We're going to say it: we told you so. We were campaigning for a PlayStation 4 port of Rocket League – which was originally announced for the PC – long before developer Psyonix confirmed it just prior to PlayStation Experience last year, and now it's blown up. Reddit is flooded with GIFs from the beta, while Push Square Towers has been significantly more animated of late, as team members re-enact all of their best goals in the office kitchen. Considering just how popular the title's become, we thought that we'd catch up with the developer's director of marketing and communications Jeremy Dunham [Beyond! – Ed] to discuss the game in a little more detail.
Push Square: Lots of digital games struggle to nurture an active online community, but Rocket League's predecessor Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (!!!) is still popular to this very day. What do you think has been the secret to the title's enduring success on the PlayStation 3?
Jeremy Dunham: We don't think that it's any one thing, actually – but more a combination of several things. The most obvious factor is that Battle-Cars is an easy game to understand: it's soccer with cars – which, despite its slight absurdity, is a pretty universal concept. Most everyone understands how to play soccer and most everyone understands the concept of driving in a video game; we just put those two things together.
We also think that the layers we put into the original game really helped its longevity. Like Rocket League, there's a lot more depth and strategy to the game than just getting the ball into the other team's goal. First-time players can have fun with it on that level, of course, but if you stick with it and peel back the layers, you'll discover that there's a lot of finesse to be found in there – advanced jumping manoeuvres, tactical physics manipulation, etc. When you have games that have depth beyond a simple concept (like chess, for example), you'll find that it's a big factor in keeping people around.
Finally, it was the community itself that helped the game garner such a following. Players who loved it stuck with it and kept playing, and they told their friends about it and then they took on a similar mind-set. It was a chain reaction that built up over time. It wasn't an overnight thing, it was years and years of a single community showing their loyalty and bringing in new players well beyond a timeline we even thought possible.
What lessons did you learn from the development of SARPBC that have helped shape Rocket League?
Gaming has changed a lot since 2008 and so have we. The industry has matured and expectations have grown. Players told us then that they wished that they had more customisation, more things to do as a single player, and that they wished that we had a bit more variety. We've listened to all that and have tried to shape Rocket League in that image. We wanted to give our players everything that they wanted while also giving the general gaming public out there enough replayability to entice them to come over to our little universe as well.
We think that we have done that.
How has the gameplay evolved from SARPBC to Rocket League? The original was great fun once you 'got' it, but it could be quite a tough game to learn at first. Are you planning to soften that learning curve? And if so, how?
The biggest stride that we've made is that we've put together a much more comprehensive training mode. We have dedicated tutorials about Striking, Defending, and Aerial play in addition to a free-play practice mode that lets players drive around and do what they want at their own pace.
We have also built in the option for players to setup the control scheme however they like, so that they feel more comfortable with the layout. These steps, combined with a slightly-slowed down pace (to emphasise team play) should help newer players understand the game much quicker than they did before.
The information we gleaned from our recent PS4 beta shows us that it worked, too – we had players spending a lot of time with our game in very high percentages, which tells us that they were having enough fun with the Rocket League to stick around and keep playing. That's a pretty positive step.
Following on from that question: how difficult is it to create a game that's easy to pick up but challenging to master? And how do you balance the online play so that someone who's a beginner doesn't come up against an expert every time?
Finding the right balance between these two elements really is the key to a fun multiplayer game and the way we solve it is by playing it a lot and asking our community to test it a lot for us. That's how you do part one, anyway. Trial and error and an understanding of knowing that you need to take the time to learn what the feedback you're getting actually means. Patience is a big deal and a hard thing to have when you're developing a game. But patience is something that we're proud to say we have thanks, in part, to the way that the original Battle-Cars became a success: a slow build over time.
As for the beginner vs. expert dilemma, that's always a concern in any competitive multiplayer game, but we think that our matchmaking tech is going to get us big wins there. Rocket League is smart about how it matches players with each other, and this time around you can just go at it against bots if you're not quite sure that you want to go at it in the online world yet.
It's also really helpful that players seem to have fun with Rocket League even when they're losing, which is a rare, rare thing that we think that we've managed to pull off based on everyone's reactions so far.
Talk about the single player season mode: will this work like a traditional sports game, where you work your way up a league? What are you doing to keep matches interesting against the computer?
Yes, that's it exactly, actually. Our Season Mode is very similar to the type of season mode you'd find in most sports games. You pick your team, customise it a bit, and hop into the 'Rocket League' in a quest to win the Championship. We'll let you decide some of the parameters of the season, some teams will be better than others some seasons, and you'll need to be good enough to make the play-offs.
As far as keeping matches interesting, each bot on each team is a different car with a different loadout, so you'll always see something different. And since some teams will be easier or more difficult than others, the strategies you use for one team might not work so well against the others.
Your community made some amazing highlights reels for SARPBC. How did those clips inform Rocket League's replay editor, and can you talk a little more about what kind of features will be on offer here?
Those highlight reels were the big reason that we wanted to include the Replay Editor in Rocket League to begin with. We know our community likes to make those videos and we wanted to expand the tools that they had to do so. Now, they'll be able to save entire games and replay them from any angle that they want so that they can then use PlayStation Share to make even better highlight videos than they did before.
Rocket League seems to really appeal to the ethos of the PS4: it's immensely 'social' and 'shareable'. Gross buzzwords aside, was it those aspects of Sony's system that really helped sell you on bringing the game to the Japanese giant's latest black box?
The most obvious factor for us was that SARPBC was a PS3 game, so the audience that played our game the first time were already known to be PlayStation fans. The ease of porting a game that started as a PC title to the PS4 was also a major factor, as its developer tools are really friendly and lend themselves incredibly well to PC-to-PS4 development. Now the PS4 version is our primary focus, and the fact that it is inherently a controller-based system instead of a keyboard and mouse system is also good for the type of players that we want to go after first.
Finally, Sony has been very vocal about how much they like our game and that means a lot to us. Always has, always will.
Just a general question to finish off: where did the original concept for the game come from?
It was a complete accident!
Originally, we were developing a vehicle game that was a more traditional car combat-like title set in futuristic/space-like locations. One day, for the fun of it, one of our level designers dropped a ball into the world and the team had so much more fun playing with it in the world that it changed the direction of the game completely.
It just goes to show you that, ultimately, it's about what makes your game fun that matters. If you follow the fun, players will follow you right back.
We'd just like to thank Jeremy Dunham for taking time out to talk to us. Did you take part in the Rocket League beta, and what were your thoughts on the game? Score a hat-trick in the comments section below.