A Minor Black Armor Controversy Means We Need to Talk About The Grind.
The goal of an endlessly playable game has always been a dream of gamers. World of Warcraft was the first major step in that direction, taking what players loved from the Warcraft games and throwing an endless progression system behind it. With this generation, Destiny is taking that approach to the first-person shooter.
To accomplish this, the game’s complexity and length had to be altered. After all, there are only so many ways to shoot with a given gun and only so many ways to play a given map. A campaign, too, has only so much replay value.
The solution is The Grind: putting objectives on high ledges, and telling players how to climb there. The more complex and engaging the path is, the better the grind.
The most recent addition to Destiny’s grind is “Black Armor,” the first of three major updates as part of the game’s Annual Pass. Despite my initial skepticism of the pass’s existence, Black Armory has put all my fears to rest. The new Forges are a fantastic piece of replayable content, the new Raid is an innovative and memorable experience and the new Forge weapons should keep me busy for a while.
Yet, there was a short-lived controversy when the game launched. And it led to an interesting discussion over the nature of the game’s grind.
It was discovered that the first Forge had a Power requirement of 610. The previous Power cap was 600, meaning players at max level the night before woke up to find that they weren’t ready for the first part of the new grind. Players rapidly made it clear they were displeased with this, and just as quickly, another –albeit smaller— group responded. To this latter group, this was just “part of the grind.”
This controversy isn’t a big one. The issue was small, and even had it not been solved, it would have been a non-issue after the first few weeks. It ultimately didn’t diminish Black Armory’s value. But the response to players’ concerns that it was “part of the grind” highlights a major misconception about what the grind actually is.
The gap between 600 to 610 in the Forge wasn’t a grind. It was a gap between two grinds. Forsaken launched with its own grind and Black Armory introduced another. To be power 600 at Black Armory’s launch means you'd finished the previous grind. Many of those players were itching to start the new grind. And they couldn’t start at launch.
Black Armory’s grind started too high, and Bungie were correct to fix it. Criticism that this problem was “exactly what players asked for” when we asked for a grind completely confuses what a grind actually is. I vividly remember when Whisper’s mission was first found, people couldn’t access the mission because it required a Taken public event to spawn, but players kept getting Cabal public events for hours. Some players had to wait 5+ hours doing nothing just waiting to even gain access to the mission. When IGN’s Destiny Legarie criticized this, he was hit with criticism over Twitter that “it’s just part of the grind.”
The implication, of course, being that sitting on your hands doing squat is somehow what separates “hardcore gamers” from the plebs. Fundamentally, there seems to be a lack of consensus on what a grind actually is.
There are two types of grinds in Destiny: smart grinds and dumb grinds.
A smart grind requires players to play for a long time, constantly improving their skills and fleshing out their mastery of the sandbox. For instance, playing The Raid over and over again is a “smart grind” because you’re constantly mastering the encounter mechanics, learning how to avoid mistakes, and committing hundreds of different skills to memory. It isn’t just making you better at this particular Raid, it’s making you better a hundred different things that make you a better player across the game. That’s the satisfying part of a smart grind. You can cross apply this rationale to Nightfalls, Escalation Protocol, Trials and other end-game activities. They have complexity that demands sophisticated play to master, meaning you continue to progress even after playing your first, tenth or hundredth time.
Conversely, this doesn’t apply everywhere. There are only so many different ways to run a story mission, a regular strike or a public event. Playing the same public event over and over again can only make you so much better of a player, because at a certain point, you’re not learning anything new and you stop improving. That point is extremely low on those activities. This segues into the second type of grind:
When people talk about abusive free-to-play/free-to-win games, you often hear them described as "grindy" because they use repetitive, simple gameplay to pad playtime and/or offer microtransactions to let players skill to skip activities designed like chores. Poorly designed games are also frequently criticized as "grindy" because they artificially extend length with repetitive, un-creative activities. This is emblematic of a "dumb grind."
Now, dispel the first impression this name, and "grindy games" give. A dumb grind is not inherently bad, when deployed in reason.
A dumb grind is an extremely simple task with not much room to master. Examples: get 100 headshots, collect 10 units of spinfoil, or play 10 Heroic Strikes. This isn’t, however, to say that all dumb grinds are bad. In reasonable portions, they can be engaging. Bounties are great, because you can do them flexibly, and get rewarded while doing more interesting activities. A good quest an incorporate a dumb grind for multiple steps, since they break up the action and can compel players to start other activities they’ll enjoy, like a Crucible or a Strike playlist. This serves to push gameplay diversity on players who may otherwise be unmotivated to try new things.
I think Curse of Osiris/Black Armory’s Forge weapons fall into the good category, because they encourage diverse play, while the Legendary Sword quests from Taken King fall into the bad category because picking up materials for hours is about as entertaining as clipping toenails.
A dumb grind can also involve something else more pertinent to the current discussion over Black Armory: replaying content you’ve already mastered. In the “smart grind” section, I mentioned that playing content with the aim of mastery is a noble goal. Conversely, forcing players to play content they’ve already mastered is a notably dumb grind, and possibly one of the more inexcusably bad examples of a dumb grind.
A good grind puts high-end rewards on high shelves and puts content in between. Players are rewarded as they climb, mastering increasingly challenging content and gradually improving as players. You’re a better player for it, and you’ve got rewards to show that off.
This is the line where we need to assess what is a grind, and what isn’t. The gap between Forsaken’s 600 cap, and The Forge’s 610 start wasn’t a grind. It meant players had a large period where they weren’t engaged in any kind of meaningful grind at all. Replaying content they’ve already mastered is the dumbest kind of dumb grind. It’s no wonder players were frustrated. Forsaken had a smart, rewarding grind, and Black Armory has one of its own. Going from the excellence of former and being told they had to wait –for no apparent reason—to experience the latter was genuinely frustrating.
Redditors convinced that lowering the entry point for the Forge somehow transgressed the principle of “the grind” couldn’t be further from the truth. The top shelf is just as high as it was before Bungie lowered the Forge’s power level. The power level on the Raid and the subsequent Forges are still just as high. The max power level is still 650. The road through the endgame is just as long, and just as hard. But now, the first 10 levels of that grind can be done within Black Armory’s fantastic content, rather than the decidedly dumb grind of replaying old content.
This is without question the best period in Destiny’s history. By this point in even Taken King’s lifespan, we’d started to feel a content drought. Forsaken alone was the franchise’s highest quality content release in nearly every way, from story, to world, to gameplay. The Annual Pass is showing that Bungie knows how to keep us busy within this wonderful world. So far, this is the first year of Destiny that’s shown complete cohesion.
Even at its best, Destiny 1 was always mitigating for massive flaws that shipped with vanilla Destiny. Every release from vanilla Destiny onward was hyped for its ability to fix the previous year’s issues, more than actually driving the game forward. In many ways, Forsaken is the true version of Destiny as it was pitched back in 2013. The Annual Pass is our first step as Bungie moves to evolve the game, rather than fix it. It’s such a refreshing state of mind to be in as a player and fan of this franchise. In full honesty, the fact that we’re at each other’s throats over a POWER LEVEL mistake is a blessing. On Destiny on Day 1, the entire gear system was broken, the story was one of the worst in gaming history and exotic engrams that were most likely to drop legendaries.
This game has come a long way, and Black Armory is the first time we’ve talked about an update to an iteration of this game that just works.