We’ve all slogged; powered through unpleasant parts of a game to get to more stuff we enjoy. It’s a relative of The Grind, but that unpleasant aspect of gaming is more concerned with specific progress; gaining XP, gold, cards or whatever to reach better gaming. The slog IS the game, unavoidably tied to its core mechanics.
Some genres (survival/crafting) are almost entirely slog. You punch 20 trees in sheer boredom for the pleasure of clicking on a single button crafting something. Sometimes you’ll even get to place and rotate the thing. There is no relief, just new things to craft to let you collect more resources to craft with.
Other genres (FPS) seem tailor made to avoid slog – stuff that requires your immediate attention is happening at all times. But even they aren’t immune. I enjoyed the latest Battlefield until I quit abruptly after having the best 3 minutes of my combined playtime. I’m a decent public player, which in battlefield means bursts of action followed by longer stretches of running back to the front after dying. Sometimes you do well and get two or three such bursts before dying. Sometimes you do poorly and spend the match mostly running.
For a brief period in one match, everything lined up right and I had my best stretch. I stumbled on a squad of enemies facing away from me at perfect sniping range, manned AA just in time to shoot down a strafing bomber, entered cramped tunnels and headshotted fortuitously out of position enemies with my pistol. It was glorious until machine gun fire from a distant zeppelin brought me down.
Instead of being eager to get back in and reproduce those 3 exhilarating minutes I quit the game. I didn’t want to invest the amount of time I’d have to put in to get skilled enough to make moments like that to happen consistently. The path from where I was to the next skill plateau was too long and I had other games to play. This process of gaining raw muscle memory often turns me off mastering action games, Rocket League being the most recent game I thoroughly enjoyed but not enough to get good at.
Even great games, nearly slog free at first, bog down in the mid and late stages. Civilization is a perfect gaming experience until the midgame. While you’re still exploring the map, discovering neighbors, racing for specific technological research and wonders and while opponent turn lengths are short the game is sublime. Every second is spent either making interesting decisions or discovering things. Then, depending on how you play, the slog can come early (if you’re a peaceful sort who enters the mid-ages with no enemies and no immediate frontiers or room for growth) or later (if you’re a warmonger emulating Alexander the Great), but it always comes. Paradoxically, the better you play the quicker it happens and the longer it lasts. Wipe away all enemies and civilize your continent and you’re rewarded with many years of just clicking the “end turn” button until you discover the new world
The Darkest Dungeon was rarely a slog (assuming you enjoy the core combat mechanics which I did) as long as you played very well and continued making progress. Then your characters hit the level 6 cap. There was no reason to continue adventuring with them beyond killing bosses. And that was great fun until the wrong character died. In order to continue the fun boss killing part you had to level up a new character through a dozen pointless dungeons. I stopped playing through 2 separate playthrough; first when the game was in beta. Then a year later after the patch came out to address this exact issue (the patch dramatically cut down the time it takes to level up new characters). The patch helped, but not enough. I couldn’t bring myself to slog any more despite really wanting to know the last details of my ancestor’s story.
I think the lack of slog is why I enjoyed Warfare Online so much. There’s not much to it other than pitting your army team against human opponents. The minute spent in matchmaking is all the slog-time there is. I don’t play it still, it too succumbed to the doldrums; the culprit either a shallow playing pool or terrible matchmaking (I can’t tell). It’s boring playing against noobs who put down riflemen when they can see my tank on the field.
The slog is not always the game’s fault. It took me many years of playing civilization to realize that my natural play style (friendly, reasonable, peaceful builder) was the primary culprit. Playing this way well simply removes the most interesting systems in the game. It becomes purely a game of city building and logistics, which is still fantastic but prone to long bouts of inactivity.
Now I ensure I always have an enemy with a hostile front. Everything else is as peaceful and tranquil as ever, but each turn now includes unit movement and combat, prizes and setbacks and all that is great about (virtual) conflict. This habit, now ingrained, is what ruins some of Civ 5 & 6 for me. Early aggression is too effective against the AI’s inability to move troops well and the newer games’ lack of stacking. Previous civs might have masked this by just stacking defenders in cities. Regardless it was much more difficult to wipe out your neighbors and ensure massive expansion with just a handful of troops.
Occasionally we retroactively erase the slog from our memory because we enjoy the overall game so much. Replaying Baldur’s Gate, a game I thoroughly loved and would have held up as a standard for great game design, is fucking full of slog. The quick save button is built into the interface for a reason. Losing any of my six party members – an exceedingly common occurrence with the AD&D rule-set, the designer’s hard-on for traps and the sheer amount of RNG – requires a reload.
Do we have to slog?
I’m not sure “proper” design can alleviate the pain as most slog exists for a definite purposes. The most basic being a way to lengthen the game. Would Mario be worth $50 and captivate so many for so long if it lasted a few hours? Baldur’s Gate’s much vaunted 50-hours of playtime would probably last 10 without slog. Is it fair to expect developers to create so much awesome content that we get the best of both worlds? Dozens of hours of play at an “always new” pacing?
Is it possible to create a sense of accomplishment (the entire point of the crafting genre) without preceding it by long bouts of slog? Despite playing since the first version, I have never built a Simcity city using unlimited money. That feature removes any slog, freeing you to build on the highest speed setting as much as you like. I get why it’s there, the insane things people have built online would be impossible without it, but it never interested me to build a city without an invisible judge tying progress to my mayoral skill.
Sometimes the slog is the game and the game is the slog to such an extent that I can’t tell if I’m enjoying myself or slogging for hours on end. Empyrion Galactic Survival captivated me in this grey-slog area for a very long time. I questioned myself multiple times about why I was building massive, elaborate homes and capital ships that no one would see. In the end I stopped not because I saw the slog for what it was but because the mining mechanics were still too wonky. Mining became unbearably sloggy (because the game was in Alpha) when resources were most needed in large quantities.
This ambiguity about what is slog could actually ruin a game when designers streamline the wrong things. Civilization went that path after the bloated (but awesome) Civ-4. In a clear attempt to remove slog the need for water-craft that carried troops was removed. Once you researched sailing technology any unit could step off land and turn into a sea-worthy ship. I’m guessing some players welcomed the change. For me it removed a big chunk of slog-abatement later in the game. Discovering the new world is exciting unless you encounter a continent of relative savages. Pacification requires a long process of building a beachhead and easy but tedious slaughter of city after city.
For me that potentially boring moment turned into a nation-wide expenditure of capital and a test of logistics. Conquering the new world was not enough. I needed to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible to avoid an accidental transference of technology. I’d rather face spears than muskets. I also wanted a higher score and each turn made a difference. So what other players felt as slog for me was an enjoyable re-creation of D-day. Coastal cities produced transports, elite amphibious units were trained for initial assaults, long range bombers were hastily researched and prototyped. The tedium of building libraries and banks in endless mid-size cities was broken by the total war effort. Industrial powerhouses cranked out tanks while modest villages contributed with cheap garrison troops.
CCGs done right are almost entirely slog-free until I reach the higher levels where highly specialized decks are required. Until then time is spent either playing or building perfect decks, both activities I thoroughly enjoy. I don’t really understand why so many people look for decks online to copy instead of tinkering with their own. Playing the actual matches is just a way to test my deck building, the real joy of the game. Until, as mentioned, the competition intensifies and strategies narrow and decks become powerful requiring specific cards and their counters. Aside from the hours of grinding for cards (or spending money) required, deck tinkering becomes less frequent and varied and my interest wanes.
Maybe there’s no escaping the slog if we want a hobby that creates content that holds most of your attention for weeks at a time. Nobody makes that demand of movies, music, art or even books. Only serialized TV approaches the sheer length of entertainment as games and that medium is certainly not free of slog.. Maybe all a designer can do is dress up the slog well enough that you confuse it for fun for as long as possible.