Psyonix released Rocket League during a time where most publishers would scoff and roll their eyes. A mid-summer release is a death knell unless you're Batman: Arkham Knight. However, Rocket League went on to become one of the top selling games of the entire year.
How did that happen, though? Timing, grassroots marketing and the fact that it was free for a month on PlayStation Plus.
The Wall Street Journal did an interesting write-up on the game and its startling road to greatness. They talk about how the team at Psyonix gathered the $2 million budget for the title by doing contract work for larger games over the years following the poor sales of the spiritual predecessor to Rocket League known as Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. The game wasn't highly successful and didn't start turning a profit until it dropped down to the $9.99 range. It wasn't enough to pay for the production costs of Rocket League, though.
Psyonix had done some contract work on major AAA releases, helping here and there where possible on games like Gears of War and Mass Effect 3. They don't get into the details, but it wouldn't be surprising if they helped out as a third-party asset producer or content maker for art, environments or things of that nature. The contract work helped pay the bills while the team worked on Rocket League on the side.
They mention that the Battle Cars game didn't sell as well as it could have because people didn't know it existed. Marketing was going to be their biggest hurdle to overcome with Rocket League. They didn't spend $50 million on marketing like EA did with Battlefield 4 or the $18 million Activision pumped into advertising in November alone for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Instead they utilized the PlayStation Plus free game of the month campaign to help get the game into the hands of PlayStation 4 owners for free. They also utilized the grassroots marketing of YouTubers – handing out free copies to help bring awareness to the general gaming public through big name Let's Play outlets. It worked.
After releasing in July, the game topped 1 million sales by late August in Steam sales alone, according to VG 24/7. And while the Wall Street Journal article notes that Sony wouldn't allow Psyonix to reveal the stats of the PS4 sales numbers, we can easily deduce from the Steam Spy database that with nearly 2 million units sold on Steam, the game has sold about 6 million units on the PS4 out of the total 8 million units they've moved from July to December.
Those numbers are great, and a lot of publishers would kill to have moved as many units. Priced affordably, the game has already made Psyonix more than $50 million in sales.
The popularity of the game saw big name licensing being offered to Psyonix, including things like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. They even needed Steven Spielberg to sign off on it since Amblin Entertainment owns the rights. They also have plans on adding more licensed vehicles to the game, ranging from modified interpretations of the vehicles from Halo for the Xbox One release, to possibly even K.I.T.T., from Knight Rider.
Rocket League is available right now for PC and PS4, and will be available on Xbox One in February of 2016.