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    RPG Boss Design 101

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    BTB

    With the 2.0 release of Brave New World just around the corner and one of its most prominent changes being a complete overhaul of enemy AI, I wanted to take a moment to talk specifically about how to design a good boss fight in an RPG. Now, anyone who's played Brave New World at all in the six years since its initial release can generally agree on at least one thing: Atma Weapon is the fight to watch out for. He's big, he's mean, he caps off the first half of the game in an epic fight with its own special music, and I set out to make sure that every bit of that distinction was earned. All of the other bosses in Brave New World have slowly evolved over time to get to where they are now, but Atma in particular has barely changed at all for fear of fucking with the gold standard that I was holding everything else I was designing to. And that's particularly interesting since, when I wrote it, I really didn't know what the hell I was doing.

    There are many ways to go about making your boss difficult, most of which fall under the definition of "fake difficulty" and should be avoided. More important than if something is hard is why it's hard - I'm not going to complain if you have an erection, but I will be concerned if you got it from stabbing children. Giving your boss more hit points (beyond a certain threshold) does nothing except needlessly prolong the fight and, while random elements are necessary, relying too heavily on them will turn your fight into a luck-based mission. There are several reasons that Atma works despite the fact that his AI is not particularly complex or interesting by my current standards: most importantly, he uses a wide variety of attacks that are both directly and indirectly offensive, and his stats are fine-tuned to my personally-suggested guideline of, "make the fight just hard enough that you, the developer can beat it, but only barely, and then dial it back a notch". But even this is just scratching the surface of what really makes the fight tick.

    At their core, battles in RPGs are nothing more than a balancing act of priorities. At their most simplistic, those priorities are defense and offense. Will my character be able to survive another hit? If not, then heal, else attack. A third priority often comes into play in the form of a limited resource, most commonly MP for magical abilities, that might force you to think one more turn ahead. You can see right away that this isn't particularly deep, especially when that third priority isn't stressed hard enough either because MP is so plentiful or consumable items are so abundant to the point of never being an issue (extra demerits if said items are just as good as or better than any character-specific abilities that they imitate). Sadly, many RPGs are comprised of battles which are barely if at all evolved beyond the point of "hit the bad guy until it dies" - unsurprisingly, such games tend to be regarded by their fans for their stories rather than for their gameplay. I've stated in the past that status effects are the "X-Factor" separating an interesting battle system from a pure numbers game, and this is where we dive head-first into that concept at work. By expanding the above list of priorities to include both positive and negative effects on the player character as well as the opponent, suddenly there's a lot more to juggle.

    Indeed, Atma Weapon is a battle where negative statuses are applied liberally to the player while positive ones are periodically stripped by force. Atma himself gains status buffs halfway through the fight that the player can opt to remove. However, this is immediately followed up by a particularly devastating attack that will require action to recover from, thus effectively dividing the player's attention. Initially, these buffs were a one-time application which would simply reward any player who thought to remove them; the only significant change that Atma has seen in the last six years was my realization that a "set and forget" approach to this particular element meant that it didn't end up factoring into the player's list of priorities. In order for those buffs to be part of the great balancing act, they had to be a persistent factor throughout the fight, and thus a new core mechanic of the battle is preemptively dispelling those buffs at set intervals.

    The final ingredient in what makes the battle with Atma Weapon particularly rough is his inherent ability to regenerate health. That it makes the battle more challenging is obvious, but it's again important to note why. Looking at the player's list of priorities, we see now quite a few things: offense, healing, resource management, buffs and debuffs... but this can all still be simplified to "get on your feet and then attack", meaning that the player can adopt a heavily defensive approach to greatly minimize the risk of defeat. With the enemy afforded the capability to heal, however, offense can no longer be completely de-prioritized and becomes woven into the fight's balancing act in a way that it otherwise wouldn't. Other fights in Brave New World take different approaches to this problem, most notably Phunbaba's "rage timer" that earns the player a face full of Blow Fish if they go for too long without attacking, regardless of how powerful that attack is.

    So, where does good boss design have to go from here? We must look past offense simply existing as a single priority and break it down into several of them, else offense is a simple matter of "hit the bad guy with the strongest attack you have" since there's generally no benefit in not using the strongest attack available. This is a concept that the original game attempted to explore with "wallchange" bosses which would periodically shift their elemental weaknesses at random while gaining immunity to every other element. Unfortunately, it didn't quite pan out as they'd hoped since players found it preferable to simply ignore the gimmick by spamming non-elemental attacks. Even when Brave New World took this concept one step further by preventing non-elemental damage and thus forcing the mechanic on the MagiMaster boss, the result was more of a gear check than an interesting or challenging fight. So clearly, there was a flaw to this approach.

    Enter Kaiser, king of the dragons and famous dummied-out boss from the original game who finally got his global debut as one of many questionable additions to the GBA re-re-release of Final Fantasy VI. He also appears in Brave New World as a third "wallchange" boss who somehow ended up even less interesting than the two who preceded him. Of all the boss fights to get a complete rewrite in 2.0, none were as significant or as needed as Kaiser's, which basically takes the "wallchange" gimmick and makes it proactive instead of reactive. The elemental premise still exists here, but rather than waiting in boredom for a weakness to present itself the player must instead actively cycle through their available attacks in order to prevent Kaiser from unleashing its real ultimate power. It's an extremely hectic fight that, moreso than any other in Brave New World, tests the player's ability to balance multiple priorities if they are to have any hope of pulling through.

    And for the closest thing that Brave New World has to an optional superboss, I would accept no less.

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