After an up-and-down struggle with what Naughty Dog considers “easy” difficulty, I finally finished Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3) recently. For all the things the game does right – it’s a magnificently polished title – the end sequence is an absolute disaster of rigid game design, bringing to mind the question of how to build final-bosses that don’t invite turning the game off.
Maybe we can’t get rid of this style of finish, but the least we can do is consider our options and plan appropriately. The way I see it, there are typically three schools of thought for bosses:
Make it Easy
The theory here is that the player has already suffered enough. Do something friendly, give the player the ice cream, and let’s head to the credits. It’s a safe-bet strategy, which is good for projects with not a lot of time, but also risks leaving the player with a tepid “where’s the climax” feeling to their adventure.
Key Example: Beautiful Katamari (360)
For all of the difficult moments in Beautiful Katamari, the end level really is a satisfying way to finish. The player begins a re-enactment of the King’s childhood, being asked to periodically roll things up that he wants to think he liked at the time. But the player is essentially left to his own devices, free to build a katamari big enough to swallow the solar system without time constraints. It’s exactly the gameplay players want from just hearing about the concept, only without the shackles of progression that would have applied earlier.
Make it Difficult
The old-school, Nintendo style theory goes that the final boss is the player’s final hurdle. A giant, monstrous, very difficult hurdle in which the player must execute extremely well using the abilities they’ve learned. It’s a logical way to do it, but very reliant on the player actually being able to execute like you think they will. These cases also tend to suffer from “rails” syndrome, where there is little or no room for creativity in finishing the encounter.
Key Example: Metroid Prime (GCN)
The Metroid Prime series is notorious for the Make-it-Difficult style, so for argument’s sake let’s bring up the first game. In a 2 stage, no save fight, you have to attack using different guns based on presented colors. Then later, you need to switch between all of the visor types in order to even see it. There’s also a new beam type that is environmentally activated, and the only remaining unused gameplay elements (bombs) are needed to fight off the swarming metroids.
Quite frankly it felt tiring just writing all of that out. Now, the idea certainly makes a lot of sense. Here’s this mega-boss that forces you to express mastery over all of the equipment you’ve acquired over the last twenty hours. Visual cues tell you how to rotate through your gameplay options, and theoretically, the player should have all of the skills and training to win. But it’s also a very strict, on-rails encounter. The boss tells you, the player, what your only strategy is for the next minute. Deviate from the script, and all you can expect is punishment. In the old days, that would be “INSERT COIN” but now you can only look forward to the title screen.
Try the Unexpected
Not anything else, per se, but this line of thinking from a designer assumes the player is spent on the game mechanics and using them further would come across as boring or aggravating (and believe me, this happens more than the average team might like to admit.) Instead, the theory goes, do something else, probably something simple, just to reach the game’s conclusion without losing attention entirely. The trick is that if you do something too different, the player feels alienated by something they had no chance to prepare for.
Key Example: Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War (PS2)
Arguably Namco’s finest entry in the series ends with an amazing and unusual finale. Sure, the player still has to dogfight a little bit. But with a full orchestra and chorus blaring, they are also tasked with destroying a large, undefended object that is crashing towards the earth. Sounds simple…until the player realizes that every hit sheers off metal plating that, according to gravity, could fling itself at the player at speeds of roughly mach 3.
While the core gameplay (steer and shoot) is untouched, the nature of the “boss” and the sudden change in cause-and-effect (nothing else sheers into pieces like that!) more than qualifies AC5’s finish as a case of “something else”.
Now, from a practical standpoint we can’t just ignore any of the three. Have a game where you’ve built up lots of equipment and stats? Difficult might make sense sometimes, as a validation of the formula you’ve developed. Forcing the player to restart often? Easy would fit the bill better. And doing something else entirely makes sense in a lot of situations where running and shooting for the thousandth time just isn’t going to be fun anymore.
Just keep in mind whether the player will think your design choice is fun twenty hours down the line, because when that ending hits, fighting that boss will be the latest memory in whether your games gets replayed…or resold.