Grinding and the Burden of Optimal Play
Just before I announced Darknet, I sent an early preview build to Ben Kuchera, a writer at Polygon. The resulting article was generally positive, but there was one negative point that came up right away:
“It sounds grindy”
This was a bad sign. (For those who don’t recognize the term, “grinding” refers to mindless repetition in games.) I hate grinding. I’m fundamentally opposed to it, and I’ve always made an effort to keep it out of all my games. And yet, Ben was right. Somehow I had made a game in which you repeat the same task (solving a hacking puzzle) over and over again. How did it come to this?
The grinding problem originated in the decisions I made at the very beginning of Darknet’s design. I decided to build a hacking game, and I immediately knew that I wanted the player to be hacking a network composed of lots of interconnected nodes. The player should be able to capture individual nodes and thereby influence the wider network, which I figured would provide a strong basis for some interesting strategic dynamics. I also wanted the game to feature a wide range of difficulty (to support newbies and experts alike), and for various reasons I wanted to give the player lots of freedom in choosing which level of difficulty they wanted to tackle.
Together, these decisions led to an unintended consequence. First, the primary action in the game is always to capture a node, which naturally lends itself to repetition. Second, the player can freely choose what difficulty of node they want to capture. Thus, the player is incentivized to go after the easiest possible nodes, over and over again, ad nauseum. Grinding. Ugh.
Let’s zoom out for a moment. You might ask: isn’t grinding ultimately the player’s choice? Why would players choose to grind if it’s not any fun? I think the answer lies in a concept called the Burden of Optimal Play, a term introduced in a great GDC talk about Diablo 3. The speaker, Wyatt Cheng, defined it as “the idea that the player can increase their power level, but that they do so in a way that’s not necessarily enjoyable.”
Here’s how I think of it: Players will tend to make the choices that lead most directly and surely to victory. If you set up a goal that players care about, you should expect them to try to reach it as efficiently as possible. If the most efficient way to win (i.e. optimal play) is a pain in the ass, then you’re asking players to accept a worse experience in exchange for victory, and that’s a crappy way to treat your players. (There are lots of caveats that I could make here, but let’s stick with this simplistic version of the concept for now.)
The Burden of Optimal Play suggests a guideline for game designers: if you want the player to have fun, then the most effective path to victory should also be the most fun. Playing well should never result in a worse experience.
This guideline helped point toward the solution to Darknet’s grinding problems: I needed to make it clear that grinding is not an effective strategy.
Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily repetition that’s bad. (Most great games are repetitive in one way or another.) Rather, the problem is mindless repetition. The issue in Darknet was that players felt incentivized to seek out the easiest puzzles available, which was never an interesting challenge. All the hacking puzzles in Darknet are randomly generated, and since each network includes very difficult levels as well as very easy ones, all I really needed to do was incentivize the difficult levels more than the easy ones.
With that in mind, I made sure that the reward for completing a puzzle grew drastically with difficulty. Then, I added a time limit to each level. (This was actually planned from the beginning, as Ben noted in the Polygon article.) Together, these mechanics incentivize players to tackle the hardest puzzles that they can handle, lest they waste time on the less-valuable easy ones. Optimal play now requires players to overcome interesting challenges, rather than forcing them to accept the burden of the grind.
This has proven to be difficult to communicate to new players, however. When you enter your first game of Darknet, you don’t know how to judge a puzzle’s difficulty against its potential rewards, and you don’t realize right away that the more aggressive strategies tend to be more efficient. All you know is that some puzzles seem pretty much impossible, whereas tackling the easy ones seems to actually be getting you somewhere (albeit slowly). If you pursue that cautious strategy, you could easily come to the conclusion that the whole game is one big grind.
So, although I think I’ve dealt with the grinding at a mechanical level, I’ve still got a serious communication problem. Sure, the game isn’t meant to be played in a grindy way, but that doesn’t mean much if I don’t point players toward an alternative. I really value the freedom in Darknet’s design, and I don’t want to do anything heavy-handed like telling players how to play, but somehow I need to make the good experiences in Darknet more accessible than the bad ones.