Golden Rules of Interface Design
The 40 Hour Millstone

Ban The Boss

First published in Develop, issues 7 & 8 (June & July 2001)

A number of conventions exist within the realm of video game design. Some conventions have arisen by a process of pseudo-evolution, with designers of early games being forced to think of new features for their games, their rivals recognising which features worked well or encouraged players to spend money, and those features being copied. Other conventions arose due to technological necessity - the level structure seen in most games exists due to a combination of design and technological requirements.

Early arcade games such as Space Invaders (Taito) and Pac Man (Namco) proceeded by facing the player with an identical level set-up, but increased the game's challenge with each subsequent level defeated. Games such as Phoenix (T.P.N. Corporation) introduced levels with different features; in Phoenix, Space Invaders style stages were followed by egg waves, and then the flying saucer stage. This last involved not many, but a single, large opponent for the player to blast. The saucer in Phoenix rained fire upon the player while its pilot hid beneath a destructible shield.

This varied level structure quickly became popular, then standard. Nowadays a great deal of variety is required in graphics and play to 'justify' a new level to the player. Once variety of play had become standard, the issue of game pacing arose. There's no point in slavishly designing variety into a game if it all feels the same to the player, despite the differences. The key to keeping a player on their toes is pacing the game experience. At its most basic level, pacing involves creating a feeling of climax at certain points of the game (after which the player will naturally feel relief).

The prime method introduced to vary the game pace was the boss. A game boss is any enemy that:

  • requires defeating for the player to progress
  • is significantly larger and more powerful in both offence and defence than the standard enemies
  • acts as punctuation in game flow, usually being featured at the end of a level, as a climax

Bosses are also usually used as a graphical showcase, to impress the player.
(Later game development introduced the 'sub-boss', smaller bosses used to mark half-level points, or similar pacing milestones).

In a game like Konami's Nemesis, the role of the bosses as pacing aids is fairly explicit, with the bosses for all but the final two levels being identical (and being preceded by a distinct 'challenge' section which also provided game variety). Later games were forced to employ more imagination in boss variety. Modern day bosses are usually thematic; lobster boss, avian boss, fire boss. Their use has branched beyond the standard shooter genre, and they are used as punctuation in practically any game genre. Bosses usually employ predictable attack patterns which, once understood by the player, render the boss more or less vulnerable.

The point of this article is to state that bosses have become overused. Bosses have got out of hand. Their use as pacing aids has been almost forgotten, and bosses are now included in games because convention demands it. It would seem that players require their fix of screen-high poly-filled spikey death. But bosses cause all sorts of problems to game structure.

The biggest flaw in the boss philosophy would seem to be that bosses haven't kept pace with the requirements of the game design. Back in the arcade days, bosses were extremely valuable to a game; players would pay to play because they wanted to see the bosses, but would have to work hard (and pay more) to beat a boss to get to the next level. Nowadays, games for home consoles are designed to give the player an entertaining play experience which ends in the completion of the game, rather than being cash-generation engines. Though bosses may be useful from pacing and 'gosh-wow' points of view, their other uses no longer apply. Battling through a difficult boss level is rarely satisfying; rather than creating a feeling of triumph, a long, torturous boss battle leaves players with a feeling of relief - that they don't have to do it again.

Especially difficult end of game bosses are even more troublesome, often preventing players from seeing the game end. Why? A player who has spent thirty hours on a game surely deserves the closure of ending and credits sequences. Difficult bosses that cannot easily be replayed (because they are featured after a five minute unskippable cut-scene, for instance) become even more frustrating. It's harder to see your sequel selling if the player has bad memories of the prequel's end.

A similar crime is that of placing the save points after bosses. Save points shouldn't be designed such as to create challenge for a game, they should be placed as an aid to the player (though I accept the usefulness of save points as a pacing aid and don't necessarily insist on 'save anywhere' technology for the majority of games). There is nothing more irritating than playing an entertaining level of a game only to be quickly destroyed by a boss, and have to play the entire section again.

A special mention should be made of bosses with long, repetitive attack patterns which are nevertheless easy to avoid. After five minutes of concentration, players are likely to make a slip here or there, and if a boss battle takes fifteen minutes and ends in the careless death of the player, don't expect them to come back to your game.

Are bosses necessary? It's a fact that players expect them, but at one point players expected a high score table. Score mechanisms have evolved to keep pace with narrative-based progressive game styles, and so should pacing techniques. Bosses may still have a valid place in video games, and no technique should be fully ignored. But if video games are to make the most of the potential as story-telling devices, or even to capture a truly mass-market, games have to work with the player, not against. Challenge is a good thing, but pointless challenge less so. Players should only be restricted in interesting ways. Too many bosses simulate the real life experience of knocking through a wall with one's head. This is not fun.

It should be noted that many major game developers are already changing they way they use bosses. Super Mario 64 (NCL, N64) decentralised its boss structure in a manner that worked well, changing the emphasis from 'completing the level' to 'completing the task'. Many newer games decrease the difficulty of their bosses, using them more as plot points than game obstacles. Dino Crisis and Resident Evil 3 (both Capcom) explored the narrative based boss, using the boss to heighten tension, but always supplying enough firepower options for the boss to be defeated when necessary (by introducing ally characters, or allowing the player to solve a bonus puzzle to obtain superior ordnance). The feeling is that bosses need to change at the very least, and may change form so much that they become unrecognisable. I would applaud this move.

Do we need alternative pacing mechanisms? Several already exist. Metroid (NCL, NES) introduced the last minute 'race against time' climax, which also worked well for the original Descent (Interplay, PC, PSX, Sat). Games like Driver (Reflections, PSX, PC) eschew standard bosses in favour of missions of heightened difficulty at chapter's end. The original Resident Evil allowed the player to weaken a boss by solving an optional puzzle, a technique which might be extended to giving the player an option of whether to fight a boss or perform some alternative task instead. Of course, these techniques can fall prey to the same pitfalls as boss design itself. The solution may lie in plot and character based climaxes as opposed to challenge based pacing structures. Narrative based games are becoming very popular amongst players and developers, and the inclusion of a story automatically allows for previously unexplored pacing mechanisms to be used.

An interesting point concerning boss design is that the climax method of pacing works far less well within a non-linear game structure. The industry seems divided upon the usefulness of non-linear storytelling techniques in narrative based games, but it seems inevitable that someone will push forward and create a truly non-linear game at some point in the future. This style of game structure will require a far finer sense of pacing than a classic shooter did in its day, and it is likely that the boss will have no place within this style of game, in his current form. It is even possible that the convention of the boss is one of the factors retarding the willingness of the industry to explore non-linear narrative. If so, it is another fine reason to ban the boss.

There will always be room in the video games world for classic arcade style gameplay, and bosses will always have a place in the hearts of long time gamers. But as narrative gameplay becomes more popular, it seems that pacing must serve game progress, rather than restrict it. The goal of the game designer has moved away from creating 'one more go' titles, to that of creating 'just a little bit longer' style games. Good pacing will keep a player hooked, and will allow for the further development of narrative style games. If the boss has to finally die for good for this to occur, then so be it.

Richard Boon
Design-integrated Scriptwriter
International Hobo Ltd


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I don't see the problem with bosses. Videogames are supposed to be challenging and bosses are one of the reasons so many game are.

I'm curious as to your premise here that videogames are supposed to be challenging... I can see why this premise leads to your conclusion, but surely videogames are wider in scope than just the challenge-oriented?

This piece addresses the issue of game narrative, and complains that the boss gives problems with pacing because bosses are used as a de facto element of play in so many games.

Consider, for instance, whether Silent Hill 2, which developed a form of narrative that was expressly rooted in atmosphere and not challenge, gained anything from its inclusion of bosses. I would contend that it did not, and a more inventive conclusion to the gameplay would have been beneficial. (Note, however, that Silent Hill 3 returned its focus to challenge and so the same comment would not apply to that game).

I don't think we'll see the end of bosses, because they are such an efficient means of delivering the emotional payoff of fiero (triumph over adversity) which many gamer hobbyists love. But bosses are something of a dead end narratively, and this is the point this article addressed, with an eye to provoking debate.

Thanks for sharing your view!

Personally I've always found my favorite part of a game to be the bosses. I remember my lone disappointment with Half Life 2 was the complete lack of bosses -- when bosses were something that HL1 did very well.

Granted in many ways I'm in the minority. I love challange and can deal with a good deal of frustration, but usually, in a good game, the bosses serve as a situation where gameplay gets mixed up and cleverness and on the spot gutsy comes into play.

The games I'm thinking of are the Metroids, Castlevanias and Zeldas... along with games like Yoshi's Island or Contra III(Well, most the bosses were 'beat the hell out of me' bosses, but there were quite a few jems).

I can't even think of many games where bosses are a bad thing -- perhaps it's because I don't play many sub par games, but I figure games like that will have other problems anyways.

Really I think the issue is that people have to put more into making a boss fight an interesting and unique experience as opposed to a 'grinder'. Which you touched upon, though not as much as you should in my opinion.

Course this is all just my opinion.


Thanks for sharing your comment! I want to make it clear that we do think that Bosses have a continuing role and purpose in games - and you are just the kind of player for whom the Boss is great fun! (It's an approach to play that is called Conqueror in the DGD1 model; Hard Fun in Nicole Lazzaro's Four Keys model)

There are a lot of players like you out there who love the challenge and experience of facing bosses, and I reckon you'll always be able to find the play you like. It is solely from the perspective of game stories that we find the Boss to be something of a limitation.

Thanks again for commenting!

There's no way bosses are going away. Just think of any myth or ancient story -- there's always a hero killing a huge dragon or some other monster. It's something in the human pysche about beating up big scary things that makes bosses so appealing.

Of course, this article outlined where developers go wrong.

Still, I don't see why bosses inhibit non-linear games. Maybe the games I've played aren't non-linear enough but I don't see an inherent reason why bosses would have to go in that situation, given the developer is clever enough.

I found your page via a link in an article on "Bosses" at Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I have to agree with you, "Ban the Boss". A few years ago I bought "INDIANA JONES and the Emperor's Tomb" for PS2. It was a fun game with a good storyline. The challenge in this game was not only as a first person shooter but also puzzle solving that required observation and logic as well as finger dexterity in order to complete levels. That is until the Boss battle "The Kraken's Lair". That battle was so frustrating and difficult that I just gave up and never finished the game. All the joy of that game went right out the window. On the other hand Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series and his Ghost Recon games, for example, were interesting, entertaining, and had a good plot line without the necessity of a boss battle. What I want in a game is that suspension of disbelief, to be become the character and feel like it is a real life situation that has the illusion of danger. Not a source of frustration. I also agree with you on the placement of save points or checkpoints. There should be no reason to have to replay an entire level just because of a dumb mistake. Thanks for your insight and a very good article.

marshmallow: I completely agree that bosses will never go away. But that isn't really what this is about. It's about thinking in new ways about how they are used. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

Angel Elf: Thanks for your comment! I know from our audience research that you are not the only one in this position, but also that there are players for whom the bosses are very important. It's a tough problem to crack!

In a game of ours which didn't actually make it into full development, we had a system whereby the player could choose at the beginning of the game whether or not the Boss sections would be fully playable challenges, or more like interactive cut scenes - so the player could then decide the degree of challenge they would like. I think this sort of hybrid solution could be an interesting area to explore.

Best wishes!

I guess I'm kind of a stubborn traditionalist when it comes to this subject. I love boss battles, and I think they're an effective dynamic in many action/adventure/RPG/survival-horror/etc. games, while still a template allowing for ample creativity and variation.

Not to say I wouldn't embrace any game that eschewed boss battles, as long as its absence was replaced with something as effective or even more so.

I think a good example of a "progressive" style of boss battles in a recent game is Shadow of the Colossus, whereby the player literally needs to climb onto the enormous bodies of the Colossus creatures to locate their weakpoints. Very enthralling and climactic with the use of the soundtrack and the graphics to augment these often quite epic battles.

i find games without boss battle fairly disappointing. There is no other place to really test your skills as a player in the game. With especially with turn based RPGs, they would lose an entire aspect of game play, being able to figure out how to use your team as a whole. Bosses in RPGs are generally very important to the storyline. Granted this article or blog or whatever is 6 years old, and I think that it does make a lot of good points, and is since out dated, however even games like Halo and Doom 3 and the like, I find eventually becoming repetitive with the introduction of a few new enemies every couple of levels. And there is always more ammo to find, especially in games like Half Life 2, where I am carrying around 9 different weapons, the game becomes less of a challenge. Blasting the same character models over and over in the face gets old.

I also found this article through Wikipedia; I find it interesting, not as a statement against using boss battles in general, but as a cry towards good design in games, rather than traditional design in games.

I'm actually a pro-ponent of boss battles; I think they can add an interesting element to the game, a visual treat, and a good way of measuring how far into the game a person is. Although games are moving towards a more narrative style of gameplay, it's good to remember that they're still games. If the extra challenge that punctuates the end of a "level" or "chapter" is removed, then what really seperates a game from a movie, or a book? Being able to move a sprite through the world, rather than turning pages, or munching popcorn? If it's the gameplay aspects, what's the difference between a modern video game and pinball? I think those extra challenges are what really seperate a video game from their creative counterparts.

However, I agree that the use of bosses has become a crutch in games. But simply using things like puzzles, or a harder level, in lieu of bosses to mark gaming milestones is not getting rid of them at all; it's simply reclothing them.

I can see doing this in certain types of games, but in RPGS? I can't really imagine Zelda without Gannon, Final Fantasy VII without Sephiroth, or KotoR without Malak!
Its the culmination of all your character development in the game! Both plot-wise and ability wise!

Bosses are central, integral parts of a game, and then being included is nothing short of positive. If a player such as Angel is lacking the necessary skills to take that monster down, that's entirely his fault.

I'm a hardcore gamer who's been with the industry forever and I consider certain unforgiving bosses fun to whoop, that includes the *ORIGINAL* Devil May Cry 3 bosses. The insanely difficult ones.

Take, for my example, Parasite Eve 2 , for the Playstation. The premise is good, graphics look nice, music is great, story is fantastic! And the boss battles..what, you walk up a tower and nothing happens?Oh nononoonono...

A guy jumps down with a bomb in one hand and a flaming sword in the other, who can, effectively, 1 -hit kill you. Rarely, if ever, but he can. There is a good rush coming from the edgy feeling of "Oh shit, I'm in trouble now" when you face something like that.

Same thing happens when you fell down a bloody dust chute later in the game, and instead of blindly racing against the incinerator as you would, you ALSO have to face a big ass house-sized boss monster who can, AGAIN , one hit you.

They also incorporate, a lot of times, puzzle or strategy that is *necessary* to winning. The one I have in mind - you can shoot at it for days and you'd get owned , if you never shot when his mouth was open - where he could also kill you if you were clumsy.

Bosses are just that, a test to a player's skills, wits, and adrenaline. I'm famous in the local circles for simply "powerclearing" games, in often drastically low times, and I take deep, DEEP pride in whooping bosses - but that's mostly because of their kickass music :-D.

Another example I'd like to mention is Legend Of Dragoon. That game was brilliand and hella underrated . There were 4 types of fights. A normal fight with 1-3 songs for it as the game went, a Mid-boss fight which just let you know this one's harder, a proper Boss Fight that downright let you know you're in trouble now, and a Tough Boss, which scramed "Dude, you're in deep shit!" :-D.

It's the Atmosphere, but without boss monsters, games would drastically SUCK.

While bosses are a vital part of gameplay, I do agree somewhat.
Take Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. Part of the game's storyline involved fighting three bird bosses, each a bit stronger than the last. The first one could be considered a 'punctuation mark' in gameplay, but the other two are there for two purposes: complimenting the first, and being annoying as hell to beat.
Basically, bosses are good, but should be used in moderation.

I hate people like this."ooh! no more bosses! I can't beat them! i can't beat the game because the boss is too hard!boo hoo hoo!" if you want to beat the game, get better. If you're actually good at a game, then a challenging boss is more fun. and that's the fun of it, when you work hard, just to be killed by a boss. sure it's annoying, but that's why we all come back to it, to show that boss who's REALLY boss. We come back to get sweet, sweet revenge on the boss who killed us. Games today are already ridiculously easy, and they don't need to get any easier. it's not the game's difficulty, it's your skill. *note: not bashing anyone. if you're a person who hates bosses because you can't beat 'em, that's fine. this is just my stance on gaming. I get a game for a nice fun challenge, not to beat it in two days and wish I could get my money back.

Boss battles are a necessity. They give a sense of closure to levels, dungeons, etc. Without them, gameplay would become too homogenous; bosses break the monotony of puzzles and familiar, lesser foes. Also, at least one boss battle is usually necessary for the storyline; a final showdown with your main foe is usually needed to complete a storyline in a satisfactory manner. Are we just supposed to kill all the villian's henchmen and be satisfied as he runs away, screaming "I'll get you next time, Gadget."?

Boss battles are gaming tradition. I have never seen any video game, besides a sport or simulator game, that would not have bosses. Almost every game I own has a boss in it, and every time I buy a game, I check to see if it has bosses first. Imagine how anti-climatic games would be without them! Imagine in Peter Jacksons King Kong, when you get to the fight with one or two T-Rexes. You go on one of the best fights in video games, where you punch, smash, grab, roar, throw, and eventually break there jaws in a satisfying motion. We should not just one-hit KO them! Killing a boss in a video game is just as satisfiying as killing it in real life, and without that satisfaction, games would suck. Imagine how pissed off people would be if you could not fight New Goblin or Sandman in the Spider Man 3 game, let alone Venom! When I saw the name of this article, Ban the Boss, I just got mad, really, really, maaad. Anyway one of the reasons God of War is so popular, besides the sex mini-game, is the infamous boss battle with the Hydra. Imagine what the game would be with out it!Why was the ending to The Matrix:Path of Neo so praised? The climatic final boss battle with Mega Smith! What would the game be without him? Besides, when did bosses get this reputation of being hard? The final boss of Kingdom Hearts 2, Xemnas, was not that hard, but it was still a good, fun, and climatic boss battle! Although sometimes bosses could be a pain, like Sephiroth from Kingdom Hearts 2, their still one of the features gamers have worshipped,and without them, I might not buy a single video game ever again.

I have to say that I generally prefer not to have to bother with bosses. They usually seem perfunctory at best and the whole point here is - after 30 years of gaming, where are the innovations?

Sure boss battles work in various games and guises, but in some they do not, they merely act as punctuation to design.

In Jet Set Radio, I really didn't enjoy the end boss battle - it seemed pointless compared to all the cool skating and grinding done in all the levels - instead we were treated to some avant garde weirdness and a huge bloke that had nothing to do with the gameplay thus far.

I had, however, enjoyed seeing off the other teams (Noise Tanks etc) as these were done within the main game and also fitted with the narrative (no breaking of immersion there).

As for Spider-Man - I only really enjoyed Ultimate Spider-Man, which was like a GTA-version of Spider-Man with a free-roaming city. I thought that was great - loved just "flying" through the city rescuing citizens - but every now and again it made you fight one of the baddies of the genre, and did it in such an awful hardcore way that I couldn't be bothered.

You see, I like fun. I play games 'cause it's fun. I don't play games to have a hard time or prove to myself I am good at games. I know I can play games pretty well. And I have a hard enough time in normal life without having to struggle through my relaxation activities.

I want to web my way round the city helping people and occasionally get stuck on a tricky level :-). Most of the time I am more than happy when bosses either aren't in the picture or you can circumvent them somehow.

I am troubled when you say that difficult final boss prevent people from seeing the ending, something that they wanted as a reward for their hard work.

the reason why most people play video game, especially in the console, is to have fun, not to see the ending. If that is the case, then once the ending is over, there will be no need to play the game again.

nobody play mega man or contra to see the ending. the game of the year last year, Gears of War, has an ending that is just pretty much the extension of contra (helicopter leaves and the island explodes... the end). People talk/care/appreciate the in-game element more. Like Mario 64 and Final Fantasy 7, game that make great impact in the gaming industry with several discussion. How many people discuss the game ending?
Some games, like Animal Crossing, doesn't even have the ending, it's still popular, because people buy it not to see the movie, it's to be entertain, by the game itself.

If playing through a certain game is "hard work", then may be it's a bad game entirely. A game can be difficult, even frustrating. But player should pick up the controller because he or she wants to, not because he or she has to.

It's the journey, not the destination. i know, it's a cliche, but it's the truth.

If anything, the bosses in the gaming world today are not interesting enough. Game like Shadow of Colossus and Gods of War 2 have great bosses.

Hi, I just wanted to add on to the comment I made earlier, and also respond to panasits' comment. I know endings aren't as important as features such as graphics or gameplay, but they're a big feature nonetheless. How disappointed would gamers be if they played through a really hard game to find out the ending sucked? They'd be really disappointed, with the expection of Contra, whose ending sucked but gamers didn't care 'cause the game was awesome enough. Bosses don't just effect endings, they effect gameplay also. Imagine if the Hydra battle was just one big cutscene, where you just sit there wishing you could have a piece of the action, or at least tap a few buttons. Luckily for us, David Jaffe isn't an idiot. He gave us a huge battle, where you battle a gigantic head of a huge scaly beast on a sinking ship in a thunder storm. How could you get better then that?

I see what you mean, but I think that a better solution would to be to redesign how bosses work. Bosses should be part of the story, not a barrier preventing you from seeing the next part of the story. A good example of what NOT to do whit bosses is Final Fantasy XII. While I really liked the game, I felt that it had reverted to the "level" structure of earlier games because bits of the story were only revealed after a boss was defeated. And Tiamat was too hard.

Hi everyone!

It's interesting that this article has produced so much discussion! Let me be clear about Richard's original article: he wrote this to provoke discussion on the subject of bosses, and to suggest the possibility that there were other narrative tools that could be used for closure without relying on the boss. The complaint is that the boss is trotted out automatically without thought for what might be appropriate. Note, as an example, how Halo ends not with a boss but with a race against time - this is an example of what Richard was writing about.

No-one at International Hobo is advocating eliminating bosses altogether from games, but at the same time the more we learn about the audience the more we realise there is a split in what players want.

There is a particular kind of player - we call them Conquerors in our DGD1 model - who love coming up against really tough challenges and proving themselves against these challenges. There is an emotional payoff known in the literature as "fiero" - the feeling of triumph over adversity - that makes this very rewarding. But to get the fiero, the game has to beat you up - it has to make you sufficiently frustrated to want to overcome that challenge. Players who fit the Conqueror template *love* this. But they are not the majority of game players any more.

There will always be games with bosses, there will always be fiero-seeking, challenge-loving gamers who lap up this kind of demanding play, because these players are loyal customers who have money they want to spend on the games that deliver this experience. And there will always be game developers willing to make these games for them.

But there are other players, especially new players just coming to videogames for the first time, and older players, some of whom used to play like a Conqueror but now feel differently about games, who just aren't looking for this kind of experience. And for these players the bosses are a grind, an unpleasantness. They can make the player stop playing a game they were otherwise enjoying.

We have a choice, as an industry: either we split games meeting the play needs of Conquerors away from other games, in which case the Conquerors have to accept being relegated to a niche market (but at least the games made for this niche market will deliver exactly what they want!) or we need to make games that are flexible in how they deliver their play - such that those players who do not want this kind of challenge have other options for play.

Thank you all for the comments! It is interesting to get people's perspective on this issue.

Funny, I seem to recognise Spiral's writing style. ;)

Whilst panasit really explains my most common playstyle & attitude (games I tend to really like don't even tend to have much of an ending!), I've long been aware I have a niche interest, and so also have to completely agree with Chris...imeanSpiral when looking at this from a broader perspective.

Rik: just to point out that this article was written by my friend and colleague, Richard Boon - although the comments, of course, were mine.:)


Mybe I'm over-simplifying the issue, but it seems to me that some sort of change in pacing, tempo or style towards the end of the game is necessary - if it has an end at all - to give it a sense of closure.

Traditional bosses (a single large enemy to be pummeled in a shooter or platformer) change both the style and difficulty but maybe not both are needed or maybe the style or difficulty could be changed in other ways?

Maybe a denouement is more suitable for a particular game - with a final levels that actually decreases in difficulty as the game winds down.

If the game has been following a constant style, introducing new rules for a clear finale.

Or if the game is a simple puzzle game that has been introducing new rules every new 'world', the last can be different by NOT introducing a new rule - exploring those that exist more fully.

The old tradition of throwing every previous boss at us at the end certainly helps signal the ending and by skipping through previously seen elements, helps generate 'closure'.

In short, I think I agree with Richard. There's no reason for a single big enemy - the traditional boss - though punctuation is always needed, whatever form that takes.

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