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Boss Battle Design and Structure

September 15, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

Beat 6: It's ON!

What is it? During this beat, the boss has access to the full range of his attacks.

The battle is as intense as it is going to get, and the player is motivated and ready to go. In some ways this is the easiest beat of the boss battle, since you just let the boss go wild.

Why is it a good idea? This is what we've been leading up to. This is the top of the ramp. It is time for the player to display his mastery of the mechanics on the test, and it's time to let the boss give the player everything he's got.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

To defeat Ganon in his monster form, the player needs to shoot Ganon in the head with his arrows. Then the player can dodge around behind him and attack the weak spot on his tail.

The player is deprived of his main weapon for most of this fight, and must use one of his two alternate weapons to damage the tail.

The player is being tested on his attacking (both with his primary and alternate attacks), dodging, bow and arrow shooting, identification of weak spots, and basic movement -- but under a lot more pressure. Those swords that Ganon is wielding HURT!

The player must dodge behind Ganon and hit the vulnerable spot on his tail in order to damage him.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

As the fight wears on, GladOS begins to drop the personality cores into odd places and the player must demonstrate his mastery over the game's core portal skills in order to get them and bring them to the incinerator.

To get this personality orb (pictured center) the player must shoot himself high into the air with the portal gun, reach the platform, and grab the orb.

Beat 7: "Kill" Sequence

What is it? During this beat, you must show the enemy on the ropes. The boss has been struck down! The player gets a moment to bask in his achievements -- in his mastery over the game and the skills he's learned. The boss doesn't need to actually die during this sequence, but he should be shown as defeated (down on one knee, breathing heavily, complementing the player, etc.)

If the boss does die, then make sure he dies spectacularly. Make it worth the player's while.

Why is it a good idea? You want to mark the boss' defeat (which we know is an important pacing milestone) with a good feeling. This is especially important if the boss is supposed to escape after this beat to be fought again later. If he just runs away before this beat has run its course, the player might feel robbed. Just having the boss say something to compliment the player, or having him play a short animation where he appears wounded, out of breath, or otherwise disabled allows the player to feel like he's won a real victory.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

After hitting him in the tail one too many times, the player brings Ganon to his knees. Zelda calls for you to finish it, and the player thrusts his sword into Ganon's face. Zelda and all the NPCs you've rescued band together and cast a spell to bind Ganon into a prison forever (complete with special effects and cool looking sequences). Ganon plummets into the prison screaming for revenge, but it's all over for him.

The player thrusts his sword into Ganon's face, which turns him back into his normal form. The rest of Ganon's comeuppance is up to Zelda and the other NPCs.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

After throwing GladOS' last personality core into the incinerator, she explodes in a spectacular fireworks show and is pulled out through the roof. Even though the ending eventually makes it clear she survives the explosion, the grandness of her "kill" sequence makes it worthwhile.

GladOS dies in a spectacular fireworks show and is pulled out through the roof. In her last moment, she drags you along with her and the screen fades to white.

Beat 8: Victory Sequence

What is it? While the "Kill Sequence" beat was explicitly for rubbing salt in the boss' wounds, this beat is explicitly about rewarding the player for beating the boss. This can come in many forms, from congratulatory cutscenes to heart containers to achievements to literal victory celebrations. No matter what you do for the player, as long as it is rewarding you've done your job.

Why is it a good idea? The player won, and this is his chance to feel awesome for a moment. By embracing this beat, you solidify the emotional milestone and allow the tension and anticipation you've built up to release.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

After Ganon is pulled into his prison for all time, Zelda thanks the player for all that he's done and reminds him how amazing he is.

It's very important to reward and congratulate the player after he beats a boss. Without a proper "thumbs-up", the tension won't properly dissipate, and it can leave the player feeling unfulfilled.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

After you're pulled through with GladOS, you finally get the cake she's been promising you for the whole game!

The cake was not a lie!

But even better than that is what comes next! GladOS sings the player an awesome song, and the credits roll. Talk about rewarding!

Normally credits aren't much fun, but these made me laugh and laugh. I even bought the song when it came out on iTunes. I felt well-rewarded for my trials by the time this was done.


In this article I went over how I like to break down boss battles. Then I showed how you can use that knowledge to create your own boss battles. By remembering that a boss battle is both a test and a story, and by applying the techniques I suggest here, your design will begin with a much stronger backbone than can come from simple brainstorming (as my mishaps with the Terror of Talos show).

Though I believe this is a very useful way to do things, I don't mean to imply that this is somehow "more correct" than any other way, or even that it's the only way to break down a boss battle.

In my last article, I ended with a quote that I think is very relevant here:

"In his book Science and Method the French mathematician Henri Poincaré said 'Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.' The same is true with models for thinking about game design. None of them are 'true' -- they are only convenient."

The tips, tricks, and shortcuts above have, time and again, proven themselves very convenient for me. They make the challenging task of boss battle design much easier, and in my experience, produce great results. Have fun with them.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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