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Let the Abstract atract you

Designing boss fights

Boss fights are an iconic part of video games known for being many things spectacle, story, challenge and excitement.

The common elements of a boss fight can and have been broadly categorized into 5 distinct parts:

Rewards

Surprise/Novelty

Narrative

Challenge

And an impression of power

But also many good games give the player choices about what to do with a boss fight

Rewards

Some boss fights will give them at the start, the end or in the middle of the fight. Some have many and others may only have one. These can be anything from an entertaining cutscene at the start or end of the boss fight or a new ability unlocked at the end of it but the important thing is that the player is rewarded for progressing as far as they have.

Surprise/Novelty

Boss fights are almost always some sort of exception to a rule in the game to make them memorable to the player. There are many ways this can be done some boss fights require using a certain mechanic or multiple mechanics in conjunction altho the latter is often reserved for final boss fights. Another common method is the boss only being vulnerable to damage at certain weak-points on its body, these can also be only exposed when the boss attacks the player and sometimes it is take even furthur with a boss being far away from the player and their attack allowing the player to get close enough to the boss to attack. Some boss fights change the mechanics of the game often by giving the player some sort of handicap like removing the use of certain attacks or abilities during the fight. Some boss fights will change as they go on mostly becoming more difficult but occasionally becoming easier at the end.

Narrative

Boss fights are a big focusing point for player attention so it should be no surprise that they are often integrated into the narrative but the ways in which it is can be numerous. Many bosses are just that the “boss” in charge of all the other enemies and so will often share design elements or common themes with normal enemies and often will also bring some of those enemies into the boss fight. Some bosses use parts of the environment in the fight, these come in several varieties: weapons that are used against the player or the boss, parts of the arena to increase the mobility of the boss or reduce the mobility of the player and some boss fights allow either the boss or the player to hide from the other. Many bosses are important characters in the games story and will do or say things during the fight or them being defeated will affect the narrative.

Challenge

Boss fights are often used as either a test or teaching tool for a players skills by requiring the use of certain ability to defeat them often with a complex utilisation of that ability if the boss is acting as a test and in the case of teaching skills boss fights are designed to show the player their ability in some way most often by using a similar ability themself. It is far from uncommon for final boss fights to be a variant of the test format accept instead of testing a single ability it requires most if not all abilities of the player to be used together as an encapsulation of the game and a highlight reel of best moments at the very end.

An impression of power

Most if not all boss fights make the boss imposing to the player in someway, common methods of doing this include: making the boss significantly larger than the player to imply great physical power, making the boss similar to the player in stature and design to suggest that their power is similar if not greater than the players or otherwise making it seem as tho the boss is very likely a credible threat to the player as opposed to normal enemies in the game. This is a very important part of a boss fight as it forces the player to focus their attention onto the boss and is why bosses tend to have a large role in the narrative because they have a big impact on players so it would feel odd if they didn’t have a similar impact on the narrative and because that part of the narrative is very unlikely to be ignored.

Player choice within a bossfight

This is not a requirement for a boss fight and in fact most do not allow for much player choice at all. Often the challenge or novelty of a boss fight can be somewhat prohibitive on player choice but there are some ways this can be worked around, players may be challenged on how to avoid the boss using a certain ability but given the choice of how to attack them or vise versa and some bosses are actually entirely optional if the player is skilled enough at the game to complete an alternative challenge like talking the boss into surender or collecting a certain number of items which may be hidden is such a way as to also test or teach the same abilities.

This is far from an exhaustive description of all possible boss fights but hopefully it is a digestible and useful one.

References:

For research I watch the following videos

https://youtu.be/48Ymh4Ge5j8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmwLPF11eos

https://youtu.be/6BL0O7CL0N4

https://youtu.be/5vZCZh5cb6s