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Saturday, 7 February 2015

Editorial: Six Features That Should Never Be In Boss Battles.

Editorial: Six Features That Should Never Be In
Boss Battles.

Dara O'Briain was right, video games are the only form of storytelling that you can be bad at, and that will punish you and deny you access to the rest of them for this fact. Bosses tend to act as the gatekeepers of plot, a challenge to cap off a section of story and bar access to the rest of it, so it's more than a little grating when they're obviously and needless unfair.

If you are an aspiring game designer, here are some tips for things you should definitely not do when designing your boss battles: 

1. Timers and/or timed minigames.

You know what everyone hates? Timers! You know what they hate even more? Timed minigames! This is an easy way to sap the fun out of a boss battle - you can't enjoy the flashiness of it, or how difficult it is, or anything, because what will always be at the front of your mind is 'I'm running out of time to get this done in, I need to hurry up' and that just drains all of the joy out of it.

Worst of all is when it's an intermittent timer - periods of regular boss fighting broken up by timed sections. For a start, the timers are usually a lot more punishing than they would be for an entirely timed boss fight, often enough so that whether you succeed comes down to luck, and secondly, failing invariably means you have to do the entire boss fight again, even if you were doing great up until that point.

2. Blanket status immunity.

This one wouldn't be unfair if bosses couldn't use status effects on you, but in JRPGs - the most frequent offenders for this particular crime - they almost always can, and some bosses will use that as the basis of their entire strategy. So it's massively unfair if you can't do the same thing to them.

You can give them spells to cure themselves of their status effects, if you want. You can reduce the effect of the player's status effects. But don't make them totally immune.

This is one thing that Pokemon does really well, actually. Even Elite Four Pokemon aren't immune to status effects.

3. Insta-kill Attacks.

Unless you can avoid it. An enemy that charges up and obviously telegraphs an insta-kill attack that you then have to dodge or block - that I can cope with. But an enemy that will randomly and capriciously kill you with very little warning? Well, that just makes it not a test of skill anymore, but a matter of luck.

Even in cases where you can avoid it, it can still be awful if you can't avoid it easily. The giant spider at the end of Tomb Raider III was like this, requiring you to constantly circle a pool to keep it between you and your foe, lest it hit you with an unavoidable instant death attack. All well and good in principle, but a major part of that boss battle also involved sprinting away from the circular arena to pick up artifacts - and invariably, by the time you got back to where you needed to be, the spider was close enough to kill you.

Worse still was Shin Megami Tensei IV's whole-party instant death attacks, which after a certain point every single boss has and will use liberally. 

4. Self-healing.

Unless you can do it in an interesting way. By an interesting way, I mean something like the Vanitas Remnant from Kingdom Hearts 2.5, which will heal himself, but only if he sees you healing yourself with magic - you can avoid it by getting out of his line of sight, or just by using healing items instead.

But self-healing bosses just aren't fun. They sap motivation, because more often than not, they heal for almost as much or more damage than you can actually deal out, making the boss battle a desperate farce of trying to keep ahead of their healing and failing.

Don't do that. Keep your self-healing bosses to an absolute minimum.

5. No health indicator. 

Boss battles can be long, and if there's no way to see how much health a monster has left, it can feel like you're not doing any damage at all. So it's necessary to have some way of telling how much health your enemy has.

This doesn't have to be a health bar. It can be pieces of armour falling off, visible wounds appearing, or even changing forms. Just something. When you can't, it's easy to get disheartened and just stop.

6. Breaking game mechanics. 

At no point should a boss be allowed to do something you wouldn't allow the player or any other monster in the game ever do.

I'm thinking of a specific example here - the bosses in Final Fantasy XII. Once they're down to very little health, they will suddenly start ignoring the ATB bar mechanic - instead of waiting for their action to charge up, they will instead attack as quickly as their attack animations lets them, releasing a constant flurry of attacks that you can't hope to keep up with.

It's never really enough to make any boss battle impossible, but it does feel like foul play a little.

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