Whitaker Trebella

How the most difficult games are “secretly” helping you win

How the most difficult games are “secretly” helping you win

Difficult games are all the rage these days, especially on mobile platforms. Games like Super Hexagon and Impossible Road are part of a niche of games that are extremely simple, and yet are renowned as some of the toughest games on the market.

They're so difficult that you'd never guess how many are secretly letting you win.

I spoke with the creator of the new iOS title Pivvot, which releases today, about the ways in which the most difficult games actually include unseen cushions to make the game less punishing.


Pivvot is a game about avoidance. It's inspired by games like Super Hexagon and Ridiculous Fishing, and as such everything is simple, from gameplay to the aesthetic.

You control a ball on a stick that moves along a line, and you have to keep the ball away from the obstacles that appear by rotating it around the center. If it hits an obstacle, you lose. As with Super Hexagon, it sounds a lot easier than it actually is. The real battle is with your own brain as you try to coordinate subtle motions at the required speed.

As difficult as the game can be, Pivvot is actually easier than it should be.

Pivvot used to be very exact,” said lead designer Whitaker Trebella. “If the ball was one pixel over the limit of the obstacle…you were dead. And people kept complaining, 'I didn't hit that! That's not fair!' And I kept thinking, 'Yes it is…it's exactly fair!'”

In a mental quirk, players became frustrated when the game was exact about failure. The one-pixel distance between success and failure may have simply been too imperceptible for players to notice. As a result, it ended up looking and feeling like they were being unfairly punished. A moment that they felt should have been a thrilling close-call actually resulted in failure.

“People kept getting frustrated so I lowered the hitbox,” he said. Trebella said that he tweaked the game so that players wouldn't actually lose when they barely grazed the hitbox, the area of the obstacle or player controlled object that detects whether a collision has occurred.

It's called Hitbox Dissonance, and it's used in games like Super Hexagon as well. 

Game designers don't have much leeway when debating “fun” with their players. It's not the player's fault if they're frustrated by a game, and the developer is often at the whims of how the players perceive difficulty and fairness, even if the player is “wrong.”


“You kind of have to be a little bit giving as a developer,” Trebella said. “I've seen many people talk about this. In Indie Game: The Movie they talk about being able to wall-jump in Super Meat Boy a little bit after you've left the wall. Adam Saltzman did a Canabalt post about how he let the person jump a little bit after they've left the ledge.”

In a similar post-mortem, Robot Unicorn Attack creator Scott Stoddard discussed the many ways that game was tweaked to give/take control from players to balance the feelings of excitement, disappointment, difficulty, and reward.

It might sound like pandering to wimpy or entitled players, but it's actually just good game design. It's only a difference of a few pixels so the game retains much of its difficulty, but while the difference in difficulty is small, the difference in emotion can be huge. In Pivvot, moments that once were frustrating fail-states instead result in thrills as you realize you've survived an encounter you thought would lead to your failure.

All thrill-inducing mobile games like these are going to result in built up tension. The developer's challenge is to make that tension turn to elation, rather than frustration. It's a fine line, and it can often be counted in pixels.