It struck me whilst playing the first of the secret Yoshi’s Island DS levels (Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower) over and over and over and over and over and over that I really, truly and completely hate “probability grinding”. “But what is probability grinding?” I hear you ask. Ok, I don’t actually hear you ask that because that would mean that I was either mad or omnipresent and the last time I looked I was neither. Probability Grinding is a the feature of many games where the completion of a task is based on a randomly generated in-game event. Two good examples are the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level in Yoshi’s Island DS and the “Facility” level time trial in Golden Eye on the N64. Probability grinding is also a common feature of many MMORPGs (i.e. drop rates).
In Yoshi’s Island to get a perfect score in each level you need to collect 30 stars. In the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level the 20 stars you need (you start with 10) are hidden in 4 clouds. When you burst a cloud the stars scatter in random directions and often 1 or 2 will fall off the edge of the level. This means that you have to repeatedly attempt the whole level, because the final 3 clouds are right at the end, and hope that the stars scatter in just the right way for you to pick them up. Unlike all the other levels in the game there are no middle restart points so the entire level has to be done over and over if the stars don’t scatter in the right way. It doesn’t help that this level is one of the hardest in the game.
In the “Facility” level of Golden Eye the time trial must be done on the hardest level of difficulty and the time required is very short indeed. This challenge is already incredibly difficult but one of the objectives is to rendezvous with a scientist NPC. Unfortunately the scientist is randomly placed in one of three (four? I forget) locations but only one of these locations provides a path through the level which would beat the time required. If he’s not in the right location you just have to start again.
The greatest problem with probability grinds is that the game is no longer about skill, it’s about whether or not the planets have moved into a favourable alignment. It’s especially annoying in games which were previously all about skill (Golden Eye, Yoshi’s Island) as it completely changes the basis on which you succeed. In contrast the “Super hard acrobatics” level on Yoshi’s Island took me a while because it was difficult and required a lot of practice. Games such as Guitar Hero or Mario Kart (snaking is allowed – L2P nubhats) purely reward skills based play. Attempting to get through those games with blind luck won’t really get you anywhere. In the end of the day probability grinding is a totally artificial way to make a game “hard” or in the case of MMORPGs to make the game take longer.
But there is one thing that could be done to alleviate the problem: reduce the amount of time it takes to complete each fresh attempt at the “hard” portion. Both the Yoshi’s Island and Golden Eye cases compound the frustration by having the random event happen at a late stage in the level. This means that each attempt takes a long time. In the case of the Golden Eye Facility level the scientist could have always been placed at the same at the same location, or the level could have been reworked so you met him at an earlier point. For the Yoshi’s Island level the four star clouds could have been near the start. This would have reduced the turn around time for each fresh attempt at the level and would have changed the task to one of “can you keep hold of all the stars throughout the whole level”. Or a middle restart point could have been added meaning that you only had to probability grind the latter half of the level, again reducing the turn around time. I’m not really sure what you could do to save many MMORPGs, it’s hardwired into their very fabric that they are time sinks rather than skills based.
Now excuse me while I go and slog away at Yoshi’s Island some more and possibly even throw it on the ground and smash it in frustration.