Gamedev Grievances #16: Designing Boss Battles

The phrase “boss design”, with respect to gamedev, usually brings to mind what the boss actually looks like. (Is it a monster? A goat? How many legs? Wings? And so on.) But an often-overlooked aspect of game boss design is the gameplay aspect – in other words, how does the player approach each boss? What are the strategies involved? Sure, cool-looking bosses are nice, but they can only get one so far – there’s little point in having fantastic boss designs if the gameplay and strategy for all the bosses is exactly the same. That being said, however, each boss battle needs to be carefully tweaked and balanced so that every encounter remains both adequately challenging and fun.

Of all the factors that could be taken into account here, let’s take a look at three.

Boss Layout

Often, RPG-based dungeon crawlers fail to make the most of what I call “boss layout”, or the layout of bosses and player characters in the area. In many of these dungeon crawlers, you’ll have a single boss, or maybe two or three boss characters, standing in front of the player – and that’s the only boss layout that you’ll see in the entire game. By contrast, experimenting with different layouts can be used to change the difficulty of a battle by orders of magnitude.

For example, one boss I’ve been working on originally had four Henchmen all lined up opposite the player. Then, as the battle progressed, the Henchmen approached the player from the one side.

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The old layout of the boss, plus an overpowered weapon.

However, I found that this layout made the battle far too easy. With the enemies basically walking up to the player one at a time, they were basically lining up to be annihilated – specifically, if the player activated the right Ambience, each enemy could be defeated in one shot. The entire battle could be completed without an enemy landing a single hit.

I also noticed that this boss had a very similar layout to many other boss battles – that of the boss standing in front of the player – with the only difference being that the layout was horizontal and not vertically oriented. That struck me as a little boring in terms of the player’s experience. The worst thing you could give a player was a boss battle that was far too easy and far too monotonous, leaving the player at the end wondering “What was the point of that?”

So I decided to ramp up the difficulty a bit.

I knew that the enemies could still be knocked out in one shot by the player under the right conditions, simply as a consequence of the gameplay mechanics. I left that in as a strategic, albeit quirky, aspect of the boss for the player to figure out. But simply by rearranging the Henchmen to surround the player, so that the Henchmen now approached from three sides instead of just one, I was able to make the boss much more challenging.

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A new and much more challenging boss layout.

This new layout called for a much more tactical approach to the boss battle, where the player actually had to think about how to use the different gameplay mechanics to their advantage. Under these conditions, one misstep could mean disaster – or close to it. Although I wanted the player to fail a few times against this boss, I didn’t want the boss to be too difficult, either. Specifically, there had to be a chance for the player to defeat the boss on their first try, if they played their cards carefully. To achieve this, I also lowered the levels of some of the Henchmen a bit so they wouldn’t pack quite as much of a punch with each hit.

Using Game Mechanics

One of Ambience‘s more interesting aspects is its gameplay, especially the notion of weather-bending or changing “Ambience”, which changes your own stats and can also strengthen or weaken enemies. This mechanic adds another dimension of strategy to the stock-standard weapons and items found in any RPG (which are present in Ambience too).

While that’s a neat skill to have for some boss battles, I also don’t want the player to become too reliant on their Ambience-changing abilities, and so I’ve decided to present the player with challenges where changing Ambience is no longer a viable strategy.

One example is this boss battle:

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A simple boss layout with an interesting catch.

Without revealing too much of the story, this boss has Ambience-changing abilities as well. So the moment you activate a change in Ambience, the boss will change it back – also nullifying all the bonuses associated with you changing your Ambience. This greatly diminishes the utility of changing Ambience, such that the player has to think of a plan B. Even though the boss layout here is relatively simple – a single enemy standing directly in front of the player – changing up the gameplay mechanics adds much more difficulty to the encounter.

Story-Telling and the “Big Picture”

Another reason why boss battle design is important is because a well-crafted, memorable boss battle can be used to really emphasize important aspects of the story and characters, as well as driving the story forwards. In a sense, many games (especially RPGs) are simply means of telling a story; the only difference is that the player is actively involved in the story-telling process.

This story-telling shouldn’t be limited to cutscenes, either. Although cutscenes are still very useful, they’re a very “hands-off” approach to giving a player information. If used too often, they can also make the player feel somewhat alienated from the actual events of the game’s world. (I can think of one indie game I played recently that made me feel that way – it’s not a nice feeling, and really drew attention to how important this is!)

I think it’s easy to forget that every player interaction, including boss battles, can be used to tell the story. Boss battles are especially significant, since they place the player right in the middle of a conflict; the only thing left is for the gamedev to relate that conflict to the the overarching story, or the “big picture”.

For example, here’s the first boss in Ambience:

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The very first boss.

This boss is encountered as the player’s escaping from a prison. The significance of this battle is pretty clear: the player has to escape for the story to progress. Also, once the player’s out of the prison, they might be about to work out why they were imprisoned, why there are prisons in the first place, and so on. But the story remains interesting in that the player’s now a wanted outlaw and has to live a life undercover.

In more practical terms, the developer needs to give the player a compelling reason to get involved in the story-telling process, including boss battles. The player needs to want to go ahead with the fight, rather than simply thinking “ho hum, another meaningless battle”. That’s why the lead-up to and follow-up from boss fights are also important in helping the player to realize, “hey, this boss battle actually means something!”

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