Our Approach to Crafting an RPG Boss Fight

our approach for how to make an RPG boss battle in Boss Saga - Mist Lion Haku Omac

If making enjoyable boss fights were easy, nobody would ever complain about boring or badly designed boss fights in video games. There are infinite ways for things to go wrong and a finite number of ways for things to go right. In Boss Saga, the entire game is boss fights, except you play as the boss to defeat the heroes. So, you could accurately say we have our work cut out for us. But we’re doing the best we can, and today I’m going to talk about my general approach for crafting all the RPG boss fights in our game.

The Basics of Battle in Boss Saga

First of all, I should clarify a couple aspects of our battle system in Boss Saga. One is that there is no “gear” to manage. After all, bosses don’t “equip” stuff. They just exist “premade,” already at their full and awesome battle capacity. So their parameters are set at the outset of a battle and do not change, unless your boss has abilities that can buff stats or alter elemental weaknesses/strengths etc.

Secondly, although the heroes in Boss Saga spend MP to use special attacks, the bosses do not. Instead, all of a boss’s moves operate on “cooldowns.” So if a move has a cooldown of “#/1,” you can use that move every turn. If it has a cooldown of “#/3,” that move becomes available to use in three turns, etc.

I chose this cooldown approach over MP usage for several reasons. The first is that it would be incredibly lame and not fun to lose battles just because your boss ran out of MP. Another reason is that, if you could spend MP to use a super move right at the start of the fight, you would probably just spam it until all the heroes are dead. That would be too mindless and simple. And a third reason is simply that choosing your attack commands based on current cooldowns adds an extra element of strategy. It encourages you to think ahead and select moves methodically.

Boss Saga Lionhearted Haku Omac Mist Lion boss battle Mist Form transformation
This is the Mist Lion boss in his “transformed” state. It would be a bad idea to attack him now.

Boss Fights Need to Be Novel

In a game that’s all boss fights, maintaining a sense of novelty from one fight to the next is absolutely crucial. On one hand, yes, that obviously means Boss Saga needs to have lots of different bosses to control and lots of heroes to pulverize. But honestly, I don’t even think that’s enough. I think if every fight in our game boils down to “buff/debuff if necessary, figure out the hero weakness, exploit it, win,” then that would become repetitive as well, even if you are doing it with different characters.

So, the major thing I am trying to do for several — but not allBoss Saga boss fights is to introduce one-off novel mechanics. If you wanted to be more cynical, you could call them “gimmicks.” Whatever you choose to call them, the goal is to introduce a unique new gameplay element for the player to discover during the battle. My hope is that players will derive excitement and satisfaction from realizing they can exploit a situation in a way that we did not make explicit in advance. And each mechanic should feel like a natural extension of what already exists in the battle system.

Again, that’s the simplest example, and I can assure you that we’re not just swiping mechanics from famous boss fights for our whole game. (Although we are certainly taking influence from some of the best boss battles from classic RPGs, and we’ll discuss those influences in a future post.) In fact, I wish I could talk about more of the fun gimmicks I’ve cooked up right now, but then that would completely ruin the fun of playing the game. Ah well.

Mist Dragon - Cecil - Kain - Final Fantasy II / IV on SNES
This is the Mist Dragon from Final Fantasy II (actually Final Fantasy IV) on SNES. It is the first boss in the game, and for some people, it’s the first boss they ever fought in an RPG. Image source: The Video Game Museum

Balancing: The Eternal Struggle

When I design the skeleton of a boss fight, I do my best to give the boss(es) and hero(es) a balanced set of abilities that don’t make things too easy or too hard for either side. I also try to ensure that different characters’ abilities complement each other’s on a given team, so no one feels redundant. But again — that’s just the skeleton of the fight.

When it comes to all the incredibly complex stuff — the raw numbers and calculations, the AI — most of it falls into Todd’s domain since he’s the one doing all the coding. I do what I can to help, and I always feel a tinge of guilt when I come up with a special ability or unique game mechanic that I know is going to be a hassle for him to program. But regardless, the truth is that battle balancing will almost definitely be the longest and most arduous struggle of the development, and it will probably be the thing that makes or breaks our game.

So, suffice to say, hopefully we’ll get it right in the end!

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