Is Rocket League Going Free-to-Play?

By Rich Stanton on at

Hey, I love Rocket League. I really love Rocket League. Years after release, I play it almost every day. Not only is it just a brilliant game, but developer Psyonix has thus far managed to walk the monetisation tightrope: introducing various cosmetics and crates fairly early in the game's life to take advantage of its runaway success, while also leaving the core action completely untouched. One of the aspects of the crate system I especially appreciate is that, if you don't want any of that crap, Psyonix gives you the option to disable notifications about it – so you're still accumulating crates in the background, for if you ever want them, but you simply don't see any part of it. Nice.

In recent times Psyonix has been forthcoming about what its near-future plans for the game are and, in-keeping with current industry buzz terms, has released a summer 'roadmap' (at least this game has cars I suppose). Much of this update is pretty boring, though the promise of a new cross-platform friends system is intriguing if detail-light. Then, right at the end, Rocket League designer Corey Davis drops the bomb. Baby needs new wheels, and you're gonna pay for 'em.

The wild success of Fortnite has, among other things, led to Epic's innovative use of the 'Battle Pass' – the publishing giant didn't invent the idea of a game having seasons, or a purchase linked to that, but it has done a frankly incredible job of realising the concept. Seriously, I bought Fortnite's battle pass for season 4 and the amount of stuff – all purely cosmetic of course – is mind-blowing, something like ten tiers of rewards over 13 pages. Fortnite is of course a free-to-play game, and as such this offer makes sense.

Rocket League is not a free-to-play game. Not yet anyway. But if I was a betting man I'd say we'd see it released under a new free-to-play model this summer, and there are two canaries in the coalmine: a huge overhaul of levelling and XP ('Progression 2.0') alongside the introduction of a season pass under the title of 'Rocket Pass'. Here's Corey Davis on the progression changes:

Progression 2.0

Leveling Updates

  • We’re removing the level cap of 75 and re-balancing the entire level-up curve. Levels will take a fixed amount of XP to earn instead of becoming exponentially longer as you level up.
  • You’ll be converted to a new level appropriate for how much you’ve played Rocket League in your career.
  • Leveling up grants you an Uncommon, Rare, Very Rare, or Import item (instead of these drops being randomly-timed as they are currently)
  • You can earn new Titles and Banners at level 100 and beyond to show off your status

XP Updates

  • As part of the leveling updates, XP is going to become Online-only
  • XP will now be based on Time Played in matches in addition to your Score.

This is a welcome change, for the maniacs like me anyway. I'm not exactly sure what level I am in Rocket League but, having clocked thousands of hours in the game, I'm pretty high – and the higher you get, the longer the next level takes. It's not that I especially care or pay attention to this arbitrary number, but instinctively I know it'll feel a little more consequential when I'm hitting the marks more regularly and getting little prizes. Nothing to dislike there and, as part of the changes, new XP multipliers will also be introduced – so you'll get a match completion bonus, a consecutive game bonus, a party bonus, and double XP weekends.

Who could grumble! Not a rocketeer among us. But then we come to the addition that is hand-in-hand with 'Progression 2.0' and all of a sudden my eyebrows are raising the tiniest fraction.

Alongside the XP and leveling updates, we’ve also been working on a new system to give you new ways to earn items and make progress while playing Rocket League.

Our “Rocket Pass” system consists of multiple Tiers of earnable content. You increase your Tier by leveling up normally and you’ll unlock new, unique content as you go. Each “Rocket Pass” will last for a few months before it’s retired and a new Pass will take its place with new content to unlock.

The “Rocket Pass” has both Free and Premium tracks so everybody has something to work for. The Free track contains new cosmetic items as well as Decryptors and exclusive in-game Titles, while the Premium track will have a flat cost to unlock. You will be able to preview Premium track content before you buy the unlock to access it.

We are still developing the “Rocket Pass” system and we’ll have more details to share as we get closer to launch!

Is Rocket League really copying Fortnite? Let me put it this way. Psyonix is a studio that was built on the Unreal Engine. The founder Dave Hagewood worked in Epic's offices for a time (as an independent), and contract work for that technology is what funded Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars and eventually Rocket League. The key people in these companies know each other, and I've no doubt Psyonix has heard firsthand how much money Fortnite is raking in, thanks largely to that battle pass.

Rocket League feels like a game that has probably decades ahead of it as an eSport title. It has already been successful beyond Psyonix's wildest dreams. And several years after release, with so many examples elsewhere in the industry, the question for Psyonix is whether the game's upfront pricetag is still the best way of making money. Long-term fans may remember, incidentally, that one of the reasons Rocket League really took off initially was its launch as a 'free' game on Playstation Plus.

A rocket pass? My first thought is 'hard pass'. But that's because Rocket League is a game that you pay for, and recurring microtransactions like this... crates are one thing, and you can turn 'em off. Hopefully this can also be muted. But there's no mention of that. And what Psyonix is talking about, with a new rocket pass every three months, suggests a simple conclusion.

This update may mark the end of Rocket League's first phase, and a shift towards capturing the widest possible audience and monetising it in a proven manner. I am speculating about the shift to a 'free' business model. But I'm not speculating about the contents of this update, which indicates a clear direction of travel for the game. Will players who paid be happy about the 'rocket pass'? The answer is Psyonix doesn't need to care what disgruntled purists might think. Money talks, and a move like this would cement Rocket League's competitive status, massively increase the player base, and almost certainly make the game more profitable.

I cannot imagine the rocket pass being launched, and this game still charging an upfront price. Perhaps I'm way off base. Usually, I go wild telling people they should buy Rocket League. But if you're thinking about it, my current advice would be to sit tight and wait a few months.