FPS Boss Fights Don’t Have to Suck Ft. Durandal

Editors note: This is another guest post by Durandal, though I wrote most of the paragraph on encouragement/discouragement and push/pull. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact me on discord.

Boss fights involve fighting against one or more enemies that are usually harder than what came before in the game. Story/gameplay-wise they’re an effective way of setting the climax for a level or chapter, which is why they’re so widely used. Many genres like beat ‘em ups, platformers and shoot ’em ups all often feature great boss fights, like Credo in DMC4, Death in Castlevania 1, and the Battleship in Contra 3. But then you have bosses in first-person shooters.

In the 28 years since grandpa Wolfenstein 3D, there has been no truly good FPS boss fight. Instead you get playing peekaboo with (hitscanner) bulletsponges (such as Hans Grosse in Wolfenstein 3D and the 2009 reboot, the final bosses of Wolfenstein: TNO, TNC, and Youngblood, Makron in Quake 2, Tchernobog in Blood, the Battlelord in Duke Nukem 3D and Forever, Splitter Crow in TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, The Destroyer in Borderlands 1). You get the inoffensive bulletsponges which you circlestrafe to death (the Overlord, Cycloid Emperor and Cycloid Queen in Duke Nukem 3D, the Skaarj Queen and all Titan fights in Unreal Gold, Fontaine in Bioshock 1, almost every boss in DUSK, AMID EVIL, and the Shadow Warrior reboot). And at worst you get puzzle bossesthat play nothing like the rest of the game and expect you to figure out a puzzle to beat the boss (the Spider Mastermind in Doom 1 when pistol starting, the Icon of Sin in Doom 2, Cthton and Shub-Niggurath in Quake 1, the final bosses in Serious Sam: TFE and BFE, Nihilanth in Half-Life 1).

To defeat this boss in this game of managing large hordes of enemies, you must play a lap of Superman 64.

The simplest solution here is to just… not have boss fights. Normal levels/setpieces have carried shooters in the past just fine. Halo CE’s or 3’s Warthog runs were way more engaging than whatever Halo 5 tried to do with its bosses. However, the absence of good FPS boss fights has led to the misconception that the genre itself is unsuitable for boss fights. When polled on why FPS boss fights tend to suck, 62% of a major gaming forum voted for the option, “It’s just that FPS don’t lend themselves to bosses very well.”. This perspective is wasteful because boss fights are one of the genre’s greatest untapped sources of potential, especially now that newer shooters like Doom Eternal and ULTRAKILL are coming closer to figuring them out.

Most shooter combat comes down to fighting groups of enemies using different weapons. They test you on crowd control, target prioritization, movement, and weapon selection amongst other skills. But most shooter bosses are lone, large, slow, and tanky foes, and don’t effectively test you on these skills.

Most FPS arsenals are designed for group combat, therefore it doesn’t make much sense for a FPS boss fight to be a pure 1v1. The simple solution is to increase the amount of threats in a boss fight. Beat ‘em ups figured this out a long time ago by supporting bosses with respawning regular enemies (‘adds’ for short). If you don’t want the adds to overwhelm you and exploit your blind spots, you need to think about which targets to focus on, which weapons to use, and where to move–like you do in normal combat. Because the adds keep respawning, you can’t just kill all adds and then take out the boss by itself. By giving you more targets of varying types to deal with, more weapons in your arsenal remain relevant, and so a boss fight can test you on the skills you apply during normal combat.

For story purposes (like a rival duel) the adds don’t always have to be regular enemies. They can also be objects that the boss summons to attack you (like shadow clones, floating swords), or impede you indirectly (mines, things that heal the boss). And it’s not as if a boss fight has to consist of one boss enemy accompanied by several smaller threats either. Bosses can also appear as duos (most famously Ornstein & Smough from Dark Souls 1), trios, a collection of smaller targets, or even an entire mini-army of boss enemies.

That said, adds don’t automatically make a boss fight good. If the adds pose no real threat, then they may as well not exist (like the Octabrains and Protector Drones in Duke Nukem 3D’s Queen boss fight where you can circlestrafe around their attacks forever). And while Serious Sam: TSE’s final boss does test your core skills by summoning hordes of threatening enemies, it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from other fights in the game, as moving around and summoning enemies is all the boss does. The Leviathan in Devil Daggers is a better example of using adds while still presenting an unique challenge. There the Leviathan will buff adds that touch it, so you have to juggle between damaging the boss and killing the adds before they get buffed and pose a larger threat. Adds could also buff the boss, or act as a shield or cover for the boss, giving you a reason to kill them quickly when they appear.

From a broader perspective, boss fights test you on two things: offense (how you can deal damage to the boss) and defense (how you can mitigate damage from the boss). Defense for (non-hitscan) shooter boss fights often comes down to circlestrafing, since most bosses will only ever charge at you in a straight line or fire a linear stream of projectiles, and the arenas give you enough space to circlestrafe forever. Some bosses like in Metroid Prime can emit shockwaves that you must jump over and can’t strafe around, but even then those rarely get more complex than throwing a single shockwave at you once. Having several overlapping attacks that vary where and when it’s a good idea (not) to jump would make for a more engaging boss fight than one where you hold Left or Right for the whole fight while occasionally pressing the jump button.

It’s actually DOOM (2016)’s bosses that are the best in the genre at testing your movement (even if it’s only decent when compared to bosses in other genres). So they will spam the entire arena with telegraphed airstrikes at random positions, fire leading projectiles that aim at where you are moving instead of where you are to make you switch strafing directions, cut off your horizontal movement by raising walls from the ground to both of your flanks, fire wide projectiles at different elevations to make you jump (but punish careless double jumping), throw projectiles at you that you have to shoot down to avoid, fire high sweeping lasers that you must crouch under, and turn the floor into lava to force you to climb to the high ground. You can’t avoid any of these by just circlestrafing. By combining attacks that restrict your space, can’t be (double) jumped over, can’t be crouched under, can’t be strafed around, have to be shot down, or require platforming, there is no simple answer to where and how you should move. Especially projectiles with different elevations/widths/heights are very underutilized in shooters, which is a shame considering their potential for testing your movement. Hitscan attacks in (non-hitscan) boss fights could still work provided they’re strongly telegraphed and cover is ample (like The Burst’s sniper shots in Furi). You could even have attacks that come at you from your flanks/behind you/above you, provided those are telegraphed as well. Sound cues have proven to be useful for this in games like Serious Sam where Headless Kamikazes scream louder the closer they are. Throw in adds and overlapping attack patterns on top of all this, and a boss fight would test your improvisation skills too–preventing the fight from becoming completely predictable on each playthrough.

Hitscan shooters (like Halo, FEAR, and most military shooters) usually don’t have many unique movement options, but instead emphasize positioning, flanking, and not getting flanked. Unfortunately most hitscan shooter bosses end up being a game of peekaboo, a turret/vehicle segment, or some other kind of gimmick fight, but the first phase of Vanquish’ final boss fight shows how to do it right (it may be a TPS, but it’s close enough to FPS games to make a comparison between the two).

In Vanquish’s final boss fight, you have to deal with two flying Bogeys that keep flanking you with their sniper rifle or homing lasers. They can negate your cover advantage with grenades, EMP grenades that sap your energy, a cover-penetrating laser, or by rushing you down with their sword. The environment also plays a part: all the cover in the arena is always shifting up and down, making it impossible to sit in the same spot for the whole fight. While you’re trying to focus on one Bogey, the other will snipe or rush you, so you’re always looking for the best position while trying to find opportunities to recover or deal damage. You can’t just play peekaboo behind a corner because both the bosses and the arena itself will keep flushing you out. It doesn’t change the mode of gameplay away from the norm, and it actually tests you on what you’ve learned so far.

But for first-person games there’s one important caveat: there’s no third-person camera to look around corners with. A hitscan boss flanking you in a FPS can feel unfair since you can’t see it coming, which is why giving the player extra information is necessary (something I’ve talked about in greater depth with F.E.A.R. 1). The Thief games and multiplayer shooters like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six: Siege rely on sound design to let you know what’s around a wall, and XIII would visualize nearby enemy footsteps through walls. Here one could even design an entire information warfare metagame, like with MGS3’s The End where the main challenge isn’t attacking or defending, but figuring out where the boss is (and trying not to get yourself discovered in the process).

That covers defense, but there’s still offense to deal with. Unfortunately offense is usually pretty simple in single player FPS. Attacking the boss usually comes down to “equip the strongest weapon and shoot at it until it dies”–even if the boss is good at testing your movement. While different weapons in your arsenal are designed to have unique roles and drawbacks that make some worth using over others depending on the situation, most shooter bosses don’t try to change up the main situation (within a phase of the boss fight). So their distance from you mostly remains the same, what parts of their body they can take damage from remain the same, what damage types they’re vulnerable to remain the same, how they respond to getting shot remains the same, sometimes their position for the whole fight remains the same, and the environment remains the same. If the situation never changes, the player only needs to use the one best weapon for that situation. And since the situation for most shooter boss fights comes down to fighting a lone target with tons of HP, the best weapon (or a combination of weapons if reload canceling is a thing) is usually the one that deals the highest DPS. In DOOM (2016) that weapon is Siege Mode, in the Serious Sam games it’s the Cannon, in Duke Nukem 3D it is the Devastators, in Blood it’s the Napalm Launcher, and in other shooters it tends to be a rocket launcher or minigun. Once you run out of ammo for that weapon, the best weapon to use would be the one with the second-highest DPS, and so on. While adds do help with giving you reasons to switch weapons, the problem remains that once you do carve out an opening through the adds to safely damage the boss, the best weapon for that moment is usually still going to be the one with the highest DPS. And that’s not even taking into account how some of the aforementioned weapons can in one shot penetrate through several weaker enemies and still deal full damage to the boss, making them one of the best options to deal with both adds and the boss at once!

To avoid this, the boss should create situations where some weapons are better than others. There are 2 basic ways to incentivize using certain weapons: encouragement through the boss’s vulnerabilities, and discouragement through the boss’s attacks and behavior. Explosive weapons can be encouraged by giving the boss multiple weak points which let you deal more damage by hitting more of them at the same time (such as Icon of Sin in Doom Eternal). Explosive weapons (which deal self-damage if you’re caught in their AoE) can be discouraged by having the boss try to get close to you, or dodge the explosives. Short range weapons can be encouraged by having the boss negate all shots from long range (by dodging them, or by being covered in a shield bubble that you have to move into), or by making it so the short range weapons can flinch the boss unlike longer range ones. The boss can discourage short range weapons by staying away or making it dangerous to try and get close. The boss can also use attacks that push the player away, especially when they’re close, so the player needs to attack opportunistically to get damage in without getting pushed out. Projectile weapons and sustained fire weapons can be encouraged by having the boss move slowly and predictably, and discouraged by having the boss move erratically (and in general these affect how easy a boss is to hit, regardless of weapon type). Burst fire weapons can be encouraged by making the boss vulnerable for a limited period of time or only to a limited number of hits, so you need to get the strongest hit you can in. Sustained fire can be encouraged by multiplying damage the more times in succession the boss is hit, or by making the boss vulnerable for longer each time it is hit. Naturally, both of these are the discouragement for the other too. A weak point on the back of the boss can incentivise using splash damage, or moving around the boss. The key angle to consider is encouragement and discouragement. Weapons should be better and worse for a task, rather than a weapon being the only solution vs. being completely irrelevant..

Another thing to consider is having a natural ‘push’ and ‘pull’ to the boss. You might want to get into a certain optimal position, but you can’t stay there for long, like trying to balance objects on your head. You might want to stand still, but to keep them balanced, you need to keep moving and adjusting to stay under them. Wanting to be far, but the boss moving towards you to force you close together is a basic example. Wanting to be close, but the boss running away, or pushing you is another. Wanting to stay still and charge, but the boss not giving you time is also worth considering. Consider things the player wants and how to force them out of alignment, especially when the player gets the thing they want, such as hitting your enemy, but pushing them away like a balloon in the process, so you can’t aim straight anymore. If these things are responsive to the player’s position, the angle of their attack, or other analog factors, then they can help introduce chaos into a fight, making it more improvisational and less rote.

While some people might consider it arbitrary and unfair, you can also create counters by giving the boss damage resistances against certain weapons, reducing the ammo drops for those weapons, or taking those weapons away from you entirely. Sometimes this is necessary to create interesting situations that certain weapons might trivialize. So the Spider Mastermind fight in Doom (1993) required a rather elaborate solution to kill as it was designed around you starting the level with only a pistol, but if you played with weapons carried over from previous levels (like what most people did), then you can end the entire fight in 10 seconds by running up to the boss and firing the BFG in its face three or four times. Sometimes restricting one option allows more options to become relevant. Doom Eternal restricted your ability to use the BFG and Crucible Sword on Marauders, so you’d have to fight them fairly.

Another important thing to consider is that weapons can have roles other than just dealing damage (roles which the strongest weapons ideally don’t already have), so bosses should also consider creating situations where prioritizing dealing damage is suboptimal. If a weapon can be used for mobility (like letting you rocketjump or grapple towards enemies), then giving the boss attacks that are best avoided using that method is interesting. If a weapon can stun/flinch/freeze enemies to prevent them from moving and/or attacking, then a boss can rush you down so hard that stunning it becomes almost necessary to avoid damage. If a weapon can launch/knock back/reposition enemies, then the boss arena should allow you to push/pull the boss into more advantageous positions (like knocking the boss into other adds to knock them over, or knocking the boss into a pool of lava). Think about other types of advantages that can be gained on a boss, ideally ones that relate to the space between you and the boss, and the shape of the boss’s arena; advantages that are bigger during certain phases of the boss or attacks.

While there may now be more situations in a given boss fight, there’s still going to be one best weapon for each one of those situations. As with defense, you can try to create overlapping counters by having multiple threats (such as adds or boss buffs) asynchronously cycle throughout the fight, so you’re not just going through a fixed sequence of dominant strategies. There will still be options that are better than others based on the situation, but this way it’s trickier to determine which options those are than if the boss consisted of one enemy that performed one attack at once. Important to note is that shooters already do most of the above through their enemy roster in regular gameplay. Each enemy type tends to present an unique counter or threat, which when mixed with other enemy types means you can’t often rely on just one option for the whole fight. All that needs to be done here is to apply the same design philosophy to the boss enemies themselves. This is how bosses work in the beat ‘em up The Ninja Warriors (Once) Again, where the boss enemies are usually just souped up regular enemies with unique attacks and properties, but are still vulnerable to most of your moves, and are still paired with regular enemies to cover up their own weaknesses.

One option is to build a boss that functions like a normal combat encounter, but requires you to approach it in a new way, unique to that fight. The final boss in TNW(O)A is the only one in the game that isn’t a humanoid, but instead a static target that you can only damage by throwing other (infinitely respawning) adds into it, all while it’s cutting off your space with lasers and projectiles. While there’s only one way of damaging the boss here, the process of safely grabbing an add and being in the right range to throw it at the boss and avoiding the environmental hazards is deeply intertwined with all the skills you normally apply through the game, especially if you consider that almost every enemy type in the game will eventually be spawned in this fight. So while there’s one specific solution, you still get tested on the core skills you normally use throughout the game in addition to the unique challenge of precisely throwing enemies at the boss. Contrast this to your usual FPS puzzle boss where all the challenge lies in figuring out the solution, but executing it is trivial. Once you figure out how to damage the Icon of Sin in Doom 2 or Shub-Niggurath in Quake 1, there isn’t much preventing you from being able to execute the solution at any time.

There’s also one essential skill that FPS bosses (and singleplayer shooters in general) never quite test you on: aiming. Retro shooters were often designed around keyboard aiming or auto-aim, and modern shooters had to be designed around console players playing with a gamepad, both of which limited how fast the player could move their crosshair on a target. But there’s some potential to be had for shooters designed around keyboard and mouse. We actually see more of this in VR and rail shooters, which focus on testing your aim over your movement. If you can’t move at all, then your main means of defense is to aim at and shoot down all these projectiles and enemies before they hit you. The type of aiming required here is called ‘target switching’, which is a mix of the two main aiming forms: flicking (moving your crosshair on top of the target) and tracking (keeping your crosshair on a moving target). To test flicking, the boss could teleport or leap to random spots to shoot at you, only being vulnerable when they’re about to shoot, or teleport to a random spot every time you hit them. To test tracking, the boss can keep strafing around you and change its strafing directions at a regular rate or at a random rate that’s telegraphed (otherwise your consistency to hit the boss would be RNG-dependent, which isn’t ideal for singleplayer). A boss can even strafe up/down and forwards/backwards instead of only left/right. The difficulty of flicking and tracking correlates with how fast and how small the boss is. For added challenge, the boss can even have weak points that deal extra damage or stun during these phases. Maybe you just get a shot if you hit the boss when they’re vulnerable, but if you hit their weak point, you stun them and get to lay down some heavy fire for a bit. A good source of inspiration for challenging boss patterns here comes from Aim Trainers. Aim Trainers test you abstractly on a lot of different types of aiming skills in FPS, and if you can take those abstract aiming patterns and map them to a boss, then you’ll end up with some tight and tough aiming challenges.

Boss fights in FPS games are largely unexplored compared to other game genres, but they do have potential. To live up to this potential, they need to consider ways of utilizing their core gameplay principles of movement, aiming, weapon switching, rather than coming up with gimmicky puzzles or hopping to other genres. Hopefully with more experimentation we’ll see FPS boss fights develop in their own unique ways and maybe even become a staple of the genre.

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