Grinding is one of those tough topics to discuss because the term means different things to different people (like meaningful travel, camping, etc.)
Until we would all agree as to what it means for the purpose of this discussion, we'll see some posts saying 'yeah, no grinding!' and then just as many posts asserting 'no, grinding is great!'.
And, not only do people have different definitions, people also have different tastes and tolerances... what one might find too repetitive and therefore boring and grindy, another may not.
That said, I'll attempt to add clarity and at least talk about what I consider grinding, the good and the bad.
First of all, the 'bad' grinding actually fits into a larger issue -- overly repetitive gameplay. Whenever an MMO has an advancement path that involves doing something fairly simple over and over again it risks creating a situation where 'bad' grinding not only exists as something you can do, but worse yet, sometimes it's the most efficient way to advance your character. This scenario is especially bad because the player should never find himself in a situation where he can choose one of two paths: Path 1 is more fun, more engaging, more challenging but then also less efficient in terms of character advancement. Path 2 contains the overly repetitive gameplay but is also a more efficient path to advancement. Studies have shown, both studies I have been involved with and also those I've read about, that in such a scenario, many (sometimes even most) players will choose the path with more efficient advancement even though it's less fun. Allowing this to occur (and it's happened under my watch before, so I bear some responsibility) is an epic fail in terms of MMO game development. It's bad(TM). We need to avoid it if at all possible.
Now, again, where this can get tricky is that everyone is an individual. Some people find certain MMO gameplay to be overly repetitive and grindy while others will find the same activity just fine. The answer here for us is to know our target audience. And that's where, of course, we need to listen to all of you! We need to make sure we don't have unnecessarily grindy content and mechanics in Pantheon, of course, but more specifically, we need to avoid what most of you guys feel is too grindy. When it comes to activities other MMO players in general may find too grindy, we need to keep in mind that Pantheon isn't being designed to be all things for all people.
I'd also like to talk briefly about why grindy content and mechanics have appeared in MMOs. At one extreme, I've seen people assert that we put in grindy content just to punish players. This, of course, is ludicrous. I don't see any MMO developer, regardless of the type of MMO they are playing or their vision for what an MMO should be, purposely putting in grindy content just to piss off players. That would be, well, really dumb at worst and simply bad game design at best.
I also see the assertion that grinds are put into MMOs to slow players down -- to slow their advancement. In my experience this has occurred, but perhaps not as frequently as some might assume. There have been times where players are indeed chewing through content so quickly (for any number of reasons) and I’ve been part of meetings where the goal was to find out some way to slow the rate of advancement. In those meetings, adding grindy content and mechanics have been brought up (although usually as a temporary, Band-Aid fix). Here's what I have to say about these scenarios: 1. of course, we'll do our best to not let that happen. 2. you really have to look deeper and try to understand why players are advancing so quickly.... is there an exploit or bug? Is there a system out there that is just too easy? Did we stupidly put in an item or two that are seriously too powerful that players are using to rip through content at a ridiculous pace? I think it's really important that, on a case by case basis, the reason the rapid advancement is occurring has to be understood and then addressed. Simply slowing the player down in other ways and not addressing the core issue and cause is a band-aid approach, and I'm definitely not a fan of band-aids. Does it take more time and effort to both understand what is going on and then to properly address the situation? Yes, and so adding some grind is the quicker, easier way out. But that doesn't mean it's acceptable. It isn't.
What's left? What's left are systems and mechanics that are put into an MMO on purpose as part of character advancement that is not a reaction or a fix. There's a lot of great examples out there... faction grinding comes to mind. In order to access a certain area or to be allowed to speak to a certain NPC or to receive a certain quest, you have to have the right mixture of factions or the game won't let you proceed. If we take a look at this example purely as an idea (in other words, remove the various implementations you've experienced, good or bad, and just look at the concept), I don't find anything wrong with it. Using the faction example, that is pretty much what factions are there for: they allow a character who wouldn't normally be able to interact with an 'enemy' faction to change how they are viewed in the world and, with some work, be able to change their faction standing and earn access. As a concept I think most of us would agree that it's a good one. Quick hats off to Bill Trost for coming up with the faction system in EQ -- before he did so, we were going to have a simpler D&D-like alignment system where your character could be evil at one extreme, neutral in the middle, and good at the other extreme. Classic, workable, but pretty simplistic. Bill game up with the faction system in EQ to replace the alignment system with something much more interesting. What if good and evil were more relative? What if one group didn't like another group, and then when you did something the first group did like, they liked you more and the faction opposing them liked you less? And then, adding more complexity, what if you did something to please one group but then found out it also pleased another group, didn't affect at all your standing with yet another group, and then pissed off yet three more other groups you didn’t even know existed? IMHO this system was ingenious and far, far superior to a more simplistic alignment system and I was more than happy to rip out that system in EQ and replace it with the faction system.
The general concept of how to change your faction standing was pretty solid too. Do things to please one faction and have your standing with various factions change accordingly. Maybe its kill a mob, maybe it's complete a quest, etc. And then we could also make it such that certain races and classes would start out in the game world with preset faction standings... instead of making Paladins 'good' in a general sense, we would add more depth and give them initial standings with various factions that, when all summed up, did make them generally 'good' but in a way that made more sense with the game world, lore, etc. The system was more complex, but the depth it added and the compelling gameplay that could be associated with it more than justified such a system.
But then, of course, came the real game with real players and like any MMO system, you learn a lot about your great idea when real people are actually using it. It's why I am such a proponent of a nice, long beta: there's all sorts of cool ideas we are coming up with, cool ideas that have come from the community, etc. that sound great on paper but may or may not survive contact with actual players. Continuing to talk about factions (although I fully realize faction grinding is not the only example of grinding that's popped up in MMOs over the years), we found that fundamentally changing who your character is in terms of his standings should not be something easily achievable. A Dark Elf can't simply kill a few evil races attacking a town of humans and then suddenly he's not considered the enemy, is embraced and welcomed into the human town. Just like gaining experience or obtaining that rare drop, changing your factions in a significant way had to involve time and effort, and also, ideally, risk and reward. If it didn't, then it really wasn't that meaningful of a system. If we want travel to matter, we cannot let people teleport around with impunity. If we want obtaining rare and exotic items to mean something, they can't drop off of easy mobs like a Piñata. If we want overcoming a powerful boss mob to mean something, then failing to do so, dying, has to have a sting.
All that said, however, if the most efficient way to change your faction standing is to kill certain mobs over and over again, often with little or no danger to yourself or your party, and often without having to really move about, then, at least in my opinion, we've allowed bad grinding to creep into the game.
Advancing in a PvE MMO generally revolves around two core mechanics: overcoming a challenge and investing time. There should be and are other ways, so don't assume I'm advocating simplicity here -- I think we can do better and provide more and more ways to advance your character -- but at least for the sake of this discussion, let's be honest and agree that in most cases, in most MMOs, when simplified, it comes down to 1. figuring out how to advance (beat a boss mob, finish a quest, etc.) and 2. putting your time in -- playing enough and having your time investment rewarded. In one sense, it’s pretty simple. In fact, one could argue that if it's figuring out how to overcome challenges (or, worse yet, reading how to do it on a spoiler site) and then just putting the time into playing the game, MMOs are fundamentally grindy. Essentially, overcome the challenge, play a lot, rise and repeat, and eventually you are high level. On the surface, that sounds pretty repetitive and boring to me.
So yes, I'm getting somewhere with this, pardon my typical verbosity.
Really, if you look at almost any game, MMO or otherwise, you can boil down 'how to play the game, how to progress in the game, and even how to 'beat' the game) to some pretty simplistic systems and mechanics. The 'trick' is to create a game where while the players are accomplishing these core tasks, there is enough variety and variation intermixed with these mechanics that it doesn't feel to the player that he's really doing the same thing over and over again. You create a great story behind why the player is doing something. You create context. You vary the situation -- you create interesting and different mobs to defeat, you create an interesting virtual world to explore, you create a sufficiently rich atmosphere around the player such that character advancement doesn't feel the same, feel repetitive, even though, fundamentally, he or she is doing the same sort of thing over and over again.
This is simply good game design. And it's certainly easier said than done. It takes real effort. And the better you do it, the better the game is. The more immersive the experience, the more the player will enjoy the variety of scenarios, necessary tactics, needed items, and the need to travel around an interesting world. If they are caught up in a great game, a great world, a great story and setting, a changing environment, then it won't matter to him that, ultimately, if boiled down and simplified, he's really doing the same sort of thing over and over again. To me, this is one way to sum up or define good game design and implementation. If you can pull this off, you've made a compelling game. If you fail and the average player isn't caught up in an immersive experience, then he will see through it all and likely become quite bored at some point.
How does this relate to grinding? To me grinding is part of what I was just talking about more generally -- it's one example of what can be done well or poorly. If we can make 'faction grinding', again using the faction example, something that is involved, varied, and ultimately fun, then it's not really grinding -- at least not the 'bad' grinding I was talking about. If you have to move around, kill a variety of mobs, complete quests, etc. in order to change your faction standing sufficiently to unlock an area you want access to, then you're not just changing your faction -- you're *playing* the game. And it can be difficult -- it can involve challenge and it can involve a lot of time investment. If the result is worth the time and effort and the risk/reward, then I think it's great. As I alluded to earlier and also in other posts, I'm in favor of many ways to advance your character. Just killing mobs to gain experience and levels, while traditional and fun if done right, isn't enough. The more ways, the more options you have, to advance your character, the more interesting the game. The more compelling and sticky the game too. If you grow tired of working on one aspect of your character you should have options. The less options you have, the greater the chance you’ll get bored and log off. If it gets bad enough, maybe you don't log back in. Variety is good. People like variety, they like options, and at least the players we are targeting, don't like feeling like they're on rails. They don't want to be led around and told what do to next. While I don't think they want a pure sandbox, they also don't want the traditional themepark either. And that's what Pantheon is: a more open game where you are not led from one quest hub to another, where there is no 'golden path', where there are less strict rules confining your gameplay but rather different ways to achieve the same or similar goal.
What have we seen over the years that's gone beyond earning experience points? AAAs is one. Faction grinding is another. Unlocking areas and regions (keying) is another. Crafting. Diplomacy in VG. And as I've alluded to in other posts, we've got some cool ideas in this area for Pantheon, some of which should make it in by release, whereas some require an MMO that's already been released and around for a while in order to be properly implemented.
But as I try to bring this post to a close and bring us back to the OP, we have a responsibility to make sure that however many advancement paths there are, that they are interesting and varied. That it doesn't feel overly repetitive or familiar... that it's not too grindy. That and we also need to do our best to avoid situations where a more boring and less fun path is not also the more efficient -- again, players should not find themselves compelled to choose a more efficient but less fun route over a less efficient but more varied and fun route.
In the early MMOs there was a lot of grinding. I've attempted to explain why but also to say that, regardless of reason, we should do our best to avoid it. The good news is that we know a lot more now. We know better how to identify gameplay that is too repetitive and, hopefully, how to tweak that gameplay and make it more interesting and compelling. We know now that many players will choose having less fun in the short term if they believe it will get them to more fun in the future. And we have better tools that should aid us in creating not just a greater quantity of content, but also better quality as well. And so, while Pantheon is certainly a game heavily inspired by the 'older school' MMOs, we are not just re-creating an old-style MMO in a modern setting. We are picking and choosing game mechanics and features, and doing it carefully. As great as some of the earlier MMOs were, they all had flaws and issues as well. As much as we learned what worked and what we'd like to see brought back to the MMO genre, we also saw what didn't work, what was unnecessary, what was tedious and repetitive. And so as much as we are building on a foundation of what worked, we are also, just as importantly, not bringing back the flaws and errors of the past. We're picking and choosing, and then building a lot of new, hopefully genre evolving features and mechanics, on top of that foundation.
As usual, I took advantage of the original topic (in this case grinding) and tried not only to simply address that issue but use it as a gateway and opportunity to bring up other related issues, other bigger issues, and share with you more and more of our philosophy as well as how we are approaching building Pantheon. It makes for a longer read (sorry) but it seems more satisfying then just answering in one sentence: "With Pantheon, we will do our best to avoid overly repetitive or tedious game mechanics which often leads to what many players refer to as 'bad' grinding". And that's because the OP really hit on something much bigger that is always a challenge when developing an MMO: having different ways to advance your character is good. Creating interesting environments, stories, settings, etc. to make character advancement more fun and less tedious is good. Moving players around an interesting world in order to advance is good. Taking short cuts and introducing repetitive gameplay is bad. Band-Aids are bad. Slowing character advancement, when necessary, needs to be done with care and a real effort to avoid the grind.
So that’s it – that’s my take on repetition and tedium and our goal to avoid it whenever possible in Pantheon. We definitely believe that we can bring challenge, cooperation, community, class interdependence, etc. back to MMOs without also dragging in un-fun and unnecessary grinding.