It might sound counter-intuitive, but knowledge of the map in a multiplayer game is neither an inherently valuable or interesting skill on which to test players. The fact that I know it’s best to defend Point A at the first wooden gate on Overwatch’s Hanamura map is not a demonstration of skill—it’s rote memorization. But first-person shooters are unique in that they use terrain not just as something to be learned (something that’s fairly simple to do), but as a way to set up different strategic scenarios for play. With its long sightlines, various flank routes, and nestled hiding spots, Overwatch’s Watchpoint: Gibraltar map provides much different possibilities for team and individual play than the more concentrated, area-focused King of the Hill maps like Lijiang Tower or Nepal.
Lately, in the world of competitive videogames, we’ve seen this issue erode a bit thanks to games that opt for consistency instead of variety in levels. Leading the charge is Psyonix Inc.’s soccer-meets-bumper-cars multiplayer game, Rocket League. Instead of making the map a maze of corners and foxholes to pop in and out of, Rocket League treats the map as a regularized sandbox, filled with all the geographical possibilities that a player could possibly need.
Rocket League treats the map as a regularized sandbox.
There is no “correct” way to approach the issue, but when it comes to understanding the implications that one philosophy of map design might have over another, it helps to have a sense of how terrain can affect the way games are played in physical space. In the house where I grew up, we placed our basketball court just off to the side of the U-shaped driveway, and the asymmetrical terrain afforded a huge advantage to anyone who was familiar with its features. When you’re on defense, it’s easy to get the offense into a position where they can no longer drive, since the sides of the court are so claustrophobic that there’s barely any space to maneuver. But whenever we wanted to play real basketball, with ten players and a playing field open enough to drive toward the basket without getting stuffed, we’d just make the trip out to the local park.
Much like a regulation basketball court, the Rocket League map is a consistently-sized field. Scattered around the field in a distinct pattern are boost orbs, which give players turbo fuel and serve as the central resource of the game. Part of Rocket League’s appeal is the simplicity of this design: the open field format is familiar to anyone who’s played soccer, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of the level’s scale and boundaries. Since all visual information is readily available to the player, there are no blind corners to internalize or terrain-based mind games to play with the opponent. Instead, the true skill of Rocket League comes with the ability to manipulate the car for optimal movement within the space.
This application of a playing field as a staging area for skill-based feats isn’t unique to Rocket League. In basketball, there’s a crucial maneuver called the “jab step” that every player learns early in their hoops education. When you first catch a pass, you plant one foot, position your body between the ball and the opponent, and “jab” your free foot in different directions. From this position, you’re a triple threat: you can pass, you can initiate a drive, or you can just pull up and shoot. The beauty of the jab step is that it initiates a situation in which your opponent needs to read your movements if they want to defend you, and if they misread even one of your motions, they’re screwed.
This skill exists in Rocket League too. By rolling the ball onto the top of the car, a player can “dribble” to the opponent’s goal. Depending on when and how a player decides to finally shoot the ball into the goal, the opponent is forced to read the offense’s movements and commit to one defensive option or they’ll lose the 1v1 altogether.
While both the jab step and the Rocket League dribble provide opportunities for mind games and thousands of possible interactions, they have almost nothing to do with the terrain itself.
As you dive further into Rocket League, the ability to “feel” the level becomes an important skill, but it’s nowhere near as important as the ability to read your opponent’s movements and move the car in an optimal way to ruin their plans. The terrain in Rocket League, then, isn’t so much about granting players specific situations for mind games, but giving them an open stage on which to present their mechanical prowess. In its profound simplicity, Rocket League offers a populist appeal with little precedent in competitive games.
But recent changes to Rocket League have blunted that philosophy. When Psyonix introduced the wider, longer Wasteland map in 2015, players were disappointed that a non-regulation field was being used as an arena for ranked, competitive play. But even Wasteland shared the same basic principles of the original Rocket League map; it simply expanded the scale.
Rocket League offers a populist appeal with little precedent in competitive games.
Then, in June of this year, Psyonix introduced the Neo Tokyo map, which throws most of the Rocket League playing field conventions out the window. While there are still two goals opposite one another, they are situated at opposite ends of a bowl-like playing field, which curves up into two elevated banks on either side.
Already, the implications of these geographical tweaks have a massive impact on the way that Rocket League can be played. To climb the sides of the valley onto the banks of the level, a player has to either slow down (lest they fly off the ramp and waste time in the air) or jump up onto the ledge at just the right height. The map does something that no other Rocket League map has done before: it requires players to learn the intricacies of multiple new map features in order to use that knowledge against their opponents. Traversing the map becomes a challenge in itself; mind games can now take the form of terrain-based trickery instead of straight-up mechanical jukes. By making Neo Tokyo part of ranked and professional play, Psyonix is committing to a design philosophy where map knowledge is an official facet of the metagame.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the move seems strange for a game like Rocket League, whose strength always seemed to lie in its pure, elegant simplicity. Now, competitive Rocket League players need to spend time learning oddly-shaped new maps with the hours they could have spent fine-tuning their mechanical and team coordination skills. And in a world where the top competitive multiplayer games are heavily emphasizing complexity over accessibility, the decision feels more like a forced attempt at complexity than a principled design choice.