Boss Battles are Broken

I’m hopping off of strategy gaming for one more article in order to talk about a problem that’s prevalent in RPGs, my other favorite genre. Namely: bosses.

Okay, so maybe saying all boss battles are “broken” is a bit of a stretch. But for the most part you could say they’re… misused. This really shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as the model for boss fights that you find in most RPGs has evolved little since its crude introduction in the 1980s. At the end of every major level you’ll run into a monster just like all the others, except it has 5 times more health and does 5 times more damage with each attack. Maybe they have a special weakness, or a particularly devastating attack that you have to figure out. Yay! But once that’s done there’s no depth or strategy to be found under the surface.

More troubling still, even if the fights themselves were interesting, the fact that they exist at all hurts the overall experience of the game. Why? Well, let’s explore this topic in more detail.

Strategy… or Pattern-Matching?

One of the reasons why many fighting games and shooters are fun to play is because you never know exactly how your opponent will react. You’re familiar with what abilities or weapons are available, but that doesn’t mean your foe will attack the same way in every engagement. Sure, his character has a really devastating Strong Punch, but I know that, and he knows I know that – maybe he’ll try to get crafty and hit me with a Low Kick instead? This sort of strategic thinking, also known as “yomi” is the reason why these types of games can be infinitely enjoyable and replayable (a concept explored by David Sirlin in his excellent article).

Nearly every RPG boss fight completely lacks this strategic element. Instead, they ask the player to simply replay each battle several times, or patiently watch their enemy for as much time as necessary in order to identify its attack patterns and weaknesses. Once the formula is unraveled, the player knows exactly what to do and victory requires nothing more than spamming the ‘correct’ attack and keeping one’s health from dipping too low.

Now, achieving yomi with computer opponents isn’t really feasible. They are, after all, just lines of code being executed and not actual, strategizing humans with nuance and subtlety. But players can still be required to develop strategies and make trade-offs, even against AI enemies. How likely is it that the enemy uses Ability X versus Ability Y? How long until Ability Y can be used again? Am I willing to take some risks and perform an all-out attack this turn, or should I play more defensively? This sort of thinking requires players to actually know what an enemy is capable of, instead of make battles interesting by ‘surprising’ them. This is really no different from a single-player strategy game where the human must develop a plan for how to best proceed, identifying risks and opportunities, protecting weaknesses, and so on.

Another way bosses could be made more interesting is by imposing limits on them. Maybe they have a mana meter which can, you know, actually deplete instead of being effectively infinite. Players might know that a monster can shoot off a deadly ability one or two times per battle, but they don’t know when it’s coming. If one is too patient, the boss can whittle down the good guys with just basic attacks. Too aggressive and the enemy fires a blast that wipes the board. Varying AI personalities can give hints as to the likely outcome, but it’s still up to the player to develop a plan and weigh risk versus reward.

 
Bad Behavior

“I’m not going to spend my mana or potions because I know there’s a boss coming up.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s had this thought run through their mind. The last thing we designers should want is to actively discourage players from using the cool systems we create. Nearly every game benefits from providing long-term versus short-term trade-offs, but if players can set their watches by the frequency of boss fights then you’re not really offering players a choice – you’re just encouraging them to be conservative. Nearly every RPG I play I find myself with a full inventory at the end of the game. Is this really what the designers wanted? I obviously can’t say for sure, but I doubt that it is. It certainly wouldn’t be one of my goals.

This is a problem that owes more to the predictability of boss fights than their mere existence. If players know that every level has a midboss and an endboss, and that they’ll be roughly X% stronger than the last one they faced… they will be planning around that. Some people will still naturally hoard items and mana when they don’t know what’s coming, but this is as an issue that can be addressed in a number of ways. On the other hand, always planting bosses in the exact same place guarantees this kind of behavior.

 
Discovery

The last problem I’ll talk about is less discrete. Games are meant to be unique experiences, ways to escape the monotony of everyday life. Players like to explore and make cool discoveries along the way. Regular and predictable boss battles tend to provide the opposite.

You don’t want your game to become rote. Players are much less engaged and excited when they always know what’s around the next corner. The best stories are always those with unexpected twists and turns. Pacing in a game is no different.

There’s nothing wrong with sprinkling in some tougher fights to keep players paying attention and to raise the stakes. One of the best features of open-world RPGs is that you never know when you’re going to run into something really nasty while you’re just wandering around. This approah could easily be adopted by more linear games. What if some levels thrust the player into a boss battle only a minute in? What if some areas had no boss at all? This would keep players on their toes, constantly wondering what’s around the next corner. As designers, our goal should be to prevent game experiences from turning into yet another exercise of ‘going through the motions’. Adaptation and discovery are key – not just with boss fights but also every other aspect of a game.

- Jon

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26 Comments

  1. I always felt as though the boss battle (at least from an 80s RPG perspective) evolved from a level gate. It allowed developers to make some assumptions about a player’s power level for each new area. If you weren’t leveled high enough or you didn’t have the right equipment, you didn’t pass that boss.

    But you’re right in that we’ve outgrown the old “hit the boss in the glowing spot three times” template. It should be possible to make a boss memorable without dropping it in an elaborate set piece arena and making it take six minutes or sixty attempts to kill.

    Reply
  2. One problem with boss fights is throwing the whole balance out the window. To make the boss seem more impressive, the designer typically makes this encounter much more difficult than the ‘normal’ encounters. This frequently means the prior battles were too easy or the boss fight is devilishly hard. I think a good goal for game designers isn’t to take a brute force approach for a boss fight, but to make the player use their skills in a more clever manner. Perhaps the boss is so quick they are very difficult to hit. Maybe if the player knocks down the decaying pillar it will force the fight to a corner of the room where they boss can’t be as mobile. Maybe the player needs to make better use of complementary skills of his party members. Of course boss fights can be more challenging, otherwise they wouldn’t be bosses, but it would be nice for them to be challenging in interesting ways, not just beefed up stats.

    I’ve already commented in another of your articles about hoarding, so you know we are on the same page. :-)

    As a kind of side rant -> In general I prefer RPGs with tactical battles as opposed to action battles. The battles in Skyrim, Two Worlds, Risen, etc just get monotonous to me. The only game to get it totally right for me is Dark Souls. I wish more action RPGs would spend the time to polish their combat to keep it interesting through the majority of the game.

    Reply
  3. moosemaimer

     /  May 7, 2012

    I hated WoW’s “elite” mobs for exactly this kind of thing. They were, for the most part, regular monsters with X times the HP that did X times more damage, just so you would need X times the people to fight them. I got so tired of just standing there, ssslllooowwwlllyyy watching its HP drain away 0.1% at a time, that I’ve pretty much sworn off MMOs completely because they all seem to be trying to do exactly the same thing but calling it by a different name.

    Reply
  4. One thing that’s particularly annoying about boss fights in RPG’s is the ubiquitous “you’re an idiot” cinematic that often precedes them. Here you and your team have been moving carefully through the area with weapons drawn, peeking around doorways and listening for approaching enemies, when suddenly the game shifts to a cutscene with you and your group, weapons holstered, waltzing into a room like you’re entering Appleby’s, direclty into a trap. Wen the scene exits and the fight begins, you are often in a ridiculous posture and location that, given a choice, the player would simply not do.

    Reply
  5. Alan Au

     /  May 7, 2012

    On the one hand, you’re absolutely correct that boss fights have become a bit of a formulaic cliché. On the other hand, there are games with awesome boss fights. Shadow of the Colossus is nothing but boss fights. Jedi Knight is expressly about seeking out and confronting the bosses. A compelling narrative goes a long way towards justifying boss fights, even if it doesn’t fix the underlying game mechanics.

    Speaking of game mechanics, my biggest complaint with boss fights isn’t the difficulty, but instead that they often require techniques that aren’t used or practiced during regular play. Their appearance as forced encounters doesn’t help matters, particularly in games where the character is otherwise given an option to minimize combat. This leads to a disjoint play experience, where bosses encounters may as well be handled via cutscenes instead of contrived puzzle battles.

    Well, except for Portal; the GLaDOS puzzle battle is awesome.

    Reply
  6. The worst part about boss fights for me in RPGs is that they are inherently more “gamey” than the rest of the game. If you’re playing an RPG for its deep story or interesting world, which I tend to do, boss battles jump in your face and scream “THIS IS A GAME, DID YOU KNOW THAT? DIDJA?”

    Take two of the most egregious examples of recent years — Alpha Protocol and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both of the games had a very heavy stealth/story element that was very well done, but essentially made the boss battles things you could only get past if you had combat specialties. Alpha Protocol at least gave you some options to make the boss battles easier based on some of your choices earlier in the game, but it also had a final section of the game that was essentially something like 5 boss battles in a row, which was just tiresome as all get out. Deus Ex had fewer such battles, but they were an even bigger departure from the way the game was played most of the time.

    In both these games, the question I had was “why?” Both games were supposed to be more focused on more complex issues, and raised some serious questions about WHY your character was doing what he was doing, and what his actions meant in the grand scheme of things. The end of the missions didn’t need to be a fight — it could have been a difficult moral choice instead, something that reinforced the games’ themes instead of just acting as a level barrier. In fact, the end of the first “real” mission DX:HR ended with something like that, and AP had some missions that were just talking — why not expand on that with the rest of the game?

    It’s especially bad with games that are supposed to be taking place in a more-or-less “realistic” world like Alpha Protocol, where a guy can suddenly take ten shots to the head for no apparent reason.

    I’d rather see “bosses” be difficult to go after because of the consequences you face from taking them out rather than making them absurdly more difficult to kill. Maybe you could take out this guy, but if he died someone who is much worse would take over. Or hostages would be killed. Or you’d have a much harder time exfiltrating.

    Reply
  7. Ben Hayes

     /  May 7, 2012

    This is an excellent article and I couldn’t agree more – I just finished Two Worlds 2 last night and it was a pathetic finish to the game.

    I think the best boss fights I experienced were Street Fighter 2 – those four bosses you realise once you’ve played the crap outta the game (and especially when you got to use them in Champion Edition and later) aren’t actually any better than the dudes you can play. ut each had their own unique styles that made them a blast to figure out.

    The time I’m most likely to quit a game these days is on one of the horribly long, repetitive boss fights, where I tend to die over and over again not through a lack of skill, but through inattention due to shear boredom. Prototype was one of the worst for that – I really enjoyed the general gameplay, but the boss fights were terrible.

    Reply
  8. Jon, what are your top 5 RPGs you would recommend for playing today (and if you have the time, why)? Lately it has been those with an interesting story for me (The Witcher 2, The first Dragon Age). I am having a hard time finding games that get the tactical combat right.

    Reply
  9. I totally disagree. Yes, boss fights can be lazy and formulaic, especially in role playing games, but I would say that’s a fault of effort and the genre rather than the fact that they are boss fights.

    I best saw that a boss fight should be handled not as a reskin of your enemies, but as a pop-quiz for that mechanic you’ve been taught. For instance, you master two portals and then must use these creatively against Glados. If the boss fight to that were only a bigger turret or simply more, that would under into the flaws you describe.

    A boss fight, I feel, will not improve based on its placement (put it earlier, don’t have one in every area) or by randomizing its attack patterns, but by fixing the rest of the game. If, like in Final Fantasy, you wade through Zero Threat encounters until you trigger the end-of-path cinematic and fight a PURPLE imp with a BIGGER knife, then your boss fight will be flawed no matter how much attention it is given. If however, your encounters are all sound and engaging, despite how resources are used/spammed/hoarded/overstocked, the boss fight will not be the rare moment you have to unstick the attack button to better follow a strategy, it will be a more fulfilling addition to an already great game.

    The original Kingdom Hearts is a good example of difficult enemies with challenging, engaging boss fights with sound mechanics. If you’ve played it, you know how hard Hollow Bastion was on first visit – and its much harder first boss.

    Reply
    • You don’t seem to disagree so much with Jon since his complaints are specifically directed against lazily designed one-trick bosses with tons of hit points. Making other fights more interesting than punching helpless three-legged puppies is certainly also desirable, though.

      Reply
    • I would agree that the best boss fights should be a “a pop-quiz for that mechanic you’ve been taught”.
      Unfortunately RPGs tend to progress by numbers not by teaching the player new gameplay mechanics. This problem is then compounded by the character choices that the player may have taken beforehand. In something like Deus Ex or Alpha Protocol you cannot guaranty what skills the player has been learning so it isn’t really possible to test them on it.

      Reply
  10. Carlos

     /  May 8, 2012

    I will not eliminate bosses, but make boss fights relevant to the character. Lots of RPG suffer from hard boss fights for non combat buildups. How about creating a smart guy with high intelligence and thanks to it he is able to identify a boss weak spot that a combat guy wouldn’t? Or even outsmart the boss with some cleaver conversation that only a persuasive character would have?

    There are even action games in which when the character gains knowledge about an enemy it inflicts more damage to him, there are a lot of things that could be implemented in RPGs to make combat more “stats” based rather than action based.

    Reply
    • Alan Au

       /  May 8, 2012

      I agree that it’s always nice to have non-combat alternatives, especially for games that allow for non-combat gameplay. Fallout is an excellent example of how to make good use of non-combat skills to simplify (or even bypass) difficult enemies.

      However, you bring up the topic of character ability vs. player ability, which is a separate (but worthwhile) discussion. It’s also one of the reasons why I find quick-time-events so irritating.

      Reply
  11. One of my biggest problems with boss fights is the loss of realism they often bring into a game. Obviously, with almost any game, you have to allow a certain amount of disbelief to immerse yourself in the game, but things still need to be realistic within that new context. For example, I can suspend belief to allow for a world where I can summon fire onto my fingertips to flick at the minions as I progress through a level, but that disbelief shouldn’t really stretch to my being able to unload a dozen shotgun shells into their bosses unprotected face and not have it fall down in a bloodied heap, unless there is a damn fine, and clear, explanation as to why this isn’t having my expected result.

    An increasingly common replacement I’ve noticed is minion spamming. In the kind of place where you would generally expect a boss fight in a game, you end up fighting wave after wave of the regular bad guys you’ve been fighting all along… Normally while you’re waiting for a painfully slow lift to come down to your floor. This was very noticeable in Bioshock 2 where, after the first received almost universal disdain for it’s final fight (mostly, I think, for “not fitting in” to the universe and feeling out of place), the final battle in the sequel was with a seemingly continuos onslaught of Splicers/Daddies/Sisters/etc. But it fitted. It worked. There was nothing unbelievable about it, in the context of the Universe created for the game. Although, irritatingly, you were waiting for a painfully slow Bathysphere, if I remember correctly…

    Reply
  12. Jacaranda

     /  May 8, 2012

    I really enjoyed DDO (Dungeons and Dragons Online) boss fights. The entire level is about hoarding, it’s a game of ‘how little can I get away with spending on this small encounter’. With sufficient resources (particularly as a healer) any fight is accomplishable, if you overspent earlier, you’re now going to see trouble. Unfortunately this doesn’t show up in every level, but in those levels where it is relevant the entire level is enriched by the boss fight at the end.
    I could have annhilated every room with powerful spells. But then the boss would find me drained and useless. On elite high level quests as a cleric, I might spend every fight dodging and running from the enemies to conserve spell points without ever throwing a spell back since that could be the difference between life and death later.

    That for me is the best model for a boss fight, one that is fun in and of itself, but also makes the rest of the game better.

    Reply
  13. I’m a firm believer in NOT scaling. It may make for some less challenging fights, but that’s as it should be. Nothing destroys immersion like that same lowly skeleton nailing you at level 20. If you have a high level character, you should be able to dispatch enemies one-on-one or one-on-few in many cases. I remember asking for this when I was working on the high level NWN expansion, and they put in a battle where your very high level character gets attacked by a hundred low level henchmen and gets to do a dance of death and wipe them out before the demon bosses step in. It was immensely satisfying. Anytime you can make the player feel like Uma Thurman at the end of that mass fight scene in Kill Bill, you are doing something right.

    One problem, IMO, is that players reach a point where they are familiar with the combat properties. Do you introduce a new one for a boss fight? Or, as is typical, do you just make the stats of the boss higher? Can this be masked skillfully enough by the designers that it doesn’t feel that way while the player is in the game fighting?

    One thing that really makes for a good boss fight is surprise and the demand to make skillful use of your entire party’s strengths. (SPOILER) An example is in Dragon Age, when Morrigan’s mother morphs into a Dragon. Success required good tactical usage of the entire party. A number of boss fights in that game were fun for the same reasons.

    Reply
  14. A great read! I have found myself playing less and less RPGs since my obsession with them during the Super Nintendo/Early PS1 days, and a lot of that is due to repetitive boss encounter design. I would definitely agree with Alan Au’s comment about disjointed play experiences as well. To take this conversation to another genre, this sort of thing can happen in fighting games as well. I have just played through Skullgirls, and I found the game to be an excellent mix of different fighting games (Guilty Gear style with Street Fighter speed with King of Fighters Team Edit), but it suffers greatly thanks to a rediculous final boss encounter.

    Bit of a spoiler, but when you get to the last boss, she has three forms. The first two are just a super powered character, which spams projectiles, but it is still a worthwhile encounter which tests the skills you have acquired through the game. The third form throws all this out the window, and changes the hit area to strike the boss to the small size of a floating skull. In doing so, the skills you have learned through the game (chain combos, canceling, etc) are useless, as now there is just a tiny, fast moving target to try and jump kick/punch all while it continues to spam projectiles.

    Skullgirls is not the only culprit of this (I’m looking at you Tekken 5 and Guilty Gear Isuka). Many other games use last boss encounters that don’t actually test your skills, but instead create an abstract, and often frustrating situation where you are forced to battle in a way that is not only alien to the player, but also unintuitive. A better option would be something like Gill from Street FIghter 3, who can potentially have a super move that completely refills his health. If you have become good at performing combos with your character of choice, Gill never has the chance to build up this super move. In this way, the player’s skill is put to the test in a somewhat novel way, without frustrating the player by placing them in a no-win situation.

    Reply
  15. Branden Bean

     /  May 8, 2012

    I think you bring up a lot of compelling points, and I’ve definitely enjoyed feasting upon your food for thought.

    I don’t think yomi has any place in the average boss fight because without the human element it essentially becomes randomness. A good fight against an AI should be designed so that if a player has an understanding of the mechanics and a competency with the skills needed, they will have a guaranteed win – there can be no chance of a loss; players need to win or lose based entirely on their own actions so that a loss. Now, that isn’t to say that the player can’t attempt to take risks to get to the goal quicker, but these risks should be optional and not required.

    I do agree that fights based on patterns are a bit on the lazy side. Rather than memorizing the specific order that enemies do things, it is much better if the player learns what the enemy is capable of doing and then learns the tells that allow them to foresee an attack that is important enough to need reacting to. The first boss in Final Fantasy 7, a robotic scorpion, is a good example of this. When its tail is up, it counterattacks, and the player needs to learn not to attack it while the tail is up to achieve victory. What the player does NOT need to do is predict WHEN the tail will be up, which would just be a guessing game.

    In regards to your connection between boss fights and items, I agree that the two have a bit of a relation, but I think there are more of a problem with the inventory system than the boss fights. I think we have to ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of having consumables like potions?” In most games that I have played, consumables are never required; rather, they are an optional edge that either makes fights end faster or lets you beat a fight that you haven’t developed the competency to beat through normal means. In short, they are a shortcut or a cheat. Perhaps if this is the case, these items are actually just diluting the game experience, are unnecessary, and should be removed? That said, certain combat mechanics necessitate the optional status of consumables. Primarily, if the player cannot escape from an encounter once it has begun, requiring them to have X of an item to succeed is just a nasty way of allowing the player to fail well before they will realize it.

    And I think you’re pretty spot-on with altering the frequency and locations of boss encounters, though I don’t think every game needs to change this.

    Reply
  16. Jon B.

     /  May 9, 2012

    Best example of great boss battles- Baldur’s Gate 2 and Throne of Bhaal- The boss fights are deeply tactical combat experiences using the D&D rules and spells, having to plan for stripping off layer upon layer of magical defenses so you could get to the soft chewy center.

    Reply
  17. Larry S.

     /  May 9, 2012

    My personal gripe has always been the multi-stage boss fights where the script goes like this: fight boss, cutscene, fight boss again (boss gets full health and new powers, I don’t even get to pop a healing item), repeat.
    I also hate the Shao Kahn type enemies in fighting games (unbreakable blocks, unblockable supers, mega attacks w/ no lead time, attacks that ignore counters, you know the drill…). Final bosses in fighters should force us to make the best possible use of the skills we have been playing, not make us go through the character roster to find someone with a useful attack or power.

    Reply
  18. Corrodias

     /  May 9, 2012

    You must really hate Mega Man.

    Please do not presume to speak for all players: that games are an escape from monotony, that we want designers to control and limit what they think is bad player behavior, that we hate all rote execution.

    Reply
    • TheFuzziestMoth

       /  May 9, 2012

      A chef may talk about McDonalds’ poor quality food, but he doesn’t claim no one eats it.

      Reply
  19. As someone who hates boss fights in almost all games, I think this post is pretty spot-on.

    In RPGs, one of the most frustrating things about bosses to me is how they trivialize and invalidate more interesting support abilities and character builds. Bosses in RPGs are often immune to crowd control abilities, debuffs, and other more nuanced character abilities to “ensure they’re a tough enough challenge,” which basically means that interesting character builds, party combinations, and skills all get sidelined in favor of either pattern matching or boring tank and spank.

    In most games, when a boss fight comes around it feels largely like a boring waste of my time before I can get back to what I want to be doing. I feel like the only reason anyone uses them anymore is because “it’s expected” and it’s what some players think a game is about. The idea of a game without bosses, or without an “endboss” being weird and foreign.

    I find bosses especially frustrating in games that otherwise offer a lot of non-combat choices and meaningful dialogue. My favorite game, Planescape: Torment does this the way I like, in that it lets you deal with the “end boss” about 5 different ways, and only 1 or 2 of them involve fighting him at all.

    But I feel like almost all games these days are not bold enough to give players that option. I guess an ending without a battle isn’t epic enough.

    I remember playing through Mass Effect, where one of the last bosses lets you basically convince him to kill himself… except right after that you have to fight a “zombie” version of him anyway. Gee, thanks for that awesome, impactful dialogue option, Bioware.

    Reply
  20. do you have any examples of boss fights done right you would like to share?

    I think the fights from the Souls series “Dark souls and Demon´s souls” were well done. Not a RPG but the game with probably the best boss fights I have played is probably Godhand

    Reply
  1. Boss Battles in Dust, Risk of Rain, and The Banner Saga – Edition 15 | Gameology

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