Rocket League is, in my somewhat humble opinion, one of the best games of 2015.
The official Twitter account announced that the game has been downloaded 5 million times, which has to be considered a success, even if the payment model behind the downloads that were "free" through PlayStation Plus is somewhat opaque.
Rocket League is a "simple" game where you drive a car around a field and try to hit a ball into a goal. You can jump and boost. That's about it. It's also tuned to perfection; games that feel this "right" don't come along that often, and the five-minute rounds mean that there's always room for another round, even if it's 2 in the morning.
When a game grabs so many players, and finds so many fans among the press and other developers as well, it's worth taking a good look at what it does well, and how it achieves it. This is what we should learn, and what other developers may be able to steal, from Rocket League.
Overnight successes don't really exist
I keep hearing that Rocket League came out of nowhere, and I'll admit to thinking that myself. There wasn't much of a hype cycle for the game; one day very few people had heard of it, and the next day it was everywhere.
But you've played games that Psyonix has worked on. Ever hear of Gears of War? Did you play the amazing Onslaught mode of Unreal Tournament 2004? Have you heard of the pretty frickin' great A.R.C. Squadron mobile game? Maybe you're familiar with the name Bulletstorm? How about Nosgoth?
Psyonix either developed or had its hand in every one of those games, and more. This isn't a garage developer who had a great, high-concept idea for its first game; this is a veteran team with an amazing list of games under its belt that brought all those learned skills to create a game that looks simple, but does everything nearly perfectly.
You have to understand the rules before you can subvert them, and it's unlikely that Psyonix could have made a game that looks and feels as good as Rocket League without working on this impressive expanse of larger, more intricate games. Which brings us to our next point:
The simplest games are the hardest to do well
If Rocket League didn't feel this good when you played it, there is nothing else for the game to hide behind. There is no story. There are few actions the player gets to perform in the game. If everything didn't work well, it would have been a disaster.
Many games throw a large number of systems at the player, and if one or two don't work well it's not that big of a deal. There's a lot to do, right? Rocket League doesn't have that luxury. If the physics were off, the game would have been terrible. If the jumping wasn't balanced just so, the player wouldn't feel as if they were in control.
The game relies on many simple systems mixing together to allow the player to do amazing things, and that's a high-risk/high-reward strategy that only happens when the team is sure they can do each of those "simple" systems justice.
Keep in mind Psyonix had already tried this. The prequel to Rocket League was Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, a self-published PlayStation 3 game that earned middling reviews and didn't make much of a splash.
Think of the guts it took to take a game that wasn't well-reviewed and not much of a hit, going back to the drawing board and iterating on everything, including the name, to create something that has taken off so strongly with fans and critics. It's one thing to know you've found something special, it's quite another to be willing to bet your time and money on iterating on a game that gathered a respectable fan base, but has otherwise been forgotten by the wider industry.
"Powerful minimalism and simplicity in games is basically this idea of 'easy to learn, difficult to master,'" game designer Adam Saltsman told Polygon.
"Something that looks simple from the outside, but as you start to mess with it, you discover hidden depths," he continued. "At this point in my so-called career I am convinced that games like these are an act of discovery on the part of the designer too, much more so than an act of invention. Yes there is a process of refinement, of editing, after the discovery, the same way you have to clean up that amazing gemstone you found in the place where you thought there might be a gemstone only it was over here instead of over there but hey, you found a gemstone!"
Simplicity isn't easy, and it's not what you do when you can't afford to make something big. It's an approach that rewards precision, iteration, craft and, as Saltsman explained, a bit of luck.
"The real test of a chef doesn't come from elaborate dishes with luxury ingredients such as foie gras and caviar but from how well he uses the most humble foods in the pantry," chef Thomas Keller once wrote. "Consider the egg. I'm fascinated by seemingly simple dishes like an omelet or a crème caramel because they not only showcase the quality of their ingredients, but, more important, they also demonstrate the skill of the cook who prepared them."
Rocket League is Psyonix delivering, and serving, the perfect egg.
Timing is everything
Rocket League isn't competing with many games for the attention of players right now, and it has been released in a time when it's easy for fans to stream their games and draw in others. Rocket League is easy to understand and fun to watch, both of which helped it gain momentum.
AMAZING! More than 5 MILLION downloads since we launched on July 7! Your continued support for our game is truly humbling. Thank you.
— Rocket League (@RocketLeague) July 29, 2015
"The timing of [Rocket League] worked out for us really well," Jeremy Dunham, vice president of marketing and communications at Psyonix, told Motherboard. "YouTube and Twitch are huge now. Video game streaming is everywhere. eSports is a thing. It's fun to watch. Because of our very specific release window, we don't have a lot of high profile competition to fight against to get people's attention. It's the collection of all these elements that is making the game successful."
The game's precursor may not have found an audience, but it's very possible the timing was just off.
"What Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars really was, was under exposed," Dunham said. "It came out in a time without the sort of bells and whistles that it needed to get to compete with AAA games that had massive marketing budgets or epic stories and amazing voice acting. It's today's eSports and streaming culture that has allowed us to find a better path."
That sort of confidence to keep at an idea, to watch it grow, can be a rare thing in gaming, and it's worth prizing.
"I mean by their own admission, Rocket League's creators probably should be credited more for their devotion to the concept and their sense for how best to refine their discovery, as opposed to inventing the thing, which is refreshingly honest," Saltsman said. "I would love for that to be the overwhelming public understanding of the creation of art. Down with epiphany, down with [lightning] strikes of inspiration, up with sensitivity and the courage to follow a hunch, and the patience to let your garden grow a bit."
Plenty of games don't find an audience, even if they deserve one. It can all come down to timing, and taking your time with something you believe in.
Everyone is equal, all the time
One of the most frustrating aspects of modern gaming is that inviting your friends to join you means that they're going to be behind the curve. You spend time unlocking new abilities, weapons and boosts that gives you an advantage. Until they put the same time in, they're going to be at a disadvantage.
There is no such system in Rocket League. You get better by practicing and learning how to use the few abilities of your car to their fullest, but a player with 100 hours has no game-given advantage over a player who plays for the first time. Every goal is fair. Every score is earned.
This makes it much easier to recommend Rocket League to friends, even if you have to spend some time with them against bots or in one-on-one matches. You even earn points for those matches to level up, even if doing so is only used for matchmaking purposes.
So many games think a leveling system that grants an in-game advantage is necessary to fuel "engagement," and of course this also allows you to sell buffs and boosts that let you level faster. Rocket League is made much more welcoming by ignoring this system completely, allowing everyone to compete based purely on skill.
To sum it up
It may seem like Rocket League came out of nowhere, but it's the next step in a multi-year journey undertaken by a veteran team. It may seem simple, but that sort of elegance of play is incredibly hard to find, and then perfect. The industry is littered with examples of games that didn't execute on their own ideas well enough to stand out.
"I think game developers and designers like Rocket League so much because fucking everybody likes Rocket League so much. Game designers are just a subset of humans in this case," Saltsman said.
"But... maybe there is another (not better, just ... parallel) pleasure in it for us, because maybe we know more than 'normal people' how rare a discovery this is, how good a job they've done of refining this wonderful thing, we're the best kind of jealous," he continued. "We're living the dream because yes, finally, Rocket League exists AND somebody else had to make it."