Rocket League, the illusion of mastery, and the emergence of complexity

Since its release in July, 2015, Rocket League has risen to the level of a gaming phenomenon with a staggering 25 million downloads and 1.1 million active players per day reported in January 2017.  The game has also managed to bag several awards including ‘The Game Award’ for best Indie game, ‘British Academy Award’ for best Multiplayer game and the BAFTA for best sports game. At first glance Rocket League is just an imitation of soccer using rocket-powered cars, but there’s much more to the game under the hood. In this post, I deconstruct some subsystems of Rocket League through the lenses of game design and learning sciences. The following sections include discussions regarding game modes, matchmaking, competitive play, aesthetics, level design and Rocket League communities.

Gameplay

Rocket league consists of car-based versions of well-known sports like football, basketball and ice hockey. The soccer version is significantly more popular than others and is the only competitive mode of the game. Thus, this discussion focuses solely on the soccer modes of the game. The ‘Standard’ soccer mode of the game consists of two teams of 3 players each, competing in matches lasting 5 minutes. Other soccer modes include 1v1, 2v2 and a special 3v3 mode called Rumble. These modes are discussed in detail in following sections. The core game dynamic of rocket league is driving. During a match, each player controls a rocket-propelled car in an indoor stadium to score goals with a massive soccer ball. In addition to driving, the cars are also equipped with jumping and flying abilities. The three-dimensional movement of players and the ball is constrained by the ceiling and walls of the stadium. The combination of these three mechanics within the constrained space of an indoor stadium provides a deep and complex space of possibility for gameplay.

A fundamental skill in Rocket League is the ability to predict and react to the movement and trajectory of the ball and other players. It demands mastery of internal visualization of a 3-d space. Thus, Visio-spatial skills including spatial perception, mental rotation and spatial visualization play a pivotal role throughout the course of the game. These skills are typically challenged in First person shooters

The illusion of mastery and the emergence of complexity

One of the reason behind the immense success of rocket league is its low barrier to entry. Anyone who has driven a car in a videogame can pick up Rocket league within minutes. Games are different from other media like movies or books when it comes to getting people to start engaging with the media. Although movies and books also require cognitive effort, games demand intentional learning and understanding before the user can start enjoying the content. Casual games overcome this need with simple rules that build upon human intuition. For example, in Flappy Bird a simple rule is to avoid obstacles by maneuvering a bird by tapping on the screen. Similarly, Angry Birds starts off with a simple objective of flinging birds to hit pigs. These simple bite-sized concepts allow players to quickly understand a game and start playing immediately. Contrastingly, complex games like Chess, StarCraft and Magic the Gathering have high barriers to entry as players need to understand a significant amount of information before they can start playing the game. A high entry barrier is usually caused by the presence of multiple interconnected subsystems, which are all crucial for meaningful gameplay. The trade-off for having a high entry barrier is to have a broader space of possibility and complexity in the game, which facilitates intricate decision making, learning and depth in content and gameplay. In many cases, a high entry barrier is tackled with explicit tutorials in the form of special game modes, overt instructions or manuals. Another common way to overcome this issue is with implicit tutorials in the form of embedded learning levels, which slowly introduce concepts and subsystems of the game. From a design standpoint, it is difficult to create a game with a low barrier to entry, which is also deep and complex enough to provide long durations of gameplay.

Rocket league handles this problem magnificently. It extends on the default game-driving interface and introduces jumping and boost concepts in a quick tutorial. With some practice of these concepts, new players are at a level ground with experts as they have all the functional tools that experts have at their disposal. This relatively low-barrier to entry allows new players to start competing in the multiplayer mode almost immediately. Leveling the playing field in terms of game abilities empowers new players as they do not feel left-behind in the game. Moreover, the decision promotes mastery of skills by rewarding gameplay ability rather than time investment. This setup allows the game to create an illusion of mastery for players at various levels of ability. New players who believe that they have mastered the controls are matched with players of similar abilities and get enough gameplay to practice basic gameplay. Then, as players get better, they are matched with higher ranked opponents who play differently and do things with their cars that a beginner didn’t even know were possible. This is the point when things get interesting. The beginner encounters new skills that were never introduced by the game, but were performed by an opponent or a teammate. At this point, the beginner’s illusion of mastery is broken and new complexities emerge in gameplay. The beginner now understands and starts practicing new skills as her opponents are using them against her to gain an upper hand. An appealing factor of the game is that this process never stops. Even after hundreds of hours of gameplay, Rocket League has more to offer in terms of practice and perfection.

 

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