In an interview with PC Gamer, Psyonix president Dave Hagewood confirmed that “crazy different maps” are coming to Rocket League to shake things up, and as a person who’s been playing a ton of Rocket League lately, I’ve gotta be honest here: I think that’s a bad idea.
Right now, Rocket League features one map; there are different backgrounds, but it’s a totally standard, boxed-in rectangle across the board. There’s no variation at all. The goal is in the same place, the walls are the same height and the rectangle is the same size no matter where you go. Nothing changes in the environment between matches more than a cosmetic filter. While all that might sound incredibly boring, honestly, it’s one of the game’s strongest features.
Rocket League is a sport. Say what you want about whether “e-sports” are “real sports,” but for our purposes here, Rocket League is absolutely a sport, or at least, it can be treated as one. The matches are intended to be even and intense with all players being given the exact same tools to work with: you can choose one of many cars, ranging from toys to luxury to trucks and more. You can swap out paint styles and materials, wheels, add adornments like flags, halos or tophats, or you can even change what your boost trail looks like. But that’s the key—you’re only changing what it looks like, not how it plays. You’re never unlocking a faster boost, a better class of car, a grippier tire. Like a “real sport,” the only inherent advantage you’ll get is the one you as a player bring to the field.
There are very few sports where the playing environment is not standardized. You could point to golf since every course is unique, but that’s because the conflict in golf is the player versus the course; you’re only indirectly competing with other golfers. Rocket League is not that kind of sport. Rocket League is soccer played with rocket cars, and in soccer, the “map” doesn’t change. (If you wanted to take this moment to remind me that actually, Rocket League is not a real-life sport, shouldn’t be treated as much, and that variety is what gives a video game longevity, then I’d go ahead and stop you there to remind you that Dota 2 only has one map and remains one of the most popular competitive games in the world.)
GameSpot’s Danny O’Dwyer looked at the history of Rocket League recently, the 12 years it’s taken to refine the concept into the incredible game we play today, and called it a “beautifully simple” game. What stands out about O’Dwyers’ look at the game’s evolution is watching the complications disappear. It’s one map with no obstructions, no twists or turns, no hills or bends, no weapons or power-ups. Psyonix’s previous game, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, was nearly identical to Rocket League in every way—except that each stage was nonstandard and felt different from the last. You had to learn each and every stage to succeed, figuring out new strategies and play styles. It was a fun game, but that was about it and it never really hooked me. Rocket League ditched the map variety in favor of offering players a more focused experience, and it’s a much better game as a result.
Whenever possible, I’m the type of person who immediately jumps at the chance to turn off all items in Super Smash Bros. and play on “Final Destination,” the only map in the game with no distractions or environmental hazards. I want to test my mettle against other players in a fair competition and that’s the only way to do it as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want random item drops and stage hazards getting in the way. So it’s probably no surprise that I feel the way I do about Rocket League. I don’t want the player base to be split up, or to have to vote on the next map, or to feel like I’m struggling to learn the quirks of some dumb U-shaped map and wish I was back on the regular pitch. It sounds to me like if Capcom decided it should add a hill stage to Street Fighter V where the raised middle section blocks long-distance fireballs and the dipped edges make it easier to corner people: it would run completely counter to the purity of that game and fans would revolt.
Adding more maps only falls into the same trap that every other game these days has fallen for: that “more” equals “better.” I’d take one excellent map over 100 decent maps any day. That’s why in games like Quake 3: Arena, the map included in the demo, “The Longest Yard,” ended up becoming the most popular even once players bought the full game and had access to dozens more. That was the map you were used to, and that’s the map you want to keep playing. The more maps we demand from developers, the more we dilute the experience and the less chance we have to master the environment and concentrate on the competition coming purely from other players.
Psyonix needs to step back from any changes to the core Rocket League experience and instead focus on the peripheral features: more cosmetic items, better team support, and a true online league with seasons. If Psyonix truly wants to add nonstandard maps to the rotation, then save them for time-limited holiday promotions to reel dormant players back into the game similar to how Valve adds a Halloween level to Team Fortress 2 every year. But leave the core formula untouched, focused and pure.