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Boss Battle Design and Structure
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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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