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Boss Fights – My Plea to Developers

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I really hate boss fights.

I understand why boss fights still exist in modern video games.  As the player, we usually want to defeat the big bad at the end of the game, to feel that satisfactory finality of the story.  The problem is that some games don’t seem to understand that a boss fight isn’t always necessary in order for a game to be “complete.”  The original Bioshock was a serious offender of this, throwing a boss in at the end that didn’t really fit into the world (and gameplay style) Irrational created.  It seemed they learned their lesson with Bioshock Infinite by intelligently choosing to not have such an encounter at the game’s climax, instead making something that fit in a bit more smoothly to the style of game it is.

I’m also not saying that trying to include a boss fight at all is pointless.  I’ve fought more than a few in my time that are great, because they are well-designed and interesting.  It just falls to developers to know the difference between a game that could benefit from a few (well-designed or not at all) bosses and one that should stay far away from anything resembling a boss.

RPGs, at least those of the turn-based variety, often do bosses well.  In fact, boss fights in this type of game are usually some of the most fun encounters of the game, requiring all of a player’s skills and abilities to come out the other side alive.  Of course, there are super difficult or frustrating boss fights here too, but it seems that this genre’s track record is a lot better at this kind of thing.  A lot of these more intense fights are at least usually found on the periphery of the story, completely optional.  MMORPG’s also do boss fights fairly well, particularly the raid bosses.  Working with a bunch of other players and learning the fight’s mechanics is often quite fun (at least the first fifty or so times you fight them).

Character action games, such as God of War, are usually hit-or-miss with their bosses.  Depending on the design of the encounter, these fights can be at least tolerable.  Hell, a few here and there could be considered engaging and fun.  A good recent example of mixed boss fights is in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.  Some of the bosses, such as Sundowner, require good use of the Blade Mode mechanics in order to succeed.  Others, such as the final boss, require more deft timing and a bit of patience, which can be a little frustrating depending on your engagement level with the game at that moment.

Easily the most offensive are those bosses from shooters.  The idea of an enemy who can literally take hundreds of bullets before biting the dust just doesn’t make sense (I know the player character is the same way – shut up) and is painstakingly tedious at times.  I can’t think of a shooter that had truly fun boss fights, not even the Borderlands games.  Those bosses often devolved into standing still and shooting until the other guy fell over.  The sequel made things a bit more interesting on the player’s end but still mostly required avoiding the simple attacks and holding down the right trigger until the boss is dead.

Many of you probably have experienced a bad boss fight or two (or hundred) in your gaming careers and know the frustration and disgust that can result from one.  Here are some of the worst trends in bad boss design, at least in my opinion; a checklist of sorts for developers to ensure they don’t design a horrible encounter.

Most boss fights fall into one of two categories: those that are so simple that they bore you to tears while you slash or shoot your way to victory and those that are punishingly difficult, requiring perfection and a bit of luck to pull off.  Very rarely will a fight actually be perfectly balanced in the middle.  Obviously, both of these options make for a lousy time.  You can argue that some people like to get beat down and have to claw their way to victory.  I won’t deny the feeling of overcoming an encounter like this is particularly rewarding.  However, I would easily trade the frustration of a poorly tuned encounter for one that managed to challenge me in a better way than making the boss hit really hard or need to be attacked in a super-specific way.  I know developers can be more creative if they try.

Patterns are another key aspect of most boss fights.  How many bosses have you fought that require three repeats of a pattern to defeat them?  I can’t even imagine.  Not only is this extremely lazy game design, it just doesn’t make sense on an immersive level.  Why do these enemies not change up their patterns?  Why do they have glowing weak spots that they constantly wave about within reach?  I find it very hard to believe the villains of all video games are so stupid that they can’t adapt to a situation and mix things up.  This isn’t even that hard of a thing to fix (or so I think, as someone who doesn’t make games); just make each step of a fight a bit different.  Don’t just add a few new boss abilities.  Actually change the mechanics a bit if you can; the more the better.  It makes a huge difference.

QTEs, or quick time events, have been included in boss fights in increasing quantities since God of War made them so popular.  These usually pop up at the end of an encounter, giving the player a flashy finish to the fight.  The issues arise when failure of that QTE means that the boss heals a bit and you have to fight even longer for a victory.  Even worse are those games that actually have the balls to kill you if you fail a QTE.  This means you get the privilege of doing a whole part of the fight over – or possibly the entire thing.  This is absolutely horrible design, especially if your boss fight is appropriately epic and lengthy.  I don’t know many people who don’t grunt in disapproval (or throw an controller, if so inclined) at moments like these.

Probably the worst offender are boss fights in games that have no legitimate reason to include them in the first place.  Most shooters fall into this category, as it is quite difficult to make a boss fight interesting when all you can do is shoot at it incessantly.  The problem with these bosses is that the game in question just doesn’t support such an encounter, due to its mechanics or controls.  This usually means a frustrated player having to work out the right way to take out the boss with mechanics they never expected to use in such a way.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an interesting example of this; players who didn’t focus on combat, by building their characters in stealthy ways, suddenly find themselves forced into a lengthy spat of combat.  There is no way to avoid it; you must fight these enemies and beat them to advance.  Many of these stealthy players were probably surprised to be forced into such an encounter, in a game that otherwise allows you avoid combat entirely.  These are some of the most frustrating examples of terrible boss fights, because it makes it extremely difficult for the player to even fight back.

I’m slowly beginning to reach the point where I don’t want to see boss fights in any video games – aside from those in RPGs (mostly because these feel so crucial to what an RPG is).  I groan every time I see them pop up in another genre, preparing myself for something that could potentially enrage me.  I just finished Dead Space 3 and all the “boss” encounters were either frustrating or boring.  It’s trends like these that make me wish bosses were never invented in the first place.


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