There are fundamental principles to video game development as real and constant as the speed of light. Perhaps the most important of these rules is what has become known as Bushnell’s Law. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell was fond of saying, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” While the quote has come under fire for perhaps encouraging developers toward game design that fosters compulsive rather than rewarding experiences, I believe it simply means that developers should respect the time invested into their work by players.
Video games are unique as an art form in that they fight us more so than any other medium. Each game requires a learning process, usually encapsulated within a tutorial, to teach us how to play. For veteran gamers, it can be easy to forget how difficult initially navigating in-game spaces once was, let alone actually accomplishing basic tasks. This is where Bushnell’s Law comes in. The more a developer can make a game easy to comprehend while still retaining depth, the better and more accessible it will be. It is a simple rule and one that can be seen at work in many of our most enduring games. Tetris remains one of the most played, most emulated games of all time because it exemplifies Bushnell’s Law. Almost anyone can grasp how to play Tetris within one minute, but learning to cope with the increased speed of falling bricks takes time and reflexes to master. In an age where technology moves ever forward at a breakneck pace, Tetris, a 31-year-old game, maintains its relevance to this day.
This might seem like a very round-about way to begin talking about Rocket League, but it’s critical to understanding why I think Rocket League is so brilliant. The elevator pitch of Rocket League is irresistible: What if you combined soccer with high-speed car chases and explosions? Throughout its execution, Rocket League stays close to that core premise. Teams of up to four players can face off against each other while attempting to bounce a giant ball into the opposing team’s goal. That’s really all there is to the basic concept. However, spending more and more time playing reveals the depth introduced by the various supporting systems.
Rocket League appears to be one of the few modern games that truly understands and embraces Bushnell’s Law. The controls boil down to steering the car, accelerating/reversing, boosting, a small explosion to flip your vehicle, and a handbrake. These are the kind of controls most people are able to grasp with relatively little effort. A training mode is available, but isn’t really necessary to enjoy the simple, frenetic gameplay that will absorb players into the moment-to-moment action.
While the controls always remain simple, the true highlight of Rocket League is its physics system. The ball and cars all operate under a fun, bouncy gravity that results in an ever shifting field of play that can send anyone flying in different directions at a moment's notice. Hitting an opponent’s car with enough force temporarily takes them out of the game for a second or two before they respawn near their goal. Players can also learn to control their flights through the air, flipping to make the most efficient landing or to hit the ball in just the right way. Flipping through the air to hit the ball at the correct angle to make a shot or deflect an imminent goal is incredibly satisfying. The controls might be intuitive and easy to learn, the physics system lends Rocket League the depth to make it a fascinating and fun experience.
If there is one drawback to Rocket League it is that it loses a bit of its luster when played alone. Communicating with teammates and coordinating strategies enhance the experience above and beyond the solo modes. This makes Rocket League an engaging party game, but not the most exciting option if you’re by yourself. Luckily, Rocket League makes finding and communicating with friends painless and easy, whether it is via a Steam friends list or through PSN.
While some people might complain regarding a lack of diverse gameplay modes, I find it hard to fault the game for presenting such a perfect base experience. On top of that, developer Psyonix has promised more game modes and maps will be added in the future as free DLC. More variety is coming in the future, but for now players can settle for playing an amazingly fun and solid core experience with their friends and family. While playing, players can unlock various pieces of gear and accessories for their cars. The equipment is all cosmetic, but seeing a car in a top hat while it explodes across a soccer field to perform a wheelie to make a game winning shot is definitely an amazing sight.
Rocket League “rewards the first quarter and the hundredth.” It respects player time enough to deliver a faultless base game that will certainly deliver dozens of hours of entertainment. For $20 (or free if you had PS Plus last month), I discovered it to be a ridiculous bargain for the amount of fun I found myself having. Grab a few friends, hit the arena, and lose your minds over the sweet, joyous thrill of Rocket League.