Epic Games looks at how Psyonix’s breakout hit shows that perseverance pays off

Unreal Diaries: Rocket League scores, Unreal Engine assists

Rocket League’s impact seemed to appear from out of nowhere, serving as a runaway hit and what appears to be an overnight success. Yet things are not always exactly as they appear; a fact that developer Psyonix knows very well.

Motivated by games of their youth, the core team was inspired to create a game that featured piston-pumping vehicles that could leap into the air. While filled with enthusiasm for this concept, they weren’t quite sure where and how to apply this mechanic to an actual game.

After experimenting with a quirky idea using Unreal Tournament 2004’s expansion pack, Ben Beckwith and Dave Hagewood moved onto creating an original game, one that would expand the idea further.

“We struggled to find the right game for it,” Hagewood explains. “We were working on a silly battle game when we first attempted to make a soccer mode. It was all we played after that, so we knew we had something.”

Rough ideas began to develop and things began to come together in an exciting fashion. Yet, for the time, the idea remained relatively obtuse for some, leading to difficulties when pitching the equally thick title Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars.

Sporting a bizarre concept, and admittedly unrefined controls, Psyonix self-published a release on the PlayStation Network for PS3 in 2008. The developers were frustrated by the apathetic response to their new game but remained confident that they were onto something with potential.

“Even with low sales we didn’t blame the game concept,” says Hagewood. “We knew the problem was in our execution, our lack of polish, our marketing, and steep learning curve.”

Learning from past projects, they understood the difficulty not only of making a good game, but one that would sell. Recognising that the odds were not quite in their favour, they decided to adopt a new model that allowed the studio to continue creating content, while minimising the inherent financial risk.

Hagewood says: “We built a business around work-for-hire. Our clients were in the risk-taking business, not us.” 

This new format proved beneficial for Psyonix, resulting in a stable source of income that was not entirely dependent on a game’s success. 

“If a work-for-hire game is a big hit you aren’t any better or worse than if it fails,” discloses Hagewood. “The key was to use this stability to balance out the risk of making our own IP.”

No longer obligated to publisher deadlines, the maneuverable nature of contract-based development was a fantastic positive, freeing Psyonix to generate income as they developed products of their own.

Armed with a new business model and having grown a staggering four times in size, the studio utilised their experience into Rocket League and the realisation of a perhaps once out-of-reach dream.

Unlike its predecessor, the game met with resounding praise from throughout the industry. A hit with players of all varieties, the game is triumphant proof that the belief Psyonix placed in their concept was completely warranted.

“We didn’t expect it to take off as much as it did, but honestly we wouldn’t have gone back to it if we didn’t know it had mainstream potential,” Hagewood says humbly. “We stuck to our guns and it paid off.”

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