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Opinion: Boss Design - Trial & Punishment
Opinion: Boss Design - Trial & Punishment
June 17, 2008 | By Nayan Ramachandran




[In this editorial, game commentator Nayan Ramachandran lays out the dynamics of a hallowed gaming convention -- the boss fight -- categorizing the various design approaches to boss fights: Metal Gear's lateral thinking, Zelda's tool-based fights, and Ninja Gaiden's mercilessly 'archaic' forfeitures.]

Western developers and media have been, for the last several years, foretelling the fall of the era of boss battles. In an industry that, in years past, was dominated by a simple level structure, the very designers of these games are turning their back on this tradition in favor of a more asymmetrical and perhaps more beneficial pattern.

Asian developers still bother to design evil and devious boss creatures for their games, sometimes spreading them through the game at a rate higher than a single one in each level. Japanese roleplaying games are famous for gauntlets of boss fights, while Capcom has become famous over the years for having players replay boss fights later in the adventure.

With all this talk of “bosses” and “level structure” though, perhaps we are alienating a portion of our readership; a portion more attuned and connected to modern Western game design than the games of my childhood. Likely after reading the last two paragraphs, a single question leaves their bewildered lips: “What is a boss?”

Your Final Boss Exam

Games in which bosses appear have levels that are usually designed like a traditional class syllabus. If you were to liken the the length of a game’s level to a semester of studying, learning the game’s boundaries and mechanics and the flaws of the enemies it throws at you, then surely the boss is the final exam for the class.

Testing the skills you’ve learned on your journey to this powerful character, as well as the powers and weapons you’ve collected over time, the boss character is meant to be a milestone of achievement for the player. It offers structure where there might not be any. It is the personification of a climax.

The actual nomenclature for this unique game design mechanic likely comes from the beat-em-up genre. Because these boss characters are much stronger than the minions that populate each level, and often attack by themselves at the end of the level, story usually dictated that they were the highest ranking member in the organization the minions belonged to.

Therefore, they were quite literally the “bosses” of the minions you had already defeated. The rest, I suppose, is history.

With that information at hand, perhaps it is time to venture into deeper water, and look more closely at the design and implementation of the boss in gaming.

Boss Patterns And Mechanics

The Japanese tradition of video game boss design has almost always found pattern based gameplay to be the most rewarding. The Pattern school of thinking is probably the most well received and the most often used, finding a home in countless games, including Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear, Super Mario Bros., and, most notably, The Legend of Zelda.

The mechanic is simple. Either based on the environment or based on the player’s position and status, the boss character has a variety of attacks that they will perform. The player’s job is to discern the pattern from the seemingly random cacophony of action, and use the abilities and tools available to him to exploit the pattern.

Depending on the game, this structure can be rather rewarding. Some games, sadly, beat the player over the head with the mechanic required to defeat the boss, either offering overly obvious visual cues, or having the voice of the developer in the form of a sidekick telling you what exactly to do.

What becomes so unrewarding about this design is the fact that with the little intelligence the developer assumes the player has, the fight devolves into a slightly more digital incarnation of paint-by-numbers: duck here. Use the grappling hook here. Maybe you should try using this weapon.

We also land up with an entirely different problem: choice. When the game starts to remind you how you should be defeating the boss, the player isn’t rewarded for solving the encounter, nor are they rewarded for playing the way they want.

Suddenly, after mission after mission of letting the player choose what they want to do, the developer decides to stick a funnel at the end of the pipe, and force the player to defeat the boss using an exact list of instructions. Why even have a boss encounter at all?

Bosses - The Action Version

More action-oriented games, like Konami’s Metal Gear and Contra series, boss battles are still designed in terms of patterns, but the methods by which each boss is defeated is not immediately apparent. Suddenly the player is forced to do something they’ve never had to do before: use their brain.

While games like Okami and Zelda hint at a specific set of tools to be used on a boss encounter to test the player’s ability to use said tools, Contra tests a player’s decision-making skills. Not only does the player have to use a specific weapon or skill at a specific phase of the boss’ attack, but they have to choose which weapon to use.

While this offers an unprecedented amount of choice for the player, it can also create unprecedented anger and frustration. While the game may not tell the player which weapons to use, the player has no idea of knowing if a variety of weapons and strategies will be equally viable against the boss, or a single precise chain of movements and attacks is required.

How the game handles the experimentation therein becomes the main point of contention at this point. Some guys welcome experimentation and even lateral thinking to defeat a boss, even offering multiple ways to defeat the boss depending on strategy.

The Metal Gear Solid series is famous for this. Any player familiar with the famous sniper fight with The End in Metal Gear Solid 3 will likely remember the initial frustration of fighting him, the slow but methodical deduction process involves in detecting him, and finally the incredible satisfaction in reigning victorious over the aging sharpshooter.

Players could use the directional microphone, thermal goggles, The End’s parrot and a variety of other tactics and weapons. Because of the sheer variety of solutions to the fight, the game ends up being incredibly rewarding, as each player manages to arrive at their own solution without too much assistance.

The converse would be a boss fight from the recently released Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360. Each boss encounter has very few options for success. Bosses often come equipped with abilities that immediately and violently counter the most powerful attacks of certain weapons. Like its predecessor on the original Xbox, bosses mercilessly brutalize players for mistakes, taking off exorbitant amounts of health.

This negative reinforcement prods players to try entirely new strategies, but it also doesn’t promote changing strategies mid-battle. Often because of the excessive health loss, and the boss’ merciless attacking, players are forced to forfeit and start fresh from the beginning of the battle with a new strategy.

This hearkens back to an older style of gameplay, where retrying was the norm. It has its place, but in this day and age, it simply looks archaic when compared to more organic learning processes presented in far more forward-thinking games.

Conclusion

Bosses are not going anywhere. While developers who have yet to figure out how to properly implement them have largely given up on trying to use them, it would truly be a tragedy if the art boss design were truly lost.

Thankfully, there are still quite a few developers that know how to make them, and hopefully that rings true for a long time to come.


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