Die, die, die: Boss battle design in Death's Gambit
“Death's Gambit literally began as a google doc of boss ideas. It’s what we like making the most, and it’s always been the highlight of the game,” says Alex Kubodera, co-founder of Death’s Gambit developer White Rabbit.
Death’s Gambit casts the player as the right hand of Death, a being tasked with taking down some nasty immortals. These beasts have no intention of going down easy in a world where everything intends to put up a hard fight, so, for these bosses to stand out to the player, they have to be something truly special and difficult.
With their love of the boss battle, though, Kubodera and fellow White Rabbit cofounder Jean Canellas aimed to create some ruthless battles against unforgiving enemies. Should those prove too easy for players, the pair had further tricks up their sleeves, aiming to continually increase the difficulty in unique ways that would make the fights interesting and involved for players.
Players coming to action RPG Death’s Gambit could expect a handful of things with its bosses, as Kubodera and Canellas had some important guidelines in place when they created them.
For starters, it was important that each boss feel unique, standing apart from all other major enemies. “Each boss must have something that makes it stand out from all other bosses in the game. If possible, it should be as prominent in the encounter as possible. For example, the dark phase during the Dark Knight, or the tilting platform during the Tundra Lord fight,” says Kubodera.
This variety should not only exist between bosses, but also within each individual fight, offering new mechanics to learn and adapt to. “Each boss must keep you entertained and constantly throw new things at you as the fight progresses,” says Kubodera.
These moves that the boss uses must also work to counter someone who’s dodging willy-nilly, demanding the player take care with their movements. “Each boss must have a level of strategy to it. Dodging and blocking at the right time should not be the only determinant factor of success,” he continues.
While Kubodera would want the player to be careful, it was important not to punish them for making a single mistake. “Minimize the possibility for the player to get killed in one hit or in one combo. Going from max health to death due to one mistake feels pretty bad in most games. This is why every stat increases health by a little bit, to try and minimize glass cannon builds.”
Finally, these core rules would also need to be tweaked based on where each boss would be met within the game’s world. “Each boss must be designed with its placement within the world in mind. The first boss in the game needs to be designed differently than the final boss. We asked ourselves, what makes a GOOD first boss? What makes a GOOD final boss?” says Kubodera.
Each of the bosses in Death’s Gambit was given their set of abilities and maneuvers based around these core rules. “The Owlking has all the characteristics of a good first boss. The mechanics aren’t overwhelming, and there is enough attack variety to keep the player on edge. Its phase change is simple, but still surprising and daunting. The Tundra Lord capitalizes on positioning based on the teetering platform. The ice pillars can block you in an unfavorable position, so dealing with them quickly, or positioning yourself well, is really important,” says Kubodera.
“The Dark Knight requires you to have a light source, particularly in Heroic mode, and his large attack radius makes it all the more important to be able to see him. The Forgotten Gaian introduces the two phases of the fight separately, first with the Gaian, and then with Ione, eventually combining the two in a deadly ballet. The point with each one of these bosses is to set up strategic encounters that don’t necessarily rely on reflex,” he continues.
They could also work on telling a story with each boss, bringing in their personal histories to create a memorable, unique fight. “Thalamus’ attacks are built on messing with the player’s head. He thrives on fear and the unknown, taking many players by surprise. The fact that he doesn’t have a health bar reinforces this idea, where you have no idea if you’re doing any “damage” to him. He splits the screen, makes clones of the player, forces you to read and pick up positive emotions. It’s a totally different encounter from anything else in the game. Not to mention an important story beat concludes the fight. By the end of it, you shouldn’t feel secure or comfortable, ignorant as to whether or not you won,” says Kubodera.
Through sticking to these rules about how bosses behaved, they could ensure battling them would be interesting for the player.
Systems of war
Having complex, fun bosses is only part of the battle in creating memorable fights. The systems and mechanics the players use against bosses would need to be appealing as well, offering players room to find their own strategies and tweak their fighting styles to make combat more involved.
“We wanted to design the combat in such a way that there was always room for the player to improve. That core philosophy is what we think makes us stand apart from the Dark Souls and Castlevania games we were inspired by. The focus is on optimizing your play style. We’ve done our jobs when the player has fought a boss several times, and still feels like they haven’t fully mastered the encounter,” says Kubodera.
“We accomplish this by adding mechanics on top of the hack and slash combat that typically rewards players for playing in a mindless way. Spamming the main attack is not the optimal way to deal damage in Death’s Gambit. For example, the 3rd attack in the halberd combo deals a lot more damage if you have a halberd ability on cooldown. We also have a talent that makes the next air attack after a combo finisher deal 4x damage,” he continues.
White Rabbit didn’t just want players to have complicated bosses that they could defeat using a handful of possible movesets. Through their combat system, they aimed to open battle up for the player, giving them an opportunity to fine-tune their fighting style in small, but powerful ways. Through this, the player could find quicker, more effective ways to win, deepening the strategy involved in their fights. It wasn’t just about countering boss moves with their own, but what things they could change on their character to make battles move faster.
“Learning these systems provide many of our players with a “lightbulb” moment, who then want to try out their new strategy. As you progress, more abilities and talents become available to you that add thought and dynamism into your play style. We strive to set up situations with enemy and trap placements that keep the engagement fresh with multiple viable options. We’ve done the same with defensive tools, typically making one better depending on the situation. The options are; deal enough damage to stagger them, dodge roll, parry, or block. People who solely rely on dodge rolling will eventually figure out that many attacks are actually better to block,” says Kubodera.
With a variety of player mechanics in place and bosses roughed out, the immortal beasts went through a series of iterations and testing to see how well they would work in Death’s Gambit. “The boss designs went through a constant state of iteration. Most never played like we originally thought they would, so it was a matter of refocusing on what made it fun,” says Kubodera.
As an example, Kubodera brings up the boss Bysurge. “Bysurge initially took place on a moving train that would flip, so your gravity would constantly be shifting. Imagine the current fight taking place in an environment like that. Conceptually it’s awesome, but mechanically it would be a nightmare and ridiculously overwhelming. There were also enemies that would switch your polarity when killed, so it became a matter of maintaining opposite polarities to Bysurge in order to deal the most damage. Highly complex when you’re also fighting a hulking mechanical lizard that wants to maul your face. We simplified this so players can choose which polarity they want before the fight, either to negate damage on a phase they don’t feel comfortable in, or to capitalize on damage for phases they are confident in.”
The complexity laid out here makes the Bysurge fight sound incredibly intense and engrossing, yet, in practice, it turned out to be a bit much to have to deal with. It was far from the only fight that changed over time, though, as the developers felt out when what they wanted to do might be a bit too much for players to handle comfortably, even with a solid strategy.
“The current Heroic Phoenix fight used to feature a climbing section where you would hop on the back of the Phoenix and fight in the sky,” says Kubodera. “Again, conceptually it’s awesome, mechanically, not so much. Pacing for those kinds of boss fights can get tricky. If you fall off the Phoenix, do you die and reset the fight? Does that mean going back and doing the climb again? The Phoenix didn’t have enough space for the fight to feel fun, nor did falling off feel deserved or fair. People can complain about cut content all they want, but at the end of the day, what was settled on is the best version of the fight.”
“The Gaians were also an interesting challenge. The bigger they are, the harder it is to design them. We have 3 in game, and had ideas for a couple others, but no prototypes. The first we tried making was the Ice Gaian, which used to utilize the hookshot. In that, players would reach points to be able to shoot weak points (this was when Death’s Gambit only had guns). Conceptually cool, mechanically boring,” says Kubodera.
“So, we took a different approach with the Forgotten Gaian. It was a climbing puzzle a la Shadow of the Colossus. Weaken its foot so you can climb on its thigh and remove a sword to deal massive damage. The Gaian would swipe his arm to try to knock you off. This animation is still in the game. Once that was done, the player would then have to time a jump to climb on its sword, at which point the fight with Ione would ensue. Defeating her would let the player safely remove the next sword upon the Gaian’s head. It had very distinct phases, but didn’t play to the strengths of what we wanted with the combat. We made climbing the boss optional (it’s still possible to get on his sword and deal with Ione alone up there without the worry of being smashed). But now disabling his foot is what gives you the safety to be able to focus on bursting down Ione. If you don’t deal with the foot, you end up fighting both at the same time,” says Kubodera.
The goal was not to make something so complex that players would be frustrated in dealing with it, but something that was just complex enough that it would push the player to find deep strategies while giving the boss its own battle personality. It would stand out and provide a unique fight with many combat options, yet not feature so many different attacks and phases that it became dizzying, or worse, irritating.
Building on brutality
Death’s Gambit features a highly challenging Heroic mode for players who wish to truly test their mettle. One might assume that this would be a good time to bring out those truly-frustrating mechanics that had been cut before, as they would undoubtedly provide trouble for all but the most skilled players. However, the fact that these old iterations were not fun or were too complicated still remained, and even at high difficulties, were not really what the developer wanted.
Here, White Rabbit would need to find means to challenge the player that would not draw upon these frustrating challenges, but very carefully build upon what the developers felt worked before. It would require even more care, rather than tossing in more health, damage, and moves. It involved an even further refinement of what they had created.
“The way we designed the Heroic fights was to modify the foundation we set up with normal, and add a few twists, or crank up the element that makes them unique,” says Kubodera.
“A good example is Origa the sniper. The encounter remains largely unchanged, save for a few key twists. She gains 6 bullets to shoot instead of 4, increasing the time before she has to reload, leaving herself vulnerable. One of these bullets is now an explosive shot that can destroy any gravestones close to the player. This forces the player to think about her main attack differently, and position themselves accordingly. Timing dodge rolls becomes a much more important part of the fight,” says Kubodera.
Adding two more shots and an explosive strike was enough to create a significant difference in challenge, giving the player far fewer breaks during the fight. It doesn’t seem like an extreme change on paper like many of the earlier designs, and yet it makes the boss fight much more difficult.
“The Tundra Lord also changes in subtle ways, and is probably on the easier spectrum of the Heroic fights. The addition of a timed explosive that rolls on the teetering platform means you can no longer keep the platform perfectly stable, and it is in fact to your benefit to keep it off kilter. They can still be blocked in by the ice pillars if the player isn’t diligent in removing them too,” says Kubodera.
“The Soul of the Phoenix is also a great example. The normal fight has you simply fighting against her in a close room. For the Heroic version you fight her in a huge room with platforms you can stand on. This would make it an easier fight, except you are now in the open where the Phoenix itself can come and rain fire over the battlefield. When this happens, you have to hide below the platforms to avoid the fire. But the Soul of the Phoenix’s main combo with 2 attacks, now has a 3rd long range swing, and her cyclone pulls you towards the center, towards the fire,” he continues.
The point is to make subtle changes that give the player one or two more things to juggle, putting a bit more pressure on them to do something different, rather than having to repeat the same actions for a longer time for bosses with increased health and damage. Through some small but clever tweaks, White Rabbits were able to add even more challenge to their bosses, creating memorable battles for skilled players to enjoy.
“At the end of the day, beating bosses should flood you with a sense of euphoria," concludes Kubodera. "We've received plenty of messages from people saying Death's Gambit is the first game to have done that to them in a long long time.”