intro to boss design

Holy hell. So, I could likely write a book on this subject. No matter how hard I focus on it I can’t find a way to crystallize this thing in 2 or 3 pages. I don’t think I could even do it in my old 10 page format. Irrelevant I suppose. Also, seeing as how I know this site is a really cheap Extra Credits ripoff I would like to thank them for inspiring this essay, I know that they are covering boss design as well so Ill try to keep this essay to points that my idol (James) glosses over.
This week I want to start a series of essays on boss design. There is no way I’m doing this in 1 or 2 essays, so I suppose I will use this week’s essay as an “intro to” paper. I will go over a number of aspects of boss design. If I have time I’ll even go into detail about studios and publishers that are pretty good on the bit in question. Now, without further ado.
Next week I will discuss environment. As I said before, I am a huge fan of narrative infused game design. A boss encounter is an excellent opportunity to flesh out your world. Keep in mind that boss fights are like the video equivalent of sound bytes in the news. A good 70% of the screenshots you see in reviews will be of boss battles (assuming the bosses are at all memorable). Also, my friend Romilton, in a meeting a few weeks ago, brought up a point I didn’t notice. We were writing up a design document for a game we’re working on and when I said “so whats the narrative about” he assumed we would be talking cutscenes and animations. I will someday go into detail about narrative infused game design but for now I’ll say this; when I say “narrative infused game design” I’m not referring to anything grand. In the strictest sense “A blue hedgehog runs really fast and jumps on an egg themed roboticist” is a narrative. In short, this advice continues to hold even if you carry a Carmackian view towards storytelling.
Since we are on the subject of narrative I want to put in a small caveat. You should always know if your boss is a mechanical or narrative boss. Daniel Floyd posed this issue as a ‘know your game’ question but I think it’s far more granular than that. I think it’s a ‘know your encounter’ issue. I direct your attention to Super Mario Bros. WiiU because Nintendo hit it out of the park. Oh, I don’t know if you guys care about Mario spoilers but you know… heads up. Anyways, the final boss in Mario Bros WiiU comes in two phases. I will go into detail later but one of the phases clearly wasn’t built with mechanical challenge in mind.
Next we will talk statistics. We have all seen a boss that was completely ruined by poor stat work. Hell, half the bosses in Final Fantasy file under this issue unless you approach them with a very specific level range, team build, and equipment loadout. For example, I bloody love FFX but there is one boss called the Sanctuary Keeper. This boss, if approached properly is a really fun boss with a challenging strategy (for time reasons I wont elaborate). The problem is that aforementioned strategy requires you have the following abilities: Reflect, Cura, Cheer, Prayer and a weapon that inflicts Poison status. If you approach the boss with those abilities and a very specific stat spread amongst the party then the fight is fun, challenging, and really makes you feel clever for figuring out the mechanics. If you are missing any one of those spells, however, you have exactly zero percent chance of beating the boss unless you are so wildly over leveled that you can drop it in 2 or 3 turns. Im trying to keep this essay short so we will talk about the maths behind bosses later but I will attempt to summarize. In short, a boss’s stats should be roughly 2 to 5 times that of your average enemy. Just remember, these aren’t hard numbers because different genres have different mechanical quirks. I’ve played platformers that were content with giving me a boss with a single hit point (ref. Mario WiiU) and we’ve all fought the marathon themed bosses in Final Fantasy (there’s a boss in FFXII with so much health that the guide suggests you not try to beat it in one sitting). Hell, Dark Souls bosses will take you out in a single hit and—- well… actually, so will the trash mobs if you’re a glass canon. Well, point stands. Let me see… how long are we? By Hylia! Moving on.
Okay. Let’s talk about the part of the boss battle that I will call ‘the money shot’ (I know, a lot of porn jokes this week). In short, how do you feel when you kill a boss? In my years of gaming I’ve noticed that there are 3 basic reactions to the big climax, the first being ‘Fuckin finally, it’s down!’, the second one being ‘Wait what? Its down?’ and the third being summarizable only using the following video ( Technically there is a 4th response, the ‘Wait, that’s it?’ but with the exception of the modern art titles out there we are absolutely never aiming for that one. While the first two responses can be useful in niche situations, most of the time we are aiming for the third, the celebratory air punch. I am loathe to spend all of my time hating on Blizzard but I can’t help but point at the fact that they managed to, in consecutive final bosses, hit on the 3rd response with The Lich King (seriously, I’ve seen grown ass adults cry over that one, bosses like that and Original Sin, which gets me to cry every damn time, are why I call it the money shot, do it right and the killing blow can be downright orgasmic) and the 4th response with Neltharion (which my wife responded to with ‘I want that 10 minutes back’).
Okay, we made it! I will be back next week to talk about the above issues in a more granular method. If you were paying attention you learned that boss design is a lot more than a big guy to kill after a horde of little guys. See you next week.


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