MLB The Show's Battle to Fix Online Play: "If You Can't Play it, It's Kind of Pointless, Right?"

MLB The Show's Battle to Fix Online Play: "If You Can't Play it, It's Kind of Pointless, Right?"

INTERVIEW | Sony San Diego's Ramone Russell talks about online play, big gameplay improvements, and the decision to drop microtransactions.

MLB The Show enjoyed plenty of accolades in 2017, but it ultimately stumbled in one place that mattered: online play. Sony San Diego has struggled to keep up with the skyrocketing popularity of Diamond Dynasty's online play, and matters came to a head last year amid major online problems.

Fast forward a year, and Sony San Diego is determined to keep that from happening again, even going so far as to axe online franchise from MLB The Show 18. Getting the online right is a priority. But so is gameplay, and most importantly, longevity.

Sony San Diego community specialist and designer Ramone Russell was in town recently, and he was kind enough to walk me through MLB The Show 18's numerous improvements, as well as talk through some of the big issues like online franchise and online play. Here's what he had to say.

Online stability was obviously a problem last year. Why has it been such a problem for MLB the Show over the years?

Ramone Russell: I don't know that we have the answer to that exact question. What I can tell you is that's always been a priority for us, and it's always something we're trying to fix. That's why we we rewrote the server code. It's about speed, it's about stability, and it's about... when a problem arises, how fast can we fix it? So all of the new tech that we have allows us to address problems a lot faster. That's also why we did a closed alpha so early in development. It wasn't any type of marketing. We learned a lot from the closed alpha, we made a lot of fixes from the closed alpha. That will let us better prepare for launch, and when we launch the game, we'll be sitting there waiting. And because we have all these systems in place, hopefully it'll be super smooth.

How much urgency are you feeling because of Diamond Dynasty's big online hooks?

RR: If you can't play it, it's kind of pointless, right? This is a transition that's taken us a few years. Five, six years ago, online wasn't a thing in MLB The Show. The game used to be that you would play with someone on the couch, and if they did crazy baserunner stuff, you would hit them in the leg and say, "Hey, stop doing that." But online isn't like that. So we've had to start thinking about how to keep the integrity of the game and take care of the exploits so that people are happy playing the game. That's the growth you've been seeing us make over the past few years. We created Diamond Dynasty initially, it was an okay mode, we made a few big changes a couple years ago, and it blew up. Now we have to make changes to keep those people happy while also making changes to Road to the Show, franchise mode, and the underlying gameplay, because that's where the bread and butter is for any sports game.

Online franchise was cut in this version. Is that it? Is it gone forever?

RR: I can't speak for MLB 19, but it was a tough decision. We value every single person who buys and purchases this game, and we want to do everything we can every year to make those guys happy. This year's focus was on our online technology, server speed, response time... and because we rewrote everything, online franchise did not make the cut. It's a super engaged fanbase. We won't forget about those guys, but again, I can't see in the future for what we'll do next year.

MLB The Show 18's hitting, pitching, and fielding have received massive overhauls.

What's the one thing you want to get right this year's edition of MLB The Show?

RR: When we start brainstorming, gameplay is always the first thing we talk about. If the underlying game isn't good, then Road to the Show doesn't matter, franchise doesn't matter, Diamond Dynasty doesn't matter. So we looked at what baseball is at its core: pitching, hitting, throwing, catching, and fielding. So all five of those major elements that make baseball "baseball" got major development time and improvements.

We reworked the hitting engine, meaning ball spin, top spin, drag coefficient, air density. All of those things have been improved. We can pull up a clip from MLB.com of Aaron Judge hitting a home run, and if we put those numbers in-game, our game will hit that ball within the margin of error in real life.

We've improved pitching. One thing we did is making pitching a little bit harder. We found through testing and looking through telemetry data that pitching was a tad bit easy. So pitching is a little bit harder. But again, we'll still have five difficulty settings and dynamic difficulty, which we encourage everyone to use.

We completely rewrote the tagging system. We took everything that's been in the game for years and threw it in the trash. Jeff Oldman, who's one of our lead engineers, wrote the baserunning logic. So Chris Gill, the lead gameplay producer, figured that Jeff should write the tagging code too since those two elements play together. What this means for the end user is, because we're a sports game, if something doesn't look right you notice it immediately because you can watch it in real life.

Last year, when our tags didn't look quite right, people would notice. Our system wasn't smart enough to know what the guy was doing. What we've done this year is when the fielder gets the ball, he's now situationally aware of what the guy's doing and where he's trying to slide. So if he slides headfirst, he knows where to tag him. Same if he's in a rundown. When you see it in-game it will hopefully look so much better.

We've added hundreds of new animations. Catchers were a problem last year: passed balls, blocked balls. We rewrote that code entirely and added hundreds of new animations. Now catchers explode out of their crouch so they can get the ball and do what they need to do. The exploit from last year of there being a blocked ball that goes two feet from the catcher and lets you take an extra base doesn't happen anymore.

We've rebalanced all of our infielders. We've rebalanced outfielders. Like, outfielders are a little bit slower now. So you'll see more granularity between a Byron Buxton and a right fielder who's just there for their bat.

Past that, Road to the Show is our most played mode...

Road to the Show is your most played mode? Moreso even than Diamond Dynasty?

RR: Oh yeah, Road to the Show is most definitely still our most-played mode. Diamond Dynasty is creeping up there, but Road to the Show is our bread and butter. That's why we took microtransactions out, it's why we changed the story... It's not about you being a first round draft pick, it's about you being a late-round draft pick and trying to become Albert Pujols. The changes we made to the base game and those archetypes, you're now making way more important decisions, and your game-to-game play dictates who your guy becomes.

MLB The Show 18 drops microtransactions from this year's version.

I'm sure you know that microtransactions have been a point of contention of late. Was the decision to strip them from Road to the Show in response to that?

RR: No, we had already made it before all that stuff had happened. We asked ourselves, "What's Road to the Show?" It's about gameplay, it's about grinding, it's about your character. That's the difference with minor leagues, which no other sports really have. Yeah, you have the D-League in NBA, but those guys are still living a pretty decent life. When you're in the minors in baseball, you're eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the bus, or it's beans and bad steak. It's not a glamorous lifestyle, and you really have to grind to get out of the minors, so that's what we focused on, and that's why we ripped it out. You can't just plop into the game and buy all of the points and go, "Oh, I'm in the majors!" You're going to have to grind it out and make it up there on your own.

Lots of sports games have story modes now. What about MLB The Show?

RR:: We've always focused on the narrative as something that you create. It's an inner monologue you have while you're playing. That's why we did the "Pave Your Path" where you have a narrator. The narrator will give you the overview of what's going on, but you create the narrative in your head. So no, we're still not doing a linear path. However, we are setting you up with the beginning of the story, and the story is that you're a middle to late round draft pick. You weren't drafted in the first round, you're not Bryce Harper. Again, in life, it's not about where you start, but where you finish. So we're starting that story, and it's up to the user to fill in all the blanks.

Why did you decide to completely rework the progression in Road to the Show?

RR: There's a few answers to this question. One is that we kept seeing everyone end up with the same guy. Everyone ended up being Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, and there's only two of those guys in the majors right now. So going along with the narrative of the story, we couldn't let people 99 everything. So it's about choice, beginning with the archetype choice. You can be a glove wizard, but you're not going to be able to hit for a lot of power. And what's really awesome about the archetype system is that you don't have to follow our suggestions. What I've done is use outfielder archetypes for the shortstop, and I'm hoping that I'll get some equipment that I can use to boost those attributes that I can't get really high, because I want to be a power-hitting shortstop. But if you're a shortstop, fielding is really important, so I'm rolling the dice that I'll be able to get some equipment that will allow me to address those gaps.

How do you square the hardcore and casual aspects of sports gaming? It's a question that every sports game is wrestling with.

When it comes to balancing the game, how do you square the needs of the hardcore players and the more casual fans?

RR: We throw everything in a bowl, right? There's what we want to do, then there's the casual gamer—a pretty decent percentage of our sales is to players who have never played a baseball game before—and we've got to look after what they like. Then you have the hardcores from Reddit and Operation Sports and what they want. We put that all in a bowl and just throw stuff on the wall. A lot of focus is already baked in. Some things we have two or three year plan, like graphics. Some other things are more ad-hoc, like the tagging system. We'll think that we can do better and rip it all out and try to make the best tagging system we can. A pretty good percentage of the things we work on come from feedback from the casual fans, feedback from the hardcore fans. We can't do everything, we can't make everyone happy, we have an 8 month development cycle. We have to do what's good for the game itself.

Is this Year 2 of, say, a 3 year plan for Road to the Show? Or is this more ad-hoc?

RR: It's Year 2 of... a 5, 10, hopefully 15 year plan for Road to the Show. As we said in the streams, everything we did with Diamond Dynasty was where we wanted to see the mode end up at. So we pulled back those resources for Road to the Show. As long as Road to the Show is continuously the most played mode, we're going to spend a lot of time and resources on making it the best mode in the game.

What's another nice little thing that players won't necessarily notice but it's definitely an improvement?

RR: Our attendance logic has been completely rewritten, and it's important to both season mode and Road to the Show. If you're using the LA Dodgers, what do we know about Dodgers games? Traffic in LA is hellacious, so games fill up much slower. We have real MLB.com data, so if you're at a Dodgers game, it's gonna fill up a low slower. And if they're getting blown out, they'll be out by the sixth inning. If you're playing the Giants or the Red Sox at home, you're going to see every home game sold out. If it's a team where a rivalry happens and a lot of fans travel to the game, that's what you're going to see. Something we've always prided the game on, you're not going to see everything playing two or three games. Every time you play the game, you'll see something new here, a new animation there. You have to play the game for months to see all the changes.

MLB The Show 18 launches March 27. Check out guide to everything we know about MLB The Show 18 for all the rest of the info on this year's release.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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