When Star Citizen was announced, one of the facets on the standard that Chris Roberts waved over his head was the fact that it would be an MMO without levels; you would only be limited by your skill and your resources. When I first heard this, I breathed a sigh of relief, because leveling systems (in MMOs and sometimes single-player RPGs) always feel somewhat arbitrary to me, serving as an artificial way to elongate the time a player will spend engaged with the game and, therefore, squeeze out more monthly subscriptions; it adds another layer of grinding, and dear god do I hate pointless grinding.
What is it about grinding that makes it pointless, though? I’ve been charmed by games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon before, and those are grindfests of the highest order. The kind that always irked me was the kind imposed frivolously by the developer to somehow impede progress and block new content in order to extend the time the player will be playing the game. (How do you think most RPGs get those “200 hours of gameplay” on the back of the box?) In the worst cases, this grinding is not only imposed, but necessary in order to continue. This is practiced most egregiously in Japanese RPGs, but it appears in western RPGs as well. World of Warcraft in its vanilla days is similar, forcing the players to play the same instances over and over before working their way to the new stuff, personal ability be damned.
Will Star Citizen have grinding? Absolutely. But the kind of grinding proposed for the game is something a bit different. When a player in an MMO collects five (5) Rabid Boar Pelts for a questgiver and hands them off, they disappear into the aether, or perhaps into her boundless Bag of Holding. When resources are mined and sold in Star Citizen, however, they don’t disappear. Instead, they are sent off to be used by other people to repair ships or fund a war effort or maybe even by a ship manufacturer to build more ships. It’s grinding with consequences. With this model, the player becomes part of the world, and their grinding has ramifications.
More and more games are recognizing the potential of this sort of pseudo-grinding. Planetside 2, one of my favorite and most-played games in the last decade, just released a base-building mechanic that has drawn much of its old playerbase back for a second run, and what’s the first thing these players do? They spawn a harvesting vehicle (an ANT) and run out into the plains of Auraxis to look for the crackling mineral, Cortium, that stands as the backbone of this update. You see, building bases in this new update isn’t free. Before they can be built, Cortium must be mined and used to create structures, and the easiest way to let many people build structures is to create a silo where many ANTs can offload their Cortium so that everyone can build the base even bigger and better. Some people make it their mission to grab resources from the plains and return them to the silos, only to repeat the process over and over. But if it’s basically a grind, why do they do it?
This is the magic of grinding with consequences beyond personal gain. In Planetside, the ANT driver gets to see the base built a little bit more upon every return as a direct consequence of their actions. In something even larger, like Star Citizen, the effect of this grinding may not be as pronounced, but the knowledge that the minerals mined from an asteroid aren’t lost is much more compelling than handing in those five (5) Rabid Boar Pelts. To reintroduce a tired old cliché, the effects of a single Prospector trucking minerals back to an orbital refinery has a ripple effect on the economics of the whole game universe and even has a direct impact on whoever will be shipping those refined minerals, with a one-in-ten chance of that person being a player (based on Chris’s statement that there will be nine NPCs to every player).
None of this is to say that there is something inherently wrong with people who enjoy grinding; to each his own. But repetitive gameplay doesn’t have to feel as pointless as it does for persnickety players like myself, and this is why I’m so excited for the most mundane tasks in Star Citizen. When I repair someone’s hull, it’s because something actually happened to them, and there is actually a person that I am helping. When I’m shipping parts, those parts may find their way into the hands of another player. And that makes all the difference.