This week, the team at Psyonix launched the much-anticipated Hoops expansion for its smash hit Rocket League. The new mode puts a fresh spin on its tried-and-tested gameplay — and it sets an example that studios like Ubisoft Massive and Bungie would do well to learn from.
Rocket League, at its heart, is a motorized version of European football; teams of three drive cars around a pitch with the intention of knocking an oversized ball into their opponent’s goal. The Hoops expansion swaps that pitch for a court, and exchanges its goalposts for… hoops.
Instead of blasting the ball towards a low target at the other end of the pitch, now players are tasked with arcing it over the rim and into the basket. You’re using all the same abilities and techniques that you would in the standard game mode, but this slight twist changes the flow of a match and skills necessary to succeed.
The Hoops expansion doesn’t seek to add something new to the carefully considered gameplay at the core of Rocket League. Instead, it represents familiar actions in an unfamiliar way, and that illustrates what the game was all about from the start.
Starting out in Rocket League, most players will find that they’re unable to contribute much to their team. Being able to calculate the trajectory of a ball, position your vehicle in relation to it and then strike the ball such that it ends up where you need it to be is no small task.
However, once you’re good at that, you see how much depth it offers as a gameplay mechanic. Hoops asks you to focus on nudging the ball into the air and preventing your opposition from capitalizing; its predecessor, Snow Day, aped ice hockey by transforming the ball into a puck that slid rather than bouncing. Both of these modes challenge you to use your skills in a different manner.
Rocket League is now a platform, which Psyonix can use for experimentation. New modes give existing players a reason to log back in — something that the developers behind persistent games like Destiny and The Division would love to have at their disposal.
The difference is, Destiny and The Division are built around gameplay mechanics that are nowhere near as broad as Rocket League. Instead of focussing on traversal and movement, they hone in on dealing damage to enemies and other players.
It’s more difficult to change up that sort of gameplay and keep the spirit of the game intact. FPS games have been enormously popular for twenty years, but if you’ve played one form of team deathmatch, you’re unlikely to be all that surprised by the way that it’s implemented in another game.
Something like the Sparrow Racing League was a step in the right direction for Destiny. That diversion offered players a different activity to take part in — one that didn’t hinge on shooting at something until it died.
This isn’t a criticism of games that use combat as their primary mechanic (although the fact that these titles make up the vast majority of releases is a little tiresome). However, studios that make games like The Division and Destiny — games that demand to be played on an ongoing basis, perhaps for several years — need to change things up every now and again.
Rocket League takes simple mechanics, asks players to become very familiar with them, and occasionally offers up a new way of putting them into action. It’s new content that will last much longer than an extra gear set or a few new multiplayer maps.
Annualization is yesterday’s news; today, the biggest franchises are attempting to release games that can stick around and continue to earn money year-round, rather than something that sells millions in November and is forgotten by February. That’s no small feat.
Here’s the magic formula for a game that can grab players and keep them for the long haul; a simple gameplay component with an enormous amount of depth, and enough creativity to continuously think up new ways of presenting those mechanics with enough variety to keep audiences from moving on.
It’s a difficult recipe to follow — but the rewards are enormous.
Rocket League is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.