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Boss Battle Design and Structure

September 15, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In his latest design feature, Activision and former Insomniac designer Mike Stout breaks down the boss battle into eight different beats, and runs two notable ones -- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Ganon and Portal's GladOS -- through a thorough analysis to illuminate their designs.]

The boss battle is one of the oldest and most beloved traditions in video games. Everyone has fond memories of their favorites, and opinion pieces proclaiming the "Top 10 Boss Fights of All Time" are always hotly contested and the source of a lot of debate.

According to Wikipedia, the first boss battle ever featured in a game was the Gold Dragon in the 1975 RPG dnd, and the practice has been going strong ever since.

Coming up as a designer in this industry, some of my most difficult (but also most interesting) challenges have been boss battle designs.

Each time I was assigned one I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. Sure, they're cool, but where do you start?

Bowser from the original Super Mario Brothers was the first boss battle I ever played.

Hard-Learned Lessons

I remember the first boss battle I ever designed. It was the "Terror of Talos" fight for Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando. Still a junior designer, I agonized over that design for weeks. I poked and prodded, I added features, and by the time I was done with it I was sure I had designed the coolest boss battle ever!

It was a six-armed Godzilla-esque monster with a robot standing on its head (the robot was controlling the monster with levers, you see). It stormed around a giant movie-set version of a large metropolis, destroying everything it came across. It could fly and walk and breathe fire and shoot missiles and... well pretty much everything. I was so proud of it I could just burst.

And it was bad. Not just bad, in fact. Oh, man, was it ever awful!

Oh sure, the final product turned out very well -- thanks primarily to my talented and very patient colleagues (thanks for putting up with me, Andrew) -- but that first rough-draft design was an absolute disaster. The idea was cool, sure, but I had neglected to really think through the gameplay behind it.

Behold, the Terror of Talos! While the final product turned out well enough, the early designs (in addition to being impossible to implement) needed a ton of revision before the fight was any fun.

Since then, I've designed a ton of boss battles, and with each one I've learned new tips and tricks that have made each successive design go much more smoothly.

In this article, I aim to pass on those tricks and tips. In this article I will break some boss battles down into their component parts (as I see them) and then show you how I use that knowledge when designing boss battles of my own.

Note: I am specifically talking about bosses from action/adventure games here. While the tips I outline here will, I suspect, work for bosses in any genre, I've never personally tried to apply them that way.

Intro to Boss Battles

One of the first questions I like to ask myself when beginning a design is this: "What are my goals?" Essentially, I try to make it clear to myself what my design needs to accomplish so that every decision I make can hearken back to my goals. For boss battles, my goals are typically something like this:

  • The boss should feel like a reward.
    • A boss battle is a reward from the game designer to the player. For a short time, the player gets to take a break and do something new!
    • Boss battles tend to be intense and feel "larger than life." Players look forward to boss battles, and getting to them feels good.
  • The boss should feel like a goal (or milestone) for the player.
    • Like chapter breaks in a book, players reach a goal (minor or major) when they reach a boss battle. The anticipation leading up to a boss battle and the feeling of having attained a goal when the boss is defeated provide tangible story and emotional milestones for a player.
  • By fighting the boss, the player can demonstrate his mastery of my game.
    • A boss battle is a good place for the player to demonstrate the skills he has learned so far by playing the game. In that sense a boss battle is both a test of the player's abilities and a chance for the player to feel like he has mastered the skills you've taught him so far.
  • A boss fight can help build and release tension in a satisfying way.
    • Like a good book or movie, it is important for a boss battle to have good "pacing," which is to say it's important for the game designer to build up and release tension and difficulty (or, in other words, intensity) over time.
    • Good boss battles not only contain good pacing within the fights themselves, but also help to pace the entire game.
      • The knowledge that a boss battle is approaching is a great excuse to build up intensity over the course of a series of levels. The closer the player comes to the boss fight, the more his anticipation of the fight grows. A clever level designer can use this to their advantage (as seen in the chart below).
      • Boss battles are a great way to release the intensity you've built up over the course of the preceding levels. After finishing a boss, the player can expect to coast for a little while and feel good about his accomplishments.

A vastly simplified illustration of Super Mario Bros. 3's pacing. Within each world, intensity increases until the player defeats a boss, at which point the intensity dies down a bit (though not entirely).

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Yikuno Barnaby
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Thanks for this.

Robert Ericksen
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nice work and great examples.

Chris Bell
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Thanks for the in-depth recount of the Zelda and Portal fights. It's extremely worthwhile to micro-analyze these key moments in games, since it's often difficult to revisit these sequences in long games (though a youtube video can help).

It's also worth noting that this pacing is often used in many other portions than just boss fights. The same action, breather, action design, for example, is well suited for most all parts of a narrative game that wants to immerse players and keep them progressing without growing tired.

Maurício Gomes
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These boss fights described are really good for "end boss" fights (some that repeat the transformation stage several times, specially in shooters, even in story-heavy shooters, like Aquaria).

But sometimes you don't want a boss that is THIS epic (or you want some other sort of epicness)

The game I am making is a breakout clone (not a arkanoid clone, mind you ;) ), but when players reach a certain level, a boss fight ensues, the cool thing I did, is that the level starts as normal level, and you go bouncing the ball around and breaking stuff as usual, then suddenly a boss show up in a show of electricity and fireworks while the music changes, then it right away starts shooting you (when it connects it decreases the same resource you use to create balls, making clear the danger of getting shot).

All testers commented how this level was memorable and really cool, and awesome, and that sort of stuff...

Later in the game, I cannot have the same impact (because players now know about the bosses existance), so I do other stuff (more fireworks, and a significant change in gameplay, for example one boss is in a round level, while all other levels were square), and the final boss I use this structure (multi-stage boss, you go killing his parts, and this cause him to change attacks and get harder, until the very end where you need to use regular gameplay skills to finish him off)

Of course, being a newbie designer, other people bosses are way better tham mine ;)

Kumar Daryanani
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Very good read, kudos on a great article!

Altug Isigan
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This is a great lesson on having a solid approach to tackle particular game design problems. I can easily imagine how I would apply the approach to boss battle design to other design problems. The secret agenda of this article is vision and it's phantastic to be able to follow the way of thinking of an experienced and proven designer. Thanks a lot for sharing this phantastic article. It's one of the best I've ever read on gamasutra.

Marko Muikku
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Well-constructed break down. It's always a pleasure to read an article that actually tackles the core 'problem' providing tips & tricks.

@Mike In Terror of Talos's rough-draft stage you were somewhat blinded by the flood of ideas, after lesson learned how did you approach the very next boss battles? Was it still trial & error, or did you have some golden rules to follow?

Mike Stout
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Thanks for the kind words, Marko!

The ToT fight was in Ratchet 3 (which I incorrectly labelled as "Going Commando" in the article, oops). I think my next Boss Fights were for Ratchet: Deadlocked. I had worked out the stuff about "a boss is a test" by that point, but not the part about "a boss is a story" so my Boss Designs were very feature-driven still.

My "golden rules" at that point were just: 1) List the skills I want to test and 2) Design attacks to test the skills.

After the Deadlocked bosses, I worked on Multiplayer for Resistance so I didn't have another chance to do a boss design until a couple years ago on Spyborgs. That was when I worked out the narrative side of things.

The direction for those bosses was "To Make a classic Capcom Boss Fight," so we deconstructed a bunch of Capcom Boss Fights and found they had a lot in common. Soon after, we discovered that a lot of boss fights have those elements in common, and from there it was a matter of naming things.

Marko Muikku
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Mike, much appreciated for opening up this even further!

Aaron Burton
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Awesome Post. My favorite bosses are dingodile from crash bandicoot 3 and Doku from ninja gaiden.

What makes bosses so cool are the moves they have that you've never seen before and there ever so long health bar. I especially like when bosses go into berserk mode just before their life depletes.

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Very cool article, thank you for sharing! After recently finishing Zelda: Twilight Princess I was reminded how much most American developers (to make a gross generalization) have to learn about boss fights. Your insights should help us out a lot :D

Christopher Totten
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Hey awesome article. I like how you incorporated training players throughout the lead-up to the boss fight, though I would say that I agree with Mauricio on how "final boss"-centric the article was. I can see normal boss fights being toned-down versions of all of these beats though, perhaps with the addition of a last new attack being the final transformation and a new item being the "victory sequence" instead of an ending cutscene.

I can think of lots of fights in the Metroid Prime games where these steps are used on various scales.

Mike Stout
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You're absolutely right, I use the tips I mentioned above for all boss battles I design, not just final boss fights, and the difference is a matter of scale.

A good example are the boom boom mini boss fights from Super Mario 3 -- scope-wise and flash-wise they're much smaller than either of the fights I mention above, but they still have all the beats:

Build up is condensed to a short run up an empty hallway, Intro is a music cue, Victory Sequence is the collection of the orb, a pause in the game, and some triumphant music... Etc.

So yeah, I totally agree.

Josh Foreman
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Good analysis and breakdown.

Darby McDevitt
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Glenn Sturgeon
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Nice inside perspective of the thought and design process.

I must say Going commando is fantastic.

Please mention to designers to bring Fizzwidget back to the franchies.

That was the by far the funniest character i've "ever" seen in a game.

Best Wishes to all at insomniac.

Lance Shirley
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Awesome article Mike and thanks for replying to reader's comments. I'm keeping a copy of this for future reference once I break into the industry. Lastttttt semester of college.

Here is your cake.



Andrew Yount
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Heya Mike! The Terror of Talos was my favorite boss fight to implement so far! (Vox is a close second.) I thought we rocked that level. Thanks for the props.... and nice article.

Arturo Nereu
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When designing boss batles, sometimes we tend to design the charater first then the gameplay mechanics, but as you say; it should be the other way.

Great article!

Shane Hendrickson
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Thanks for this great article. I had never before thought of boss battles as a reward, but it makes complete sense now. Even reaching them does feel like an accomplishment. I've been sitting here thinking about all the boss battles I actually remember, and it amazes me to realize that the great ones use a formula that is at least similar to this. As a design student, I'm going to be keeping this on hand and I have a feeling I'll be keeping it on my quick reference list. Thanks for the inspiration and for the inside look at how you accomplish things. Your articles have been a huge help so far. I'm looking forward to reading more from you!

Gabriel Gonzalez
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This was actually a very good article. Thank you very much for sharing your insight on this topic. I am looking foward to reading future articles from you.

sean lindskog
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Solid design, good examples.

eyal erez
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Great piece!

Thank you.

Dean L
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I'm going to use this as a guide for an educational game I'm in the process of creating. Thank you as everyone else has said.

A question: When do you think about the environment design for a boss fight? Is that always the last step or have you ever thought about it's design before and thus influenced your boss's design or element attributed to the player character/s?

Mike Stout
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Usually a boss' environment is very specialized so that the boss can use all his attacks. In a lot of the fights I've done, he even uses the environment as a weapon. So I tend to think of the boss design and his environment design as the same problem and work on them together. Usually this is during the step where I theme the boss' attacks, after I've listed what they're going to be.