Superheroes playing soccer, Rocket League meets Overwatch — the elevator pitches for Pathea Games’ Super Buckyball Tournament are quick and easily understood. However intriguing that may sound to fans of futuristic sports video games, it probably doesn’t move the needle for Pathea’s most important audience at the moment: the Chinese government.
Chongqing-based Pathea, the maker of 2019’s My Time at Portia, is like any developer in China: It’s on standby thanks to a government clampdown on video gaming, a policy that more resembles a public health campaign than a censorship program. Western gamers may have seen headlines in the summer and fall, when China announced stricter limitations on the time minor children can spend playing online video games.
Less noticed was the government’s apparent moratorium on certifying new games, which seems to have taken effect in August. The government didn’t announce any kind of shutdown or ban, developers just started noticing in September that regulators had gone two months without giving any approvals, which customarily were granted in a monthly announcement.
“We’ll see after this beta test,” Aaron Deng, Pathea’s vice president, told Polygon earlier this month. Super Buckyball Tournament this week wrapped another beta test (of an already-approved client available on Steam), and the game — which has spent four years in development — is ready to launch in early access right now, Deng said.
“Hopefully we can get that certification in January,” Deng said. Pathea has already applied for certification, doing so in March 2021. “So, we aim to launch in early access, free, maybe March or April,” of next year.
The content in Super Buckyball Tournament, which takes place in a kind of cyberpunk world where sports stars have powerful body modifications, doesn’t sound like it would run afoul of China’s long list of proscriptions and requirements. (One of which: video games must present “a correct set of values,” according to a report in the South China Morning Post at the end of September.) In the game, players take part in a soccer-like sport, between teams of three or four, where the goal is to throw, punch, deflect, punt or otherwise whip the ball into the opposing team’s goal.
What differentiates Super Buckyball Tournament is the layered gameplay one gets from 13 class-based athletes who also have unique, superhero-type abilities. The gameplay, like Rocket League, involves a lot of verticality, as players frequently leap and hover to charge up a shot or gain a better angle on a scoring attempt. This recent tweet and 20-second clip from Pathea gives an example:
Although characters aren’t assigned to positions, as in soccer, some have attributes that make them more suited to defending or scoring. Still, everyone can roll the ball, which in the game is about as tall as a character, and all players can shoot on goal. Shots can be pre-loaded, meaning players can coordinate one-timers or volley strikes while the pass is midair. They can also be interrupted, allowing players to improvise fakes and dekes to keep the defense off balance. With teams of three or four, there is plenty of wide-open space to exploit; the goal is normally unprotected, as Super Buckyball Tournament, like Rocket League, does not have a dedicated goalie.
Chris Su, a publicist and community manager for Pathea, said the studio has been impressed by new players’ quick understanding the game’s strong physics, the characters’ unique skills, and adapting both into winning fundamentals. Pathea has in turn adapted the game to support high-level playing styles that fans have developed independently.
Example: the character Pai is an all-rounder, deliberately meant to be easy for brand-new players to control. His ultimate is a kind of curveball “thunderstrike” offensive shot meant to baffle opposing defenders. It turns out, players were using Pai’s ultimate to clear the ball from their own zone, as a defensive tactic, so for the recent beta, Pathea added the means to aim Pai’s ultimate anywhere. (Previously, the aim was locked to the opposing goal.)
This means that, “in high-level play, people probably won’t shoot at the goal, they can use it to pass to a teammate,” Su said, “you know, like creating a curved pass. … We’re always open to how people use their abilities, even though [this] was originally designed to be an attacking ability.”
Super Buckyball Tournament is not just a multiplayer game, however. A single-player mode was added to the Steam demo over the summer, in which players build a team, recruit characters, and develop them over the course of numerous matches. Attributes like speed, strength, and stamina will progress, and players will also unlock special skills. Of course, the competition will get stronger in reply; Su said developers have been building the game’s AI to match and complement the techniques human players have shown in the beta tests and demos so far.
“We have some kinds of machine learning,” to help develop the AI, Deng said. “You know, we play the game a lot, every day, and our AI will learn how our development team plays the game.”
Super Buckyball Tournament has been in development for almost four years, Deng said, evolving out of an earlier work, Planet Explorers. In that game, players can construct their own robots, vehicles, and weapons, and some users had built robots who could play a soccer-style ball game. “So, we thought, ‘Maybe we can just make a single game where every player can make their own robot, and fight together,’” Deng said. In five years of development, Pathea designers have refined their approach to make the gameplay more practical, and get players into matches and progressing their characters rather than building things.
Because of the Rocket League-meets-Overwatch comparison, Pathea knows players expect a battle pass and tiered content, which was introduced about a year ago in the long-running pre-season leading into Super Buckyball Tournament’s full release. Pathea Games is still iterating on Super Buckyball Tournament as it waits for the Chinese government’s certification, but it’s clear the studio is anxious to release the work in its next stage, both to draw in a newer and bigger audience as well as get started on new development possibilities.
When it does launch in early access, Super Buckyball Tournament will be available from Steam and the Epic Games Store. Pathea doesn’t yet have a full launch date or window in mind, but when that arrives, Super Buckyball Tournament will also launch on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.