Rocket League and Emergent Gameplay

Sometimes a game is released that takes people by surprise; A game that no one knew they wanted, and one whose popularity quickly brings it into the spotlight. This game is Rocket League, developed by Psyonix and released for Windows, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.  Though Psyonix’s previous title Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars provided a similar concept, it did not achieve the success that Rocket League has garnered.  This is due to Rocket League’s combination of unique gameplay and simplicity; A game that is easy to pick up but difficult to master.

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Rocket League represents an amalgamation of two normally distinct sports: racing and soccer.  As evidenced by its top Steam reviews, Rocket League not only draws in fans of each genre but many people who don’t take normally part in either; it has its own special appeal.  In Rocket League, players take control of vehicles with the appearance of RC cars and drive them around in an attempt to hit an oversized ball into the opponents’ goal.  They may play in teams of 1 to 4 people.  There is a quick-start matchmaking system which contains casual play for everyone and ranked play for those who want to try their hand at gaining prestige.  The physics are exaggerated yet intuitive.  Cars and the ball collide with each other in a way that makes the hitboxes obvious and the trajectories predictable.  Gravity seems slightly less intense than real life and goals are made in slow motion.

New players will begin their Rocket League experience by learning its unique controls.  The game has the basic racing actions of acceleration and deceleration (reverse is used to brake).  It also contains a “drifting” mechanic which can be used to turn around quicker and make one’s movement erratic.  The rest of the controls may be a bit more surprising.  A jump action lets a player’s car pop into the air.  This is normally used to block a shot, pop the ball into the air, or hit the ball at an unexpected angle.  A player, when in the air, also has the option of flipping their car forward, left, right, or backward.  Online players can commonly be seen flipping forward for the slight momentum boost it gives.  Another command lets the player switch between two third-person camera angles; one that follows the ball wherever it is and another more orthodox, straight-on view.  Finally, Rocket League‘s signature action is the ability to boost a car’s speed using rocket fuel, which is depleted while the control is held.  The boost not only allows players to cross the arena faster, but when combined with the jump action it lets them fly through the air in a rather dramatic fashion.  Collecting more fuel on a regular basis is one component of the emergent strategy of Rocket League which will be outlined below.

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Winning in Rocket League is not as simple as blindly smacking the ball toward the other side of the arena, but rather requires coordination between players and understanding of tactics that have formed organically in the game’s community.  Some can be quite complex to learn and this analysis will only cover a few of them in detail.  One important thing to remember is that keeping the fuel gauge high is key.  Each map has six fuel points which, when touched, refill the gauge.  Players will often be seen veering away from the ball to refill, because the ability to move about quickly is almost always more important than immediate positioning.  The exception to this unspoken rule is when a player is guarding the goal and the ball is hurdling toward them; It would be a poor time to refill in that case.  Another rule of thumb is to keep space between players on the same team so that if the ball flies the wrong way, one teammate has the ability to intercept it.

Like in soccer, experienced players in Rocket League frequently take positions that put them in specific zones of the field for long periods of time.  The build in quick-chat system lets players say premade chat phrases such as “Defending!”, “Centering!”, and “Take the shot!” with the press of two buttons.  This communicates to other players what the chatting player’s intended role is.  A defender or goalie (there is little distinction) will stay near the goal for the beginning of the game until their team needs an extra push in the offensive direction.  In games of 3 or more players per team, it is not uncommon to see a player keep their role of defender for the whole game.  Offensive players are more mobile, swooping in and out to take shots and retreat back to center field.  A useful offensive tactic is to hit the ball from the side of the goal so it flies in front, where a different offensive player on the same team will attempt to drive it in.

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One-vs-one (1v1) games in Rocket League are notably distinct from the more frequently played team games.  With only one player per team, the sole player cannot simply play defense; if they do that then the opponent will have ample time to take a strong shot toward a weak spot in the goal zone.  Similarly, the main player cannot always be near the ball in an offensive stance; this would make any sudden shot by the opponent fly toward the main player’s goal.  Even if said shot misses, the opponent will already be moving in the direction of the ball, while the main player will be stalled, stuck on the wrong side and wasting valuable time.  This combination of dangers creates a very different atmosphere than team games, one where new opportunities can be capitalized on and any single mistake is potentially a lost goal.  Players in a 1v1 game must learn to be both offensive and defensive, accelerating in to take a shot and then backing off in case the shot is bounced back toward their own goal.

Positioning can be considered one half of the learning curve in Rocket League.  The other half is technical prowess.  Like the game concept itself, the controls are easy to understand but take a considerable amount of time to perfect.  Arenas in Rocket League have floors which curve up to smoothly meet the walls; it is possible to drive right up onto the walls this way.  This “sticky” wall gripping lets players cruise upward and, sometimes with the help of a jump, intercept the ball before it bounces back down to the location that the opposite team is predicting.  Another risky tactic is using the rocket boost to fly upward, either stopping a high incoming shot or driving a ball forward that is out of reach of players on the ground.  Anyone is capable of performing these feats, but only experienced players will be able to pull them off consistently.  Players are punished naturally for missing risky shots because the area behind them will become vacant and open to attack from the opposition.  If another player from the same team is not behind them to defend, the opponent will likely score a goal.  These dynamics serve to make each game exciting and a learning experience as well.

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It is worth mentioning that none of the emergent strategies and tactics written above are even official; they have simply been consistently observed over hundreds of games by this writer.  There are undoubtedly countless ways that the gameplay of Rocket League could be picked apart.  Rocket flying in combination with air flips allows for tricky, mid-air precision shots.  Optional maps provide different terrain to trip up experienced players.  High ranked play may see new abilities emerge that have not been previously discovered.  The fact that Rocket League has such a complex metagame is a testament to its depth.  As the game continues to be enjoyed, there are surely new treasures of gameplay to be unearthed by those who are determined.


Buy Rocket League on Steam here.

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