Axiom Soccer could make Rocket League into a sub-genre

I've been seeing Twitter ads for Axiom Soccer for a while now, probably because I've spent over 200 hours of my life playing Rocket League and occasionally tweeted about doing so. On the surface, Axiom Soccer inevitably reminds me of Psyonix's unbeatable car football game, but after playing this, it's clearly trying to be something else. 

You're using third-person shooter-like tactics to knock the ball into the other team's net, with varying ammo types, and less time spent flying through the air. Your Rocket League skills won't really serve you very well, here—I got my ass kicked straight away (not that this is too unusual in Rocket League, either). Axiom Soccer challenges you to use a different set of skills, choosing angles on the ball like you're playing a snooker game, and putting you in charge of how you guard your goal. 

Below, I ask Earthbound Games' Chris Stamp about the differences between his game and Rocket League, plus what the plans are for the game after its current closed beta. If the game sounds interesting to you, we're currently giving keys to anyone signed up to the Legendary tier of the PC Gamer Club. You can join the closed beta right away, and your key will turn into the finished game whenever that launches. 

Obviously Rocket League is the dominant digital sports game, and superficially your game will probably remind players of that. What are the key differences between the games for you?

Rocket League is a great game, and a benchmark of course. We do find that people’s first reaction is understandably to compare with Rocket League, assuming they have played that game, as you see two goals, a ball, and vehicles. Both games adopt key elements from soccer of course, and it’s fair to say that without Rocket League establishing the genre there would be no Axiom Soccer. However, it quickly becomes apparent to players that Axiom Soccer gameplay involves a whole different set of skills and tactics once they get their hands on it.

In terms of differences, Axiom Soccer is a game that relies on shooting skills, with all that entails—so you have aiming and strafing, and you interact with your target (the ball) remotely through a shooting mechanic, rather than a driving one. The knock on effects from that essential difference change the gameplay in fundamental ways.

With a crosshair and a firing mechanism in Axiom Soccer, players can also interact with the environment remotely, allowing us to include things like player-controlled goalkeepers. The goalkeeper mechanic by itself introduces some quite different gameplay, and also allows us to have penalty shootouts to settle tied games. Nothing like a bit of extra pressure in front of goal!

On top of the core gameplay differentiators, Axiom Soccer is part of a newer generation of games that has the benefit of understanding, at the concept stage, the huge appeal of watching video games live online, and having knowledge of the potential for spectator interaction via and similar and the role of streamers and celebrities, so there are some unique elements in the game that have been designed in from the start to be ready for that whole new world.

What inspired the creation of the game for you and your team?

I’ve always loved simulated ball games, and made them for my own amusement ever since my early days making video games in the mid-'80s Ball games are at once highly intuitive and have unlimited skill potential, as in real world sports. For whatever reason, this kind of game never seemed to have the most commercial potential, however. Then Rocket League demonstrated otherwise!

Seeing the fun people have with Rocket League and then the early prototypes of Axiom Soccer inspired me to follow through my hobby projects into a game aimed at a mass audience. The development team have a lot of fun with Axiom Soccer—having to try hard to focus back on development rather than just playing the game all day is a great problem to have.

I just played a game and got my arse handed to me—it's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. You have different ammo types, and you have control over how you block the goal, and there seems to be an AI element to how the corners work—can you talk about designing those systems?

The game is a balance between shooter and soccer. The vehicle is really just a means to an end gameplay-wise, which is why we created a new kind of omnidirectional drone-based vehicle that allowed the shooter mechanics to come through as clearly as possible. Once we made that decision, the art team had the challenge of turning the unusual function into an appealing vehicle fitting into a sporting theme. They took inspiration from F1, Roborace and drone technology to create the unique styling we arrived at. There are a lot more of these sports drones in the pipeline.

The ammo types are generally what you’d expect as a shooter player—a regular shot (which has a charge-up mechanism in Axiom Soccer) a machine gun, shotgun and grenade. There is also one unusual weapon, the deactivator, that stops the ball dead, simulating trapping the ball in soccer to line up your next shot.

The goalkeeper is very important—it allows us to capture a lot of the mechanics and goalmouth drama that comes from soccer. This was really a breakthrough element in the design, and came from trying to visualise how the function of a goalkeeper in real soccer could be captured in the setting of the game. We went through a few iterations before setting on the current one. Personally I find pulling off a spectacular save just as satisfying as scoring—especially if you can see the look on the face of your opponent who thought the ball was going in!

The bumpers in the corner that fire the ball back off them are there to turn the corners of the pitch from what could be dead space into an active space, and also simulate crosses in real soccer. The advantage in Axiom Soccer is that you can cross to yourself by knocking the ball onto the bumpers and following up with a shot on goal.

What changes have you been making lately as a result of player feedback? What alterations do you have in the works?

Pacing has been a big consideration for players. Axiom Soccer tends to be a fairly tactical game, but it was also important to players to be able to use fast reactions and apply the shooter skills they have developed in other games, so we have been sure to accommodate that.

The goalkeeper mechanic, although very simple, is a completely unique element that players hadn’t seen before, so ensuring that we are communicating that well has been important. We have some new onboarding mechanisms planned based on what we have learned about what people pick up quickly and what needs some explanation.

When do you plan on releasing the game?

We are working towards second quarter of 2019, while paying close attention to player feedback when the early community tells us it is ready to scale up.

What do you think the challenges are of making a competitive game like this right now and launching it on Steam?

Discoverability is always an issue on Steam due to the sheer volume of games people have access to. First step is making sure that enough people are playing the game simultaneously so that everyone can experience the game as intended, against other players online, which is essential for competitive games of course. We have a great community team in-house who help to get the word out and organise sessions that are also streamed live on Twitch and Mixer.

You've got an AI demo in the game—how important is a good singleplayer option to you?

It is definitely important—not everyone wants to jump online straightaway. Plus entertaining AI is a lot of fun to develop!

What sort of variant modes are you planning down the line?

We have some plans, but actually, community feedback is great for this, so we are expecting to hear great ideas. Things we are toying with include a tennis-style arena, with some skill required to get the ball into the other team’s half, snooker and pool-style variants, modes with restricted weapon choices, modes with fouls and free kicks. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if players show us better ideas—we’ve already seen people streaming their own game modes like only using deactivator and drone to steer the ball. I would never have thought of designing that but the streams looked like a lot of fun!

In the beta I see a 'coming soon' for a garage—presumably customisation. What's your intent with that feature?

Absolutely—lots of content options. Maybe I’m not supposed to give it all away yet, but expect to see choices of drones, customisation of drones, team strip design options, player numbers, goalkeeper skins and plenty more. Some of it will be coming on line within days—looking forward to hearing reactions about what people want to see more of.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.