It seems to me that the single most common cause of grinding in MMORPGs is the design choice of giving characters "levels" that determine the character's abilities and that can be increased to allow characters to improve their abilities. Designers appear to be accepting without question the assumption that characters must advance in power. They then grab the first obvious mechanism for accomplishing this that comes along: character levels.
As soon as this "characters must advance" assumption gets baked into a design, however, the same results follow inexorably:
- Levels are increased by gaining "experience points."
- XP is gained by performing specific tasks (quests, killing random mobs, etc.).
- Different tasks give different amounts of XP.
- Some tasks give little XP, but are easy/safe.
- Players repeat easy/safe tasks (i.e., "grind") to rise in level with little risk.
- Grinding easy/safe tasks takes time and is boring.
Grinding is thus an inescapable consequence of having character levels.
So why have character levels?
To begin with, let's admit something: a gamer who's determined to grind will find a way to do it in pretty much any game. The fact that the overwhelming majority of today's MMORPGs accept the character advancement assumption means that it has become what the current crop of online gamers are used to. Even so, why should designers shrug their shoulders and only make games that cater to this mindset, thereby turning all future online gamers into grinders as well?
A common objection to dropping the "characters must advance" assumption is that players absolutely must have some way of becoming more powerful in the game world, and that without character levels, players will simply replace grinding for XP with grinding for loot or in-game currency. There's some merit to this objection. In RPGs without character levels, character possessions become more important as one kind of marker of a character's personal history.
My suggested response to this boils down to loot atoms being "bigger" than XP atoms. Compared to XP-generating content, I think it's a little easier to define ways to generate loot (including money) that lead to less grinding because they occur less often. Since increasing in power is what these games are about, it’s OK for the rewards that support that goal to be medium-frequency rewards, rather than the very frequent little rewards (usually XP) they are currently. But that's open to debate.
Either way, that's a mechanistic response that begs the question of why all MMORPGs should reward power-chasing. Why do we accept this assumption that the most important attribute for distinguishing one character from another is power? Why is power the only thing that should drive gameplay? (Bear in mind that I'm using the word "power" here to mean both direct power over other players/characters and resource security with respect to other players/characters -- the defining characteristics of the Killer-Manipulator/Artisan and the Achiever/Guardian respectively.)
Certainly power -- gaining it and holding it -- is a strong motivator for some people. It's fine that there are some games that reward it. (It's also easier for designers to simply do another power-centric DikuMUD-style game than to dream up something new, and not a surprise that publishers are more willing to fund games that are like what's been done before.) But having power over others isn't the strongest motivator for everyone, and that includes people who play online games.
So why limit your audience when you don't have to? If you can create a game that Achievers can still enjoy but that is more welcoming to other playstyles (because it’s about more than just character advancement), then why not do that?
A final objection is from the customer-control perspective: designs that require players to grind out character advancement levels offer simple gameplay that keeps people playing. In other words, grinding for XP is a deliberately built-in time sink intended to keep subscription money rolling in.
That might seem to make financial sense, but it's not exactly a fun-centric approach to designing a game, is it?
On the other hand, there are counter-examples of successful games without character advancement... at least, there are in the tabletop RPG world. Probably the best example is Marc Miller's Traveller RPG. Traveller (and its descendants since 1977) offered an extremely full-featured character generation system, but once that was done you simply played the game. There wasn't any leveling or grinding necessary; the game was all "high-end content." And yet Traveller was at one time the most popular science-fiction RPG. (In fact, it's still popular -- a new incarnation, Traveller5, is being developed now.) A lot of gamers seemed very happy with an RPG that wasn't about character advancement at all.
Why wouldn’t an online RPG want a piece of that action?
In my copious free time I've been developing a design document for a MMORPG that doesn't force all players to level up their characters before getting to The Good Stuff, but which does provide a kind of level system for those who enjoy it. But I'm just a self-funded amateur with a day job. Where is the pro developer willing to profit from the stated desire of so many gamers to play an MMORPG that's not so grindy?
I don't claim that dumping the assumption that character levels are necessary is a perfect solution to grinding, or that it's "the future of MMORPGs" or any such thing. I just wish someone would give it a serious AAA shot so that we can see if it might work after all.