Game difficulty is hard to discuss especially for games like Pokemon. In this video Speedster presents a top 10 list of the hardest story battles in the Pokemon RPG series. Speedster’s video interests me not because of what he had to say about the difficulty design of Pokemon, but because he struggles to frame the discussion of difficulty. He opens with this:
“why are some battles just really hard?”
“I know that most battles in RPGs in general are really easy if you just grind levels and quite hard if you don’t grind levels.”
Speedster attempts to pin down the variance in the player’s Pokemon and items by stipulating that the notional player uses properly-leveled Pokemon for each battle. I assume “properly leveled” means that the player’s Pokemon levels closely matches the opposing Pokemon’s levels.
Speedster struggles to describe the conditions that make many of the battles in his top 10 difficult. Sometimes the opposing Pokemon have stronger moves. Sometimes the challenge is due to a Pokemon type disadvantage because of the availability of catchable Pokemon. Sometimes the lack of Speedster’s offensive strength increased the effect of random moves like METRONOME, SMOKE SCREEN, or DOUBLE TEAM from the opposing team. Basically, when he couldn’t KO the opposing Pokemon fast enough, his opponent had time to set up a some nasty situations.
“I only won with luck”
Throughout these descriptions Speedster doesn’t articulate how challenging the battles are in a consistent, objective, or measurable way. Instead he gauges difficulty generally by describing opposing Pokemon strength, the number of times he retried the battle, how frustrated he was, or if he had to leave the gym to grind a few more levels.
“I never had to.. reset and try again or go off and grind without losing. Easily the hardest champion for me.”
“I have never gone through this gym without at least a few of my Pokemon fainting”
The Pokemon battle system design space is massive and allows for an incredible diversity of strategies (read more here). For games like Pokemon, I’ve found that difficulty spikes occur not because the challenges gets much harder in a linear way; it’s not because the designers all of a sudden make the difficulty curve steeper by simply adjust one variable like enemy level. Rather it’s because the challenges start to require players to explore specific parts of the design space and use specific counter strategies. These challenges push the player to take advantage of elements of the complexity and depth of the game that they had been previously ignoring. For these battles, general strategies used previously will not be effective.
“[The Norman Gym battle in Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire] is a huge spike in difficulty curve”
Speedster didn’t describe using any boosting items, like X Speed or X Defense. Maybe he’s used to competitive battling where items are banned, so he chooses not to use such items in the single-player story battles. But trading for Pokemon and using items in battle is a legitimate part of the single-player game. This is a clear case of a player making challenges harder for himself by not exploring all the options available to him. I don’t blame Speedster. I do the same thing when I play Pokemon. Not only do such choices make the difficulty design of the game harder to grasp, but it makes talking about the difficulty of these challenges even harder.