Monday, February 22, 2010

Killing Your Boss Requires Careful Thought

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.


E.C.Patterson said...

Welcome back Frank!

Good post! You pick up right where you left off!

How about letting us know what you've been up to and what we can expect from you in the near future? Are you back modding? On what?

Frank Perez said...

Hey E.C.,

Glad you like my latest post. I've mostly been working these past several months, although I do manage to sneak in a few hours of gaming once in a while. Lately, I've been revising the story of my Faithless module, although I haven't done anything new with the toolset lately. There's a strong possibility that my job will be over in about 4 months' time, which will allow me to get back into the modding groove full blast. (Right from the onset when I accepted my current job, I already knew that I would probably be on it only up to June of this year, so everything is moving according to plan so far.)

Wyrin said...

welcome back!

does the title of the post allude to how the works been going then??

glad to hear you've plans to return to the scene

Frank Perez said...

Heh-heh. I certainly hope that the title of my post has no allusion to my job, especially as I'm the head honcho in my agency. I wouldn't want the people working with me to get any ideas of that sort. ;)

Jclef said...

WELCOME BACK, Frank!! This is awesome news! :D

Frank Perez said...

Thanks, Jclef. :)

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

Hi Frank,

Good to see you back. :)

And back with an interesting post touching upon something I was recently thinking about myself: bosses!

I like the way you list the different approaches. Having played other games, I also tried to consider how to include some of the different "boss types" into a NWN module. It seemed to me that one or two approaches either could not easily be incorporated, or be incorporated at all.

Having a unique boss is definitely something that makes the ending interesting.


Frank Perez said...

Hi Lance,

You're right about some of the boss types not being easy to implement in NWN2, but I believe that the seemingly impossible ones can be pulled off with a modicum of scripting and/or 3D modeling. I tinkered with the toolset shortly after posting this writeup, and I find that I am still amazed with the creative possibilities of the NWN2 engine. Having read a number of your own blog posts, I know that you've also stretched some of the limits of the game.

Happy modding.

BreakinBri said...

Welcome back Frank!

Like everyone else here, I am happy to see you once again posting to your blog. You have been a major help when it comes to your 3d modeling tutorials.

Bosses have long since been a staple in the Dungeons & Dragons game especially in Neverwinter Nights. Although I'm fairly certain the Electron engine is capable of supporting some if not all of these boss types, the real equalizer is ultimately decided in a 3d package.

BTW - I'm glad that you are still working on the Faithless module and look forward to any updates you post here.

Lance Botelle (Bard of Althéa) said...

"Stretching the limits" is certainly something I appear to be doing from a gameplay perspective. ;) It seems I cannot help myself. I have anidea and think "oh that would be fun" and then spend quite some time trying to include it. It's only after I have spent a lot of time working on it I realise how long it takes. ;) I am really trying hard not to have too many more "ideas" now just so I can finish the mod. ;)

I will, of course, be interested in checking out some of your own "boss scripting" if you do manage to pull some of them off. :)


Frank Perez said...


I'm glad for the vote of confidence. It's gratifying to know that there are still players who look forward to NWN2 mods. :)


I hear ya. It's the story of my modding life as well. :p As for the bosses, I probably won't implement the ones with Achilles heels (or whatever body parts are especially tender). I doubt if I'll make any multi-part bosses either... not for Faithless anyway. All other boss types will most likely appear in Faithless. (Yes, even the unbeatable ones.)

Anonymous said...

WB Elysius!

Incidentally, Mount and Blade: Warband looks awesome.

nicethugbert said...

Oh, yeah, that's my anonymous post up there.

nicethugbert said...

I would not be disappointed in encountering a large number of unbeatable bosses during an adventure if there were a smart autosave done first, between buffing and being perceived by the boss, and if I learn something from the defeat.

Mintghost said...

this is a really nice little blog! really love reading what you have to say :D