The Making of a Monster

The Making of a Monster

by William Anderson

In one of my last articles we talked about the Making of a Hero, now it’s time to turn the table and address The Making of a Monster or Villain.

Have you ever seen a hit movie with a really great and dynamic hero character paired with really weak looking and acting bad guys? Probably not. For a great Hero vs Bad Guy system to work well, you must have a balance between good, evil, and their abilities. In this article, I will take you through some of the design processes involved in creating such characters.

As we go through what makes or breaks the design for bad guys, we’ll also sort through the laundry list of classic bad guy classifications. Note: depending on the type of product you are working on, the name classifications may differ. For example, in games like Quake or Unreal you have bad guy characters called Bots while in Action-Adventure you might have Bad Guys, Monsters, Boss, and Sub-Boss characters.

For purposes of this article, I will focus primarily on Action-Adventure characters, mainly because they are more widely known and, in some ways, are more universal to game play design.

Basic Character Classes

NPC – Non-Player Characters
These are any characters that are not controlled in anyway by the player. You see these terms used a lot within RPG game design. They are generic enough to use in just about any type of product design, although you might want to use one of these other descriptions just to make things a little clearer to your readers and team. The design for such characters is identical to Bad Guys and Monsters, below.

Bad Guys and Monsters
These come in 2 different basic categories: Global and Venue or World-Specific. Global characters are what I like to call “filler” characters that can be used to help tie a common theme through a game. This becomes more important in Adventure games where it might be harder to string the game story along with just background art. Remember, that because these characters are global the look, combat and abilities must feel natural in all worlds or they will feel out of place.

Venue or World-Specific characters are dedicated to one specific level or world of the game. The game play design for these characters can vary greatly depending on the type of level or world they are placed in, and their placement in the game.

How do you pace the combat and difficulty for such characters? Simply ramp their abilities based on what the player should know how to do at that point in the game and what weapons and defense he or she has. If you follow this rule it should naturally pace itself out.

Boss/ Sub-Boss Characters
Boss character are usually found at the very end of a game play section, level or world and are used primarily for setting up a milestone event that the play must overcome before continuing on to the next level of the game.

There are many ways to approach the game play design for these types of characters. Here I list some of the most common ones used:

Character Centered Design
These type of characters rely totally on the abilities of the character itself. No outside dangers come into play. Although limited because it is just focused on the character, character centered design can have a wide range of combat abilities limited only by the creative nature of the Boss character and the imagination of the designer. Note that these characters tends to be more common in game designs today mainly because the choreograph is much simpler and, sometimes, the coding time less.

Character and Environment Centered Design
Character and Environment Boss characters are found when the Boss character works in tandem with background or level dangers. This is what I see emerging as the Next Generation Boss design for these newer game systems. With the ever increasing complexity of game systems, and their ability to handle more things moving on the screen we are seeing more designers turning to mixing Boss Character Combat with choreographed background dangers for greater variety of combat systems.

Although this style of Boss character may cost more in development time, it’s a great way to balance a weaker, but needed, Boss character in a game. For example, let’s say you have a Spy game with a really physically weak Boss character that’s needed because it fits a licensed story line. The downside from your standpoint as the designer is that you might need a strong combat situation at this point in the game. How do you resolve this situation? Simply ramp up the level dangers around that Boss character, while making sure the player can’t defeat him until you feel that your pacing objectives have been reached.

Environment Centered Design
Environment Bosses are comprised of just background dangers. While the characters do not directly attack the player’s characters, the player may or may not attack the Boss character directly to complete this stage of the game.

These type of Boss situations are rare in game design, not because they are not fun, rather, it’s just human nature to directly confront what attacks you regardless of whether it is attacking directly or indirectly.

Some key things to focus on while designing Boss Characters…

Ramp the difficulty of Bosses through the game
Ramping Bosses through a game can be done in a number of different ways depending on the product. The key is that these characters should be paced throughout the game based on what experience the player should have at that point in playing. Don’t ASS-U-ME that the player has played some other game like yours before and, therefore, will know what you’re thinking. You are not just a game designer, you’re a game play teacher. Don’t be afraid of that.

The second way to pace out Boss characters through a game is to ramp the number of different attacks and moves the boss character can do at each stage of the game. For example, level or world 1 Boss might have only 1 attack, while 2 might have 2 attacks and the 3 Boss might have 3 different attacks.

Show Damage
One of the biggest mistakes still being made in game design today is not showing any sign of damage being inflicted on the Boss Character when attacked by the player. Nothing drives players crazier than to attack and attack and not see any visual sign of damage. There are a number of mechanisms that can help you tell the player the state of the Boss: screen damage gauge; change in the Boss character’s art or animations; changes in combat system; Boss sound effect changes; and, finally, the music. Personally, I like a combination of animations to show each successful hit, as well as changing the combat system at different points during the fight just to keep the player thinking.

Watch your Playtime
Make sure that you don’t over do it with how long a player is locked into combat with a Boss character. Make sure that it fits within the context of your concept. For example, if it is an RPG, you can spend some more time in combat than you can with an Action Adventure. Tthe player expects to progress quicker then a long prolonged fight; although there are some exception to this rule if the Boss combat changes in unique ways through out the battle.

Sub-Boss Characters
Sub-Boss characters are really just watered down Boss characters that make guest appearances somewhere in the level or world, but not at a point where the player would expect a final Boss combat to take place. The combat system for these characters can be anything you like, but less than what the player would expect from a full Boss character.

One good use of a Sub-Boss character is to make a guest appearance of the Boss to help train the player in some of the attacks or abilities the player will have to deal with in the final battle.

Key things to Avoid in Boss Design
One of the wrong approaches used today in Boss character design is when the designer focuses on making the Boss combat system totally different from anything the player has been All of us can accept failing if we have been given the prior opportunity to learn.

The Payoff

With regard to creating good bad guys for your product, a good rule to keep in mind at all times is “the Payoff to the player must be worth the player’s effort to defeat it!”

This can be done in so many ways, such as dramatic death, vast treasure or power-up gain, destruction or creation of something within the combat area. But it must be clearly tied to death of the Boss, and it must be immediate as any delayed rewards will lessen the payoff to the player. Players are on an emotional ride with your game and you want to keep them there!

Clearly, I could expand on many more points covered in this article based on different types of games but these are the most basic concepts. If you would like me to expand on some of these ideas, contact GIGnews or email me directly. Thanks and good hunting!