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Anatomy of a Boss Fight

Prophet's Mapping Tutorials


The pinnacle of every epic showdown in video game history has best been illustrated in what is known traditionally as the "Boss Fight". At the end of every side-scrolling platformer worth its salt or at the center of every hidden temple found in the countless adventure games we've all played and loved... there is a creature waiting for the player that is bigger and meaner than all the bad guys that came before him. With the advent of shooters, these sequence guardians are often typified as powerful antagonists that carry a dominating presence in the locations you fight them in. From Doom's Cyberdemon in the Tower of Babel to the big pissed off alien at the end of every episodic section of Duke Nukem 3D to all the trend setting shooters past and present... there have always been the "big boys".

The Boss Fight concept has many advantages in a shooter. They mark the end of a "chapter" or a segment of the game. They test all the skills the player has been building from the previous levels. They fulfill important plot obligations by satisfying story related loose-ends. And above all else, players expect to fight some giant bastard at some point.

And by including them in your game you have an obligation to the player to give them something memorable, as well as efficiently challenging. In constructing your levels, you may want to add such encounters to your map(s). If you choose to do so then you have to take certain things into account. First and foremost, you have to understand that Boss Fights, in essence, do not function like normal combat sequences. If you're gonna do them then go ahead! Just make sure you do them in a way that's memorable and ultimately challenging. Here are five rules to live by if you plan to add a big fight:

Presentation is Everything!

There's nothing epic about opening a door and seeing a giant monster standing there waiting to attack. You gotta build the moment, really leave an impression. The best thing you can do is make a person who is sitting in their quiet computer room look at their monitor and say "Holy Shit!". The Boss itself is only the 2nd part of a good showdown; the closer, the sealer of the deal. Sometimes simply an opening can leave a lasting impression when the fight itself does not. In a lot of ways, relying on a good presentation will take care of the player's craving when you don't have the resources to truly provide an engaging fight. This is helpful for newer designers who do not have access to modelers, animators, or even decent coders; having no choice but to utilize stock bestiaries from the mother game with minor alterations, if any. A good presentation can occur a number of ways. It could be a narrative build-up that spans several maps. This could even be as simple as a brief atmospheric walk down a corridor with foreshadowing sightings through a window or eerie groans echoing from the distance. It can be as engrossing as teasing the player with the prospect of a big fight throughout the map or game, making them think it can hit at any time. In more innovative ways you can defy conventional methods altogether and throw a sudden surprise on the player from left field... like say having a seemingly mundane wall collapse with a giant, screaming monster on the other side.

Here is an example of an effective Boss Fight presentation:

The Queen Fight at the end of Unreal. This was great primarily for the reason that the player had no possible idea what to expect. After beating the Warlord, the assumed central antagonist, the player is left in uncharted territory, unsure where the next map is taking them. The Source, the final map, pits the player in alien territory different than anything else they've seen thus far in the game, effectively unnerving any player who has gotten to this point. The music itself is truly alien and foreboding, giving the player a real sense of dread. When a healthy supply of the game's inventory is strewn about in a suggestive manner, the realization that something climactic is about to go down becomes very apparent. Even though they are armed to the teeth, the player is pumped. They have no clue what the hell lies ahead and when that giant, circular door (littered on the brink with pupae) opens in an eerie spiral effect... granting entry into the unknown... the player knows that they are in for something bad. Hesitantly, they step into a large room and notice that it’s empty. Cautiously, they approach the central structure when out of nowhere the Queen comes flying out of the floor with a ferocious scream. The violence of the final conflict music kicks in the showdown begins. It doesn't matter that the fight uses innovative gameplay and strategy new to the player for the last battle; they are already hooked by the tense atmosphere that reeled them in.

Make the Boss Dangerous

You want the enemy to stand out against the barrage of enemies the player has been fighting so far. Your boss has to have attributes that really make the player take the situation seriously. This is especially difficulty in Unreal SP since it is very hard to get new pawns into the mix, so most mappers rely on the old stock of villains. The Queen, the Titan, the Warlord, the standard resized or reskinned varieties as well... it's rough! In this day and age, Unreal SPers have been playing packs for years and have seen every old enemy type in hundreds of different scenarios. Since it's rare for mappers and mod teams to utilize new enemies and effective ones at that, the best option is to use the familiars and try to use them in a new way. Making a new skin simply doesn't cut it; you have to use more than just the pawn to sell a memorable Boss Fight. The battle itself has to exist on factors that haven't existed in the normal context. And you have to do this without making the fight come off as cheap. A Queen isn't impressive anymore by name and appearance only. But under the right circumstances you can still take the player off guard by using her in an unconventional way. The most direct way is the layout of the combat arena and how it changes the distance of the fight. She's usually in a big circle, so don't use a circle. She usually has her scream attacks tied to either an earthquake or a pupae spawning point. Don't tie it to that, maybe make her screams trigger a change in the environment or trigger hazardous events that could be described as another attack. Her teleport spots are usually plotted around the edges of the map so she can fade out and eventually back in combat. Don't do that, instead try something different like putting them all on top of tall pedestals where she can jump or snipe downward and the player can try to time it right and trigger a button on whichever one she appears on in an attempt to cause her massive damage. You have to keep it fresh! Don't do something that's been done, that's not dangerous... that's convention, and it's been beaten before! Setting up a boss fight is like setting up your level's gameplay; if it's familiar, it's not as challenging.

Here is a good example of a Dangerous Boss:

The Guardians of Vandora's Pass from Seven Bullets: Here we have a familiar enemy, the Stone Titan. We even have a familiar sight; He's sitting silently on a chair waiting to be reawakened for combat. But what's not familiar? Well for starters, you're in a sealed room with lots of Stone Titans sitting on Chairs, all facing the center. And you're in the center. That alone is cause for concern and certainly not normal. Also, as you know from the previous Boss Fight earlier in the map (Two Boss Fights in a single map and one after another, mind you... not a standard setup in and of itself) that in this particular mod, the previous single Stone Titan didn't even flinch when you shot at him. Instead, you had to set off a bunch of triggers to allow yourself to flee the battle arena and then lure him out to a weak bridge where he broke through the ground and into oblivion. You had to do that with the speed of your feet rather than the speed of your trigger finger. But now you have a bunch of these guys all looking at you in a locked circular room and you know damn well the potential danger level a SINGLE one of them possesses. And this time you have nowhere to run. And you know the drill from before, but with the rules changed for this surprise second fight, you have to re-evaluate the situation. So how does this fight go down? Well immediately as the fight starts, you have obtained a high powered weapon that overrides the switch hunting necessary to solve the cat-and-mouse chase from earlier. Titans are awakening one after the other in an attempt to squash you. One after the other. You run around the room like a freak, dodging rocks while firing bolts of high powered energy. Pretty soon you are hip to the routine; fire a dozen or so shots and engage the next Titan. You are doing good, but suddenly you realize that the pattern changes and the Titans start waking up two at a time! Double jeopardy! The fight from that point on is random... you never know when a second... or even maybe a third... will stand up for a single fight. A tense situation keeps getting tenser. Even with the super weapon, the odds are against the player with the unpredictability meter in the red. By giving the player a weapon to rely on, they have only half the problem solved. The player knows that a single attack from the Titan is all it takes as well, so the other challenge is testing the player's movement under a strained condition. A seemingly normal enemy from Unreal past has somehow become deadly again by a few new lines of code, a twist on quantity, and a layout that ensures danger.

An Exciting Entrance

This actually goes hand in hand with Presentation. Sometimes an awesome setup can be sabotaged by an enemy who is standing in plain sight waiting for the player to initiate the battle with a preemptive strike (See Unreal's first Warlord fight for an exact definition of this). You don't want to shatter a great buildup by clumsily letting the boss out of the cage before it’s ready to go. The idea of an enemy that's waiting for them is a lot more effective from the player's perspective than when they get the drop on the bad guy. This mistake can single handedly kill the momentum. Also, the entrance is the climax of the presentation; it's where the approach ends and the battle begins.

Here is an example of a good entrance:

The Shadow Demons in Xidia Gold: You step into an alarm blaring depot, expecting trouble from anywhere. The labyrinthine layout of crates and boxes carve the perimeter of the battle arena. You walk through, tense, and ready for anything. And then your senses erupt with a loud CRASH as the glass ceiling shatters inward and two Warlords fly down from the heavens, rockets blazing. This entrance is good because it maintains the hype of the Presentation and keeps the momentum pounding. The player is not given the chance to break the tension by finding the enemy first. Also, the entrance is heightened by the fact the ambush consists of TWO warlords instead of one, which also uses the idea of a dangerous boss to carry the atmosphere of the Boss Fight. By the time these guys break through the glass and the player sets their eyes on them for the first time, they are on red alert. Two Warlords!? TWO!? It’s quite likely that this moment will be the most nerve racking of the entire ordeal.

The Battle Arena Must Always Work for the Boss.

You always want the Boss, especially if it's a bigger villain, to be able to traverse the extent of the battle arena if they are to pursue the player. Adding temporary obstructions and cover spots for the player to run to are of course traditionally acceptable as long as the Boss cannot get stuck on them. You also DO NOT want the player to find themselves in a safe spot where they can hurt the Boss without giving the Boss a way to respond. For example, you don't want to add a small door frame to the side of an arena that the player can run into without fear of the Boss being able to follow them... and then use ricocheting attacks to cheaply finish the Boss off. It is interesting to use instances where the player can "run away" as the Boss searches for them, as long as the player cannot dominate the fight from these hiding spots. You can even use layouts that are not traditionally found for big fights. You can be chased by a hulking beast through the corridors of an office complex, which the Boss breaking the confines of the environment, heightening the tension. In the name of balance it is ideal to give the player an edge over a boss with a vastly overpowered bias in some regard, but you want to avoid using the layout to achieve this balance. The Boss should always be able to maintain the concept of "threat" and the player always needs to have practical means to dispatch their target. You maybe be inclined to use part of a layout as a way for the player to "cover" themselves in certain situations, however. But you have to make sure that this cover can constantly be compromised and that the player never has a permanent "safe zone" from which to pelt the enemy enough times to kill it. Basically, you need to keep a balanced system of non-hindrance in regards to both player and adversary. The player needs to be able to kill the boss fairly and the boss needs to be effectively challenging at the same time.

Here is a good example of this:

The Red Nemesis in Xidia Gold: You fall into a soil depository in the depths of Outpost Phoenix. Not long after, the Red Nemesis drops down with you and combat ensues. You are dealing with an enemy with predominantly lethal melee attacks in an arena that ensures close quarter combat will be a constant. Also, sufficient allowance for the player to move and dodge this enemy as well is provided, if limited. The player cannot count on architecture or layout, but rather their own ability to move and shoot. The sole success strategy of the fight rests on speed, for both player and antagonist. It forces the player to engage a fast and fierce adversary while at the same time providing plenty of means and opportunity to defeat this foe. The Red Nemesis, likewise, has only to attack the player in close quarter combat in an attempt to force the player into a wrong move that will get them within killing distance. Essentially, it's a chess match where both opponents are evenly matched. The hazard lines of the simple arena are quite clear; the outer walls. If one of them ventures too close it would mean an easy opening for lethal attacks. The player, in order to avoid death, must stay far enough away from the outer perimeter to dodge his enemy while at the same time trying to trick the Red Nemesis into a corner where his speed and agility is most impaired. It’s essentially a boxing match setup and it works for both the player and the Boss. The last phase of the fight comes into play when the player delivers enough damage to cause the Red Nemesis to rely on its projectile attacks. The player then has to reverse their own attack strategy to the change in AI, and keep far enough away from the Red Nemesis whilst shooting and dodging.

Epic Showdowns Need Epic Effects.

Use music. Throw in some atmospheric integrity. If your Boss has the ability to trigger events, make them trigger events. You don't just have to have a big guy who attacks the player. You're creating a moment, not a villain... the villain gets presented through your moment. The entire battle arena needs to share the seriousness of the fight. The more intense the situation is the more relief the player will feel when it's over, and that's exactly what you want. When that Boss creature stumbles to the ground and expels its last breath, you'll know you provided a good fight when the player stops for a breather. The only thing you want to watch is over-doing the events. It's also important to factor the post-battle into the mix. The last thing you want is for the player to kill the Boss and then die when the victory quake causes them to fall off an edge and into an abyss. If a dynamic series of events is triggered after a boss fight, it will only add to the importance. Players like to feel like they are accomplishing something, and Boss Fights are always a way to mark their significant progression through the game.

Here’s a good example of this:

The second Scarred One fight in Seven Bullets: An opening cinematic sets the stage. Terran Pirate reinforcements head up an elevator to stop you. But your would-be assassins are assassinated themselves when the Scarred One drops into the lift with them. Enter the player to the battle arena. Giant hydraulic columns rise to the high ceiling as heavy pistons slide up and down, clanging heavily in the chamber. A central beam of lethal energy feeds from the ceiling into the depths beneath the arena. Flashes of loud energy crack the air as beams spark out from the central column. And then the elevator arrives. Enter the Scarred One. The two of you duke it out among the calamity of the pistons and the thunderous encore of energized lightning. Then, as you deal enough damage... your enemy flees into another chamber as a protective shield separates the two of you. You exchange glances through the shield before he runs off into the darkness, ready to ambush you again in the future. The fight is epic not so much because of the actual fighting... which is pretty standard actually. It's epic because the atmosphere is ripe with ensuing effects. Movers loop in conjunction with jarring sound effects to create a full animated battle arena that looms above its combatants. The battle's end leads to the foreshadowing of the next encounter, which heightens the player's anticipation for the next map.


So basically if you can fulfill all five of those departments when making your Boss Fights are at least try to do most of them, you'll provide something memorable for the player. The main concept is challenge and the primal objective of any Single Player game is to make the player fail the challenge as long as the rules are balanced and fair with the overall intended emphasis to be on fun. Boss fights can easily be pointless and simple or frustrating and unfair. If you are going to use them, and all SPers expect at least one decent showdown, then make sure you use them properly. But Remember! Assume players have played other Unreal SP packs before and try not to do the exact same fight someone else did. Always attempt something fresh or with a new twist on conventional methods. And if you got an adept Modeler and Animator, you’re halfway there because your Boss will be new.