Rocket League’s impact arrived seemingly from out of nowhere, serving as a runaway hit and what appears to be an overnight success. Yet, like many things in life, things are not always exactly as they appear; a fact that San Diego based developer Psyonix knows very well.
Motivated by the games of their youth, the team of Ben Beckwith, James Golding and Dave Hagewood were inspired to create a game that featured piston-pumping vehicles that could leap into the air. While filled with enthusiasm for this concept, the team weren’t quite sure where, and how, to apply this mechanic to an actual game.
After some experimenting with their quirky idea using Unreal Tournament 2004’s expansion pack, both Ben and Dave moved onto creating an original game, one that would not only revolve around their design, but would expand it even further.
“We struggled to find the right game for it though.” Dave Hagewood explained. “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.”
Internally, once 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 Sony’s PlayStation 3 in 2008.
Met by a lukewarm reception, the developers were frustrated by the apathetic response to their game. Yet despite any disappointment, the group remained confident that they were onto something with potential.
“Even with low sales we didn't blame the game concept. 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 making one that would sell. Recognizing that the odds were not quite in their favor, they decided to adopt a new model that allow the studio to continue creating content, while minimizing the inherent financial risk during each cycle.
“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.” disclosed Hagewood. “The key was to use this stability to balance out the risk of making our own IP.“
No longer obligated to publisher instigated deadlines, the maneuverable nature of contract-based development was a fantastic positive, freeing Psyonix to generate income as they developed products of their own.
Yet there were some disadvantages, primarily that the workload demanded a lot of patience from within the studio.
Still, the team remained confident. Armed with a new business model and having grown a staggering four-times in size, the Californian studio utilized their more than half-a-decade’s worth of experience into Rocket League, the spiritual successor to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, and the realization of a perhaps once out-of-reach dream.
Unlike its predecessor, Rocket League was met with resounding praise from throughout the industry. A hit with players of all varieties, the game was 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 said humbly. “We stuck to our guns and it paid off.”
An idea that evolved not only a game, but an entire studio, Rocket League serves as testament to years of hard work. With renewed passion and confidence, this is just the beginning for the highly adaptable Psyonix, who can now look forward to exploring new concepts and experiences.
“We want to do the Rocket League brand right and we want our next game to be just as amazing. We've set a very high bar and it's now our job to live up to it.”