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Make grinding fun - The Synergy of the Battle-System and the Progression-System in JRPGs / Turn-Based-Strategy Games

While grinding is a part of a JRPG the boredom that comes with it does not have to be part of it. A synergy between Battle- & Progression-System can help make grinding fun by giving every battle a satisfying feeling.

JRPGs or Turn-Based-Strategy Games are heavily focused on a working Battle-System. The player will spend most of his time battling enemies either to progress through certain areas and the story or to grind for equipment or character levels. Most of the time the grinding is the boring part and the whole game can suffer due to that.

This feeling of boredom is created when the Battle-System and the Progression-System are not aligned properly.

What do I mean by that? Well, first of all the Battle-System is the main part of the game so everything the player does should help him proceed in battle to face stronger enemies and overcome challenges the game presents to him. Usually this is ensured with a Character Progression-System that helps the player to strengthen his character or his equipment.

The game Battle Chasers for example offers a great Battle-System. It is challenging and offers a lot of possibilities, but the Progression-System is not supporting the battle. Characters level too slow and the story dictates a certain kind of level for your characters, to manage to win the fights.
Players have to grind a lot and redo old dungeons to level their characters. After a lot of fights the characters finally level up, but the player might not feel the increase in strength - and if they do, only the last battle felt like it helped the players to achieve the power increase. All the other battles before were only exhausting and boring.

Final Fantasy X on the other hand offers AP (Ability Points) after every battle, that will increase the Sphere Level of the player when reaching a certain amount. With every Sphere Level the player can move one node on the Sphere Grid of the character. While this is a regular Leveling System with slightly different terms, the end reward of a battle additionally offers specific Spheres.
Even if the player can move nodes, without the right Spheres he cannot unlock stat increases or new abilities. At first, this sounds even more like a grinding system and in a way it is, but at the same time the player feels better while grinding.
Getting Sphere Levels is not very hard and happens quite often and the player has enough from certain Spheres to always unlock something. With every battle the player gets Spheres and the chances are high that it will help unlock a certain Sphere Node on the Sphere Grid, that was already reachable due to the Sphere Level, but not unlockable due to the missing Sphere. Every single fight is useful and helps progress the characters strength.

In both games the time to level the characters to the point of defeating a certain enemy is maybe the same, but the feeling the player has to reach it is vastly different. A player might think twice about playing a round of Battle Chasers, where he might feel like not achieving anything - whereas even 5 minutes in Final Fantasy X can feel like a big step closer to beating a boss.

 

Another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is the handling of the party. Usually only 3 or 4 Characters are present in battle, while the rest of the party is not. While this sometimes offers problems on the logical level (“What is the rest of my party doing while I am dying out here?”) it also greatly influences the Progression System.
If the reserve members of the party are not getting any Experience Points (or whatever system the game uses) to level up, they will fall behind in strength.
Then, let’s say at one point, the game might offer a challenge, where the player should use a specific character. But he never used him before and therefore he never got any levels or strength. Now the player has to grind for this specific character, which can become one of the greatest challenges in the game.
The biggest questions the designer has to answer in that case are: What is the intention of this? Why does the player have to use this character? Why didn’t the character get any Experience Points before, even if we knew from the start that the player has to use him later in the game?

Not giving reserve members at least a percentage of the Experience Points is usually used to either
- force the player to use all characters, changing the party regularly to ensure an even number of Experience Points for all, or
- to increase the playtime artificially by forcing the player to catch up with this specific character in level.
Both times the player is forced to do something that he may not want to do for reasons that will not enhance the gameplay or the experience of the player. In fact, he might even feel like he fell back in his progression of the game, or that he did something wrong, which can ultimately lead to the player leaving the game for good.
How you answer those questions changes the players experience dramatically.
If each character has a unique ability that can be used against specific types of enemies, you answer the question of why the player has to change the party-members regularly in an elegant and satisfying way. The player can understand why he has to do it, because he benefits from the change. Compared to this, a system where he has to change the party only for Experience Points is to his disadvantage, because he has to regularly switch back to weaker characters only to have them catch up to the rest of the party.
But even if you answer the question elegantly and make the player understand your choice, be wary about how well this system works for the overall progression in the game. While the choice of using different characters for different battles can offer different gameplay experiences, the lack of level for reserve members does nothing in that regard.
It is no surprise that even a game like Pokémon, a game that heavily depends on catching and raising many different monsters, implemented the XP-Sharer so that other Pokémon could get a portion of the Experience Points without being active in battle. It helped to get the Progression-System and the Battle-System in line, to let the player enjoy the grinding, which is a huge part of the gameplay.

Grinding will always be a part of JRPGs and Turn-Based-Strategy Games - and that is not a bad thing, when the Battle-System is fun to use, and the Progression-System caters to the feeling of the player after each and every battle. If those two systems don’t align, you risk losing your players due to gameplay that doesn’t feel rewarding, but bores them.
Additionally, if there are reserve party members in the game, be careful about how they progress in the game and how you communicate that to the player. Those characters need either a good reason to be used, so that every player feels the need to change their party regularly, or those characters need to level with the rest of the party to avoid unnecessary blockades for the player.
In the end, giving a player after 10 battles 10 health or giving him after 1 battle 1 health is only a small change for the balancing of the game, if done correctly – but a huge difference for the players overall experience and sense of progression.

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