Sometimes, timing can make all the difference – and sometimes it’s a little bit more than that.
Psyonix design director Corey Davis spoke at GDC about the reasons why Rocket League managed to capture mainstream success, while its predecessor, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, didn’t – despite the PS4 title and its PS3 counterpart being “basically the same game”.
The difference, Davis suggested, was that Rocket League arrived on a groundswell of early support established through social media sites such as Reddit and livestreaming platforms like Twitch.
"Reddit was absolutely massive for us," he recalled. "The PS4 subreddit picked our game up during the beta and that’s what blew us really wide, we think. The GIFs took over. We think that’s where it all basically started."
Secondary to that, Davis added, was the game’s launch through PlayStation Plus on PS4 – making it completely free to subscribers to Sony’s online network.
"I think there’s a big question mark on whether this is the right decision for a particular game," he admitted. "It was, we think, for us.
“Ultimately this was the big spread. We had all this publicity on Reddit and Twitch, but PS Plus broke down those barriers. It allowed us to stay a premium game and have the reach of a free-to-play game."
Obviously, the two games aren’t exactly the same – the underlying technology, as similar as it may appear on the surface, also required years of refinement before the winning formula for car football was mastered. This even meant ditching more ambitious ideas, as Davis recounted.
"We cancelled and failed so many games," he said
"We wasted a lot of time concepting and experimenting with scale, because we had this fixation on not being perceived as RC cars.”
As well as moving away from the idea of Rocket League as a directly-titled sequel called ‘Battle-Cars 2’, which it had been developing since 2011, Psyonix also scrapped plans for Battle-Cars World, an open-world spin on the franchise which would take the scope of vehicular sport beyond the pitch.
"We thought: why not make it an open-world with cars?" Davis said. "And maybe if you want to drive to a stadium and play soccer, that’s just one mode that’s available.”
But ultimately, he admits that perfecting what they had started proved to be the right decision.
"The split focus made it impossible to make any part of the game good. We were trying to serve too many masters at once."