In computer games, nothing gets a player’s adrenalin pumping more than a great boss fight. If a battle can be likened to a multi-course meal, the boss is the pièce de résistance, the culminating moment to which all other minor encounters lead. There is more to designing a memorable boss encounter than giving the boss far more hit points and damage than most other enemies. The encounter should be difficult enough to force players to re-evaluate their strategy and think on what course of action to employ.
Below is a list of ways to add spice to your boss fights. Many of the suggestions listed below can be combined with others to create challenging battles.
Resistance to Damage Type. The boss may be resistant or invulnerable to specific types of damage. The challenge for the player is to discover what damage type hurts the boss the most and to apply it to the boss without getting killed first. For example, as anybody who has seen The Wolfman movie knows, werewolves can shrug off damage from all but silver weapons, fire, and the fangs and claws of another werewolf. Not many players may know the vulnerabilities of a new boss of your creation, however, so it may help if you can provide your players clues on how best to dispatch it.
Sweet Spots. A boss may be invulnerable or highly resistant to damage in all but certain parts of its body. In the Wii game House of the Dead: Overkill, for instance, all the bosses can only be hurt by targeting specific body parts that are marked during gameplay.
Attack Patterns. A boss may follow certain attack patterns that the player must discern if they are to prevail. The player character must generally evade when the boss is about to attack and strike when the boss is vulnerable (say, right after the boss attacks). Charged attacks, for instance, are more lethal than ordinary attacks but take some time to gain maximum power. Hence, the boss’s powering-up animation can serve as a signal for the player to get their character out of the line of fire. In the Wii game No More Heroes, nearly all the bosses are designed with their own set of powered attack patterns.
Conditional Buffing or Weakening. Some bosses have damage protection and/or enhanced attacks for as long as some condition exists. In Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide, for example, Heurodis is initially invulnerable to damage because of the mythallar protecting her. The only way to kill Heurodis is to nullify her invulnerability by destroying all the mythallar pieces. Alternatively, a boss may be naturally strong and/or damage-resistant until a particular condition is put into place. For example, Superman has incredible strength and can ignore most attacks thrown at him unless he is exposed to kryptonite.
Font of Healing. A boss may have access to something that can heal it. This source of healing may have limited or unlimited healing charges, and it may be so powerful that the boss cannot be killed for as long as the healing source is accessible. For example, in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Darth Malak can instantly bring his hit points full up by draining the life force from any of the unconscious Jedi in the room. Players can either keep fighting until Malak runs out of Jedis to drain, or they can destroy the Jedis before Malak gets to them – assuming that Malak doesn’t finish off the player character first.
A Few Good Minions. A boss need not fight player characters all by its lonesome. The boss may have a few good minions by its side to harass the hapless heroes. One or more of these minions may even be strong enough to count as a boss. Such is the case in the final major encounter in Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, in which the heroes battle the Herald of Zehir, who leads a number of minor minions as well as the Hierophant N’Safa, who is a boss in his own right. Because minions have fewer hit points than the boss, it is usually best for the player to dispose of them first to reduce the number of attackers wailing on the party.
Minion Spawner. Some bosses can spawn or summon one or more minions during the encounter. (The salient difference between a minion spawner and a boss with a few good minions is that the latter has a fixed number of subordinates that are already present at the start of the encounter.) If the player focuses on attacking the boss, its minions will damage the player character unabated. The player will often have to dispatch the boss’s minions before focusing their efforts on the boss, which may spawn additional minions in the course of the battle. There may or may not be a limit on the number of minions that the boss can summon. In Dragon Age: Origins, the broodmother spawns a few tough minions every so often to harass the player characters, thus making this boss difficult to dispatch.
Transformer. Some bosses transform into different versions of themselves. Perhaps the boss transforms into progressively more lethal versions as the battle rages. Or maybe the boss randomly transforms every so often into another form with new invulnerabilities and powers. Whichever the case, each transformation may require the player to adopt different strategies to damage the boss effectively.
Multi-Part Boss. Some bosses are composed of two or more parts, each of which has its own set of hit points. The hero may have to destroy all these parts to kill the boss. Alternatively, killing one particular part of the monster (such as its torso) may kill the rest of the parts (e.g., its many heads), but that one part happens to be much tougher than the rest. To use a previously mentioned example, the broodmother in Dragon Age: Origins has tentacles, each of which has its own set of hit points. Players must choose whether to focus their attacks on the core of the broodmother itself or destroy its tentacles first.
Unbeatable Foe. Some bosses may be impossible to beat, at least in the earlier stages of the game. The best recourse in this case is for the player character to run to safety before the boss gets them. For example, when the player character first encounters Alma in F.E.A.R., he has two choices: run or die. If most players are like me, they initially attempt to fight Alma until they realize that not running away leads to a quick demise. You should probably have no more than one or two unbeatable bosses in your game if you are to keep your players’ frustration to a manageable level.