You can see most blockbuster games coming from a mile off: they’re teased for years in brief trailers at E3, before the inevitable multiplayer beta to ramp up the hype and the eventual launch. But as we found out in an exclusive interview this week, that was not the case with Rocket League, the surprise PS4 and PC hit that involves little more than driving rocket powered cars into a big football and trying to knock it into a goal.
This time a year ago, one of of 2015’s biggest games – more than five million downloads and counting – wasn’t just off every gamers’ radar. It was close to being cancelled altogether by its developer.
“It was actually a fairly dark time for us,” Psyonix CEO and studio director Dave Hagewood told Red Bull from the company’s offices in San Diego. “The studio had just had a very big project cancelled on us and we were really fearing that we were going to have to pull a lot of resources for Rocket League.”
Hagewood and his team had reason to be worried: Rocket League’s predecessor, the PS3 game Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, had failed to take off with players. They had spent years tinkering on a sequel in between contracts with other studios, but this time they had to make a call.
“We really made a choice that was based on our belief of what the game could be and we decided to go for it anyway and keep pushing very hard and even though it was a major financial risk. We powered through it and we made it to the finish line – and then obviously it changed everything for us.”
Hagewood needn’t have been worried: the game was an instant hit, propelled up the download and Twitch charts, in no small part due to a partnership with Sony that enabled PlayStation Plus subscribers to play for free. This week sees the release of the latest add-on for the game, Mutators, which mixes things up with novel twists including a low gravity-mode and even rocket hockey. Rocket League’s sailed out of the stratosphere, but it’s clearly nowhere close to running out of thrust. Read the full interview below to find out what Psyonix is planning and next, and whether we’ll ever see the game on a Microsoft console…
There was a long gap between Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars (SARPBC) and Rocket League – an entire generation in fact. Were you always planning on doing a sequel, and if not when did you decide to return to the idea?
Hagewood: So we've always been fans of the game [SARPBC]. After our first big success with Unreal Tournament, I started to get a team together to really build Psyonix up big. That was the first game that we made, and we always thought it could do a lot better than it did. We thought it was something really, really special: we couldn't stop playing it ourselves. It didn't catch on as big as we wanted, but it did catch on with a very hardcore audience. Even though it was a small audience, we always thought it was something we just made a mistake of marketing or didn't advertise well enough. We could have done a lot of things to help it be more popular in the mainstream, so we kind of put it on the shelf and said ‘We’ll come back to this at some point’. I don't think there was ever a moment where we were never always thinking about it – it was just finding the time.
What made things possible this time? Was it the potential the new generation of consoles offered?
Part of it was a little bit of panic that maybe we had waited too long – it had been so long since the first one that we said ‘You know, if we don't do it now we may never come back to do it.’ We were waiting for the ideal time that never totally comes. We had expanded the company quite a bit: we were 10 people when we made the first game and we were closer to 40 when we made Rocket League, so it was kind of like every year we became a more powerful studio, a more experienced studio. Finally it got to the point where we were like ‘Well, you know, it's kind of now or never so let's put in the best if we possibly can and start now.’
When did you start development on Rocket League and how many people have been involved with it?
It's been off and on because we did work for hire for publishers and developers, so the number of people was not always something we could manage directly, you know we had five people this month, 10 the next month. It started about two years ago when we said ‘OK, we're definitely going to do this’. I say mentally though, it never ended: the design, the ideas, over seven years of talking about it and planning.
When in that process did the partnership with Sony begin?
That was another thing that we identified we didn't do well with the first game: we didn't do partnerships. We didn't understand just how important it is to just really, really find that partnership and talk about it with them daily. We were also very fortunate that our account manager [with Sony] this time round was a big fan of the first game. You know, one of the small group of people that did know about SARPBC, so he saw the potential. I have to give him a lot of credit for pushing it hard within Sony and saying ‘These guys are really something special, they're going to do something really, really cool with this game.’
It must have sounded crazy when Sony told you they wanted to give away the game for free via PlayStation Plus.
[Laughs] That was always a tricky question for us but it went back to original thought of how we failed to get the original game out to a larger audience. We hear this all the time, you know, ‘I love this game but I never would have played it just on the pitch of it being soccer with cars because that wasn't enough for me, but now I love this game’. And so we realised that this could actually be the key to everything: giving people the opportunity to try the game for free could be the spark that really set everything off. It turns out that that was a pretty accurate idea of what did happen.
Did the instant success on PS4 and Steam take you by surprise?
At the scale that it did, yes. We did try to dig up all kinds of numbers. Sony were giving us numbers: we blew them all away. We broke records daily, we had no idea that it could go as big as it did, it was absolutely unprecedented. We thought it would do well, but we didn't think it could do quite so well.
Is that traction continuing?
The cool thing about the game is that it really created Rocket League players that don't stop playing the game. That was one of the reasons we thought that the first one had so much potential, because the players that actually did get behind the game and know about it are still playing it seven years later, just like us internally in the studio. That's an amazing thing. Already we've established a whole new generation, a much larger generation of Rocket League players, and this is their staple game. You know, they may play some of the new big hits that come out and get distracted for a while, but then they come back to Rocket League.
Your post-release plan for the game must have changed quite substantially given the enormous take off it achieved.
To some extent, yes. We always had the plan of continually updating it with DLC packs, new cars and new items and maps and things like that, but we didn't know how much we could sustain. Our intention was to do that with the original game as well: we did a few, and then we realised there just weren’t as many people as we wanted supporting the game, it just wasn't paying off. That's completely changed now: we can now pull things off big time. What's exciting about that is that we have a real business model: we can actually make Rocket League for a living, which is kind of all of our dream job as developers.
What is the roadmap? How long does support go on for?
We're going to keep doing a lot of the same stuff, but we have a lot of really cool ideas for things to add in the future, things to really mix things up, as you can see with the Mutator Pack that’s just come out. We want to add major feature updates to really change the nature of the game.
You must have lots of different ideas about what to put in the game. How do you decide what sticks, what works, what goes in the game and what does not?
Play testing. We are a very play testing driven studio, we don't do a lot of on paper design before we start things – we'd rather just jump in and get into it as fast as possible. We already have the tech and the engine down, which allows us to really quickly try ideas and then we throw them into play testing. If it's fun it will make a pack. If it's not then it will go on the shelf for some more iteration, or it gets cut.
Presumably some of the DLC has happened because of the success of the game – you can’t have planned for the Back to the Future DeLorean, surely? Will we see the Ghostbusters’ ECTO-1 in the game ever?
Yeah it's great, because you know for years we've had all the sort of ‘It would be so cool if’ moments where we thought of ideas like that, and then you know being such a small studio and not having such a large success under our belts before it didn't even occur to us to reach out to some of those companies. We just assumed that they would be like ‘No way’. The funny thing is they started calling us, so that's been an amazing experience. They came to us – and they're not the only ones, and that's all I can say right now. There's a lot of fan favourites. I think the question for us is that we don't want to overdo it with too many branded cars. It’s something we’re actively looking into.
Rocket League is proving a hit as a spectator sport. When did it occur to you this might be a game others want to watch people playing?
We always thought that it would have potential as an eSport. We thought that maybe it would be a bit more gradual than it was, it's got thrust into the public eye very, very quickly. I think that in the beta period when we started to have Twitch players playing we started to realise that this thing was going to really take off big with actual spectators, because they were pulling such humongous numbers and people absolutely loved to join in watching them play. That was when we really realised that we needed to get going on eSports partnership.
With the ESL partnership taking off, will we see truly professional Rocket League teams emerge in the next year?
Absolutely, that's one of our major goals. We’ve kind of taken baby steps towards it. We’re really just trying to make sure that we do it right. So we want to build it up in the best way possible: we've been working with the ESL, we've been working with other organisations and we are really looking forward to what's going to be coming up in the next year.
The success of the game must have put the studio in a very different position to a year ago. There must be avenues open to you now that weren’t there previously. Is the studio just going to be about Rocket League from now on or will you ever attempted other genres and games?
That's a good question. It's an amazing time for us right now: we’re kind of realising all of our hopes and dreams and trying to figure out what it means for us. I think there was always an expectation that we would go on to make some of the other really cool games that we kind of have in our back pocket – but at the same time we want to capitalise on the momentum that we have seen from Rocket League right now. So for the time being Rocket League is our main focus but we do plan to do other things – I think you should totally expect to see other really cool ideas coming from us.
We have to ask: will the game ever come out on Xbox One?
[Laughs] I can't say. We're looking at all kinds of platforms and there may be some announcements coming up at some point – hopefully before the end of the year – but I can't confirm that.