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Boss Battle Design and Structure

In his latest design feature, Activision designer Mike Stout breaks down the boss battle into eight different beats, and runs two notable ones -- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Ganon and Portal's GladOS -- through a thorough analysis to illuminate their designs.

Mike Stout

September 15, 2010

30 Min Read

[In his latest design feature, Activision and former Insomniac designer Mike Stout breaks down the boss battle into eight different beats, and runs two notable ones -- The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's Ganon and Portal's GladOS -- through a thorough analysis to illuminate their designs.]

The boss battle is one of the oldest and most beloved traditions in video games. Everyone has fond memories of their favorites, and opinion pieces proclaiming the "Top 10 Boss Fights of All Time" are always hotly contested and the source of a lot of debate.

According to Wikipedia, the first boss battle ever featured in a game was the Gold Dragon in the 1975 RPG dnd, and the practice has been going strong ever since.

Coming up as a designer in this industry, some of my most difficult (but also most interesting) challenges have been boss battle designs.

Each time I was assigned one I felt a mixture of excitement and dread. Sure, they're cool, but where do you start?

Bowser from the original Super Mario Brothers was the first boss battle I ever played.

Hard-Learned Lessons

I remember the first boss battle I ever designed. It was the "Terror of Talos" fight for Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando. Still a junior designer, I agonized over that design for weeks. I poked and prodded, I added features, and by the time I was done with it I was sure I had designed the coolest boss battle ever!

It was a six-armed Godzilla-esque monster with a robot standing on its head (the robot was controlling the monster with levers, you see). It stormed around a giant movie-set version of a large metropolis, destroying everything it came across. It could fly and walk and breathe fire and shoot missiles and... well pretty much everything. I was so proud of it I could just burst.

And it was bad. Not just bad, in fact. Oh, man, was it ever awful!

Oh sure, the final product turned out very well -- thanks primarily to my talented and very patient colleagues (thanks for putting up with me, Andrew) -- but that first rough-draft design was an absolute disaster. The idea was cool, sure, but I had neglected to really think through the gameplay behind it.

Behold, the Terror of Talos! While the final product turned out well enough, the early designs (in addition to being impossible to implement) needed a ton of revision before the fight was any fun.

Since then, I've designed a ton of boss battles, and with each one I've learned new tips and tricks that have made each successive design go much more smoothly.

In this article, I aim to pass on those tricks and tips. In this article I will break some boss battles down into their component parts (as I see them) and then show you how I use that knowledge when designing boss battles of my own.

Note: I am specifically talking about bosses from action/adventure games here. While the tips I outline here will, I suspect, work for bosses in any genre, I've never personally tried to apply them that way.

Intro to Boss Battles

One of the first questions I like to ask myself when beginning a design is this: "What are my goals?" Essentially, I try to make it clear to myself what my design needs to accomplish so that every decision I make can hearken back to my goals. For boss battles, my goals are typically something like this:

  • The boss should feel like a reward.

    • A boss battle is a reward from the game designer to the player. For a short time, the player gets to take a break and do something new!

    • Boss battles tend to be intense and feel "larger than life." Players look forward to boss battles, and getting to them feels good.

  • The boss should feel like a goal (or milestone) for the player.

    • Like chapter breaks in a book, players reach a goal (minor or major) when they reach a boss battle. The anticipation leading up to a boss battle and the feeling of having attained a goal when the boss is defeated provide tangible story and emotional milestones for a player.

  • By fighting the boss, the player can demonstrate his mastery of my game.

    • A boss battle is a good place for the player to demonstrate the skills he has learned so far by playing the game. In that sense a boss battle is both a test of the player's abilities and a chance for the player to feel like he has mastered the skills you've taught him so far.

  • A boss fight can help build and release tension in a satisfying way.

    • Like a good book or movie, it is important for a boss battle to have good "pacing," which is to say it's important for the game designer to build up and release tension and difficulty (or, in other words, intensity) over time.

    • Good boss battles not only contain good pacing within the fights themselves, but also help to pace the entire game.

      • The knowledge that a boss battle is approaching is a great excuse to build up intensity over the course of a series of levels. The closer the player comes to the boss fight, the more his anticipation of the fight grows. A clever level designer can use this to their advantage (as seen in the chart below).

      • Boss battles are a great way to release the intensity you've built up over the course of the preceding levels. After finishing a boss, the player can expect to coast for a little while and feel good about his accomplishments.

A vastly simplified illustration of Super Mario Bros. 3's pacing. Within each world, intensity increases until the player defeats a boss, at which point the intensity dies down a bit (though not entirely).

A Boss, in a Nutshell

When I design a boss, I try to keep all of the above in mind, but that's a whopping huge pile of goals to remember! Because I like to keep things simple for myself, I like to boil all that information down to two points. I try to remember these two points at all times while designing a boss battle:

1. A boss is a test.

  • The player can demonstrate mastery of the skills he has learned so far.

  • Like a test at the end of a semester in school, a boss represents a goal -- an important milestone for the player to pass. And passing the milestone needs to feel rewarding.

2. A boss is a story.

  • In addition to being a goal, a boss battle itself contains a number of smaller goals and milestones (or "beats"), just like a traditional narrative.

  • A boss battle is paced and structured to provide an experience similar to traditional storytelling. It typically has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a number of story "beats" to glue all three together.

  • By knowing the archetypical "story structure" of a boss battle, and why each beat is important, you can use the beats to create a memorable boss fight.

The Mother Brain boss fight from Super Metroid is a great example of the principle "a boss is a story." In addition to hitting all the beats I outline later on, this battle manages (without a single line of dialog) to tell a surprisingly touching story of sacrifice, love, loss and revenge.

A Boss is a Test

As I mentioned above, one of a boss battle's primary duties is to test players on the skills they've learned, and to allow them to demonstrate mastery of those skills. It's the designer's responsibility to administer this test, but figuring out how to do that can be overwhelming at first.

To help with that, there are four "prep-work" tasks I like to perform to start things off:

1) Make a list of the skills you want to test the player on

At a bare minimum, all the basic controls of your game should be on this list -- but often you'll want to test the player on something specific.

In the Legend of Zelda games, the player will often obtain a weapon during the course of a level. During that level, he will be taught how to use the weapon and required to use it again and again. When the level is over, the boss at the end tests him on the use of that weapon.

Example list of skills to test: movement, jumping, melee attacks, blocking, dodging left/right, dodging forward/backwards, ranged attacks, vulnerability points, etc... I would write each of these down so that in the next step I can make sure to come up with an attack to test each one.

2) Make a list of attacks or challenges that will test that skill

Once you know the skills that you want to be on the test, the next step is to brainstorm and make a list of attacks that will test those skills.

It's important to brainstorm these attacks independently from any preconceived notions of what the boss can do, or what he is. Think instead only of what the best attacks are that can test the skills you want to test. By keeping this step separate from the next, you can avoid limiting yourself based on your boss' appearance or theme. Once we know what the attacks are at their basic, lowest level, we can theme them appropriately in the next step.

A diagram of a ground-based ring attack, starring Happy McStickman.

Example: In step 1, I decided that I wanted to test the player's jumping skill. A ground-based ring attack is best countered by jumping over the "edge" of the ring as it comes towards the player. So I can add "Ground-Based Ring Attack" to the list of boss fight attacks.

3) Decide how to theme the attacks you brainstormed

Once you have a list of boss fight attacks, the next step is to figure out how to theme them so that they're appropriate for the boss character you're using. For example, our "ground-based ring attack" example from the previous section might be the boss stomping his foot and sending out a shockwave.

In the fight with Emperor Tachyon in Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, Tachyon jumps into the air and lands on the ground with a thud. A ring of energy expands out from his position. This is how the fight's designer chose to theme the ground-based ring attack from our previous example.

4) Decide how the boss defends himself

One common weakness in many boss battle designs is that the players can damage the boss character repeatedly and keep him in a state where he can't effectively use any of his attacks. When the player can do that, the boss isn't able to perform the moves you've designed to test the player's mastery. The battle begins to feel dull and unsatisfying.

To guard against this, you need to design the boss with defensive capabilities so he can withdraw from the fight or otherwise allow himself to attack without being interrupted.

Figuring out how the boss can defend himself is a critical step to building a boss fight that will serve as a good test of the player's abilities.

Example defenses: Does the boss have a force field he can turn on while he does his attacks? Can he fly away out of range and then launch an attack? Does he have a huge attack that knocks players back to a safe distance? There are many effective ways for a boss to give himself space to attack the player.

A Brief Spoiler Warning!

For the rest of the article, I'm going to draw examples from two of my favorite boss fights: Ganon from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GladOS from Portal.

I am going to spoil these fights pretty thoroughly. Proceed with caution if you're seeking to avoid spoilers.

A Boss is a Story

As I mentioned earlier, boss battles tend to be structured based on a series of "story" beats. I've identified eight beats that I like to use when designing boss fights. Below, I've stated the nickname I use for each beat, how it works, why it's a good thing to do, and then cited two examples of each.

Beat 1: Build-Up

What is it? This beat happens before the player even gets into the fight. Just like with pay-per-view boxing, wrestling, or MMA fights, a boss fight needs to be promoted. The player needs to be informed how awesome, dangerous, vile, etc the boss is through cutscenes, dialog, or any number of other methods. The player also needs to be trained on the skills he'll need to beat the boss.

Above all, however, the main point of this beat is to increase the intensity leading up to the boss fight itself.

Why is it a good idea? As we discussed above, a boss fight is a test of the player's skills. It is, therefore, important to train your players on how to fight the boss. Most often, this is done during the build-up to the fight.

Anticipation is also really important for the pacing of your game. If you want your boss to feel like an emotional milestone, you want to create anticipation in the player to increase intensity and to raise the emotional stakes.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Ocarina of Time has a number of great examples of the "Build-Up" beat. Ganon (the evil wizard behind everything bad in the game) makes a number of appearances in cutscenes, kidnaps princess Zelda, and otherwise makes a nuisance out of himself for most of the game.

My very favorite instance of this beat is the "Phantom Ganon" boss battle. The designers of this game are so hardcore that they created another boss battle just to train you on how to eventually defeat Ganon at the end of the game.

Part of the way through the game, the player fights a boss battle against a ghost that takes the form of Ganon. The battle teaches the player that he can reflect Ganon's yellow energy attacks back at him to stun him and the player learns he needs to shoot Ganon with his bow and arrow while he's stunned.

In an earlier boss battle, the player fights "Phantom Ganon." This boss teaches the player that the he can use his sword to reflect yellow energy attacks back at the boss.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

The player needs to have two particular skills in order to defeat GladOS. The game teaches the player these mechanics in two amazing and incredibly memorable sections.

First, over the course of the game the player is given only one friend; a metal block with a heart on it named the "Companion Cube." During a particularly memorable section, the player is forced to destroy the cube by throwing it into an incinerator while GladOS taunts him.

In this emotionally-charged segment, the player must pick up his Companion Cube (pictured bottom-left) and throw it into the incinerator. This trains him on the incinerator mechanic so he can use it to defeat GladOS.

Second, the player is confronted with an indestructible robot that fires missiles at him. As he works his way through the segment around this enemy, he finds he can use the robot's rockets to get past obstacles and destroy things in his path.

The player must use the missile-launching robot (pictured center) to destroy obstacles in his path. This trains him on the mechanic so he can use it to defeat GladOS.

Finally, GladOS repeatedly promises you cake. But it's a lie! A LIE! This may seem trivial, but I REALLY wanted that cake.

Beat 2: Intro / Reveal

What is it? At the beginning of the boss fight, the boss needs to do something to introduce himself to the player and start the fight off with a BANG.

In many games a boss will rear back, let out a huge roar, and blow something up. It's a gaming cliché, but it gets the player's attention, that's for sure.

You don't have to be cliché about it if you don't want to. This beat is a good idea no matter what you decide to do.

Why is it a good idea? It's important to sell the player on how awesome, quirky, or otherwise interesting the boss is. Following this simple step greatly increases the player's sense of tension and anticipation, and thus the game's intensity.

At this point you're still trying to promote the boss -- you want the player to desire nothing more than to take him down.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

In Beat 2, the player finally encounters Ganon face to face. Ganon casts a horrible spell at him, rises into the air and cackles maniacally. The words "Great King of Evil: Ganondorf" appear on the screen below him.

Doesn't he scare you right now? I'm quaking in my boots, personally.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

Portal's boss fight begins in a very different way. The boss you're fighting, GladOS, has always been kind of a crazy / funny personality. It wouldn't make as much sense for her to appear in all her mechanical glory and blast a hole in something. Instead, you enter her lair and she greets you cordially.


And then, after issuing a few threats... she accidentally drops one of her personality cores. She is, of course, very embarrassed and tells you in the strictest terms not to touch the thing. But the player knows better!

Beat 3: "Business as Usual"

What is it? "Business as Usual" is when the boss gets to use the most basic attacks you created in the attack design phase earlier. During this phase the player can get used to the boss' pattern or can come to understand how the boss can be defeated.

Why is it a good idea? "Business as Usual" sets an intensity baseline for the boss fight. The player knows that from this point on, there's nowhere to go but up! Further, if you absolutely need to teach your player something new, this is the phase to do it.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

As he learned during the "Phantom Ganon" boss fight I described in Beat 1, the player must use his sword to return Ganon's yellow energy attacks and then fire an arrow at him while he's stunned.

The player must swing his sword to return the yellow energy back to Ganon.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

The player still remembers what GladOS did to his friend, the Companion Cube. Now it's time for a little payback! The player has to take GladOS' personality core and throw it into a nearby incinerator, just like he was trained to do with the Companion Cube.

The player learns that he needs to take GladOS' personality cores (the purple sphere pictured left) and throw it into the incinerator... just like the Companion Cube. Forget what you've heard -- revenge is best served HOT!

During this whole episode, the player is under no threat of damage or death. This was a wise decision on the part of the designers. Though they've used the incinerator before, the player has never thrown a personality core into one of these before, so they are technically learning something new. If you must teach the player something new, teach it during this beat and give the player enough time, space, and safety to figure it out.

Beat 4: Escalation

What is it? Now that the player has learned the basics, it's time to get into it. During this beat, the boss will introduce new attacks and complications.

The difficulty, intensity, and drama begin to rise here. Choose a few more attacks from the list you made during the attack design prep-work you did earlier -- now's the time to use them!

Why is it a good idea? In addition to the standard practice of "ramping up" difficulty over the course of a boss fight, introducing new attacks or complications during this beat helps with the battle's pacing.

As crazy as it gets during this beat, the player knows it will only get crazier, and that anticipation will drive him forward with fervor.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Ganon gains two extra attacks during this phase: 1) He can slam down into the floor, which causes the blocks that the player is standing on to fall down into the abyss, and 2) He can fire five yellow energy bolts at the player simultaneously.

The first tests the player's basic movement abilities (he needs to move to a safe place before the ground falls away beneath him). The second gives the player a choice between executing a dodge-roll to avoid the bolts and attempting to return them, which is very difficult.

Five bolts at the same time are much harder to return to Ganon than just one. Most times, the player will take some damage if he tries. The player is encouraged to dodge these.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

After the player throws GladOS' first personality core into the incinerator, she goes even crazier than normal. First, she begins to flood the area with nerve toxin (which gives the player only six minutes to defeat her).

GladOS ratchets the intensity up by adding a time limit to the fight. She also introduces her main method of attack (and the player's main method of attacking her), the missile launcher robot.

Then she deploys a missile launcher robot. The player needs to employ the training he received in Beat 1 and use the missile robot against GladOS. Every time GladOS is hit with a missile, she drops a new personality core that the player can incinerate.

The player creates a pair of portals, lures the missile launching robot to fire a missile, and then lets it go through the portals to damage GladOS. When she is hit with a missile, she drops a personality core that the player can then incinerate.

Beat 5: Midpoint

What is it? The midpoint is the "emotional turning point" of the fight. During this beat, the boss simultaneously raises the stakes significantly and gives the player a momentary break in the action. Ideally, this beat will leave the player screaming and howling for the boss' defeat or questioning whether the boss can be defeated at all.

This beat usually takes the form of a false victory, false defeat, or transformation and this beat often involves a "death" of some kind.

Why is it a good idea? This is a one-two punch. During this beat, the player is allowed to take a short breath (which he sorely needs if you've been ramping up the intensity correctly). He's allowed a reprieve, but at the same time this beat should wow him. It should leave him eagerly anticipating what is to come.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

This beat is a huge one for the Ganon boss fight. The player strikes Ganon down and his "death" seems to cause his castle to collapse! The player must take Princess Zelda and flee while the place comes down around him.

When he finally arrives at the ground, the castle finally collapses entirely, leaving nothing but rubble. There is a short pause where the player is allowed to take a breath, and then Ganon erupts from the rubble! Not only is he still alive, but as he transforms into a giant monster it's apparent he's more powerful than ever!

In an echo of Beat 2, the newly transformed Ganon re-introduces himself, casts the player's sword away, and the battle is on!

Wow, I thought he was scary before! But now he's also HUGE!

Example 2: Portal (2007)

Portal's fight has a completely different take on this beat. Instead of a transformation, a false defeat, or anything like that -- GladOS simply taunts the player and invokes the idea of "death."

"I gave you every opportunity to succeed. There was even going to be a party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course, he couldn't come because you murdered him."

By invoking "death", and by talking trash about the player's one friend, GladOS performs a purely emotional version of this beat. By the time she's done talking, the player is ready for Beat 6. It's ON!

It's a very subtle version of this beat, but I found it to be just as effective as the version from Ocarina of Time. I wanted to take her down more than ever!

Beat 6: It's ON!

What is it? During this beat, the boss has access to the full range of his attacks.

The battle is as intense as it is going to get, and the player is motivated and ready to go. In some ways this is the easiest beat of the boss battle, since you just let the boss go wild.

Why is it a good idea? This is what we've been leading up to. This is the top of the ramp. It is time for the player to display his mastery of the mechanics on the test, and it's time to let the boss give the player everything he's got.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

To defeat Ganon in his monster form, the player needs to shoot Ganon in the head with his arrows. Then the player can dodge around behind him and attack the weak spot on his tail.

The player is deprived of his main weapon for most of this fight, and must use one of his two alternate weapons to damage the tail.

The player is being tested on his attacking (both with his primary and alternate attacks), dodging, bow and arrow shooting, identification of weak spots, and basic movement -- but under a lot more pressure. Those swords that Ganon is wielding HURT!

The player must dodge behind Ganon and hit the vulnerable spot on his tail in order to damage him.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

As the fight wears on, GladOS begins to drop the personality cores into odd places and the player must demonstrate his mastery over the game's core portal skills in order to get them and bring them to the incinerator.

To get this personality orb (pictured center) the player must shoot himself high into the air with the portal gun, reach the platform, and grab the orb.

Beat 7: "Kill" Sequence

What is it? During this beat, you must show the enemy on the ropes. The boss has been struck down! The player gets a moment to bask in his achievements -- in his mastery over the game and the skills he's learned. The boss doesn't need to actually die during this sequence, but he should be shown as defeated (down on one knee, breathing heavily, complementing the player, etc.)

If the boss does die, then make sure he dies spectacularly. Make it worth the player's while.

Why is it a good idea? You want to mark the boss' defeat (which we know is an important pacing milestone) with a good feeling. This is especially important if the boss is supposed to escape after this beat to be fought again later. If he just runs away before this beat has run its course, the player might feel robbed. Just having the boss say something to compliment the player, or having him play a short animation where he appears wounded, out of breath, or otherwise disabled allows the player to feel like he's won a real victory.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

After hitting him in the tail one too many times, the player brings Ganon to his knees. Zelda calls for you to finish it, and the player thrusts his sword into Ganon's face. Zelda and all the NPCs you've rescued band together and cast a spell to bind Ganon into a prison forever (complete with special effects and cool looking sequences). Ganon plummets into the prison screaming for revenge, but it's all over for him.

The player thrusts his sword into Ganon's face, which turns him back into his normal form. The rest of Ganon's comeuppance is up to Zelda and the other NPCs.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

After throwing GladOS' last personality core into the incinerator, she explodes in a spectacular fireworks show and is pulled out through the roof. Even though the ending eventually makes it clear she survives the explosion, the grandness of her "kill" sequence makes it worthwhile.

GladOS dies in a spectacular fireworks show and is pulled out through the roof. In her last moment, she drags you along with her and the screen fades to white.

Beat 8: Victory Sequence

What is it? While the "Kill Sequence" beat was explicitly for rubbing salt in the boss' wounds, this beat is explicitly about rewarding the player for beating the boss. This can come in many forms, from congratulatory cutscenes to heart containers to achievements to literal victory celebrations. No matter what you do for the player, as long as it is rewarding you've done your job.

Why is it a good idea? The player won, and this is his chance to feel awesome for a moment. By embracing this beat, you solidify the emotional milestone and allow the tension and anticipation you've built up to release.

Example 1: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

After Ganon is pulled into his prison for all time, Zelda thanks the player for all that he's done and reminds him how amazing he is.

It's very important to reward and congratulate the player after he beats a boss. Without a proper "thumbs-up", the tension won't properly dissipate, and it can leave the player feeling unfulfilled.

Example 2: Portal (2007)

After you're pulled through with GladOS, you finally get the cake she's been promising you for the whole game!

The cake was not a lie!

But even better than that is what comes next! GladOS sings the player an awesome song, and the credits roll. Talk about rewarding!

Normally credits aren't much fun, but these made me laugh and laugh. I even bought the song when it came out on iTunes. I felt well-rewarded for my trials by the time this was done.


In this article I went over how I like to break down boss battles. Then I showed how you can use that knowledge to create your own boss battles. By remembering that a boss battle is both a test and a story, and by applying the techniques I suggest here, your design will begin with a much stronger backbone than can come from simple brainstorming (as my mishaps with the Terror of Talos show).

Though I believe this is a very useful way to do things, I don't mean to imply that this is somehow "more correct" than any other way, or even that it's the only way to break down a boss battle.

In my last article, I ended with a quote that I think is very relevant here:

"In his book Science and Method the French mathematician Henri Poincaré said 'Geometry is not true, it is advantageous.' The same is true with models for thinking about game design. None of them are 'true' -- they are only convenient."

The tips, tricks, and shortcuts above have, time and again, proven themselves very convenient for me. They make the challenging task of boss battle design much easier, and in my experience, produce great results. Have fun with them.

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About the Author(s)

Mike Stout


Mike Stout is a veteran video game industry designer. He’s worked on a slew of AAA titles, including the PS3 launch title Resistance: Fall of Man and all of the PlayStation 2 Ratchet and Clank titles. He currently works in the Central Design department at Activision Blizzard, providing design expertise and assistance to their first-party development studios. You can read more from Mike at his blog: www.ongamedesign.net.

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