I have been playing Super Hexagon, the latest game by Terry Cavanagh (of VVVVVV fame). I find that game is delightful to play and offers a lot of replay value, in spite of its brutal difficulty. I would like to share my analysis from a product perspective.
Similarly to Cavanagh’s earlier games, Super Hexagon is a game driven by a very strong vision. This is a product strictly aimed at hardcore players. Its name is reminiscent of Super NES era titles. Its icon on the app store is a striking, with a mix of strong red tones and vectors that evoke old arcade titles. The game offers a challenge worth of the era that inspired it, with trial and error and insane reflexes as the prevalent skill.
In that sense, the game is aimed at connaisseurs who crave for oldschool games, and plays on nostalgia as well as a strong sense of style throughout the game, that differentiates it from the majority of the app store.
The game starts with a message written in big, blocky letters recommending you to wear headphones to improve your experience. Right there is a statement that this is not a casual game and that immersion in the game and isolation from real world noise is core to the experience. Indeed, flow is an important aspect of Super Hexagon.
The title screen is pure and minimalistic: it shows the game title, achievements and credits. Tapping anywhere on the screen will take you to the next screen. There is a rotating background similarly to during the gameplay, giving the player a sense of what the game is about. There are no extra modes, promotions, in app purchases.
Next is level selection:
In the middle of the screen is the eponymous hexagon, with a tiny triangle above it. The background colors change similarly to how they do during gameplay. The triangle is placed in the middle of the screen, with large arrows on both sides of the screen, suggesting that tapping them will make something happen in that direction. This is the basis of the entire gameplay.
The first stage presented to the player in this menu has the “Hard” difficulty. For first time players, it might look like a mistake. This encourages them to explore the menu either left and see some locked levels, or right and see that the next level is called “Harder”, and then “Hardest”. This is not only funny, it also teaches the player the scope of the game and sets the tone: there is nothing by difficult levels in this game!
“Begin!”, says a voice that sounds like it came out of an old Sound Blaster card. An 8bit music starts playing and the hexagon in the middle starts pulsating to the rhythm.
There are no buttons. Wherever the player taps on the screen, the little triangle will start moving either left or right (depending on which half you are pressing). The only thing you can do is rotate that triangle.
Within a second, large lines start coming in from the edge of the screen. The player will most likely die in the first seconds, with a flash making it clear that it was because of that collision. “Game Over”, the voice says, like in the old days.
The game over shows that the are levels that can be reached after a certain period of time, and how long you survived. Tap anywhere and the level will reset right away. The stage select is hidden away in the corner. You’re more likely to restart the level and put up with the challenge, or tap the home button to exit the game. Death is not a punitive experience in Super Hexagon. You can restart right away and since the play sessions are so short, it doesn’t pain the player. One aspect that reinforces this is the cycling of the music: when you die, the music doesn’t restart at the same point. Instead, it jumps further in the track. This makes the game much less repetitive and gives the player a sense of progression. This sense of speed and continuation is consistent across the game: from the moment you launch the game, the player can tap tap tap the middle of the screen, get to the game and even die and restart is less than 10 seconds! This makes it an ideal game to play on the go.
After a few tries, players will have understood basics of the game: move the triangle to survive. The challenge of the game is based on its visuals and its speed. The lines come at you in different patterns: just one line, lines alternating between left/right, spirals, open hexagons… Sometimes, the lines will completely surround you, and suddenly open at the last second. It’s never impossible to dodge them. You will die because you were overwhelmed by the amount of lines on the screen and reacted too late, or because you released the button and went away too far. Collisions are pixel perfect, so failure is always due to player error and not because of the game. As a result, dying feels fair. Depending on the difficulty, the patterns and the speed at which they appear will vary, but it will always be challenging and require the player to focus. On top of this, the camera zooms in and out, rotates and changes its direction.
The mix of difficulty and fairness makes it compelling to want to progress. The game is broken down in levels that are reached by surviving a certain period of time. This creates an objective for the player. Every extra second survived feels like an accomplishment. If you survive more than 60 seconds, you win. Once a level is completed, a new difficulty (even higher than the current ones!) is unlocked. This game is really about challenging yourself even higher and keeping control over yourself. To help you do this, the color of the ground is continuously changing and the hexagon pulsates to the music. This makes a deeper audio and visual connection with the game. As a result, it is easier to focus on the action, creating a state of flow.
Super Hexagon is not just a game, but an application that needs to pay Terry Cavanagh’s rent. Unfortunately, the game’s barren structure and focus on pure gameplay are also what prevent it from being a potential money maker. The game was designed with hardcore gamers in mind, who are usually not receptive to extra monetization. It is difficult to imagine what new content (levels, modes) could be brought to the game without feeling tacked on. Similarly, there are no consumables, making in app purchases impossible. The narrow scope of the game and the minimalism of its control scheme make it easy to consider ports on new platforms, but also make it easy to clone. It didn’t take long for someone to make Open Hexagon, a free clone of the game. As a result, the game will only earn its author the revenue from the initial app sale.
Super Hexagon is a wonderfully crafted game. By being uncompromisingly retro and challenging, it feels fresh and different from the rest of the App Store. It is exactly the product is was aiming to be for its audience. It is unfortunate that creating a high quality product for the most dedicated gamers results in less business than more mainstream products. However, since the game has clearly been a success and has been profitable, one cannot help but root for Terry to make more!