How Boss Design Has Evolved
A discussion on two major boss design philosophies
Boss battles have come a very long way since the olden days, where you’d drop Bowser into a pit of lava in the original Super Mario Bros. As game design has evolved, and as action-based genres have proliferated, two clear schools of thought have emerged around boss design specifically. In this piece, I’m going to explore both.
Before diving in, though, I want to touch on an important topic that cascades through the entire discussion: patterns. When I talk about patterns in relation to enemies, I’m talking about what the enemy will do and when it will do it, in terms of attacking the player.
There are a ton of different things enemies might do, of course: ranging from simply walking toward the player, through to elaborate multi-hit combos and special attacks. What’s important to understand is that every attack pattern is built on a fixed design/framework created by the developers. As advanced as bosses have become, we’re yet to see artificial intelligence in games reach the point where bosses can create their own completely original attacks.
Now that I’ve provided some background on patterns, let’s take a look at the two major focus areas.
This first type of boss design refers to the idea that a boss is built around either one single pattern or a repeating set of patterns. This approach generally means that the boss in question has a specific, required way to beat them (unless we’re talking about speed running, which may provide some techniques to skip patterns or phases).
The challenge here is really in learning the pattern itself. Once you’ve mastered the pattern, the actual combat against the boss may become trivial.
While fixed patterns are easier to design around, they do limit the replayability of a title at best — and may feel more like forced padding at worst. If the player knows how to beat the fight, and fixed pattern bosses simply become a time-sink that prevents progression, it could lead to boredom with multiple playthroughs.
As a developer, if you want to liven things up, then you may want to consider a random pattern.
Like fixed patterns, random patterns still fundamentally involve a boss leveraging attacks from a pre-defined “pool” of available moves. The difference, though, is in the sequence — in this case, the boss can effectively choose which attacks to pull from the pool during a fight, without resorting to a completely pre-defined pattern.
So, rather than the boss performing attacks 1, 2, 3, and 4 in that order, they might do 3, 2, 4, 1 or 1, 2, 2, 3 and so on. Developers can influence the way that bosses choose the order of attacks based on almost any criteria they like. For example, conditions like health, proximity, and even response to specific player attacks might all play a role.
In this context, it’s still possible for the player to exploit a boss’s patterns, especially once each individual pattern has been learned. But because the player doesn’t necessarily know which attack the boss will initiate at which time, it forces them to be more reactive and responsive to changing circumstances than they would be in a fixed pattern fight.
I think the best examples of random patterns involve the Soulsborne games. In these cases, From Software created multiple “attack pools” for enemies to use based on various conditions.
If the conditions are nuanced enough, then the developer can create the impression of emergent behaviour — that is to say, it may feel like the boss is quickly responding in real-time to your actions because they are able to rapidly select attacks from different pools based on the circumstances.
It’s worth noting that although I’ve used the term “random patterns”, I’m also describing some cases where the pattern isn’t actually random, strictly speaking (especially where specific conditions trigger specific attacks). But I think this term helps to differentiate this approach from the “fixed pattern” approach (if you prefer, though, you might want to use the term “variable patterns” instead).
When it comes to providing challenge to players, random patterns are usually superior — however, they require their own form of balancing in order to work effectively.
Balancing a boss
The unpredictable nature of a random pattern-based boss is that it can negatively impact balance. The difficulty of any random pattern boss comes down to the number of different types of attacks the player must take into account, as well as how frequently the enemy will use them.
The cool-down between attacks — and the ability to stun or knock the boss out of an animation — can help to re-balance the fight in the player’s favor. As a game designer, you’ll need to maintain a careful eye on how difficult and unpredictable these boss fights are (as always, this is where the benefits of player testing become even more pronounced).
While it’s great for a boss to keep the player guessing, there always needs to be something in the player’s arsenal to counter a boss’s behaviours. Games built on character customization have the added wrinkle that players might be able to leverage different (and viable) methods to defeat bosses based on various player builds.
The type of game you’re building — and the audience you’re designing for — determine the kind of bosses that will make the most sense for your game.
If your game is not combat or player skill-focused, fixed patterns might be fine. These patterns also give you some additional flexibility around making the fight more cinematic, because you are dealing with an entirely predictable set of boss animations/movements in a fixed sequence.
But if your combat system is detailed enough — and you want to give the player a bigger challenge — then random or variable patterns are likely the best fit.
At this point I should note that one area I didn’t specifically cover is around designing enemy behaviour in strategy and turn-based games (strictly speaking, enemies and bosses in these games also fit into a random/variable pattern of some kind). But there are added complexities and design philosophies involved in those genres, so they definitely warrant their own special focus.
In conclusion, I want to leave you with a question: can you think of a great boss design that was either random or fixed (not counting those from the Soulsborne games)?