How Forager Levels Up the Grind
Getting progression mechanics right
Grinding is a term you’ve likely heard, or read about, especially in the context of game reviews. It’s typically defined by a repetitive task (or tasks) that the player has to undertake in order to continue progressing in a game. Mechanically, grinding can take different forms depending on the game (and genre), but you’re most likely to have seen or experienced the concept in RPGs and mobile games. Usually what happens is that the player may reach a boss or encounter that is simply too difficult — in which case, they may be encouraged to “grind” by repeatedly tackling easier foes in order to earn enough experience to level up and become stronger (or perhaps to earn enough money to purchase better gear).
Most mobile titles that employ this technique are built upon an ever-escalating grinding scale. Often, further salt is added to the wound due to the inclusion of a loot box progression model (where you need to get the right drops in order to upgrade your characters or gear). In these circumstances, you’ll find no reasonable way to proceed unless that right drop appears.
Given this context, it’s tempting to see grinding as a purely bad idea from a game design perspective. But what about a game that is all about grinding?
Foraging for fun
Enter Forager, an adventure title developed by HopFrog, and released in 2019 for PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One. What is Forager? Well, I’d tend to describe it as an elevated indie title. Your only mission in the game is to keep growing: make more resources and fill in the land. Everything in the game requires you to grind in order to progress.
In practice, there are numerous elements involved here. Money is the game’s currency, unsurprisingly enough — but before you can even earn it, you’ll need to be able to make it. This involves acquiring gold ingots to be smelted. Before you can nab those, you’ll need to mine the resources. And before that, you’ll be required to build both a smelter and an anvil. The same principle applies for any new pieces of equipment you want to build. Building and developing all of these components will permanently improve your character.
As you might expect, Forager is very hands-on in terms of the moment-to-moment experience. Everything must be done manually, which in turn means there’s a lot of time spent both gathering materials and waiting for them to be refined. Performing any task in the game awards you with experience points that can be used to level up. Every time you reach a new level, you can choose to unlock a new perk from an ever-expanding list. These perks grant bonuses, unlock new items and structures, and will generally always give you something new.
As you progress through the game and hit the midway point, you’ll open up elements that either fully automate existing manual tasks or speed them up. By the time I finished the game, I had super-powered weapons that were harvesting everything I needed, which was also then stored immediately. I had banks producing free money every minute, and I was gaining experience at a rapid pace.
Forager reminds me of Stardew Valley in the sense that its gameplay loop is largely based on “busy work” — but importantly, both of these games understand how to make grinding both fun and interesting.
What is good grinding?
Although I touched on the negative aspects of grinding in the first few paragraphs of this article, it might be something I can summarize in two ways. First, a game tends to become a grind when the player isn’t able to progress as easily as they could earlier in the game (especially where progression becomes increasingly more frustrating due to arbitrary factors). An even worse implementation might be the case where the player is just repeating the same tasks repeatedly without seeing any kind of noticeable progression or development.
Forager tackles both of these issues head on thanks to smart design decisions. Firstly, progress is always happening in Forager thanks to the experience bar. As the player, you can always transparently see that what you’re doing is moving the game forward — whether your actions are big or small.
Rather than just increasing the grind on a linear scale as the game goes on, Forager continually introduces new elements and streamlines old ones. At the beginning of the game, for example, collecting sand is a massive pain — and it’s built around the RNG of fishing traps. But if you keep playing, you’ll unlock shovels that not only allow you to dig up useful artifacts, but that can also be enhanced over time to always produce sand.
Wherever there is a slow spot in Forager — or when grinding might start to feel annoying or frustrating — there will always be some way to mitigate or outright remove those frustrations at some stage. And when that time comes, the player will have some other new shiny thing to go after.
Stardew Valley works the same way — every task you perform earns experience in said task. When you level up, you unlock ways to both make that task easier and to do new activities related to it.
In other words, there’s never a time in either game where the player is just spinning their wheels waiting for something to happen. The longer someone plays these games, the more content becomes unlocked. Earlier tasks either become trivialized or are outright removed in favor of new goals. One principle that these titles stick to is the idea that the player shouldn’t need to do the exact same busy work they were doing at the beginning of the game, especially when they are hours into the experience.
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