Overnight successes might cultivate the appearance of having happened by chance – as if Psyonix uncovered the three cherries on some cosmic scratchcard that showered them with millions of players – but the reality inevitably reveals a long run-up of hard work, and a sequence of exceptionally good decisions.
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Enter Rocket League, a big, grinning dose of instant gratification in an era of big releases that make overwhelming demands on your time. A game that’s easy to follow and spectate in an era when e-sports is growing by the second. Above all, a game that lets you play football in a car.
The first indication of Rocket League’s potential audience came from pastures beyond PC gaming, and that’s fitting, considering the game’s pedigree. 2008’s Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars, available only on PS3, laid the foundation for Psyonix’s 2015 release. Wilfully unwieldy name aside, it had all the same raw ingredients that make Rocket League such a giddy pleasure – Psyonix just cooked them better the second time around. It makes sense, then, that it was the PS4 closed beta that first alerted the San Diego-based studio to the scale of their imminent smash.
“During [that] closed beta period, we started to realize that the game was going to be bigger than we originally thought,” marketing & communications VP Jeremy Dunham tells me, “but we didn't fully grasp how big until the first full day of our PlayStation Plus release. Not only were millions of people downloading it on PS4 almost immediately, but our PC sales were excelling too. We had to rework our networking code and issue an emergency patch to keep up, and we had to continue that rewrite over the next week.”
I remember that week primarily for the activity on Rocket League’s subreddit (where the excellent GIFs featured here came from). People were frustrated that they couldn’t find a game because the servers couldn’t handle the traffic, naturally. But it was a good-natured frustration. Then the GIFs started rolling in, dangling the possibilities of the game before us. Rather than anyone constructing effigies of Psyonix with caps lock and vitriol, the mood was more like: wow, I can’t wait until this game works. It was a sentiment seconded by the sleep-deprived team back in San Diego.
“It was a whirlwind week, says Dunham. “We had the realization that we had made a game that people really wanted to play and we had all these great reviews coming in, while simultaneously having our butts kicked by the demand to play it.
“A good portion of us on the team were barely sleeping -- some of us pulling twenty-plus hour shifts to do what we had to do. It was this crazy mix of euphoria, fatigue, and elation. Studio morale was high, and our stress levels were even higher. It was crazy.”
There wasn’t much time for high-fiving or recreating any scenes from The Wolf Of Wall Street in celebration. With the influx of new players came the need for a more robust infrastructure to support them, and that meant “completely rewriting our networking code” that could deal with the 180,000 players flocking to its arenas in the hope of shunting home a scorcher and demonstrating their hatchback tekkers.
“We had to have people ‘on-call’ all day and all night the first week of release to handle the fact that our servers kept going down for multiplayer and that demand was not decreasing at all. We also decided to give our players some free in-game items as an apology for the outages.”
Those items demonstrated a sense of humour as well as an air of contrition: in the days following Rocket League’s rocky launch, cars game-wide were emblazoned with white flag and ‘disconnect’ symbol antennas, and ‘servergate’ hub caps. And, as their #SorryLaunchServersHatedUs and #StillSorryAboutThoseLaunchServers hashtags circulated on Twitter, Psyonix were able for the first time to take stock.
“After that first week or so, we managed to get into a routine where we could go to sleep again, and from that point forward, we started solidifying our plans to support the game the best we could,” continues Dunham.
If there was any danger of Psyonix being stuck for ideas regarding exactly how they should support the game, an increasingly vocal community of redditors and Twitter users ensured the team weren’t stuck for ideas. The problem for a team between 30-40 people in size is listening to that constant stream of feedback, and knowing what to take action on. It would be easy, you’d imagine, to fall into the trap of listening to those shouting loudest, rather than those offering the most sense. How best to sift out the useful voices, I ask?
“There's no one perfect answer to that. It's listening to the fanbase on Reddit, Twitter, our Forums, etc., and noticing what comes up more often than not. It's the experience of knowing what the game needs from our perspective as long-time game-makers.
“It’s playing the game ourselves in a live environment and understanding what's working and what isn't. It's watching people streaming the game, and listening to both broadcasters and elite-level players as to what they think is missing from their vantage points.”
The team gathers data from all those sources and discusses it all before each update, agreeing on the direction and focus of each new content drop accordingly. There’s a lot of prioritizing to be done, he tells me, and that means putting fan-requested features ahead of ideas someone may have had on the way to the water cooler.
It's an area everyone at Psyonix clearly takes very seriously. Promises were made prior to the game's release that they'd support it after launch day, and its popularity only made that promise easier to keep. Nowhere is that evidenced more effectively than in the latest update, four months after release, that dramatically changes vanilla gameplay with the addition of 'mutators.'
“We wanted to show everyone that we weren't just about releasing Rocket League and then moving on to our next one… The big response to the game accelerated our timelines quite a bit, though, because we knew that we had a massive audience to please, and with more people comes more pressure.”
That’s the other overlooked element of the overnight success, isn’t it? The way it changes all your plans. Dunham tells me Rocket League’s success in a commercial sense has allowed Psyonix to continue training their sights on that game, rather than “taking another publisher-driven project to support the studio as a whole.” They’re now on a radically different path than if the game had sold like, say, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars did.
“We can go in the direction we'd like to go right now, which is a rare position to be in and one that we don't want to take for granted. We owe it to our studio and our players to live up to the expectations that come with a successful game and that's what we plan to do.”