Filler. Padding. Grinding.
Grinding, filler, and padding. These are terms with negative connotations that describe repetitive or meaningless content in an artistic work. For our purposes we'll keep the discussion focused on gameplay and game design. It's unfortunate that so many gamers clutter their messages by relying on such poorly defined terms and concepts. Consider the following common definition of grinding from wikipedia:
"Grinding is a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive and/or boring tasks not pertaining to the story line of the game."
This is a terrible definition for the following reasons. All games are built around the repetition of gameplay mechanics (which I detail below). Being bored is merely a state of mind that can be the result of many factors external to the game itself including mood, energy levels, and personal preference. And finally "story lines" are not requirements for video games, therefore the definition doesn't target a gameplay/game design issue. Furthermore, I don't think the definition of grinding should use story content to excuse the boring, repetitive gameplay of grinding. This definition is simply too subjective, too general, and incorporates too many non-gameplay considerations.
I've noticed that when when a player loves a gameplay experience, there are no complaints about the mandatory challenges. When a player does not like a game's mandatory challenges, this content can be referred to as filler or padding. In actuality, these words have no objective definition. The definition of padding as "mandatory content developers create to "artificially" lengthen a game," falls apart for two reasons. First, authorial or developer intent has no bearing on the actual work under consideration. In other words, it doesn't matter if the developers claim they've added lots of "filler" content or not. Authors are no more reliable a source of analysis than anyone else especially considering industry pressures and the betrayal of their "true feelings" due of complex, competing influences.
The second problem with the definition centers around the word "artificial." All video game content is an artifice. Video games are code that forms the rules that govern "artificial" virtual elements or abstractions designed to present a consistent gaming experience that players observe to make informed decisions as they interact via gaming controllers. Perhaps the only features of video games that are not artificial are what I call the digital truths. I think when most claim elements in a game are artificial, they're comparing a game to some other standard or example that they've personally accepted as being the "true" model. Anything that doesn't align with this model is deemed "artificial." This kind of evaluation is convoluted, vague, and somewhat lazy. It's clear that the common definitions and meanings of these 3 troubling terms is insufficient.
So why do so many still use these terms: grinding, padding, and filler? Quite simply, they are complex terms used to express a very simple idea; that some part of a game is disappointing. Which part of the game is disappointing exactly? It's hard to say. These terms can point to any combination of a lack of story content, unique gameplay challenges, balanced gameplay, optional solutions, or a lack of any other type of fun or engaging content in a game. Gamers commonly use these terms as a catch-all phrase to express themselves when they lack the language and the understanding to pinpoint specific issues. Still, is there any analytical merit to a concept like padding? Is there a way to objectively calculate what is filler and what is not? Is grinding an inherent part of learning? These are the questions I seek to answer in this series.
It will be easier to unpack these issues if we look at a clear case. Let's use Super Mario Bros. to build hypothetical examples and examine the issue from 3 perspectives.
Filler and padding can't simply be an issue of repetition alone. Nearly every game that exists is built around a set of core mechanics or player actions. Players are required to use these actions to overcome all mandatory challenges. Though the context (setting, theme, etc.) may change throughout a game there's no denying the fact that games are designed around lots of repetition of mechanics. Even most of the "one hit wonders" games challenge players to win multiple rounds thus forcing players to repeat gameplay actions. So perhaps filler and padding are issues of repetition and scale.
Players expect to JUMP a lot in Super Mario Bros. Likewise, players also expect to JUMP and land on specific targets or to JUMP out of the way of hazards. These are two examples of repetition of the low level Super Mario Brothers gameplay. By zooming out even further we see that SMB levels are made up of smaller sections composed of specific level structures, enemy formations, coin placements, and secrets. All these layers together make up the vertical slice or representative example of SMB's full gameplay. At this highest level, it's clear that various level sections and challenges are very different from each other. And we know from my study of Super Mario Brother's variation exactly how different these sections are, what changes between them, and how effective these changes are.
The idea we commonly recognize is the higher you zoom out by taking into account more layers of gameplay and therefore more complexities, the more potential there is for a gameplay challenge or a series of challenges to distinguish itself. We established this idea in part 1 of this series. So in Mario's case, level 1-1 is very different from level 2-1, which is very different from level 4-1 though these levels share most of the same elements (structures, enemies, coins, etc.). Perhaps it is at this bigger picture level that we should look for repetitive gameplay challenges to identify as padding. After all, with all the complexities and option to mix and match, there's no excuse having two gameplay challenges be practically the same, right? Perhaps the objective definition of padding/filler that we're looking for should be phrased like this: "when a game features two or more mandatory levels or challenges (as defined by the game or some clear user defined measure) that present the same challenge when considering all of its elements or layers that make up the vertical slice of its gameplay."
This definition will not work. In many cases the gameplay conditions are not identical even when gameplay levels are repeated. In Super Mario Brothers even if players were forced to play the same levels over again back to back (1-1, 1-1X, 1-2, 1-2X, ... see image above), powerups, coins, and other suspended design elements would make the repeated attempts different. How different would World 1-1 be if you started as Fire Mario? This is not to mention how the smallest changes in execution can have rippling effects on the strategies and solutions players can use to beat levels. This kind of design gives SMB gameplay challenges a lot of potential variability. And on top of this there are random elements in SMB that make the same exact level challenge slightly different on multiple playthroughs.
So maybe SMB isn't the best example. There are plenty of games that are much more strict, linear, and are affected by spoilers. Maybe for games like this, there's clearly no value in replaying levels? This notion is foolish. I don't think the linear, dynamic, emergent, or sandbox quality of a game matters in our analysis of repetition in games. An important factor to consider when replaying levels or revisiting any complex work is how much you've changed since your first exposure. Never forget that knowledge is power. Not just the power to perform better in skill-based games, but the power that drives many intrinsic motivators and our understanding of stories. With more knowledge of a game, we can learn more of its design, its emergent possibilities, and experience new discoveries. Much of these discoveries are only apparent after repeated study, exposure, and reflection of a game, which is just another way of saying you have to study to get more out of the game.
As players learn and improve at a game, they typically progress through the game. Lessons learned further down the line develop skills that players normally don't get to apply to earlier challenges unless they decide to go back on their own. Some games are designed to highlight player growth by repeating challenges. Zelda Wind Waker, the Mega Man series, Devil May Cry 4, and Kid Icarus: Uprising feature mandatory repeated boss battles as part of the look how far you've come style of video game climaxes. With your new gameplay mechanics or your new skills, you are expected to make quick work of the challenges that were most likely much more difficult before. Put simply, even when an exact gameplay challenge is precisely repeated the experience and challenge for the player may be different in addition to the non interactive aspects like theme and context.
Not only are games inherently repetitious, but so too is learning (explained in greater detail here). Because learning is a slow, difficult, and somewhat mysterious process we can use all the help we can get. We need challenging ups and not so challenging downs. We need breaks in the action. We need time to reflect on lessons. And we need reminders. Repeating content is the best way to remind players. What better way to remind players that they can overcome certain challenges using an underused mechanic than to repeat the challenge or a similar challenge? So it is with music (theme and variation, chorus, refrain, etc). So it is with literature (explanatory dialog and other DPLs). So it is with film (flashbacks, montage, "last time on X show," etc.) So it is with video games.
Filler can't be an issue of repetition alone. For a quick gut check, if you don't consider the repeated musical sections in all rhythm-action games as filler, then you're going to find it very hard to argue that any other kind of repeated gameplay challenge as filler. Rhythm-action is a genre that is inherently filled with linear, strict, repeated gameplay challenges because the challenges are mapped to music. The bottom line is, if we can't prove that repeating the same exact mandatory level challenges is filler/padding objectively based on game design principals, then the root of the issue isn't repetition at all.
In part 3 we continue trying to objetively define padding/filler from the perspective of difficulty and optional content.