping block. And if you do not pull off, if you’re not reading your opponent correctly, you’re not, you know, kind of definitely, you know, blocking, and hence you get killed, right. But to your point, as I think, you know, that’s part of those games, like I, I’ve played Cuphead for like two years, I still haven’t beat it. I’m sitting at the last boss, the devil at the casino, and I cannot get past the casino dice, man. Like I cannot do it. I’ve tried many, many times. And essentially what happens is, which is like what Cuphead is, is that you get tired of trying and you put it away, and then maybe after a while you’re like I’m right at the end. I’ll go back, and I’ll play it again. But, but it’s like I’ve done that and slowly got through the game. One day soon. When I beat Cuphead, I’ll post something that took me two years to beat that game. 

I played Cuphead, and it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. It’s as silly as joyous. I understand that it won the game of the year rightfully. I quit it so fast. Right? I made it through like three levels. And it got hard. It got hard. So you’ve never stopped?

What about Dark Souls, where I quit Dark Souls. How much have you played there?

Michael Schofield  

I think I’m about 50% through Dark Souls, but the same thing I gave up. I appreciate the game. I felt amazing. Like I felt amazing getting through my first handful of bosses. But my tolerance for that difficulty appears to be lower than yours. So maybe, like when it comes to Cuphead, what is the hook for you? Why haven’t you quit yet?

Tim Broadwater  

Cuphead is memorization, so it appeals to that old school like Mega Man, and I hate to say it, but it’s like Mega Man or Super Mario Brothers exactly like a Mega Man. If you memorize like the if you know like oh, when you see the boss flash this they’re going to shoot this weapon, and you can be or have to dodge accordingly or when the bosses on halfway health he transforms into a second state and like can start shooting at the floor and then you have to like jump in the air. Do you know? And so I like there’s a part of me that loves that challenge of like, oh man, you gotta hit it perfect. You gotta hit it perfect every time, or it’s not gonna you’re not gonna do it. But to your point like you can’t do that all the time. Like it took me two years to get to the boss, and I haven’t been like the final boss, and I still haven’t beat the game, right? And I think, but I know in my head I’m going to one day I’m going to do that.

Michael Schofield  

it’s like maybe that’s it is the promise of eventual success.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so I definitely can make chip away at it right definitely will chip away, but I couldn’t even chip away from it for me, like Dark Souls-like. The learning curve from the beginning was so high for me that, as I think in Cuphead, like the first boss you fight is like a flower in the garden, or an ear of corn, or something.

Michael Schofield  

I wonder if you just stumbled on the design mechanic there. Regardless if it’s intentional or not, there’s something like from the developer perspective where you provide hints or encouragement to the player that they’re going to make it through. With Cuphead that encouragement, There’s a couple of parts, but one of that, well, you know, some of that encouragement comes from the fact that you did last longer than you did last time that you’ve, you know, jumped over this thing multiple times. You can feel and see and demonstrate your success, and you know, because Cuphead is a platformer – left to right. The further right you go, the more done you are. You are making it spiritually further right the longer you last. In Dark Souls, or Bloodborne, or back to my favorite Hellblade” Senua’s Sacrifice – I was gonna say sex-rifice. Jesus Christ.

Tim Broadwater  

That’s the DLC, and it’s coming out here. 

Michael Schofield  

“In the original game, you experienced what it’s like to hear voices. But now, one of those voices was coming on to you.”

Tim Broadwater  

Is Hellblade difficult?

Michael Schofield  

Hellblade is like Dark Souls light; it’s in the spirit of there’s not much HUD, partly because the design of the game is that your HUD is aural. It’s audible. So you have a voice in your head that says Like, watch out when someone’s coming at you from behind that you might not be able to see otherwise from another indicator. But a very much as you know, block, hit right, hit left. The bosses have the gimmick where they have a few moves, but they’re all the same moves right, and you figure it out as you go. You have to time the jump. It’s not as hard as Dark Souls. It’s, it’s a different game, but it’s in that spirit. I forgot what the point I was gonna make. Oh, well, so the idea with like, like in Dark Souls, the difference between the Dark Souls and the Cuphead, or a Hellblade and Cuphead or whatever is the encouragement element that you’re getting further, is minimal. Right? So like, Oh, my God, you just made it past this weird lich, who has this huge claymore, because you rolled enough and you blocked at the right time, and you slew him. There’s no indication that you’re anywhere near the end of the level. Because just around the corner, there’s some like, like, Dragon Wolf, who is going to like leap out at you and kill you. There’s something about that lack of encouragement.

Tim Broadwater  

Cuphead at least has like when you die, or at least a little horizontal bar shows how Yes, a status, like how far you got through the boss battle or the level. And so you can see like, oh, I am getting a little bit better over time, as opposed to like,

Michael Schofield  

I wonder how important that aspect of the design is. So yeah, it’s a progress bar. And there are other indications that you’re going to make it instead of the total lack of progress bar.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think it’s very important in Cuphead because it’s kind of just like the smack in the face, where it’s like, oh, my God, I can’t even get past the first third, what am I doing wrong? And it’s like, oh, I just need to camp all this shit, I or dodge it all. I can’t shoot it, you know, or so. It is, you know, that mechanic that if you keep doing it over and over and over and over and over again, if you’re getting a little bit further, you know, you’re making progress, right. And I think this is very interesting about the kind of UX versus UX for Games, right? I mean, you know, when we want, when we think of design thinking, we’re using centered design or user-driven development, whatever you want to call it. In services, products, or software applications, we want things to be usable, right, and people to understand. Still, we also want things to be desirable, like people want to use it. There is a reason I would quit my, you know, Google Drive or jump to this service. You know that, right? The difference for UX is that UX for Games is there has to be friction. That friction is the bread and butter of gaming. It has to have friction like it’s not just simple, usable, understandable, and discoverable, and all the things that we think for UX, but with UX for gaming there, there’s there is that friction that has to be there. It has to be difficult, but it can’t be too difficult. But it has to be difficult enough to be challenging to keep user engagement, but then if you don’t, but if it’s not challenging enough, people drop it, but if it’s too challenging, people drop it. So it’s like, what’s the reward mechanic versus what’s, you know, what are you getting out of it and why grind? Like, the reason why I love like, I don’t mind grindy games like JRPGs are notorious for this like, Final Fantasy or like Dragons Quest or Monster Hunter like Monster Hunter. is a grindy game that is also really has a high difficulty level like you can get one hit killed by a monster, no problem. And you have to know how to dodge and get out of the way. And then you have to know how to like, okay, these are the items I need to wear and the armor I need to put on that enables me not to get hit or disabled by the monster. And so it’s a lot of learning curve at the beginning. But then, once you, the people who love it, are the people who love that complexity. They want to like, max out their armor and their weapons, and they know how to move, and they know how to fight, and they can use strategy, and then they kind of can master it. But it’s always kind of grindy because, to make the next weapon and the next armor, you need specific parts of monsters. And those parts don’t drop all the time. It’s like some of those parts are like only a 15% drop rate or when you kill a monster or only 25% carve rate, like if you kill a monster and you’re carving it for pieces. So I don’t mind grind where other people hate it because I see the, I guess. Like, this is the mindless enjoyment. But I know there’s a benefit, you know, down the road.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, let’s think about the design of grind because that’s interesting. I’m not a fan, but I think I could probably pinpoint why. So let’s take a simple grinds mechanic, imagine that maybe it’s in Warcraft, maybe it’s in Star Wars Online way back in the day, or something like that, where you have a pickaxe, and you’re mining against a hunk of rock that is sitting next to a tree. The elements of this piece of the gameplay. The object-oriented UX part of this, the object of this experience, right? Is like contains a tangible reward, right? Perhaps you’re getting iron ore from this block.

As you go, the aspect of encouragement may be present when you hit this thing like plus one plus one plus two or something like that. There’s some like UI, like nudger, or tickler that shows you that you indeed did do a little bit of mining damage or whatever to this rock. There’s an element that the developer can’t control, but there’s an element of your tolerance for time expenditure, how much time you are willing to spend, maybe in the game overall, to get to a certain reward. And because that may determine that you have to whack this thing 50 times, or you whack this thing ten times, or that there is a microtransaction to let you just buy the fucking ore, right. And there are other things around here. And then, of course, you know, there’s the ultimate multi-step part of this journey, the ultimate experience from completing the fact that you have to mine 20 of these ores from 20 of these different rocks or something like that. For me, the big thing isn’t the lack of UI or the sense of lack of progress, or, or I think, the encouragement is always there. It’s like, man. I can make some awesome Draconic armor. But it’s the amount of time it takes to get the awesome Draconic armor, which, even larger experience require, you know, I need the awesome Draconic armor to wander into this part of the realm. And at that point, I like the time aspect, something the developer can’t control, but I’m not willing to invest that amount of time. I will grind like I will mine the shit out of planets and Mass Effect 2 because I’m willing to devote all my time to Mass Effect. But if I’m not willing to do that for a game, or the game had taught me that the story, the narrative hit on the other end of that journey, like a Warcraft like I do, like when I was a World of Warcraft player, like getting to like the end of like, a new expansion or whatever, was always a letdown because it wasn’t the end of the game. After all, there’s always another expansion, or something like that is the time part of that object or that experience-object that kills it for me. For that reason, I don’t care. For the grind, that’s probably the same case of why I abandoned Cuphead. I’m like, this is gonna take forever, right?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so Cuphead like, I think is if you think of the payoff in the currency in which you get I mean, getting a perfect and a level, like gives you some coins to where you can buy some abilities Now granted, those abilities are like, oh, here’s a shield or like my all my, all of my gun bullets, like automatically hit they’re like homing bullets, you know, so I mean, they can be significant game-changers, right? And then, But to your point, the game itself, you can’t beat it unless you beat every boss on difficult you know, you don’t need like the side item. So you can you have to beat every boss on difficult. And I think that type of flipping of the dynamic is what made Cuphead like Game of the Year, it’s just like no difficulty is what you need here. And that skill and memorization and, and just grinding practice. Trying over and over and over again. And I know we’ve talked about this before, but I don’t mind the grind when it’s like that nuanced, right? I mind the grind when it is difficult for no reason but not enjoyable. Cuphead is super difficult, but I still find it enjoyable. To me, I’m just not into that kind of grind. Even if I got all the items, I have all the treasures; I have all the armors, I have all the swords, you know, it’s like well, Game of the Year Spider-Man, which was a couple of years ago, it was like this. It’s if you’ve never played Spider-Man for PlayStation. It is phenomenal. It is a great game. It is the reason there’s reason why it won Game of the Year. Right? And there’s a reason why they made the PS 5 Miles Morales version there. And I think it’s also on PS4. Because the game is just solid. It’s really good. And it has that kind of I don’t know what you call it. It’s like that sloped learning curve right to where it’s like yeah, not playing Super easy. But then you start to realize like crap, I’m not leveraging my equipment and gadgets, like the best way that I could. Yeah. And when you start to figure that out, you’re like, man, I can really like go in and take out as a whole crime syndicate because I now know how to recharge leverage my items block but then parry and you know, and then start to use super combo moves and whatever. But that doesn’t. There’s not that. You don’t do that from out of the gate, right? It’s like learning that expertise and nuance as you go that makes you more effective a player. I like that. I don’t know what it’s called. But it’s, but it’s kind of like learning the nuances that help you master the gameplay. And yeah, I’ve experienced even have to grind. Yeah, so in Spider-Man, the point I was getting to there, sorry, is that at some point in the game, you have all the equipment, you have all the abilities. But then it turns over to like, oh, to get the Platinum on PlayStation to get the trophy, right, you have to unlock every outfit. To unlock every outfit, you have to do all of these crazy time trials and sneak trials and things. And that to me, I started it I got to that point. And then it just became too much. It’s like trying to swing through a city and hit all these goal points and shoot between these rings. Under two minutes, it just like I could try it 20 freakin times, but I’m never gonna get it. And then I’m just like, what am I doing here? It’s not do I need every outfit? You know what I mean? What level? What level of crazy is this that I don’t need, you know,

Michael Schofield  

I wonder if that’s something about the collector drive. And some people have it, and some don’t. I have zero interest in collecting all the gear unless it serves an ulterior purpose. It impacts the narrative in some way that interests me, or I’m doing it because I otherwise love the game so much. I’m just trying to milk as much out of it but as an end to itself, collect all the bone plates or whatever it is a game that I don’t want to play. I feel like over the episodes we have. We’ve gradually been sussing out what I think is a model of gamer experience or player experience. And there’s another element to this that is somewhere like some kind of spectrum between collect like the collector drive collection mechanics and, and other and other things, and I think for some folks, the game is the completionist aspect is the game.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think when we’re talking by the end of season one, we will probably have one. And by one, I mean some type of metric or guide that we can use. We talked about like, like a lack of a better word like, not like what is it called with a 2d grid? Like not a compound board? 

Michael Schofield

It’s a matrix: a quadrant matrix or something like that.

Tim Broadwater  

We talked in the past before, it’s like, well, do I want to be the game? Or do I want an avatar to represent me? Or do I want to be a third party? Right? There’s a spectrum, like one spectrum of it. But or one axes of it? Right? And if another axis is like, How much creativity Do you want to bring to the game? Do I want to craft things around it? Or do I want it to let me be creative? Or do I? Do I even care about that, but it feels like this other one we’re talking about is like, What’s your goal here? Is it leveling up, unlocking all your abilities, getting all the trophies, or collecting all the objects? Or you know what I mean? So it’s kind of like, we should, by the end of season one, at least have like a model that we put up on the website? Yeah, that is literally like on our quest to find the most usable game? How do we, you know, now we know how to look for it in a three-dimensional space. You know,

Michael Schofield  

yeah, I think that’s interesting. Because there is I, you know, like, part of this experience model is one that, I guess or your goal, like, what is the, you know, ultimately, what is the game you’re playing? Then, you know, are you in it for? Is this is a spectrum between, like collection and narrative is? Or is it not a spectrum? Is it to your point, you know, like, like a multifaceted chart or grid? I don’t know. There’s something there because I, I certainly consider myself, you know, if we have if we had little sliders on our game or profiles where I’m, I’m heavy into the narrative. I’m heavy into the skill-based difficulty because I like refining my technique. That’s why I like first-person shooters so much, especially those that require you to be

Tim Broadwater,  

we talked about that Kinsey, a Kinsey scale. Oh, my God,

Michael Schofield  

it’s a Kinsey scale. Yeah, yeah,

Tim Broadwater  

we talked about it before, but for me, it would be kind of like, I will set that grind to meter all the way out and make it brutal. If what that gets me is creative control and power. You know what I mean? In the game, I will grind. I will put in the work to build a unique thing I want to build. Yeah, if I have to go on an MMO RPG, it’s like you have to get 14 eggs by defeating these 14 dragons in 14 different zones and whatever. And I was like, Okay, well, what does it get me? And it’s like, nothing you can get like a castle or keep. I’m like, No, I don’t care. But if it lets me build a new class with new powers or something cool, I could customize it. Then I would definitely like Well, let’s get those for today. 

Michael Schofield  

Are you a reward-based grinder? Or how willing are you to grind for the joy of grinding? Would you mine or craft? Maybe you can craft something with it, but it’s nothing game-changing? Would you mine?

Tim Broadwater  

No way. It’s like when they put fishing in games. It’s like, Oh, do you just want to fish the fish? Or do you want to catch the best fish, or like you know what I mean? It’s like, Well, no, if these fish can, I can turn into a potion. That makes me powerful.

Michael Schofield  

Boy, you just like touched a button again. I feel like I need therapy. So let’s take Sea of Thieves, but this applies to any game with a fishing mechanic. I will solo co thieves go out to some like random rock, and I will fish. You can collect different kinds of fish, and you can trade them in, and then you can increase your standing with one of the various guilds. Do I do that? No, I don’t. I fish. Why? Like I’m not a collector.

Tim Broadwater  

Do you enjoy the that the experience of just like it calming you and the challenge and then it’s like the

Michael Schofield  

game is the grind there the game is the fishing, right. But I feel like grind implies the collection of some like you grind to mine. You grind to accumulate. And I feel like I

Tim Broadwater  

guess I think there is some type of reason for some reward.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah. Because otherwise, it just becomes the gameplay

Tim Broadwater  

or Cuphead.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the design thinking games podcast to connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to design thinking games.com where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on.

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