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How the Developers of ‘Rocket League’ Got the Game to Feel Like a Real Sport

It’s hard to make the controls to a rocket-powered car feel intuitive

(Psyonix)
(Psyonix)

Rocket League may have the distinction of being the only video game that plays like an actual sport. The game, which was released in summer 2015, puts the player behind the wheel of a rocket-powered car that is put on a soccer-like pitch with two goals and an oversized ball. The game demands skill and rewards finesse, and has become a hit on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Corey Davis, the design director for Rocket League, joined Ben Lindbergh, Michael Baumann, and Rob Harvilla on the latest episode of Achievement Oriented to talk about how they got the feel of the game just right.

Davis has been with Psyonix, Rocket League’s developer, for years now, and was involved with Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, the unfortunately named predecessor to Rocket League. Supersonic was much less polished than Rocket League is now, but it laid the groundwork.

"We always thought when [Supersonic] came out that it would be successful for the same reasons Rocket League ended up being," Davis said. "It’s very watchable, it’s very accessible, it’s fun from when you first pick it up until 1,000 hours into it. And it has a lot of parallels to real sports, which we thought was sort of a missing element in games. You know you can go play FIFA, but that’s not really like playing soccer."

Of course, if you go back and play Supersonic now, the game can feel clunky and dated.

"We made a lot of changes. Rocket League was the game we always wanted Supersonic to be. It has dedicated servers, so it’s a lot smoother online experience. And we just had almost 10 more years of experience making video games, so we were a lot better at polish and making it really easy to pick up and play. Sanded off all the rough edges. … With all these years, all these other games we’ve worked on, there’s just sort of an intangible feel for how to make a game feel good and how to get it there. I think that was the difference."

But even Rocket League isn’t easy to pick up, though it can be fun for low-level players all the same.

"Even a few months before the game came out we were terrified that it was way too hard. A lot of games would do things like put you in a special game mode for your first 10 levels where everything’s easy. They try to shield you from that skill curve. We didn’t really have the time or the resources to do that. And we weren’t sure we wanted to. … But the other side is when you make a physics-based game, it’s easy for anyone really to pick it up and enjoy some aspect of it."

The physics may be the most important part of the game. There’s something extremely satisfying about rocketing into the sky, positioning your car at just the right angle to knock the ball toward the goal.

"You spend years iterating and fine-tuning on this stuff. We knew what Rocket League was from the start, which is a really rare benefit in the games industry. It’s not often that you know day one what your game is and what your end goal is, and so that gave us the benefit of almost two years of fine-tuning. Sometimes we would play on a Friday and I would take the game home over the weekend and just tinker with how hard you hit the ball, at what speed, how powerful is your jump, how the camera reacts, etc. And honestly, it’s hard to point to any one thing. It’s just the accumulation of that many hours of just tweaking and tweaking until it feels perfect."

Those physics are what makes the game both rewarding and challenging. And when Rocket League came out, there was a challenge for Psyonix, too: How do you get a bunch of new, unskilled players to enjoy a game when the current group of enthusiasts, many of whom had experience with Supersonic, are already so good? The answer: Get so many new users at once that everyone is equally bad at the game. Psyonix had some luck there:

"We benefited from the PlayStation Plus promotion, where the game was free for the first month. And it was such a low barrier to entry that everyone played with their friends. And everyone had fun being terrible together, and that, we think, is what got people over the gap from, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ to, ‘I kind of have a little bit of control.’ But that wasn’t entirely intentional."

From there, Rocket League became a word-of-mouth success.

"It’s kind of hard to fathom. Like any developer, we have a lot of friends that have been on the other end of that. Like you make a really great game and for whatever reason it just doesn’t get traction or just doesn’t get picked up by media or whatever else. And we think we sort of hit the jackpot, of [online streaming taking off] when it came out and it being a streaming-friendly game, there’s just a lot of things that went into the game blowing up the way it did that would be really hard for even us to replicate a second time."