It's something we simply love to hate, or hate to love. Levelling up characters for the sake of levelling them up. Replaying a level just to get better gear and stats, or simply drone around in a monster populated area and mindlessly click the mouse or press a button.
Back in the day, the grind was something that was part of the experience. I remember playing Phantasy Star for the first time. Think you're off to an adventure straight away? Well, you'd better stick around the first town and level up a few times or you're in for a short adventure with Alis.
The appeal and lure of the grind is something I assume has been researched to great lengths as the perfect grind is key to a very successful longterm gaming experience. Sure the social element may be what keeps players paying for a World of Warcraft subscription, but without enjoyment of the core aspect, the grind, it's hard to imagine it being as successful. And look at something like Farmville - it's all grind.
I found myself wondering why I kept playing Dungeon Hunter: Alliance on my PS Vita. It's a mediocre game at its core, with a forgettable story, bland graphics, and shoddy network code. Still, I've clocked in a considerable number of hours with it, both in single player (at least you don't drop out every so often) and online multiplayer (there's a decent player base so you can find games suitable for you at most times).
The game does offer a game mix of achievements (the most trophy rich game I've encountered on PS Vita to date), and the levels are short enough that you can complete them while your better half is watching something uninteresting on the telly. And then there's the levelling up.
A lot has happened since the days of Phantasy Star, and most level based games these days offer choices as far as which attributes you want to raise and what skills you want to acquire. There is something empowering in that, and even if raising the block chance of your "magnetic shield" from 1 to 3 per cent sounds like a very small thing it still enriches your experience and gives you a sense of accomplishment, and thus it validates the 20 minutes or so you just spent trying to level up.
But do we need rewards or is the grind in itself reward enough? We've all seen, heard, and experienced the heavy grind of some of the Korean MMO's out there. It's all bread, and no spread.
It is in this regard that Funcom's The Secret World is an interesting experiment. No levels in a massively multiplayer online role playing game. Naturally, there is progression as you unlock more advanced skills, and open up new combinations and alternative play styles in what comes across as a rather massive system. It's a bold move, and one that has the potential to put players who play less on a level playing field with the most diehard players.
What's really interesting is how this will change the way players experience the game. Even if there are always many ways to enjoy these kind of games whether it's crafting, social interaction, or experiencing the story, but the framework of progressing your character through levels is something that motivates and drives most players. By eliminating this constraint, Funcom are liberating players, but there is always the risk that some will feel lost and unsure what to do next or more importantly why they need to do it.
I'll keep grinding away with Dungeon Hunter: Alliance for now, not entirely sure why, but every new level triggers a reaction in my pleasure center and it keeps me going.