"Let's play soccer, but with rocket-powered cars"—what a brilliant stoner idea.
But what inevitably began as a weird boardroom pitch has managed to become one of the most successful video games of 2015, with more than 14 million downloads in one year, raking in about $70 million.
Developed and published by Psyonix, a small studio based in San Diego, its first incarnation was (terribly) called Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, released in 2008 for PlayStation 3. At the time, it wasn't a big (or even medium) success, but its spiritual successor, Rocket League, blew up last summer, in part thanks to how well the game translated into easily sharable gifs or YouTube montages.
We met up with Corey Davis, the design director of Rocket League, who was in Montreal to give a conference to the indie game community.
VICE: Rocket League is basically cars playing soccer. Where did the idea come from?
Corey Davis: It was a total accident. I guess eight years ago now, we were trying a car combat game—where cars were like bumping one another off levels and trying to kill one another—and one of our designers threw a soccer ball into a level, and that was sort of history. We realized right away that was really fun, and we should see where this thing goes.
In 2008, there was a first version of Rocket League with a way longer name.
Yeah, the worst name of all time.
What was it again?
Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars.
I hate that name.
I kind of like it.
I've had to say it so many times in my life. It's like a curse at this point.
Aside from the name, the game was really similar, but the success was not there. What's the difference between both games?
I think it's hard to pinpoint one thing, but we looked at it a lot. For one thing, we knew the first game had fans. It had a hardcore fan base seven years after it came out, for a tiny indie game with no marketing. So we knew people loved the idea. It just hadn't gone wide to enough people. So I think we felt like this time it was a combination of the timing was really good, and the market's really different. There's Twitch now. YouTube is much bigger than it was in 2008. There's this huge platform, Reddit, and all this stuff for blasting out games like this from smaller companies like ours and finding their audience in a way that just didn't exist in 2008, which was still very much a Triple-A, Gears of War, Call of Duty–type of market back then.
With fourteen million downloads, were you surprised at the success of Rocket League?
Extremely. I would say even up to the month of the release, we started to have an idea that it might do better than we thought—because we were just hoping to make our money back—and right around the time the beta hit and people were streaming, we were like, "Oh, this could be pretty cool."
So you were surprised by the success of it?
We had no idea it could ever get this big. I think for any indie game developer this size of success is unimaginable. But it seems like there are just certain games that get lucky and punch through the collective consciousness, or whatever, and it's just, once you do that the numbers just stop making sense. It's just a runaway train. And we're really happy that we got lucky. I'm really happy that people like playing Rocket League.
Was that success hard to manage?
Yeah. People don't remember very much now, but the first three weeks were a disaster. Our servers were going down every day because during beta we peaked at about ten thousand players online at a time, and so we planned for like I think five times that. So like what if we got fifty thousand people online? That would be crazy. And we got one hundred eighty thousand. So it was like thirty-five times, I think, the numbers we expected. And there's no way we could plan for that. So everything was just basically on fire for about three weeks. Our guys were working around the clock trying to fix it. It was a nightmare. And luckily we got through it, and luckily our players mostly forgave us for it. But that was the stressful part of being successful.
The first version was released in 2008. How important was the input from the fans, or the players, to develop the new game?
Very important. They're the reason we made it ultimately. It was sort of a pet project for us, but we knew… We had these guys still playing this old busted game six years later, and we knew we wanted to make them a new version that was modern and kept up with multi-player games of today. And the interesting caveat there is some of what we took from how they played the first game. For example, the vast majority of games played in the first game were on a single map called Urban Central. That is basically the design you see in Rocket League, which is the very simple curved arena. So we looked at that and said—we had different map designs back then—and we said, "Why would we spend all this development time on maps that nobody plays, if ninety-five percent of our matches are played on this one? Why not just make that one and make a bunch of that? And make that really enjoyable."
Was the initial reaction favorable?
We actually got some backlash from our players in beta, during that, because they were saying like, "What did you do with all the stuff that we liked about the first game?" And so, in that sense, their play style actually conflicted with their feedback. They wanted all the variety even though we saw that it wasn't actually used that much. So that was kind of tricky. We've been bringing that stuff back in over time. So we have the Rocket Labs featured a few months ago, where we're sort of introducing experimental maps that have different layouts and designs to sort of slowly introduce weirder stuff like that to the Rocket League player base.
You say that Twitch, YouTubers, and Reddit are super important for the success of your game. Why is that?
We didn't have much money to spend on marketing, and they did it for us. The first platform that really picked the game up was actually Reddit's PS4 subreddit, because we put the beta out on PS4—no announcing it—we put a press release out, but nobody listens to those. And PS4 players started posting GIFs of it on their subreddit, and it just took over. Like everything on PS4 for a while was all Rocket League GIFs. And that was when the thing started spiraling. And then big Twitch guys started asking for keys, so they could check it out with their stream, and that's when it just snowballed into something huge. Twitter to a lesser extent, but really just the fact of social media people wanting to find new stuff and share it with their friends really drove our marketing in a way I don't think we could have. Even if we'd had that typical marketing budget that a big team has.
Did you build the game so it was Twitch-friendly?
Not intentionally. I think we're seeing more of that these days, but our focus is always on making the most fun game possible. And in this case, we lucked into something that was very "GIFable" as you might say.
There have been around fourteen million downloads of Rocket League and you guys are still independent. Is it important to stay indie?
I mean, we think so. It depends on who you work with, right? There are teams that do really cool work. Like, for example, Naughty Dog is not independent and I don't think anyone's going to criticize The Last of Us or Uncharted. So, I wouldn't say it's so critical to be indie as to be in a situation where you can make stuff that you want to make. If you look at Rocket League, no publisher would have paid us to make it. It's too weird and too different, and really large companies are typically very risk-averse. So you need smaller teams like ours to make something like this. But that doesn't mean I don't think there's a place for a big-budget version of Rocket League.
Are you guys working on a sequel to Rocket League?
No, not right now. Our focus right now is just keeping Rocket League going. We see it as a platform like a lot of other games are these days. Obviously, the studio is looking to what we're going to do next, beyond Rocket League, but our full focus right now is the studio supporting Rocket League itself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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