How RPG Bosses Create Fun by Checking Skills

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Today I placed my shiny new Monster Hunter World disc in my PS4.

I knew I’d need a backup game, because, being 2018, any new game will trigger at least a short update, if not a full system update.

I was right, and I had about twenty minutes or so before the updates would be completed.

This caused me to fire up Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on the Switch,* which I’m determined to keep playing despite needing to play other things (both for enjoyment and work related research). It’s just so darn good.

I was stuck on a boss fight against the character Zeke. Initially frustrated, I eventually prevailed, and felt pretty wonderful in the process. From a game design perspective, why does this feel so good? Read on after the break!

*The Switch isn’t immune to this sort of thing, but as a semi-portable system that uses cartridges, it is far more likely that a new game will be “plug-n-play,” especially if it comes from Nintendo.

All video games are, to some form or another, about teaching things. In order to create fun, there needs to be inputs from the player, that then cause outputs from all the systems in the game. Sounds pretty simple! However, consider that in even a simple game, you might have inputs to move the player (which count as a potential array of inputs; walk/run/jump/dive/take cover/fly etc.), to attack, to use something (to heal, augment your abilities, etc.). More complex games may allow the player to make inputs that don’t have an immediate effect, such as equipping weapons and armor in an RPG. It is these passive inputs that are interesting, because while they create the complexity required for an interesting experience, they require a lot of teaching and encouragement to use. After all, if something isn’t going to do something right now, why bother doing it?

Enter the boss fight, which (regardless of its narrative purpose) serves as a “skill test,” in game design terminology. A good boss fight requires the player to utilize everything they’ve learned about the game so far. This is a difficult balance to achieve. If you make the boss too easy (meaning it is possible to use a cardinal strategy, such as a basic attack or simple special move that can be repeated over and over), the player never has motivation to learn. Over time, this makes the game pretty boring.

To bring this back to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the boss fight against “Zeke,” I kept playing, and drying, and playing, and dying. At first, I attempted all the simple strategies.

1. Attempting different combinations of special moves.

2. Paying attention to the characters in my party, and reviving them as soon as possible.

3. Using healing “spells” (this works differently than other RPGs but let’s not get into that here!).

Still more dying! Uh oh. Time to go deeper. Fortunately, the game already taught me various strategies, such as:

1. Chaining together special attacks to increase their effect.

2. Paying attention to the combination of party members under my control, as this has different consequences.

3. Making sure attribute boosting items are equipped.

Oh! Things are looking better. I’m getting the boss down to 1/3 health sometimes. Great! But I’m still dying. Time to go even deeper…

1. Have I filled in every “loot” slot each character has?

2. If so, are the attributes of the loot helpful in this case?

3. Maybe I need to craft different loot items. Let’s go back to town and do this (in this game, you “refine” loot items in towns that give you stat boosting items).

Finally, success. The final straw seemed to be equipping an item that created a 20% boost in damage to human characters such as Zeke.

As a player, the sense of satisfaction from this is immense. I felt great! The same part of my brain that fires when I do a good job at work, get good news about something, or otherwise accomplish something tangible was used. Good game design does this; and this in turn makes players happy! Hurray!

I hope you can see the clear progression of the above steps to success, and how very difficult it is to balance a game’s design to optimize this. If the boss was too hard at the outset, I would just give up (or “grind,” which while I’m not opposed to in games like this, *can* be negative if this is the only way you can ever meet challenges). Too easy, and I’m not doing the middle to advanced tactical learning. Monolith Soft got it *just right* on this one. I also appreciate that it is extremely likely that I haven’t fully optimized my characters. However, once I made sure I was using all of the game’s systems, success occurred.

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