Individuals that don’t play games often accuse those of us who do of wasting time. While I generally disagree with this statement, I have noticed a trend in games during the course of my own play time that may validate such a perception and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. It’s time we stop living a lie, stop smiling the superficial smiles and start owning up to the fact that we are wasting way too much time progressing our in-game characters.
I mentioned my own conflicts with crafting a while back, but that is a more recent symptom of a larger problem, a symptom that was the result of developers deciding that simple premises and gameplay mechanics weren’t enough to satiate the needs of the maturing gamer. No longer would the meager offerings of item shops or monster drops be enough; we wanted to build the tools of the trade. This lead to more grinding, a gameplay requirement that was (arguably) already responsible for the most classic form of time-wasting in games. Instead of branching off and exploring new titles and genres, we’ve been sucked into the inescapable abyss of monotonous progression that does little more than elevate our in-game avatars to new status levels or present them with items that lose their value quicker than it took to earn in the first place. While I won’t argue against the necessity of grinding and other character progression activities, I do question whether or not they have a negative effect on my gaming habits.
While stat progression has been around since the beginning of gaming (starting with pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, etc.) its implementation has become a more modern staple, one that has traversed almost every gaming genre. When I was younger, I didn’t really understand the concept. In fact, the first time I realized the importance of boosting my characters’ abilities was while playing Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. I’d made my way through the earlier parts of the game very easily but came across a boss battle that I had no chance of winning. My party of plucky Nintendo characters were getting KO’d with only a few hits and none of my attacks seemed to do any sort of harm to my adversaries. We just weren’t strong enough. Up until that point, I’d learned to either avoid the enemies I encountered (which you could do in Mario RPG) or kill them, though there was never any reason to pursue unnecessary battles since the risk always outweighed the reward. This is when I discovered that in some games, the more you fought the stronger you got and sometimes, the rewards actually outweighed the risks. From that point on, I was obsessed with progression.
More than good enough
Examples of my early addiction to obsessively improving my game characters began with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Final Fantasy Tactics. While I look back fondly on most of my time with these games (both are in my top 20), I also cringe a bit when I think about the time spent trying to better my in-game persona. Money was much tighter then, so focusing on one game wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but it formed a habit formed I think actually hampered my enjoyment of future titles. I would eventually see the lack of stat progression as a negative mark against a title. This didn’t stop me from playing those types of games, but my viewpoints were skewed a bit and I developed some bad habits.
I eventually got to the point that close battles were unacceptable. I needed to power through everything and the only way to do that was by performing the aforementioned grinding/crafting/item locating that eventually made up a large percentage of my actual play time. It wasn’t that I was just spending too much time on these tasks, it was that they became the entire focus and I tricked myself into thinking it was fun. The reality was, not only was I missing out on other games because of it, I was missing the point of the game I was doing it in.
Red Dead Redemption is a game that most everyone on our site has played, beaten and discussed in-depth, but to this day I have been forced to require my fellow writers to speak in spoiler free whispers. I never finished it because I got tied up with completing side missions and earning money so that I could purchase the weapons/items I needed to be the baddest John Marston I could be. The thing is, RDR isn’t even really that sort of game. It wasn’t that I got distracted with supplementary content because I was going for achievements or wanting to thoroughly explore the beautiful wild west world presented to me. I just couldn’t accept moving on to the next story mission without making sure I was 150% ready for whatever challenges laid in front of me. As a result, after 40 or so odd hours in, I needed to take a break.
The Blame Game
I’m not about to suggest that developers do away with progression because that would be silly. I think creating a title with a dedicated fan base that wants to continue playing the same game for extended periods of time is the paramount achievement in the industry. Progression is the easiest way to do this, especially for players that may not have the skills to be consistently competitive in multiplayer sessions. That being said, I often wonder how much of this is the result of incredible mechanics vs carrot on a string strategies. I realize that certain people, including myself, are drawn to this sort of model because we’re inherently attracted to improvement. Which leads me to think that some pretty mediocre games are getting away with being one trick ponies because of the delectable gravy that is the pursuit of better, shinier items and bigger, badder heroes.
Blaming the industry, however is similar to blaming Papa Johns for making me as fat as I have become. I am the problem and I found that looking at what I actually accomplished in-game helped to break me free from the stranglehold that progression had on me. As a result I developed a set of rules to live by, rules that could help a gamer should they find themselves in a similar predicament.
- If I play the same game for a 2 consecutive days and didn’t learn or see anything new, it was time to find the next story related mission.
- If I have been performing the same action for more than an hour with the sole hopes of leveling up, I need to move on.
- If I’m killing enemies in a certain area without any effort, it is time to move to the next area.
- If I begin thinking about things outside of the task at hand, I’m in a grinding trance and need to stop playing or find something more productive to do in the game world.
- If the only goal of a game is to enhance your character, it’s probably time to find a new game.
I know that some people aren’t pursuing a well rounded gaming lifestyle, but I feel like playing only a couple of games is akin to filling one’s plate with mashed potatoes and avoiding other fixin’s at the buffet. I’ll still level the heck out of my characters, but hopefully I can keep it a secondary task and not my entire focus. Besides, I need to focus on enhancing my real life stats, my fat is +15.
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