Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Boss Fights

A typical boss fight is often not very credible. Especially if the boss is actually supposed to be a human being like your character. A boss should be slightly stronger than his followers, perhaps he uses them to protect him in some way, but he shoudn't have 10 million hit points. There are exceptions, like dragons, gods and other entities, but most of the time I'd like to reduce boss fights to fights between a group of players and the boss, supported by his followers.

You run into a lot of problems, if you implement very powerful bosses that are fought by a whole group. They need to be almost immune to stun effects, for example. If they are melee, they need to be immune to snare effects, and if they are casters they cannot be silenceable or interruptable. Removing snares, stuns, silences and interrupts will necessarily corrode any class balance. This difference between single player PvE, PvP and boss fights easily rips the game in two halves. To balance the two halves each and against each other can easily turn out to be a developers nightmare.
Looking at these problems, it is almost funny that most MMORPGs offer single-boss fights with no or only trivial 'adds'. Why do most MMORPGs do it, though?

- It's a classic. Really! Doom had boss fights and people just expect them.
- 30 players are already hard enough to follow on your screen. If you add some 30 enemies instead of one boss, you turn the fight into a very complex and unpredictable encounter, which is undesirable in itself and causes a problem:
- The more complex a situation, the more effective are easy strategies, like e.g. AE effects.

You can see this kind of effect in the WoW arena. 2:2 is very popular, because it is not too complex. 3:3 is already very complex, but 5:5 is very unpopular, because it is so complex that the most effective strategies are those that work no matter what the enemy does. This makes the whole fight boring and predictable, because you need to use simple and predictable strategies to counter the unpredictable nature of the fight.
Crowd vs. crowd battles, like those in WAR are so complex that you find yourself using the same abilities all the time. It's ironic, but after a certain point of complexity the most effective counterstrategy is the least complex one. Something good generals learnt early in the art of war. The most important attribute of a strategy is that it works.

We have seen that both approaches have problems. I would like to stick to boss fights that do not contain a single 10mio HP boss, but a boss and his followers. There are three points that need to be considered.

AE effects cannot be allowed to be extremely powerful. However, to make a devastating firestorm deal some tiny amount of damage is not very credible and not fun (WoW Colloseum PvP encounter). Thus, we will have to make it difficult to use effectively, but very powerful if used correctly. There are many creative ways to make an AE skill/spell difficult to use.
It can be channeled, easily interruptable, damage the user itself or need some power-up time. It could exhaust the user for a time or just have a large cooldown. Friendly fire is also a great way to make AE effects less powerful, without reducing their credibility, but brings along a whole lot of other problems. I will write about this soon.

We need to use an interface that gives the player a good overview over the situation. That is especially difficult if you don't want an isometric view, but a first or third person view. Due to the camera angle you need to make all dungeons incredibly large. That large, indeed, that you really run into credibility problems, like why would goblins dig a cave that has a ceiling height of 50 meters? It's also very hard if not impossible, to create the impression of sneaking through a narrow dungeon this way, which is a pity.

In a turn based game, the time per turn automatically scales with the number of actions you want to take. In a real time MMORPG, however, this is not possible. Therefore the more complex the situation the less time you have to think about each action. Unless you want to create a turn based MMORPG, you need to find a pace that allows the players to use tactics in a complex fight without being boring in a simple fight. One solution is to add a global cooldown (GCD) that is comparatively large. This also helps with latency, which is a real advantage in an MMORPG. Dynamic mechanisms that increase the GCD the more enemies you fight, are not an option, as they are not fun and feel strange.
One way to partly solve the problem is to make the enemies behave very predictable, like all being 'tanked'. I don't like this solution and will go into that in a future post. I have to acknowledge, however, that this is an effective way to partly solve the problem of increasing complexity the more enemies attack you.

My main conclusion, however, is to use small groups - especially for PvE.
Small groups do have problems on their own. The most prominent one being that it is very hard to balance an encounter for e.g. 4 players, if the number of available classes is larger than 4. But this weakness can be countered by dungeon and encounter design. I will go into that in one of my next posts.


  1. Hey Nils, congratulations on your blog :-)

    I find your post a bit hard to comment on, because it has really many ideas in it which could rather be discussed in dedicated threads.

    -is 15+man content desirable?
    -is a tank/dps/heal setup desirable?

    both should be clarified as "bossfights" is to huge a topic to discuss otherwise.

    I would answer "yes" to both questions, because the bigger your raid is, the more you experience a sense of achivement and epicness. For the T-D-H setup, i do like it very much, as it adds dephts to the game (imagine wow bossfights of 25 health-potting rogues slaying a dragon - not funnny).

    That given, i find it really hard to think of a lot of scenarios where a boss has roughly as many hitpoints as your average raider (say x5 max) and still is a worthwhile experience - very likely it will just be nuked to death within seconds.

  2. Remember the original heroics in The Burning Crusade; especially The Shattered Halls Heroic pre all nerfs.
    Fights can be very challenging and still contain no scripted boss. That doesn't mean that I want to remove all scripted boss fights. I'd just like to use more fights like the PvE-PvP ones Blizzard implements from time to time. Most recently in the coliseum. This particular fight is not well done in my opinion, but it does prove the point that you do not necessarily need one über-powerful boss to create an interesting and challenging fight.

    These kinds of fights also solve a lot of other problems, like the relentless focus of DD classes on dps and nothing else. But you are right: The subject is very wide. I will have to write several posts about all these facets to cover it.