| [Development]Designing Boss Encounters
, a general guide for all makers
Jan 17 2008, 03:03 PM
RM Skill: Masterful
Designing a Boss
Before we begin, let’s define what a boss encounter is and what a boss monster is. A boss encounter refers to any enemy encounter in a game with a unique monster that is more difficult than the encounters experienced previously on a level. Story boss encounters are mandatory for the game to continue, while optional bosses are just that. A boss monster is the main monster or monsters within that encounter. Boss monsters will typically have more HP and MP than a typical encounter. They will have unique and/or powerful attacks and skills. They will sometimes require strategy to defeat.
Note that it is possible for an early boss to appear as a regular enemy later in a game.
The most important aspect to a boss is making the battle fun and challenging. This is true of battles in general, but it’s most important with bosses. Boss monsters should not just be regular monsters with more HP. In general, they should fight more intelligently, use flashy unique or special skills, and/or require strategy to defeat.
Be sure to test and triple test game balance for bosses. Utilize beta testers, too, so you can get fresh eyes who don't already know the strategies and tricks. It's important to keep bosses challenging without being overly difficult or boringly easy.
Also, reduce the reliance on luck. Player skill and thought should carry the day, not being lucky enough not to get killed this time.
Types of Bosses
We’re going to look at some various types of bosses. Note that this is my own classification, not an absolute series of definitions, and that bosses can fit into more than one category. If you think I missed a category, please do speak up! I am not an expert on every RPG ever written, and I may have missed or forgotten some.
Tank bosses are powerful and have a boatload of HP. They often take hours to defeat and they kill characters with depressing regularity. Good examples of this type of boss are just about every Mob Hunt boss above rank V in FFXII, Zeromous of FFIV, and the final boss from Legend of Dragoon.
It’s generally tough to make a pure Tank type boss interesting. You can make them hard and you can make the battle take forever, but that won’t make it fun. I recommend against using pure Tank types.
Eggshell with a Sledgehammer
This is a boss without a lot of HP (relatively speaking, that is), but with a powerful attack or attacks. Good examples are Gigantos from FFVI and Lenus from Legend of Dragoon.
Boss battles of this type tend to be fast-paced and intense when done right. If done wrong, they can be infinitely frustrating when you come this close to defeating the boss, but it kills you at the last minute. Handle with care, but don't be afraid of it.
A boss you have to defeat within a certain time limit. If you don't make it under the time limit, it's game over. The limit might be a timer countdown on the screen, might be counted down by the monster, or might be indicated by the monster's position. Examples include Odin from FFIV, the moving wall bosses in FFIV and FFXII, and Zalhera from FFXII.
This can be a fun experience. Like the Eggshell bosses, it's fast paced and intense when done right. To do it right, you need to balance the boss against the party expected level so they can defeat it just when they're really starting to sweat.
Similar to the Time Bomb Boss, the Timed Attack boss does nothing or little while charging up one dangerous attack. The charging is usually obvious, like a countdown or other message. Examples are Tiamat from FFVIII, Bahamut from FFIV, and Id from Xenosaga Episode III.
Like the Time Bomb attack, these types of battles are usually intense and fast-paced as the player scrambles to do as much damage as possible and then heal after being beaten down. It also adds a little strategy as the player needs to plan when they need to block or allocate some turns to casting protective magic.
The staple of the genre, this boss that changes forms into something harder and different 2-6 times during the battle. Each form must be defeated in order to defeat the boss. Good examples are Yunalesca from FFX (actually, pick any final boss from nearly any FF), Melbu Frahma from The Legend of Dragoon, and Dark One from Arc the Lad 2.
These can go either way, interesting or not. They’re easier to make interesting than a simple Tank type, unless all your forms are simply a linear progression of the Tank type or any one form is simply unbeatable.
An unbeatable boss is a boss who, for plot reasons, cannot be beaten by the party. This might mean that after you “kill” him he doesn’t take a scratch, or it might be because he’s just immortal and insanely strong. Good examples are the first time you fight Ramirez in Skies of Arcadia, the first time you fight Bahamut in FFIII, Beatrix from FFIX, and the first boss of Mega Man X.
Let me go on record saying use these types of boss sparingly, and try to make it obvious the fight is unwinnable, kill the player off very quickly, or let the player win and then have the boss wipe them out. Little is more frustrating then using up all your potions and MP on a boss you weren’t supposed to be able to beat in the first place and getting absolutely nothing in return for it.
A big, tough boss monster that comes with one or more “helpers” that heal the boss, prevent it from getting hit, cast beneficial status causing skills or “buffs” on the boss, or just attack and annoy the player. Typically these helpers can be revived if they are killed, either on a timer, if they are all killed off, or both. Good examples are Sophie Peitos from Xenosaga Episode I, the Guardian from Chrono Trigger (and several later boss fights in Chrono Trigger), and Hidon from FFVI.
These can be a lot of fun if done right. You can add an extra layer of strategy to your boss by making the player decide if killing off all the extras is worth it or not. For example, you can power up the boss every time one of them is killed, so the player has to decide how many to leave alive. You can have two, one that heals the boss and one that attacks, and you can only kill one because the boss will revive both if you kill both. The possibilities are many and varied. Have fun with it.
This is a “single” boss monster that is made up of separate, attackable parts. Sometimes it is necessary to defeat all the parts in order to win, and sometimes you only need to defeat the “main” part, but defeating the sub-parts makes the battle easier (or possible). Good examples are the Dragon Tank from Chrono Trigger, Balgon from FFIV, Sinspawn Gui from FFX, and nearly every boss in Wild ARMs 2nd Ignition.
This is a great way to add a little interest and strategy to a boss. Wild ARMs II made things more interesting by giving you more experience for defeating the “optional” parts of the boss. Balgon made you sweat because any individual part of his body could regenerate any other part with full HP if you didn’t kill it fast enough. Don’t be too afraid to borrow elements from other games, but do give them your own original twists if you can!
This is a boss that is actually 2 or more roughly equally tough monsters working together to kick your butt. In the better examples, they work as a team and use group abilities. Examples include the Magus Sisters from FFIV and X, Ozzie, Slash, and Flea (when fighting them all together) from Chrono Trigger, Sinistra and Destra from Skies of Arcadia, and the Gigas from Xenosaga Episode I.
This can go either way. If there’s nothing special about your bosses, then it’s just a boring boss fight against two or more boring bosses. However, if you make them fight as an intelligent team, helping each other out, then the battle becomes much more interesting. For example, the Magus Sisters will use support and healing magic on each other when needed, necessitating taking out the white mage of the group first. Interesting teams can also have a team attack, like the Magus Sister’s or the Ozzie gang’s delta attack. That encourages the player to focus on one of the team members first in the hopes of keeping them from using it.
Also, making the weaknesses of the team members different prevents the player from spamming one multi-target attack ability until all of them are dead.
Random Transform Boss
This is a boss that transforms every so often into a different form. This might be random, or it might be in response to something the player did. They usually do not stay in that form permanently, unlike a linearly transforming boss. Examples are the Mist Dragon, Rubicant, Kainazzo, and Valvalis from FFIV and the Whelk from FFVI.
This can be both fun and frustrating. In FFIV, the transformed state would either be immune to or even healed by the attacks that would normally hurt it or else strike back with an extra-heavy attack if attacked while transformed. Since the transformations were random, it was largely a matter of luck not to hit them while they were in their “defensive” state. A warning in time to stop attacking before transformation would probably reduce the frustration factor.
More fun is a boss that can be weakened through a series of actions. For example, there was a boss in Wild ARMs whose name escapes me that casting an ice elemental spell followed by a fire elemental spell would cause his metal shell to crack and fall off, making him much more vulnerable to physical attacks. The strategy was given in the form of a hint prior to the battle.
Smart Fire Boss
This is a boss that tries for your party’s weak points. They might attack the party member with the lowest HP, or the one with the lowest defense, or the one who is weak to their element(s). These sorts of bosses don’t occur often in RPGs because they tend to be difficult and annoying.
If done very well, a boss like this could be fun. It would take some balancing, though, since him just spamming hits on your weak healers and magic users is just plain annoying.
This is actually less a category of boss, and more an element of certain battle systems, particularly MMORPGs. Essentially, enemies have a hate level for members of the party, and will usually attack the one they hate the most. Different actions can affect the monster’s hate levels, but generally attacking them, causing negative stati on them, or debuffing them will raise their hate level for a particular character.
You can add this to either a boss or all your enemies to add strategy to your game. If the player has to be careful that the physically weak mage character doesn’t piss off the really big powerful monster, he will plan his attacks so his tank attacks the monster 1.5-2x more often than the mage does, using the mage for other tasks like healing and buffing when not attacking.
Rotating Defense Boss
This is a boss monster whose defense rotates when hit. It might change to protect them against what they just were hit with (such as raising magic defense when hit with magic or raising fire defense when hit with fire) or it may be a random shuffle. It’s usually accompanied by opening up a corresponding weakness. Examples include the MagiMaster in FFVI, Kecleon from Pokemon (not a boss, but a good example of the concept)
This can cause a player to use a little more strategy when planning their attacks. If a boss will become weak to ice if hit with fire this round, the player should be thinking about if any of his characters have an ice ability before using that fire spell.
Moving Position Boss
This is a boss that moves around the screen when attacking, whether randomly or in response to something you did. Clearly, this is the norm for action RPGs, but the maneuvering usually doesn’t usually affect their abilities or stats. The player’s attacks may be ineffective if they attempted to attack where the boss now is not, or they may need a new strategy for each position.
Examples include the Sandworm from FFV and Efureie from FFX (and a couple other battles in FFX).
This is another way to add strategy and interest to your boss battle, especially if when the movement occurs is somewhat under player control. For example, a boss that will change location on response to a hit, leading to a whack-a-mole type experience when he pops back up. Or, like FFX, you can choose what position the boss is in, with different positions having different strengths and weaknesses.
Tips For Fun Bosses
Anyone can make a boss battle hard. Not everyone can make a boss battle fun. The key to keeping your audience interested is to keep things challenging without being too frustrating and, above all, fun. Here are a few things you can do to spice things up.
Give your boss some personality. Have them taunt the player during combat, advertise their next move in some way, or react to what the player does. Good examples are Albedo from Xenosaga, Ultros from FFVI, and Seymour from FFX.
Have your boss fight intelligently. Just attacking 50% of the time and casting a spell 50% of the time is boring and predictable. Have your boss cast a protective status on himself if it runs out, or respond differently to different kinds of attacks, or take advantage of weaknesses the characters might have.
Have your boss change strategy as he gets weaker. It cues the player in that the fight is drawing to a close and gives them a little more difficulty to sweat in those last few rounds.
Have the battle require strategy instead of just attack, heal, repeat. However, make sure that the fight is not so hard that the player won’t have time to figure out the strategy and implement it on the first or second battle with that boss. For example, the Dragon Tank in Chrono Trigger is nigh unbeatable unless you defeat the head first. A simple strategy, but more fun than just mashing attack.
Give one or two of your bosses a different objective than kill the boss or just kill the boss. Like keep Character A alive at all costs, survive for 10 rounds, or provide cover for Civilian B as they run away. Changing things up for the player can be refreshing and keep them on their toes.
Use terrain in the battle. One of the most interesting things in FFX that they really didn’t do enough of is the trigger command or using objects on the battlefield to help in battle. It was done well in Kingdom Hearts II, but that is of course an action RPG and the concept would be hard, but not impossible, to transfer to a standard RPG. Allow a player to topple a pillar on top of the boss or drop a chandelier on them. Or hit the enemy mecha’s power cable to weaken it. If you dream it, you can event/script it.
Give the boss a weak spot the player can notice and exploit. Like a damaged right arm the player can keep attacking, which will cause the boss to cease attacking for a few rounds while it makes repairs.
Status effects! Either have your boss use them (but not to the point that it's aggravating) or have him be weak to some. Having the battle be easier if the player is smart enough to mute the boss first rewards smart playing.
Coming soon. This section will contain bosses that are examples of some of the above types and using some of the above tips in RMXP and possibly RMVX. I apologize, but I no longer have RM2k or RM2k3 and have never owned Gamemaker, so there will be no examples in those makers. If you’re a 2k(3) or Gamemaker guru and want to post an example boss and a short walkthrough of how you made him, please feel free.
I hope that gave you some good ideas to use in your own games. As always, if you have any comments, questions, concerns, grammar nazism, whatever, feel free to post.
Posts in this topic
ccoa [Development]Designing Boss Encounters Jan 17 2008, 03:03 PM Oceans Dream Tank type bosses can be done sparingly. Something ... Jan 17 2008, 03:26 PM ccoa I agree. Although I wouldn't classify the Gig... Jan 17 2008, 04:16 PM SeeYouAlways I've classified this as Game Design tutorial, ... Jan 18 2008, 10:33 AM MegaMan-Atlas To get a good look at different kinds of bosses, o... Jan 19 2008, 08:16 AM KiteDXX Ah, the tails bosses. I loved Sixtails because it ... Jan 24 2008, 08:56 PM Dragifon Thank you for this tut. I think i can now make mor... Mar 22 2008, 11:26 AM RPGManiac3030 Wow, this is really cool!
The bosses in my gam... Apr 6 2008, 08:24 AM tdog Another tip: make sure you at least drop a few hin... Apr 6 2008, 09:39 PM The Wanderer CCOA, maybe you could have people send you a boss ... Apr 6 2008, 11:20 PM athenastar17 You have no idea how much I needed this. I really... Apr 7 2008, 02:22 PM nekros22 Could you recommend a forum or a staff member that... Apr 7 2008, 05:52 PM Fearoftheunknown Still waiting for bosses...an excellent example th... Aug 26 2009, 04:19 PM HeroOfHyla This topic has been dead for more than a year. Ple... Aug 26 2009, 05:04 PM
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