In the music world, it’s sporting to speculate what’ll be the song of the summer, the jam that seems to be blasting out of every speaker. It’s usually something catchy and impossible to get out of your head. Tracks including “Blurred Lines,” “Call Me Maybe” and “Fancy” are recent musical popsicles that came out of nowhere and ruled the months of scorch.
The video game industry doesn’t quite work the same way. Summer is usually a time for few big releases — recently, “Batman: Arkham Knight,” Nintendo’s delightful “Splatoon” — spread out over a lengthy, slowed schedule. It’s rare to have a breakout hit nearly everyone agrees on and nobody saw coming.
That summer game jam is here — and it’s called “Rocket League.” The game is an unlikely blockbuster for a few reasons. For one thing, there are no guns in the game, no tie-in toys and it’s not a sequel or based on a popular pop-culture property. It’s also download-only and built on a pitch that seems shaky at best: What if you could play soccer with tricked-out, jet-propelled vehicles instead of human players?
This hybrid of demolition driving and soccer, played online in teams of up to 4 on 4, somehow works beautifully. The game, currently only available on PlayStation 4 and Windows PCs, looks bright, has intuitive controls and is fast-paced enough to get the blood pumping. Since its debut on July 7, the game has been download 5 million times, according to Psyonix, the San Diego-based indie studio behind the game. Critics have given “Rocket League” plenty of love; it’s got a score of 85 out of 100 on Metacritic, an aggregator of reviews.
And as a spectator sport, the game is also attracting lots of attention. A “Rocket League” search yields more than 590,000 videos on YouTube. On a recent afternoon, the game had nearly cracked the top 10 of most viewers on the popular game streaming site Twitch with 11,428 live viewers at a time.
But making a great, fun game can’t be the only formula for success, right? Here are five things Psyonix did right to make “Rocket League” a hit:
1. Make it cheap and free. The PC version of “Rocket League” costs $20 to download, which is much cheaper than most $50-$60 mainstream retail games. But the PlayStation 4 version was offered for free through the month of July for all members of PlayStation Plus, which had 10.9 million members as of January. Online multiplayer gaming on a PS4 requires a Plus subscription; it’s likely a lot of those 5 million downloads were PS Plus members trying out the game as part of their monthly subscription freebies.
How will Psyonix make its money back while giving the game away? In August, the game went back to $20 for PS4, and the company is going to be offering paid downloadable options soon, including an upcoming $4 pack of new car options. When PS4 gamers see online friends playing a game like “Rocket League,” they’re more likely to grab the game for themselves to join in.
2. Make it easy to learn. “Rocket League” offers two tutorials — basic and advanced — in the game, teaching players how to accelerate, double-jump, do side flips and other techniques to get comfortable on the field. It’s not easy to defend a goal or score consistently, but the game teaches players the basics quickly and efficiently to get started. Some gaming sites have also published guides to improving “Rocket League” skills.
While “Rocket League” is new to a lot of people, it’s actually based on an earlier game from the same company, “Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars,” and has traces of some mod games for “Unreal Tournament” dating back to the early 2000s. This new version has been highly refined to take advantage of today’s gaming hardware, from its crisp graphics to the option for sharing game highlights online.
3. Make it highly customizable. The vehicles in “Rocket League” range from buggies to big vans, but there aren’t competitive advantages in choosing one over the other. Instead, customizing vehicles is all about personal style; the large array of wheels, antenna toppers, decals and paint jobs helps players stand out on the field.
4. Release it in the dead of summer. “Rocket League” debuted on a very slow week for new games and avoided the crush of high-profile releases that typically come right before the holidays. It’s likely some players won’t set aside “Rocket League” for months until that happens. The game also benefits from its format: quick five-minute matches that can make for a good break from longer games that can take hours to play at a time. Of course, once you start playing, it’s easy to keep justifying just one more match until it’s 3 a.m. and your hands are cramped up.
5. Keep improvements and new content coming. The makers of the game have been previewing new fields, vehicles and feature improvements to the game constantly on the game’s Twitter account. They’ve also been accommodating online game streamers by retweeting highlights of the game and treating it like a burgeoning sports league instead of a typical action game. Official ranked games will be launching soon after a preview period.
Of course, when you release a game this well-received, it’s easy for the hype — including this column — to overpromise on what’s ultimately a modest offering that still has some room for improvement. One gaming site suggested, for instance, that “Rocket League” might be a gateway to more American interest in soccer.
That may seem far-fetched, but it goes to show the power of a good summer jam. Once you experience it, it’s tough to get your brain set on anything else.