Why some hitboxes are so bad

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Hitboxes are a weird mix of science and psychology, and they’re very difficult to design, as I laid out in my feature about how they work. What feels just right for one player might look ridiculous to another. If you search for ‘hitbox’ and you’ll find a thousand videos titled "WORST HITBOX" and "This game’s hitboxes are broken!"

But what is a bad hitbox? Is it about accuracy? Fairness? Balance? Yes--all of these and more. While learning about hitboxes, I talked to expert players about some examples of problematic hitboxes to dig into what can make them go wrong. These aren't necessarily the worst hitboxes around, but they can help us understand how hitbox issues can have on the game around them. When a hitbox just seems off, here's what might be happening. 

Ryu in Street Fighter 5

It’s strange to think that after so many starring roles in the series, Street Fighter’s most iconic character should end up ignored by its serious players. But that was what happened after Street Fighter 5 changed one of Ryu’s hitboxes.

Ryu’s crouching medium kick is a long-time staple of classic Ryu play, because it’s quick and you can then cancel it into other moves. But in SF5 the length of its hitbox was reduced, killing the technique of shuffling forward in crouch, popping out explorative crouching shorts until an opening presents itself.

Before... (Image credit: Sebastiaan Lewerissa)

...and after

...and after (Image credit: Sebastiaan Lewerissa)

After many patches of minor tweaks to timing, Capcom finally addressed the issue, though many players still contend it’s too hard to land, and Ryu still hasn’t returned to his former position.

The problem: Even a small hitbox change can drastically affect competitive game balance

Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls 

There’s a hitbox bug in Dark Souls which will almost never affect you. But when it does, it hits you like a piledriver. It looks like this, as played by speedrunner catalystz:

OK, so what happened? The bug causes an active hitbox to invisibly persist in the world if it exists at the moment a cutscene starts. There aren’t many places this can happen, because Dark Souls’ bosses are almost always dying or otherwise engaged when cutscenes trigger. But in one fight it frequently can: Ornstein and Smough. When you kill either of them a cutscene will begin, and it could be at just the moment the other is in the middle of an attack.

Here, catalystz kills Ornstein just as Smough comes in with his wide Trample Charge attack. It hits catalystz, knocking him over, as the cutscene for Ornstein’s death starts, thus fixing the Trample Charge hitbox in space. When catalystz gets up, he runs into it and is killed.

"That’s just a classic," says catalystz, who was well-aware the bug had been triggered. "It was my fault. I thought he wasn’t that far left, and I was wrong."

Remarkably, this bug still hasn’t been fixed in Dark Souls’ remaster.

The problem: If a bug locks a hitbox in place, it can become an invisible killing field.

Stray Demon in Dark Souls

For catalystz, Stray Demon’s butt-slam is one of the worst hitboxes in Dark Souls.

"He flies up, he comes down, and as he does a massive shockwave appears for a long period of time, pretty much after the animation is over. He’s not doing anything, just sitting in the arena, but if you run into him, you’re going to take full damage."

The problem is that the game is failing to show you what’s happening, making it hard to learn the threat and get better at the game. A lesser example is the Taurus Demon’s Standing Pound, which sends out a shockwave. Particles were added in the remaster, but in the original release the shockwave is invisible, so you don’t know where you’re safe from it.

Taurus Demon’s Standing Pound isn’t an issue for experienced players. "But in a speedrun when Stray Demon does his slam, you have to wait for a half second until you run in and punish him. That’s really long. Even casually, you’ll dodge the slam and then run in because he’s not doing anything and you take damage."

(catalystz’s most hated hitbox is Titanite’s jump attack: "It does nothing with clarity. Everything has a hitbox when he lands; they extend and shrink. I swear I roll correctly and I still get hit.")

The problem: Some hitboxes extend past a character model but don't convey the attack with graphical effects. Others also linger past an animation, confounding expectations. 

Pathfinder in Apex Legends

Most modern shooters map hitboxes to what you see, which is why Apex Legends lets you shoot through tiny holes in its scenery. But Pathfinder’s hitbox has had a rocky path to accuracy over the game’s short history, pinballing between making him the easiest character to hit to one of the hardest.

"When Apex first started, Pathfinder had a massive hitbox; basically you could shoot his aura and you’d hit him," says Nocturnal, a member of Team Liquid’s Apex Legends team.

Respawn revised Pathfinder’s hitbox, so that in spring 2019 it pretty much exactly followed his core body and limbs. But with thin metal legs and the bulky protruding equipment on Pathfinder’s back which wasn’t part of the hitbox, Pathfinder became notoriously hard to hit.

"That character was the most frustrating ever to play against; he’s the most mobile character in the game and half your bullets would phase through him. But now it’s fixed, and if the servers are at their best, the hitboxes are pretty much on-point."

The problem: Adhering exactly to a character's body sounds like the best, most accurate hitbox, but it's not always that simple.

Kushala Daora and Nergigante in Monster Hunter World

Monster Hunter World is extremely scrupulous in making sure what you see is what actually happens, and its hitboxes follow its models very closely. But that doesn't necessarily make a hitbox feel good.

For example, there's a little move Kushala Daora makes when you’re standing behind it, where you think you might be safe, as speedrunner SD Shepard says:

"He does this little wiggle and he runs forward but he ever-so-slightly kicks back a little bit. At first I thought it was an unfair hitbox, because it felt like you’re getting hit by a vacuum. But actually, looking at the animation, it’s telegraphed and his dumpy little foot does technically hit you."

"It doesn’t look like it, but it’s relatively powerful and comes out quickly, and based on how generous the game is otherwise, it’s not normally the kind of attack that would hit you."

This scrupulousness, combined with the depth and detail of the design behind Monster Hunter’s fights, can lead to confusion among newer players, such as with Nergigante and particularly its signature palm-slam attack.

"What confuses players is that sometimes you’re safe; you’ll be close but not take damage. Other times, you’ll get a hit from nowhere. ’I wasn’t even close to his arm!’ But you’ll find that after you’ve wounded his right arm he’ll grow spines on it, and in the attack he’s shooting them out. So what was previously a powerful attack but not a large hitbox is now much larger."

The problem: Just because a hitbox is accurate, it doesn't guarantee being hit by an attack will actually feel fair, depending on the attached animation and player expectations.

Nautilus’ Q in League of Legends

Players can be pretty scathing about what they perceive as bad hitboxes, especially in competitive games. So it’s good to see developers have a sense of humour when they go wrong.

Nautilus’ Dredge Line throws out an anchor in a line, and enemies hooked by it are dragged towards him and stunned as he dashes towards them. It’s a powerful attack, and players have long been confused by it apparently being able to hook enemies that are behind terrain or seemingly out of its range. Or not even close to where it lands.

In a February 2020 update, the anchor model was modelled to better match its hitbox, just as a series of Riot developers showed off their takes on Dredge Line’s power.

Hitboxes work through maths and science, but what really matters about them is that they communicate clearly with players. Here, League of Legends’ makers showed how sometimes that can take place way outside the game, too.

The problem: Even games as big as League of Legends still struggle to perfectly convey the hitbox of special abilities. 

For more on how hitboxes are made and what makes them so tricky to get right, read our feature here.