[In this analysis, game journalist Rowan Kaiser takes a deep dive into what makes grinding work as a play mechanic in Dragon Quest IX, the latest in the most popular game franchise in Japan -- which has recently picked up some steam in North America thanks to some DS releases.]
I normally hate grinding. I haven't ever really enjoyed a Dragon Quest/Warrior game, for precisely that reason. I hated it in World of Warcraft, preferring to use the Auction House if possible. I managed to do it enough to get a gold chocobo in Final Fantasy VII, but couldn't motivate myself to defeat the ultra-hard optional Weapons.
And yet I'm loving Dragon Quest IX, because it makes grinding work. I've played it for over a hundred hours, and have spent the last 20 walking in circles instead of progressing in the game. I find Alchemy materials here, grind levels there, change my characters' class, and return to the beginning of the track. I've even made a spreadsheet of the materials I need to create every item in the game!
How does Dragon Quest IX accomplish motivate me to grind? It's not any one particular game mechanic, but instead, a combination of several different factors which work in harmony to make grinding anything but a grind:
Paper Doll Graphics. What sold me on getting Dragon Quest IX instead of, say, Etrian Odyssey III or another old-fashioned RPG was its paper doll effect. I love paper dolls in games. I took screenshots of my character in World of Warcraft whenever she got cool new equipment.
DQIX accomplishes the paper doll effect almost perfectly, allowing you to create attractive, interesting characters and then giving them a fun variety of clothing, armor, and weapons to put on. It's above and beyond the usual RPG fare of simply improving your stats -- although there's certainly that. I want my characters to have the most effective and entertaining-looking gear in the game. Some of that can be purchased, but most of it is acquired with Alchemy.
The Alchemy Gestalt. In DQIX, you can make new items by using "Alchemy," which is simply an item combiner. Want to make a longbow? Put a shortbow in the pot with a laundry pole, and the longbow will be created. You find recipes for alchemy scattered throughout the world, which usually roughly line up with your progress through the game. The most interesting items come through Alchemy, and then those items get combined with one another to create even more interesting stuff.
In DQIX, Alchemy stacks and feeds off itself. Once you've done a couple items here, you're only other item away from combining those into something better. How do you get that last bit? Grinding, of course. But how do you know that this is the item you need, and where can you get that last piece of the puzzle?
All the Necessary Information is at Your Fingertips. Dragon Quest IX has an in-game encyclopedia, somewhat misleadingly named "Battle Records" on the main menu. Once you learn how to read the Battle Records, you have all the information you need to find what you want. Search the recipes to find out what you need, search the items to find out where they appear, and search the monsters to find out what they drop.
This kind of thing is available to most game players in strategy guides of online FAQs, but that level of research creates a slight wall of inconvenience and artificiality. By putting the information inside the game, Dragon Quest IX invites and encourages you to play as a collector and a completist, instead of merely offering that option for the most hardcore players.
How Complete Is It? It also keeps track of various percentages of completion: different monsters defeated, number of recipes Alchemized, amount of wearable items you've owned. It invites you to be a completist, and then tells you how well you're doing at it. This is a small, fairly common game mechanic, but it's still motivating. Ironically, DQIX also offers achievements, but these semi-external motivators aren't interesting to collect on their own -- they follow naturally from the intrinsic motivations that the game has already provided, such as its class system.
A Robust Class System. It's been 20 years since Wizardry VI, and it finally has a worthy competitor for the crown of best and most interesting class-changing system. DQIX uses a similar mechanic to Wizardry VI/VII in that skills you learn in one class transfer over to the next when you change (it's not as complex, however, in that you really can't mess up).
It's to your advantage to change classes regularly, as this piles up skill points as well as opening up class and skill-specific quests. So it's to your benefit to to switch to classes your characters haven't yet used, and therefore to go back to different areas to level them up. Sounds boring? It probably would be, if there weren't also benefits to going back to already-explored areas.
Non-Random Item Collection. Certain spots scattered across the world map have specific items to gather. Here's a graveyard with Thunderballs, there's a waterfall with Fresh Water. These items regenerate based on playtime, so every couple hours, it's worthwhile to run around and collect them all again.
The number of each item may change, but the fact that there's some there -- and that this is by far the easiest way to collect them -- doesn't change. If you want to grind this out, there's more efficient paths to get all the stuff, and gain your levels on the way. The only problem is that sometimes, they don't respawn quickly enough.
Controlled Random Item Collection. Most of the items you need are held by enemies, but their drop rate in combat is very low. By targeting specific enemies with a party of skilled thieves, you can ensure that with time, you'll be able to get the items you need.
Thievery has a low chance of success each individual time you use the "Half-Inch" skill, but eventually, you will get what you need. It may take thirty seconds, it may take five minutes, but it will happen. In older RPGs, this could be incredibly frustrating. You didn't know when combat was going to occur, or what kind of enemy you'd be fighting.
Enemies on the Map. Dragon Quest IX puts the monsters that you fight on the map, making it easy for you to target the appropriate enemies. Goodybags from which to steal Brighten Rocks occur maybe 1-in-10 times on the map where they show up initially, which would be ghastly in random combat, but not here.
Want to find metal slimes to grind experience? You can run by all the other enemies to fight them. Of course, the slimes themselves are tougher to kill than most enemies.
Uncontrollable Randomness. Metal slimes (and other similar creatures, like Metal Medleys) offer much more experience than other creatures that can be found at that level.
However, they tend to flee combat randomly, making hunting them much less controllable than any other monster (You can do a few things like equipping random instant-kill items to increase your odds, but they're still low). The experience haul is still worthwhile, though it of course can be frustrating.
Likewise, certain blue-colored chests scattered throughout the world offer almost totally random items when opened. They respawn, much like the spots on the world map that offer Alchemy ingredients. Getting lucky with a blue chest by picking up a higher-level Alchemy creation, such as an Enchanted Stone, can save you 10 or more ingredients.
By offering different levels of chance and control to get the Alchemy items, Dragon Quest IX manages to provide equally varied methods of motivation. Each one applies its form behaviorist psychology to your motivation.
Hunting metal slimes, repeatedly stealing the same items, and exploring the same area of the map and opening the same blue chests every couple of hours each have a finite amount of appeal on their own. But together, they give you the ability to continue grinding in a slightly different fashion. Each of them help to build your characters and item collections, so cycling between them becomes natural.
Great Side Quests. Even with all this, it's easy to look at something like the Alchemy recipe book and say to yourself "I know I don't want to waste this much time." So Dragon Quest IX uses side quests effectively to both encourage you to grind as well as to teach you how to grind effectively.
While only a handful of gamers may start playing with the motivation that they want to uncover every single secret and achieve 100 percent of everything possibly, a much higher ratio of gamers will at least to do the side quests in front of their nose -- especially the side quests that unlock new classes like Rangers and Paladins instead of the Warriors and Priests you start with. It was a side quest that encouraged me to start hunting Metal Slimes, but it was the amount of experience I got from killing them that made me keep going back to the dungeon they dwell within.
Many of those quests have you grind for the same items used in Alchemy. Maybe you need five Grubby Bandages to do a quest, but if you can figure out how to get those, then the six you need to make some cloth for Alchemy doesn't seem like such a big deal.
Likewise, there are several quests that require high skill or class levels. Earlier quests in those chains offered some fantastic items like Rogue's Robes for Thieves, so it stands to reason that you'd want to do the later quests -- which means grinding to level 40 in every single different class, and while you're at it, you may as well get a character up to 100 in every single different kind of weapon.
Buying Items Is Less Efficient. As Dragon Quest IX starts, it's fairly easy to buy all of the items and equipment that you need with the money you get from normal exploration and progression. It doesn't take long before the balance of gold earned and cost-of-items starts to seriously favor tilt towards cost in all the wrong ways. You either have to make hard choices about which equipment you want to buy when you get into town, or you have to grind for gold.
Since many of the items you'd be buying can be built with Alchemy, why not grind for that instead? You'll also pick up the gold and the experience you want -- and hey, it just so happens that the balance between gold earned during this grind and cost of the Alchemical ingredients you have to buy is much better-balanced for the player. In other words, you'd probably be grinding anyway, unless you have something better to do. But in Dragon Quest IX, you probably don't have something better to do.
Not-So-Great Main Quest. In many JRPGs, the storyline is the main attraction -- or at least, the game's designers want you to think that it is, thanks to constant attempts at manipulation via unskippable cutscenes and conversations. In Dragon Quest IX, the storyline is so far down the priority list that you can happily play for 40 or 50 hours in the middle of the game without even trying to progress. You're free to run around trying to gain levels and Alchemize. And it always seems possible.
Everything Seems to be Within Reach. Very few of internal goals that you need to grind towards seem unreachable. You can look at your Alchemy book and think "Yeah, I just need to steal six of these Ice Crystals, pick up some Fresh Water by the waterfall, and buy some Garish Garb, and I can make three new items!"
Since what you need is well-documented within the game and you can seek out the places where the items (or experience) are most common, you can sit down and play for a few hours and make signficant, tangible progress towards those goals. Then you progress the plot, find a new town with new recipes and a new dungeon with new enemies who drop new items to complete those recipes with, all the while going up in level, and it doesn't feel like such a grind at all. It feels like it's the right way to play the game.
This last point is one of the most important, as later in the game, the system starts to feel ungainly. For example, you'll find a collection of recipes which require Ethereal Stones. Ethereal Stones need Enchanted Stones, which in turn demand Mystifying Mixtures. Those require three Cowpats each. I figured out that I needed 19 Mystifying Mixtures, which meant 57 piles of bovine feces! Upon calculating this, I noticed my motivation for 100% completion fading quickly. Still, by then I was hooked. I had the spreadsheet. I came back.
Game designers have been more intently focused on appealing to completists in recent years, thanks primarily to the rise of Achievements. However, simply adding extended goals to a game isn't necessarily enough to motivate the players. Dragon Quest IX demonstrates that the utilization of multiple different mechanics in a coherent system can create a more motivating game. None of those mechanics are new. Many of them aren't even new to the Dragon Quest series. It's their measured application and interactions with one another that make these mechanics so successful.