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What are the point of boss battles in the current form? For most games, a boss encounter is usually:

  • A puzzle of sorts, where you have to figure out when the boss' weak point is exposed.
  • An enemy with just more health and can hit harder, or maybe having a special attack.
  • A scripted fight where you have to push the correct buttons at the right time.
  • A test to see how well you've learned what the stage was trying to teach you. (IE an ability.) etc.
  • An enemy that will become common at a later time.

In which they're mostly just a longer fight than normal. Some games have interesting bosses that are actually meaningful to the story, but are still nothing really substantial.

Why are boss fights so prevalent in games? Is there any research that shows the importance of boss fights? What function do they fulfil in a game, from a design perspective?

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Note that this doesn't apply to all games: some games I've played have actually had really interesting boss encounters that were special and memorable - you'd never encounter anything quite like it in the rest of the game. But, sadly, those seem to be few and far inbetween. Most games I've played lately have bosses that are just "oh hey its a BIG enemy." that takes a few more hits than normal. –  Shiester Jul 9 '13 at 14:02
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This kind of seems like a rant/discussion. Of course it's possible to have a good game without boss encounters, there are plenty of games that don't have any bosses whatsoever. Boss fights are a feature of the game, sometimes they're tied into the plot well, sometimes they're not. Sometimes they're challenging and fun and sometimes they're not. This is almost the same for any other feature that's regularly implemented in games. –  Byte56 Jul 9 '13 at 14:19
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I recently played Deus Ex: Human Revolution and imho, the boss fights, while fitting the story, clashed with the game mechanics (fighting in a stealth game). At least you can bring a turret... youtube.com/watch?v=L_NyIRodE8I –  sarahm Jul 9 '13 at 21:43
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I find this question very interesting, and reading through the answers is fun. However, I don't think this question can be answered with much more than just opinion. A look at a majority of the questions will show that to be the case. While some of the answers do very well with using references to show different types of boss battles, there don't appear to be any references as to why boss battles are important or if they are. I think we can agree that they're common, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it's hard to say with any hard evidence if they're important. –  Byte56 Jul 10 '13 at 4:29

9 Answers 9

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Boss battles, both metaphorical and literal, serve a number of important purposes. Not every boss has to do all of these, and even two bosses in the same game may have different purposes. There may be accidents where what is supposed to be a climactic boss battle is quickly forgotten as too easy, with no real story ties. Some may not fit totally into any category, but instead may be a foggy mix.

Story Climax

He's killed your family, along with countless others. He's taken power of the country for his own selfish purposes, and plans on summoning an unstoppable demon. Worse, he's been mocking you the entire time you've been chasing him. But now he's standing directly across from you, sword in hand, smug grin on his face. Now you can end it...

Or, maybe you don't want to fight them. In fact, there may not be anything fundamentally wrong about their position. But for one reason or another, you clash, and regardless of who wins, no one is happy about it.

In fact, you may not even be fighting another individual...

If the battle exists only for the character, and not the player, it is not counted as a boss battle, as the player is not being tested even slightly.

Examples: Kefka from Final Fantasy VI, Gunther Hermann from Deus Ex, the Princess level from Braid.

Aside: Not Story-Related

Not all boss battles need to be story-related. Some games have no story, so such a battle is obviously not story-related. But even when a story exists, some bosses are just irrelevant to it, and simply happen.

They can be a welcome surprise, or blatantly telegraphed from a mile away. In any case, they can perform any function any other boss battle can.

Examples: Master Hand from Super Smash Bros., secret super-bosses in the Final Fantasy series, challenge dungeons in the Zelda series.

Gameplay Climax/Test

All those skills you've gathered and refined over your journey? Let's see just how well you know how to use them. You are presented with a challenge, more difficult than before (probably), and/or uses all the elements you have learned throughout the journey together in a way you may or may not have even seen before.

Perhaps, it's just a bigger and tougher enemy with more health. Not exactly that satisfying for some gamers, but others will love it as a resource management challenge.

Perhaps it's a situation you have come across before, but in a new and dangerous setting, such as over lava, in a strange gravity field, or under a time-limit.

Examples: GLaDOS from Portal, the last level in Mirror's Edge, almost every second encounter in Bayonetta, final levels in the Advance Wars series.

Puzzle Battle/Out-Of-Nowhere Gameplay

Ok, so, we know it's been a sidescrolling beat-em-up this whole time, but we've decided to give you a gun, and turn it into a third-person space shooter, just for the last boss. Or, maybe we've simply introduced a new game mechanic, and want to put you under pressure to learn it quickly. In it's simplest form, everything is as normal, gameplay-wise, but the enemy has some trick to them that you have to discover and exploit. In any case, you probably didn't have time to prepare.

Why is this useful, and not a dick move? Honestly, it sometimes is a bit of a dick move. But any other kind of boss battle can be that, too. It can be used to great effect if done well. If you want to put the player under a lot of pressure, make them have to learn something quickly to survive.

Examples: 02 from Kirby 64, Ozzie from Chrono Trigger, the Spider from Limbo.

Aside: Metaphor

Not all boss battles have to be a battle, or even against an intelligent individual. In fact, even a single decision, made difficult enough, can be considered a boss battle, if you want to stretch the definition to breaking-point. As long as it can be a story climax, gameplay test, or have some kind of intensity that separates it from the rest of the game, it can be considered a boss battle. Well, in game design terms, at least.

Examples: Manfred von Karma from Phoenix Wright, final levels of puzzle games like Super Monkey Ball or of music games like Elite Beat Agents. If you want to stretch the definition, you can even count the question of which of your companions do you save when you can only save one in Mass Effect as a boss battle. As long as you actually care about them both, that is.

No Boss Battle

Some games just don't need boss battles, or would actively be made worse by them. They might break the flow, or perhaps the game itself is already an increasingly difficult test. Maybe they just don't make sense.

Examples: Tetris, Animal Crossing, Mario Kart.

Conclusion

I'd say the most important aspect of a "boss battle" is that it feels like a separate part of the game that has more tension and difficulty, in story and/or gameplay, than the rest. It is a climax, or otherwise a rise in intensity, that tests the player, and sometimes also the character. It is different from a purely story climax, because the player must be tested in one form or another. They're not used, or even useful, in every game. As with anything else in game design, use it if it makes sense to use it, otherwise don't.

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Before I saw it referenced in the comment's I was like, "that sounds an awful lot like that awesome final battle in Kirby: Crystal Shards...", lol. –  jumpnett Aug 6 '13 at 23:16

Actually I'm glad you brought this up.

I think the purpose of boss battles is to give some sort of "epicness" to the conclusion of a section. I have seen this done very successfully, most notably for me in the Megaman series, where every level concludes with a tough boss battle, and you are awarded with a new weapon afterward.

I think boss battles emerge in the design as ways to "punctuate" sections of the game. Even RPGs use them to mark the end of quests.

That said, boss battles can be overstated, where the boss is too hard.

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A bit more references and history would be nice. Since it's a subjective question, the answer should be a bit more lengthy and fleshed out. –  Byte56 Jul 9 '13 at 14:22
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There's a really nice graphic I can't find right now on the ideal tension/rest curve of a narrative or game. The tension average increases up through the climax of the game (final level/boss) with ups and downs along the way, representing in-between mission areas or low-tension mission starting points, the missions themselves, and the end-mission boss fights in most games. –  Sean Middleditch Jul 9 '13 at 18:07
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@SeanMiddleditch The usual reference is gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php Extra Credits also have a nice video on the topic of pacing. –  Anton Jul 9 '13 at 22:25

Well, I think it all comes down to one question:

Are they fun and/or interesting to fight? If yes, add them in, if not, leave them out. Personally, I hate bosses that are really just the same as every other enemy only with larger health bars. But if the boss fights are interesting or unique, they can really add a whole lot to the game, both to gameplay and atmosphere. Shadow Of The Collossus made a whole game about it, and in my opinion it worked really well. Boss battles in the Metal Gear series also tend to have some kind of spin to them - some are better than others, but they certainly are memorable and the games wouldn't be the same without them. Nobody forgets the first time they had to fight Psycho Mantis in MGS1 or The End in MGS3.

That said, badly done bossfights can also have a negative impact on your game, if they are boring, unfair or just plain don't fit the game they're in (like popular opinion on Deus Ex: Human Revolution says). Long story short: if you can make them entertaining and memorable and make certain that they add something to the game on the whole, do them. If not, nobody will complain about missing bossfights - better no bossfights than bad bossfights. Well, somebody will complain. This is the internet after all. But you get what I mean.

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So, game features that are implemented well make the game better, and game features that are poorly implemented make the game worse? :p –  Byte56 Jul 9 '13 at 14:51
    
When you phrase it that way... now I feel stupid. It is hard to find a different answer to that question, though :) –  Christian Jul 9 '13 at 14:56
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Sorry to make you feel that way. I was just trying to point out, it's difficult to answer this question with anything more than opinions or obvious facts. Not your fault, it's the question :) –  Byte56 Jul 9 '13 at 15:02
    
No problem, I tend to feel like an idiot most of the time anyway :) But you're right, the question is more of a discussion and even then, it depends very much on the game and the specific battles. –  Christian Jul 9 '13 at 15:05

As a player progresses through a game, they expect something more than just the same boring level over and over again. Not only do games generally get harder, they throw new scenarios at the player as they go along. According to Extra Credits, both a difficulty change (difference in scale) and new scenarios (differences in kind) are necessary to make a good game.

Let's analyze the usual components of a boss fight:

  • Difficult obstacle or foe (Bigger scale)
  • Some weak point or strategy to win (Difference in kind)
  • Cinematics, cut scenes, big animations (Emphasizes this particular conflict)
  • Rewards the player with loot / items / cut scenes (Sense of accomplishment)

Boss fights satisfy the player's need for both differences in scale and differences in kind, and reward the player with a sense of epic accomplishment. Provided some important antagonist is not expected to fight the player in a boss battle, any scenario that satisfies these qualities for the player would be just as effective as a boss battle scenario. Boss fights are not necessary to make a great game, but are a great tool to bring the game to a climax point.

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Well, i think you should find out what makes humans happy.

As far as I've discovered:

  • prove own knowledge, skill and ethics
  • collect things (more varied the better)
  • listen to stories
  • be creative
  • be social
  • gain fame (especially, liked from people you know)
  • change, variation (even a little worse change is good)
  • be bad (tease your friends and foes is funny)
  • do things in rhythm (music-games or precise routine-movement mostly in fps)
  • have a advantage (be good in something or know something your enemy don't know, hiding games)
  • look at arts

typical single-player boss-fights ends up in a prove of skill and some knowledge, collecting treasure, sometimes a continuation of a story and sometimes a new level (change, variation). you can do without it or replace it, to make a good game.

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Here's your +1 for major edit ;-) –  Krom Stern Sep 5 at 6:34

Boss battles are one means to an end. The end is to break up the story into units of play, where the player feels like they've accomplished something. Platformers do this very artificially, with worlds and levels, often with some gatekeeper enemy that takes a special touch or just a few more jumps on the head versus your average enemy. Adventures, RPGs and shooters focus more on exploration. That's great, and challenging, but it gets old quick without a few set pieces to break up the monotony of go here, collect this, kill everyone in your way, bring the item back here, rinse, repeat.

The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that I've followed since the first installment on the NES, and it lives or dies on its boss battles. Up until Twilight Princess, the "overworld" simply ties together the main dungeons and provides a few interesting distractions from the main plot like mini-games. The dungeons, with the requisite puzzles, mini-bosses and big bosses, are where it's at in Zelda gameplay. TwiPrin changed the formula a little by adding more plot-centric things that you do in the overworld, especially while riding Epona, such as a jousting match on a bridge, escorting a covered wagon, battling a horde of warg riders, and even a phase of the final battle. It also kicked up the dungeon boss battles about five notches, giving each battle a unique, thematic feel.

Metroid is another Nintendo franchise that's come to rely heavily on the boss battles. You'd call most of the titles platformers (with the Metroid Prime titles changing it to straight-up shooters), but unlike most platformers, it's all one big world, more or less a maze, more like an adventure game than a traditional platformer. By that same token, to help you keep your bearings and break up the monotony, this one big world is broken into sub-areas, each with a different theme (rock, vines and rock, lava and rock, Chozo ruins and rock, Pirate technology and rock), with valuable stuff guarded by monsters.

Half-Life's writers, on the other hand, are usually more subtle about their "boss battles". More often than not, the "boss" is just a big setpiece against superior forces, like a shooting gallery against zombies, marines or metrocops (with or without a mounted weapon to avoid an ammo drain), though there are a few more traditional boss battles against supersized or super-powerful enemies (including of course the final battles of each of the titles in the series). The big boys like tanks, striders, tentacle-pit monsters, etc are present but somewhat rarer, and usually they're little more than an obstacle that you clear by solving a puzzle (for instance, clearing out a tentacle monster that's taken up residence inside the blast chamber of a rocket testing lab; one guess how). Another difference from the Zelda or Metroid approaches, more like HL's uncles from Id Software (Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake) is that your weapons and other enhancements are not the goal of gunning down bosses; most big baddies are just blocking the way forward. Virtually all of your weapons are either laying around on the ground (often after killing the enemy that held it), or are handed to you by allies.

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I think it really lends itself to the game and how well the boss battle is handled. While many games do have lackluster boss fights as you describe, some have quite interesting and fun fights.

Take WoW for example, I recall some very fun fights that are both challenging and rewarding, as well as being downright fun. I think that's the point of a boss fight, to have a fight that rewards you with a new skill weapon while having you work for it. A lot of boss fights lack one of these two components.

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Taking the Ys series as an example, there are times where boss fights essentially end up being the whole point of the game, with the dungeon crawling in between serving as a mechanism o advance the story and power up the character. In games with emphasis on pace, reflexes, and skill, boss fights can be a major way to test the player's abilities within the confines of the provided systems. These bosses are notoriously difficult and force you to learn the boss to be able to beat it, and while this may not appeal to many people, it has its popularity.

The goal in this sense isn't to provide a sense of epic scale as far as I can see, and it's not about punctuating the story. Sure, as a matter of general pacing and storytelling it may fulfill either of these roles to throw in a boss battle, but that's just a consequence of storytelling. The boss fight is rather a spectacle in itself, and the sense of relief and reward when completing these challenges is wonderful. And even if you manage to beat a boss, there are still harder playthroughs or faster times to go for. In fact the games themselves emphasizes this boss-battle-centric approach by including time attacks and boss rush modes.

Ask anyone who knows the Ys series to say something about it and they will invariably mention brutal boss battles. This shows that boss battles can be a crucial centerpiece to a game, and it's a model that has demonstrated appeal.

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I think that the most important thing a boss fight brings to the table (in the gameplay sense) is a test of new abilities under stressful conditions. For example, if the player learned to climb and shimmy in that level, the boss of the level requires the player to climb up, possibly jumping between moving limbs, to hit its weakpoint.

This is common in item-based games like Zelda or Metroid where the boss of an area requires you to use one or more items that you acquired in that area.

Another common use of bosses is to serve as "guardians" of the next area. Many RPGs use bosses as barriers between two levels, but they are mostly just damage sponges because the player doesn't really acquire new abilities as they progress. This still allows the player to feel a sense of progression because the bosses have increasingly greater health and damage output to match or induce a character's level.

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