Road to Game Dev: The Final Boss. (Part 1: Planning)

Rowan Mcmanus
4 min readSep 16, 2021

Bosses are almost synonymous with action games. At the end of every level, every campaign, there’s the boss waiting for you, ready to end your hero’s journey.

Brainstorming: Basic Design

We’re going to take a bit of a departure from code for a bit to talk about some broader design concepts. What goes into a boss? How do you design a boss? What do you want the boss to do? How do you want the player to defeat the boss? These are all questions you need to ask. It always starts with a simple idea — in this case, I wanted to channel the classic arcade bosses that would fill the screen in the background, aiming dozes of turrets and weapons at you, and only advancing once you’ve destroyed enough of their components.

There are a few ways to approach this planning process; in a perfect world, I would plan the entire boss ahead of time, and then create all the necessary assets for it, tailoring it exactly to my needs. However, since this is a pretty small project, I went hunting for free assets instead. I found some awesome assets I could use, and they sparked the initial inspiration for the multi-component boss. Here’s a few of the things that came with it:

My eyes immediately landed on the huge destroyer on the left, and it wasn’t long before I started brainstorming the many ways that the turrets could be applied. This is an entirely self-contained package of assets to use — perfect for prototyping. This idea also has the added benefit of allowing the player to “disable” some attacks as they destroy each component.

Brainstorming: Attack Patterns

Before actually building the boss, I needed to know how I wanted the boss battle to actually behave. I already knew that I wanted to take further inspiration from classic bullet-hell games, and a giant ship like this was the perfect opportunity for it. This meant that I would need a lot of fast-firing attacks, multiple attacks going off at once in many cases, and a few different types of projectiles.

To make it easier, I quickly decided to assign each type of weapon a dedicated type of projectile it would use. Lasers were obvious, so I gave lasers to the small turrets. I also wanted to have missiles, so those made sense for the medium-sized turrets. And lastly, no screen-filling boss would be complete without their own giant lasers — so I gave those to the biggest turrets.

The next step is to ideate a few basic ideas of attacks patterns you’d like to see. I always find it best to take to paper and pencil for this, where it’s very easy to quickly sketch ideas out as you think of them, or even just write very brief descriptions. Here’s a peek at what my brainstorming pages looked like:

If you ever feel like your handwriting sucks, just remember: You aren’t alone

Attack Pattern Philosophy

As a final piece before we start actually building the boss, let’s talk for a moment about some of the important factors that go into designing attack patterns. There’s a few key questions you always want to keep in mind. Can the player dodge it? Can the player read it coming? Does the attack make sense with the rest of the boss’s attacks? And, not to be understated, will it look pretty? If the answer to any of these is “No”, then you should take a moment and figure out a way to modify the idea to make it work, or remove it altogether if there isn’t a good way to make it work. Many of our favorite ideas never make it into the final product for one reason or another. For a quick example, let’s look ahead at one of the patterns I designed later on:

This is a staple of bullet hell bosses: The waves of lasers, forming a pattern that looks incredibly intimidating. However, there’s a secret: There’s always a safe zone in the lasers where they’ll never hit. For this attack, it’s a fantastic core concept; if it needs to be modified, it’s not too difficult to increase the spacing of the lasers, change their speed, change how many are fired, etc. I found that the spacing and frequency was way too difficult, so I dialed it back — with a little bit of fine-tuning like that, you can turn a boss into a fantastic experience.

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