GameDev Thoughts: Designing Engaging Boss Fights In Action Games

Good bosses lead to good games. However, some may too easy to kill, others too challenging, and some are just plain horribly designed. Inevitably some bosses will be and just are better than others, but there are just a few components that separate the type of bosses that cause you to stay up all night, and the bosses that just make you flat out uninstall the game.

Firstly, good bosses make the game truly engaging. Sure you usually only encounter a boss right before you progress to the next level and right after you have done something remarkable, but bosses add another level to the game that makes it interesting. They push you to perform at your very best and they are a testament to all the skills you have learned up to that point. If you absolutely cannot defeat a boss perhaps it is a good idea to go back and polish off your skills. Did you miss an item or have not leveled up to gain a secret ability? Well-designed boss fights tease you — if you work at it a little bit more, maybe next time you’ll finally slay the giant dragon. Well-designed bosses drive the plot forward. Did you forget to talk to someone or something in the game that could show you an unknown path or give you gold to purchase gear at a nearby store? In the end, bosses are an amalgamation of the storyline. If you cannot beat a boss it’s probably because you are not at the skill level you need to be at to continue. Practice will not make perfect in this instance but if you can take down a boss you know you have done something right. And if you cannot, it is probably because you missed something along the way.

Because boss levels are an amalgamation of the storyline, they need to be challenging in a way that pushes the user to give their top performance, while not being so hard that a user feels as though they cannot win. Many bosses can be viewed as damage sponges that can take just as much damage as they can wield. These bosses can feel unrelenting and can make them seem impossible to beat, especially if a player has not leveled up enough, or has taken a relatively fast path through the game. In this case, make it so the user feels as though they can get through at least the majority of their health left before the boss finishes them off. This will make it seem like at least the boss is not too daunting, and teases the play a bit more.

Bosses should be intimidating. This is where your graphics come into play. Really hard to beat bosses are what nightmares are made of and that should read across the screen if it is a mega-boss. Bosses that seem scarier will wow your user and let them know that they will have to work extra hard if they would like to advance. Very intimidating bosses can be tall, full of muscles, covered in acid slime, you name it. This is where your imagination can come into play to truly create an ultra-villain that will be unlike something your player has never seen while keeping them entertained and engaged.

Your bosses can be used to throw off the player’s expectations as well. The longer a player can predict what will come next, the less likely they will feel engaged. The unexpected can come with risks, but it is almost always entertaining. Of course, you do not want to throw too many curve balls at the person playing the game as their needs to be some level of predictability. Play with the evolutions and the of your bosses. Have different bosses work on the different weaknesses of your character. That way, the player will never know what skill they will be working on next so they will be working on all of their core strengths instead of just a couple. Make bosses demand more skill out of the player, with attacks that keep the player on their toes.

Important Takeaways: A great boss fight can transform a mediocre game into a truly memorable one. Boss fights are meant to be fun, yet challenging. If you go too far in either direction, you either have bosses that are too easy to beat, making your game way too boring, or you have a boss that feels too hard to beat, making the game seem like a drag. Boss encounters should be rooted in making the player feel more engaged, experiencing a change of pace, and helping them be more drawn into the game. Remember to make the fights feel as imposing as possible while keeping balance tight. Take heavy note of player skill level as well — balance the game using your intended core target demographic. If your game errs on the hardcore side, be sure to scale the bosses up accordingly.