BOSS DESIGN THEORY

Engaging the player in fun, appropriately challenging, and climactic fights

  • LockeZ
  • 05/10/2011 06:28 PM
  • 8507 views
What boss battles do for the player

As a game designer, it's vital to learn how to make bosses that are fun and challenging to the player. The purpose of a boss is simple: it's a single battle designed to challenge the player's mastery of the game. Boss battles are distinct from normal battles, which are typically designed as either learning tools for the player, endurance challenges where the player must win while attempting to conserve resources, or wastes of time.

Let me expand this point. A boss battle is typically not designed to test whether the player can use a brand new skill - it's designed to test whether they've mastered the game they've been playing. While the player might have a brand new skill, and the skill might even be integral to the battle in some cases, every boss battle should still be closely related to things they've done before in the game. This makes the player feel like defeating the boss is an important accomplishment - it's not just a way to unlock the next area or get a sweet sword drop, it's proof of their mastery of what they've been learning, proof of their skill at your game.

Of course, you still need a way for the player to unlock the next area or get a sweet sword drop, and bosses provide an excellent medium to do so. Consciously, this is the reason the player fights the boss. It's important to add the subconscious feeling of accomplishment and mastery when they win, but it's also important to give them a reason to fight the bloody thing. Almost no one is going to fight an optional boss that gives no reward. Things like story events and achievements can sometimes be enough of a reward to motivate players, however, so don't feel like you have to give epic loot for every single boss. And remember you can always "reward" the player by unlocking another area or another boss! Though if you do this for optional bosses, there'd better be something really good at the end of the chain.


Creating the right difficulty

So, now it's time to make a boss. We need to consider some factors here before we start. How far into the game is this boss? How big a deal is it to the story? How often do you have bosses? What sorts of skills does the player have access to? What's the weakest the player could possibly be at this point in the game? What's the strongest they could possibly be at this point in the game? What's their expected strength if they've been rushing through, and what's their expected strength if they've gotten all the treasures and done the available sidequests? How hard do you want your game to be overall? Do you plan on including multiple difficulty settings? All of these factors affect how difficult the boss should be.


New Game+, Level 99 Tropicallo, No Future, No Materia, No Limit Breaks, No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination. The truly hardcore gamer's ideal difficulty.


If the boss is in the first dungeon, it should probably quite difficult to lose - the only skills the player is expected to have mastered by this point in the game are the most basic aspects of the battle system. If the boss is a third of the way through the game, the player should be able to demonstrate a total understanding of how all their abilities work. If the boss is two thirds of the way through the game, the player should be able to demonstrate not only an understanding of how their abilities work, but also how to optimally use them in conjunction with one-another and in response to enemy abilities, for complex and powerful results.

The player's level, equipment, skills, and even party members can vary significantly from one player to another. Do you want players to be able to easily get by with the bare minimum of power they could possibly have obtained? Do you want players who only obtained the bare minimum amount of power to have to fight tooth and nail and demonstrate a vastly increased mastery of complex game mechanics? Do you want players who got the average amount of power to have to fight that hard, and those who got the minimum to be unable to continue until they become more powerful? Do you want players who are as powerful as they can possibly be to have to fight that hard, thus making all the optional content in your game essentially become mandatory? These are all different game balance styles that appeal to different types of players. My personal preference is the second one, but the important thing is to make sure you either use the same methodology throughout the entire game, or very slowly get less forgiving as the game goes on. Jumping around in difficulty will lead to making players extremely frustrated in the hard parts and extremely bored in the easy parts.

There's room for a little jumping around, though, as long as it's in the upwards direction. If a dungeon has multiple bosses, the one at the end of the dungeon should be the most complex. If a boss is a major character in the story, or is supposed to be extremely powerful for plot-related reasons, the fight should last longer and feel more challenging than anything the player has faced before. However, the key here is that jumping needs to happen in the upwards direction - the bosses after this epic fight need to be equally hard, even if they're relatively minor henchmen or wild monsters. Games should increase in difficulty as they progress! The epic boss isn't more powerful than what comes after it - it simply permanently raises the standard of difficulty. Logically, you might think this makes it feel less epic, but it actually doesn't. The player's perception during the epic boss fight is that it's the hardest thing they've done. The player's perception during the less important boss fights afterwards is that they're no harder than anything they've done before. It works, trust me.

Remember that increased stats don't mean the same thing as increased difficulty. The player's stats obviously increase as the game goes on also. Giving the boss better stats compared to the player's level, or giving it stronger abilities, are valid ways of making it harder, but increasing the complexity of the fight is just as effective, and often more interesting. Additionally, the fewer times you've used something before, the harder it is, because the player gets used to things over time.


Making the fight interesting

Here's what you were probably hoping to see when you opened this article: fight gimmicks. Unfortunately, I don't have time to list hundreds of different boss strategies for you, but you can come up with your own if you understand the purpose of boss strategies, which is to make the player do things they wouldn't do otherwise.

Good boss strategies all have one thing in common. They keep the player from getting comfortable. They prevent the player from using their optimal strategy the same way they've been doing so before, and force them to think about how to adapt their tactics and their understanding of the game to a new situation. Since you don't really want to add brand new concepts out of the blue in boss battles, typically this involves combinations of things the player has previously seen: the player knows how elemental weaknesses work, and knows how elemental reflect buffs work, but this boss uses both and now the player has to figure out how to handle them at the same time, which is likely to be a lot more challenging than handling just one.

A typical player strategy against the simplest bosses, in the absence of any reason to do otherwise, is to turtle. If the boss focuses entirely on attacking the party, then the player has every reason to focus entirely on defense. As long as they don't die, they don't lose - they'll win eventually. Obviously, this is super boring. There are tons of ways to force the player to abandon this strategy, including giving the boss healing skills, allowing it to summon minions, having it buff its own attack over time, having it debuff the player's defense over time, adding a time limit... Many boss strategies revolve around making sure the player can't simply turtle. However, that's not always strictly necessary, and later in the game it's rarely enough on its own to make the fight interesting. Once the player has progressed far enough into the game that they know what they're doing, bosses should definitely do way more than just one thing! There should be tension in the fight, forcing the player to divide their resources and deal with multiple issues. In a fight that's supposed to be difficult, you should create at least three or four situations so that the player has to use different party members to do different things on different rounds, and then as the battle goes on, maybe add another situation on top of it to complicate things even more.


What a devilishly hard boss! The only way to win is to... heal yourself after each time you're attacked!


Remember that bosses should have plenty of HP! This seems like a given, but a fight with a great gimmick is going to feel pretty lame if the player only sees the gimmick once before the fight ends. Heck, if they get lucky and pick the right strategy a single time by chance, they might even be able to win the fight without understanding that the boss is doing anything strange at all! The boss should last long enough that the player actually has to understand what you want them to understand in order to win. The Zelda games, though not RPGs, are a great example of how this works - every boss has a puzzle you have to solve to win, but solving it once via dumb luck would be anticlimactic and lame. So you always have to solve it three times to win, with the boss moving faster after each time, to ensure that you really understood what you just did.

It's extremely important that if the player dies, it should be his own fault. You're testing his skill here, ostensibly. Do not randomly kill the player when he has done everything perfectly. Moves with random success rates are a huge problem with bosses. An area sleep spell, if the player is unlucky, can end the game with no possibly way to recover from it. This sort of thing isn't a valid method of testing the player, and shouldn't happen. No matter how hard the boss is supposed to be, you should always limit the maximum deadliness of your boss's abilities to make sure that if the player does uses the best possible strategy available to him and makes no mistakes, he will never lose.


Preparing the player for the boss battle

While it's important for the player to be challenged by new things in boss battles, they shouldn't be completely new. They should be logical extensions of things the player has previously learned. Therefore, if you want a boss to use a new concept, you have to find a place to introduce the new concept first, before the boss.

A typical place to introduce such new concepts is, predictably, normal battles! Normal battles are a low-stress environment and give the player a chance to learn basic concepts before being tested on them in a boss fight. The advantage to introducing new ideas in a normal battle instead of a boss battle is that normal battles can be much more forgiving of a single failure - the player does not get a game over if they fail one or two or even five times. Depending on the difficulty of your game, often they can even win several battles before understanding how the battles really work.

In addition, normal enemies are designed to be much simpler, and thus probably don't do much of anything else other than the new gimmick you're introducing. At least, they shouldn't, not usually. Normal enemies that, for example, counter your attacks by healing themselves probably don't need to do anything else other than use normal attacks. This allows the player to focus solely on the new strategy being introduced, and easily figure out how it works. If the enemy were to also use five other skills, then it would become very hard for the player to recognize what exactly is causing the enemy to heal itself - there's a lot going on, and the player is concentrating on other things. This can be used to intentionally create a much harder to learn game, if that's your goal, but if you want most players to be able to beat the game, you should probably make most normal enemies be a generally straightforward learning process.

Not every new concept needs to be introduced by an enemy. Maybe you give the player new items or spells at the beginning of a dungeon, that aren't useless, but aren't great either. Then when the boss fight comes up, they're required - hopefully the player has tried them out by now and knows how they work. Or maybe you give a boss a skill that was previously only available to player characters, or vice-versa. An extremely low-budget method of introducing new ideas to the player is to simply have a townsperson mention or hint at the winning strategy of an upcoming boss, though this is oudated and poor design, and far less fun than actively engaging the player in the learning process. If your boss is unusual, you may even wish to introduce new ideas in minigames or puzzles. Imagine a jousting minigame that the player must beat a single time as part of the story, and then can redo for prizes. Later, you might have a boss that literally consists of a more complex jousting match, or you might have a more traditional fight that is somehow analogous to the jousting match, such as requiring the same type of timing in order to dodge the boss's attacks, or using visual cues based on the jousting animations to indicate what the boss is about to do on its next turn.


Of course, the jousting thing was just a purely theoretical example.



Make some bosses

A lot of you guys don't really like to make many bosses in your games. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by how much more work they take than normal battles, or maybe you just don't really care very much about challenging the player. But challenging the player is important: it's what makes your game a game, in the literal sense. You don't want to overwhelm the player with impossible difficulty, but you also don't want them to feel like they haven't accomplished anything as they go through the game. If you don't want harder bosses, consider making more bosses instead. Although I'm a strong advocate of challenging the player at every turn, variety and quantity can go a long way towards giving the player a feeling of satisfaction for having won. The end goal here isn't to make the game harder - it's to make the player feel proud of winning, which naturally fails if they can't win, and also fails if they can't lose, and also fails if they never have anything noteworthy to beat.

I hope more developers will put more thought into bosses in their games. Speaking to the majority of the audience here, I'm guessing your game probably has enough mindless identical normal battles without making the bosses feel that way too. Bosses have the potential to be the most fun part of your game - they're the climax of the gameplay, the thing that everything else leads up to. Don't make them a let down.

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This is okay, but it's actually fairly standard to have difficulty in games "pulse" in the upwards direction;(there was an article I read once with heaps of diagrams starting with linear progression and working to a wavy line heading upwards(there is probably a more sciencey word for this), but I can't find it) the player needs some time after each difficult battle where they're not being absolutely flogged, so they don't start getting frustrated. I know I've had a lot of moments half-way through certain games where I get stuck against an enemy and think, "even if I get past this boss, I'm going to be stuck again in five minutes". On the flipside, games that have a set number of big moments where you come up against a wall can be really exciting! Having said this, this really depends on how often you have bosses and what you class as a boss. I agree that, for the most part, each "big" boss should be stronger than the last "big boss, and each mini boss should be stronger than the last mini boss, but I don't think that after a big boss, the next mini boss should be harder again. Plus, if you do that, you're probably either going to work up to a ridiculously hard game, or run out of ways to make the game more difficult and ultimately dissapoint the player when the next big boss really isn't that strong(this is especially true of RPGs, where a challenge can be literally impossible if you're not a high enough level).

woahrant
Versalia
must be all that rtp in your diet
1281
This is a pretty good article. I'd like to add my two cents to bosses whose fights include "luck" as a factor. I agree that the player should never be killed because of pure bad luck when using the optimal strategy and doing everything right (hideous underlevelling aside). However, it is perfectly acceptable to have bad luck dictate the difficulty of a fight. This boss was moderately difficult; if it manages to land its AoE Status Ailment, it becomes balls-out hard. That does not implicitly mean that you are going to lose because of bad luck or chance (and in fact, the perfect strategy here would have been wearing Anti-Status equipment to begin with) - it just means you are going to have a harder time winning. Personally, everybody has fought that boss whose <Annoying Attack> makes things a lot more difficult when it succeeds, and then reloaded their save or played through the game again and found it much easier the second time because they had GOOD luck. Luck is an integral part of gaming. Players should never fail based SOLELY on luck, but luck is an important factor to consider.
I would argue that normal enemy encounters can and should be more than learning tools or endurance challenges. If that's the only purpose they serve, it's a design problem. Bosses are necessarily harder than the average encounter, but I think there are plenty of ways to keep combat in general from becoming a chore.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5143
Makes me happy that this post gets people thinking about boss design enough that they start ranting about it. I consider that mission accomplished!

I definitely can see where Pokemaniac is coming from. Any normal battles after a hard boss are inherently going to be easier than the boss, so it makes sense for minibosses to be easier also, especially if they appear with high frequency. If you have different rankings of bosses like that, it makes perfect sense for the harder ranks to stay harder. My suggestion for increasing power makes much more sense for games which only have a boss once every hour or longer.

And Versalia is completely right about luck - my note about it was not meant to condemn any random factor in battles, only to ensure that designers think about the hardest (and easiest, for that matter) that their battle can become as a result of random factors.

Drakonais: If a normal battle makes you use all your available resources to win, it's essentially a boss battle (and continuing in the dungeon afterwards will be extremely difficult). If you can win while conserving some resources for the road ahead, then you obviously should conserve some resources for the road ahead, and thus it becomes a test of how few resources you can use while still winning (which is what I meant by "endurance").

I might do another full article on normal battles.
If you do tackle normal battles in another article, consider what I'm trying to implement in my current project: full healing after every battle. Personally, I've always found that buying an arbitrary amount of potions before jumping into a dungeon didn't increase my enjoyment of the game in the slightest, only frustrating me if I overstocked or ended up being a few potions short.

By being at full power at the start of each battle, it's about exploiting weaknesses and utilizing strategy instead of trying to get by (but just barely). Of course, for any real sense of danger in this scenario, the threat of death needs to be ever-present and the consequences of a gameover have to be balanced to that (with frequent checkpoints, carry-over exp, etc).
Versalia
must be all that rtp in your diet
1281
author=Drakonais
If you do tackle normal battles in another article, consider what I'm trying to implement in my current project: full healing after every battle. Personally, I've always found that buying an arbitrary amount of potions before jumping into a dungeon didn't increase my enjoyment of the game in the slightest, only frustrating me if I overstocked or ended up being a few potions short.

By being at full power at the start of each battle, it's about exploiting weaknesses and utilizing strategy instead of trying to get by (but just barely). Of course, for any real sense of danger in this scenario, the threat of death needs to be ever-present and the consequences of a gameover have to be balanced to that (with frequent checkpoints, carry-over exp, etc).


LOL dated reference but; Sailor Moon:Another Story has a mechanic that gives PCs a very limited MP pool, but it is restored after every fight; it makes them all a knock-down drag-out, and boss fights much more intense as to which abilities to use and when.
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5143
Making every battle in the game a miniboss. I approve.
Great article. I approve of the idea that bosses should test the lessons learned from the small fry monsters. This idea also gives you something to check when designing encounters, are they actually teaching the player something?
No this guide isn't very good. You've managed to write so much and say very little. When you aren't repeating points into tldr oblivion you're usually talking about stuff someone who played an RPG more than once would know about.
author=Darken
No this guide isn't very good. You've managed to write so much and say very little. When you aren't repeating points into tldr oblivion you're usually talking about stuff someone who played an RPG more than once would know about.

Really? In at least 80% of the RPGs I've played, the tactics used in battles are almost only heal when needed, otherwise use your best offensive move. Most boss battles tests nothing else than your ability to judge when you need to heal.

Or maybe you think that most game designers do know that bosses are supposed to test more than the ability to heal, only they can't figure out how to accomplish that? You may be right and if so, I admit that this article isn't that much of a help. Still, I think this article could be a good ground for a follow up article that explain how you accomplish this stuff.
@LockeZ I take it Vindication and it's sequel were designed to demonstrate this theory. That said, I'll definitely take this into serious consideration with my project, even though there probably won't be that many bosses.
I really enjoyed this article.

Semi-on topic. I like when I gain a new ability or item BEFORE the boss battle. I hate beating a fire dungeon and THEN getting the Ice Sword. That would have come in handy, you know, this whole time.

Cause odds are the Ice level is next! That'll come in handy! =p

But great article!
Cool, I'm just wondering one thing now. It would be bad design if perfectly skilled players can still lose with dumb luck right? But what about if mindless button mashing kind of players still have a significant chance of winning with dumb luck? Would that still be bad design?
LockeZ
I'd really like to get rid of LockeZ. His play style is way too unpredictable. He's always like this too. If he ran a country, he'd just kill and imprison people at random until crime stopped.
5143
For the first dungeon, I'd definitely say that's allowable. For the final boss, I'd definitely say that's a problem. The part of the game in between those two points should involve a gradual transition from requiring very little thought and skill to requiring a fairly solid mastery of the game. At exactly what point button mashing wins become completely impossible depends on how hard you want the game to be - it might happen after the first battle, after the first dungeon, a third of the way through the game, or even later.
Thanks for sharing your well-written article. It really got me thinking about some of the planned boss battles in my own project - or even inspired me to rethink some of them.
Bosses also help the tension/release cycle of a game - the player can relax and experiment within normal battles while he needs to stay on his toes and show his skill during boss fights.
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