Did you know Rocket League is a sequel? If you’ve heard of 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, then the answer is probably yes. If not, you might be surprised to know that over two million people downloaded the now eight years old PS3-exclusive and forerunner to last year’s cars-in-a-cage slant on football that launched developer Psyonix into stardom.
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Let me be frank with you: I was aware that Battle-Cars existed before, but had no idea until well after Rocket League’s release last July that the two were related. And yet they’re almost the same game.
“This time I think we were just able to do everything right across the board, whereas before we had a much smaller team,” suggests Psyonix’s director of development Thomas Silloway. “This time, we made a really good game, we had a really good marketing plan for getting the word out there, and then it kind of went viral as we were getting close to release. A bunch of people picked it up on Twitch from our betas and it just started getting a lot of hype.”
Compared to its lesser-known predecessor, Rocket League is a far more refined experience. Gone are the perfunctory facades and at times complicated guidelines of old, and in their place are simple rules, a simple premise, and a simple goal. Mastering the art of the double-jump, or nailing a mid-air volley can demand hours of practice, yet what makes Rocket League so special is its accessibility: it welcomes first timers with the same enthusiasm as returning veterans.
Interestingly, Battle-Cars started out on a completely different path, thus Rocket League as we know it today might never have existed.
“One day we threw a ball into the map with us,” says Silloway, recalling time spent playtesting Rocket League’s older sibling the best part of a decade ago. “We were playing a game of hitting it around and we ended up deciding that was way more fun than the other game that we were playing. We just kept playing that game over and over in our playtests and it was actually taking away from the work we were doing on the vehicular combat game.
“At some point, we were like: either we have to stop playing this game, or we have to make this our new game because we’re not getting any work done on the other one.”
Had the decision to pursue the original, destruction derby-esque idea been followed through, Rocket League “absolutely wouldn’t be what it is today,” reckons Silloway. “We knew the other game we were making was pretty fun but it turned out that when we threw the ball in there it became ten times better. If we hadn’t done that, I think we would’ve ended up releasing the other version of the game. It was a really interesting fork in the road that we ended up having to choose what to do.”
Founded by Dave Hagewood at the turn of the millennium, Psyonix spread itself between work on the ill-fated Vampire Hunter: The Dark Prophecy, and Unreal Tournament 4. In the latter, Hagewood designed and prototyped vehicle physics in the game’s Onslaught Mode - a vehicle-oriented setting where you’d work to destroy the opposition’s power core to secure victory.
With a deep understanding of the Unreal Engine, then, Hagewood’s ability to make cars tumble around enclosed arenas with a degree of believability, and with an appreciation of how to make this overall experience fun, laid the foundations for what would eventually become Battle-Cars.
Silloway entered the Psyonix fray a couple of years later - nine and half years ago now, he says - by virtue of a competitive programming internship when the team comprised just Hagewood, Jerad Heck, Ben Beckwith and a few others. Although now over 40-members strong, only a select few made it through the internship process back then to form the team that shipped Battle-Cars.
“When we came on board we already had some version of whacky car games going on,” he says, before they realised lobbing a ball into the fold would make for a far better game.
While a community formed around Battle-Cars post release, undistinguished sales and reviews dealt Psyonix their biggest blow. They’d poured much effort into crafting a game they felt deserved more love and attention, however Silloway notes naive decisions made on marketing and promotional matters were likely what hampered the success of their first self-published release.
“I think we always thought we had maybe made a couple of mistakes back then when Battle-Cars came out,” he says. “Especially with our decisions around marketing and we felt we weren’t really able to get the word of mouth out to enough people. Then again, the people that we did reach were really addicted to the game and then they saw the merits of the game that we saw: a game that was super fun and super addictive.
“We always knew that if we could reach a bigger audience, polish up a couple of things, make it a little more accessible so that it’s not quite as difficult to get into, that we’d be able to do it better the next time. I think all of those things really paid off.”
Given the less than stellar reception Battle-Cars endured, remaking what was essentially a very similar game - self-publishing for a second time, starting over, pouring yet more blood, sweat and tears into something that might not succeed - was a gamble, to the point where Silloway recalls being unsure of how it’d go right up until release. Alpha testing on Steam seemed to have went well, however the decision was made to close it down in order to refine the issues players had flagged up during feedback.
Similarly, beta tests pointed to burgeoning interest, yet, again, gauging just how much with any level of reliability was impossible. After all, many of the alpha and beta testers were members of the existing Battle-Cars community, thus Psyonix were altogether apprehensive. They’d been here before and understood the precarious balance between optimism and over-confidence.