Multiplayer games - the big ones, the seemingly-every-person-on-earth-is-playing games - have a much smaller window of entry today than they did before online play overtook in-person play. When Rocket League hit in 2015, it went from fun little PS4 curiosity to big money competition juggernaut almost overnight. For the person thinking yeah, sure, I’ll check it out eventually when I have a chance since I don’t have the sort of friends who will play with me over beers some Friday night, Rocket League became intimidating almost immediately after it became popular. What, am I going to go online out of the blue? And get absolutely savaged by strangers doing rocket-powered car flips to score goals while I don’t even know how to properly use the controls to do the same thing badly? Nope. No way. But here’s the secret: Psyonix knows I’m out there.
“If you make it work for pros first, you fail,” said Chris Mele, Psyonix developer and one of the original minds behind Rocket League, as we sat down to talk about the game at PAX East. He was taken aback when I explained that while I’ve watched a ton of Rocket League, I’ve never actually picked up the controller myself. He wanted to talk nitty gritty details, about how the third season of the game was ending, how fundamental things like rankings were going to be changed going into Season 4, but we had to start with basics. I asked him to talk about Dropshot, the brand new game mode coming alongside Season 4, in terms of brand new game rather than just a wrinkle in the existing formula. How do you invite someone into Rocket League when they missed the window?
By keeping it simple. Dropshot started as a riff on volleyball. Rocket League grabbed people with a clever mix: it said, here’s soccer! Now go play it using customizable toy cars that control like the spirit animal of a 10 year old running around yelling, “VROOOOOM!” instead of using human feet. That mode is still the bread and butter of Rocket League, but Psyonix keeps supplementing it with new modes like the hockey-style Snow Day and self-explanatory Hoops. Both have cultivated small but devoted communities. Mele explained that when Psyonix tried to end Snow Day, there was a sudden outpouring of support. The data showed people weren’t playing it much, but they still wanted it. The new modes, in effect, opened new windows for people to find a game for them in Rocket League that was outside of both the serious player community online and the even more hardcore eSports community. Dropshot’s built to do the same thing, a mode that marries Rocket League’s pyrotechnics with the most kinetic parts of volleyball. Think of it as the game the 10 year old yelling vroom plays when he’s crashing his toy cars together in mid-air.
Rather than bashing the big glowing ball in the center of League’s circular arena into a set goal, you are trying to spike the ball directly into the ground like some kind of vehicular version of Val Kilmer from Top Gun. Every time you or a member of your team hits the ball, it charges it up. The bigger the charge, the more it damages the ground and ultimately breaks it away, creating a hole shining with the opposing team’s color. Tumble the ball in after that, and you score. As a game mode for an absolute beginner, it’s admirably simple and deliciously violent; once you figure out the timing of jumping into the air, flipping over a car and spiking the ball down is delicious. By the end of just half an hour of play, I felt like I got it. I was through the window, and ready to learn trickier skills as I went.
Even the basic structure of Rocket League is going to be more penetrable to an outsider starting with Season 4. Where Rocket League rankings were based on an entirely internal ranking scheme with titles like Rising Star or Prospect Elite, the whole system is going to be scrapped in favor of a more basic sporting system of bronze, silver, gold, etc. Mele admitted during our Dropshot session that even the Psyonix staff couldn’t keep Rocket League rankings straight in the office, a sure sign that the game was over-complicating things even as it became more and more the pure province of invested and eSports players.
Can a beginner play Rocket League? Absolutely. I was able to pick up the controller and maybe not excel alongside experts, but at least hang with them while checking out a new, entertaining addition to the car –sport-explosion cocktail that’s made League so huge in such a short amount of time. Even when Season 4 and Dropshot arrive on March 22, though, the window will close just as quickly as before. Players like me can sneak in along with the new mode and establish themselves, but it will shut all too soon again. It’s encouraging to see Psyonix keep experimenting so as to open that window back up even as it invests hard in big money tournaments.