How ‘Grindstone’ Accidentally Avoided Being an Annoying Free-to-Play Game

A screen shot from the video game Grindstone.

Screen shot courtesy of Capybara Games

One of my favorite games last year was a Grindstone, a launch title for Apple’s subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade. During an intense, weeklong fever last year, one of the only things my brain could handle was playing Grindstone. As I waited for my body to be released from its sweaty trap, I’d chop up thousands of little goblins in pursuit of gems and victory.

Grindstone is also a game that, at one point, convinced me to, um, lie to my wife? Before a patch changed this, you couldn’t exit out of Grindstone in the middle of a match without losing progress. During a particularly difficult round, I told my wife I needed to stay in the car for a few minutes and return a phone call. What I actually needed to do was play Grindstone.

Because I am, in fact, the Grindstone expert, I put that level to bed before she made it to the door of the place we were headed to, which may or may not have been my child’s daycare.

At some point, I was released from my fever and, with credits rolling on the last stage, Grindstone. There have been a few minor updates to Grindstone since its launch, but today brings horrible news: a really big update for Grindstone. There are new levels and weapons and the sorts of things you’d expect, but most importantly, it’s getting a daily mode, which will give me a “reason” (aka excuse) to play Grindstone every day all over again.

Oh, thank god.

I had a chance to send a few questions over to the game’s developer recently, and what came back from Grindstone game director Dan Vader was justification for all of my actions. 

This maaaaaaaay or may not turn into a more regular feature where I send five questions to developers of games I’d like to cover but cannot find the time for during COVID-19, aka the glorious life where I’m working at home with my children. So let me know what you think and who you’d like me talk to.

VICE Games: What’s it been like developing for Grindstone during COVID-19? What’s the biggest challenge?
Dan Vader: We were actually lucky in a weird way because just as we vacated the office and started locking down at home, we immediately had this big Grindstone update to start working on. I think it gave all of us on the team something very concrete to cling to, something with a clear path and deadline that maybe distracted us from how weird all our lives had suddenly become. I think the team welcomed it and we all dove straight in. If we had been in some blue-sky design phase of another project, which always comes with its own existential anxiety, maybe we would’ve been a little bit more unmoored. Aside from that,the biggest challenge is easy to answer: trying to work full time at home with your kids also being there all the time. I make video games, so it’s hard for them to distinguish that as “work.” To them, it always looks like I’m just fucking around and having fun, and not working.  

It’s easy to describe a game like Grindstone as addicting, but obviously, the term “addiction” comes with a lot of baggage. How much are you thinking about the psychological impact on your players while developing a game that you very much want them to keep coming back to?
Recently I got “addicted” to Wilmot’s Warehouse and I was playing it non-stop on a family cottage vacation—I caught some heat for it. But I never considered turning that back around on the game. I think they just made a great game and I connected with it for whatever reason. I never entertained the idea Wilmot’s Warehouse was designed to separate families. I just kinda went “whoops! Sorry y’all.” 

I guess I feel like if a game has got hold of me simply because it’s so damn good, just like a book you can’t put down or a TV show you need to watch just one more episode of, then I don’t see anything malicious there. I see the love and enthusiasm of its creators. I see a good idea executed well. But I have an addictive personality and am forever in search of new books/directors/tv/food to get addicted to so maybe I’m not the best person to ask. 

And that was something we grappled with before we became an Apple Arcade title. We knew we were building a good game, but we also knew that perhaps our best chance to get our game to the most people was to engage with the whole free-to-play model. A lot had changed in the mobile market between releasing Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and that point in _Grindstone_’s development. But we had a hard time reconciling that fact with the kind of games we make and the studio we are. We just kept putting it off and focusing on the game itself. And when Apple came along with Arcade, we were like “phew!” 

After we launched, we read a lot of people saying, “oh they must have just ripped out a bunch of free-to-play mechanics when they got the Arcade deal,” but we actually didn’t have to change anything about the game at all! The truth was we were terrible at designing for free-to-play and just kept putting it off until we got lucky enough to not have to do it. We just wanted people to keep coming back to the game because they liked it so much, not because we had tricked them into it.  

There was a moment last fall where I lied to my wife about having to take a phone call so I could finish a round of Grindstone in the car. Am I allowed to blame you for that?
I think it was a full team effort to get you to lie to your wife.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about player behavior when the game launched, and how has that influenced the way you’ve tweaked the game in the months since?
Most surprising, to me anyway, is that the player response hasn’t actually necessitated heavy tweaking, at least to the core content. The acclimatization of the players to the level of challenge in the game has really wowed me. As such our updates have been about giving them more of what they seem to already like, instead of having to change what we had to better fit our players. I was expecting to have to sand down the difficulty a little, or actually sand it down a lot, after launch. 

I thought updates would skew more towards balance fixes, but it hasn’t gone that way at all. In fact our latest (and biggest update) is all about more: 50 new levels that aren’t just tacked onto the end where only the most dedicated fans can access them, but spread out around the mountain so anybody can experience the new little twists we’ve added. And a Daily Grind challenge mode that recontextualizes the gameplay as a competitive endurance run.  I guess because it’s a colour-matching game, and those tend to skew “casual” (whatever that means), we were worried that players wouldn’t be able to (or wouldn’t want to) to engage with what is really kind of turn-based combat that uses tried-and-true puzzle mechanics. And then you add gear abilities and resource management and it ups the complexity. But people have really taken to it. 

“This is also the first time in my career that I’ve had lots of friends and family who actually played something I worked on—simply cuz they all have the thing that it runs on in their pockets.”

This is also the first time in my career that I’ve had lots of friends and family who actually played something I worked on—simply cuz they all have the thing that it runs on in their pockets. These are all non-gamers so I assumed it was going to be a massacre and they would just give me some polite responses but fall off before the first boss. 

So I was shocked to be getting texts in the middle of the night going “when is the chest gonna drop in level 115.” They’ve all since beaten and 100%’ed every level and I’m still kinda blown away by that. I watched a friend’s 5-year-old make a 9 chain and then pause for a second, back up and redraw to make it a 10 and create a grindstone. I got choked up.

Tell me your favorite book/movie/show/whatever you’ve been enjoying during COVID-19 and why it’s been something that’s resonated during this very weird period.
It’s a combo, or I guess a vicious circle maybe: I’ve become obsessed with this podcast called The Suspense Is Killing Us, which is a couple of movie nerds breaking down Hollywood studio thrillers from the 80’s and 90’s—I love specificity. Then after I listen to the episodes, I obsessively track down all the movies and watch and, in many cases, rewatch them. Let me tell you, in this 2020 we’re all enduring, I’ve found it very comforting to know that once I’ve put the kids to bed, I have a warm bath of mediocrity from yesteryear to step into. 

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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