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Design-Space-Time Continuum pt.3

I have distinct and fond memories playing Pokemon Ruby. This was the first Pokemon game that I had planned on avoiding (after playing Red and Gold). I just wasn't interested in running through the ol' JRPG formula again. But somehow I found a copy of that little GBA game and got sucked right in.

RPGs are notorious for their design-space-time continuum. To be very reductive, the gameplay for many never really evolves past the attack-attack-heal tactic. Though there are a lot of unique attacks and abilities in Pokemon, many are just stronger versions of the same types. Also, using items in battle is a highly effective way to heal thus putting less emphasis on the consequences of battle. So in terms of the combat, for a gamer like me there's not a lot to enjoy in single player Pokemon battles. From the start one begins at level 5 and works their way through the stat "spread sheet." One of the main variable controlling the difficulty of all the battles in the game is Pokemon level. A few number values this way or the other can shift the difficulty level from way too hard to far too easy.

The game designers carefully tune these levels throughout the game so that the player can go from start to finish in a fairly smooth manner. So why does the 5th gym battle with Norman stand out in my mind? I can finally articulate why. At my under leveled state, I had to pull out all the stops, develop some powerful strategies, rely on my cheap items less, and embrace previously unused options. 


skip to 4:00

From what I remember from my battle with Norman...

  • I evaluated my team that included two grass and a bird Pokemon. I didn't have a fighting type to counter Norman's normal type juggernauts. So I used a few TMs and really looked at how each of my less powerful, non-attacking moves could be used. This moved my tactics away from the overused attack-attack-heal. 
  • I had the money to buy plenty of potions, but because my Pokemon were so under leveled and Norman's Pokemon were so strong, even repeated healing with items wasn't very effective.
  • This was the first time and only in the game that I left the gym, explored the area, and captured new Pokemon to restructure my team. Fortunately, this process didn't involve much grinding, which I can't stand.

In the end, I think the strategies I pulled off were much closer to the type of play that you'd find in competitive Pokemon gameplay. Check out the youtube channel PokeMoshPit for high level Pokemon battles galore. Such high level tactics involve strategic switches, not relying on a single powerhouse Pokemon, using Pokemon for very specialized non-attacking roles, and "setting up" against opponents who won't or can't switch out.

There were few other battles in Pokemon Ruby that match my love for my battle with Norman. There's just something about how my familiarity with the game, my progress at that moment, and the difficulty of that gym battle that created a perfect storm of fun for me. After earning the Balance badge I continued through the game capturing stronger Pokemon, assembling a more well-rounded team, stuffing my wallet, and finding more effective items. In other words, I fell into my familiar Pokemode. I enjoyed seeing and catching new Pokemon. I enjoyed the story. I enjoyed the music. So the game was mostly enjoyable for non-combat gameplay reasons.

Noticing that experiences jump out at us from a design-space-time continuum does nothing to explain how they become so apparent. Recall my example from part 2 of how we form an opinion of continuous variables like the 3D Depth Slider. Despite having dozens of different variations, we simplify the range into 3 zones; too little, too much, and the sweet spot!. I believe that we do the same thing with all continuous variables in video games. In other words, we try to find a much simpler way to interpret the variation. So for an RPG, we don't notice that a +1 strength increase allows us do do 102 damage instead of 98. We notice if we can kill an enemies in 1 less turn/hit. We notice if we can power slide through the mud in Mario Kart DS after selecting the Tank kart with Dry Bones. We notice the results in simple, discernable, and possibily binary actions. 
   Mario's jab attack.
Do you know what the difference is between a 2 frame jab attack and a 3 frame jab attack in a fighting game like Street Fighter? Technically one is .0167 seconds faster than the other. Your brain can't even react to that small degree of time. Yet, if you go to a fighting game community and suggest making a character's jab 1 frame faster, you might start an uproar. Why is this? Can these hardcore players really tell the difference in speed? Of course not. These players know from experience that a 2 frame jab will beat out the jab or any other attack that is 1 frame slower or more. Fighting game players are known for researching frame data for every attack. This is not to reduce the game to numbers or to find a cheap strategy, but to help explain actions that occur faster than we can percieve and develop these simple rules of what beats what.   
The curve of the design-space-time continuum is a model that reflects how we simplify our opinion or our understanding of continuous variables. You may have even already noticed this from my descriptions of Tales of Symphonia and Pokemon Ruby. My bullet points were simple either/or conditions. Before I didn't have to use this move. Now I did. Before I didn't have to go out of my way to avoid attacks. Now I do. Before the game didn't have many of the gameplay qualities that I love. Now it does.
For games with a continuum of multiple continuous variables the graph can get really complicated. Imagine a graph with multiple curves representing the sweet spot of multiple changing variables relative to other conditions. Some of these "other conditions" have nothing to do with the gameplay or the game at hand. We're constantly using our immediate feelings and our past experiences to form our new options. If you've ever played a game that didn't "click" only to love it after picking it up again later, then you know what I'm talking about. 
Because of these other conditions I don't bother writing about or dwelling on my opinion or the opinion of others. If you hate Zelda Spirit Tracks because you burned yourself out on lesser games in the same genre before playing it, that's hardly a valid critique on Zelda. If you can't get over exploring in a train versus running around on foot, that doesn't mean the train is functionally very different at all. Our opinions are only the starting point of a conversation, which I believe should move into a detailed, design focused discussion. I've expressed this idea before.
If you still need convincing of how (overly) complex opinions are, I'll close on this video of TannerTheGamer. Just listen to his comments. 
« Farewell Ba3D | Main | Design-Space-Time Continuum pt.2 »

Reader Comments (5)

On higher level Pokemon play in game: Have you ever had the chance to do a Battle Frontier, or at least looked into the Battle Tower? You might enjoy it.

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS


I played a bit of the Battle Tower (at least I think that's what it's called) in Diamond. I thought it was a neat idea, but it was weird fighting people's teams without them calling the shots.

I used to be all into Pokemon battles back in Red/Blue. I went to the conventions and
won badges and everything. I wonder if Black/White will rekindle my battle love.

Do you play?

Yeah been playing since I got Blue. I acutely forgot about the downloading other peoples teams when I mentioned the tower, since even without that it provides a higher level of play, the Ai is better and Pokemon are given increasingly better move-sets and higher hidden stats.

The frontier came out in Emerald, and a new version was in Platunium and the gold/silver re-releases. It's a post game area with the Tower and a punch of smilier facilities with unique conditions to the battle. For example here's how my favorite facility, the Battle Factory works:

Before entering the Battle Factory, the player will be asked to hand over their current party in exchange for rental Pokémon. The player will then be able to choose three out of six random Pokémon to rent and battle another Trainer with rental Pokémon in that round. After winning a battle, the player's Pokémon will be healed completely, and the player will have the option to continue, rest, retire, or get their most recent battle recorded on their Vs. Recorder. If the player continues, they will get the offer to trade one of the rental Pokémon for their opponent's rental Pokémon, but they may not see the Pokémon's status before trading. A scientist will tell the player what Pokémon their opponent will be using before every battle, but after the player progresses through consecutive battles, the scientist will tell less and less.*

*Taken from:

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

@ NathanS

That tower battle scenario sounds interesting. I like being forced to work with limited or new conditions. It gives the game a very puzzle like feel. And you know I love puzzles.

I don't know what Black/White has feature-wise. Hopefully it has cool things like the tower. I should be picking it up soon.

No Frontier I'm afraid, most likely going to put that in the third version. Does have a normal tower equivalent in the battle subway. Oh it also has far less grinding, or at least the grinding goes quicker. Not going to spoil anything, but one of the new Pokemon appears in every grass route and gives a ton of experience points. Also apparently a bit after the fifth badge your given a lucky egg!

March 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathanS

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