The end of a generation is when sports games either shine or stagnate. MLB The Show has managed to build some momentum heading into the final year of the current generation, but it's easy to wonder what awaits the franchise on PS5—and indeed, the Switch, PC, and Xbox.
As you might expect, Sony San Diego isn't ready to talk about next-gen MLB The Show quite yet. Nevertheless, it's possible to glean some clues regarding the studio's next-gen mindset based on the state of its technology. To put it simply, Sony San Diego definitely doesn't feel the current tech has reached its ceiling.
"Absolutely not," MLB The Show 20 designer and community manager Ramone Russell says when asked. Regarding whether this means the technology is flexible and can continue to expand in various ways, Russell responds, "Yeah, I'd say that's accurate."
On the face of it, MLB The Show has been relatively conservative with its approach to visual fidelity. While Sony San Diego layers in hundreds of new animations every year—this year alone will feature some 700 new animations—it almost never receives the sort of obvious graphical bump experienced in Madden NFL or NBA 2K. When MLB The Show 14 moved from PS3 to PS4, the differences were apparent, but fairly subtle.
As a franchise, MLB The Show isn't afraid to push the boundaries of the sports genre (see last year's well-received "Road to October" mode). Yet, Sony San Diego also prizes continuity. It's certainly not going to move the series to an entirely new engine in the middle of the generation, as EA did with Madden and FIFA.
Instead, Russell likens the franchise's annual updates to working on a sports car. "It changes every year. I don't think I have an adequate answer [to how long Sony San Diego has been using the same engine]. We're always updating it. It's like a Ferrari where sometimes you're changing the tires, sometimes you're doing an engine swap, sometimes you're doing a transmission swap. We're always building on the things we learned in previous years to try and take the game to the next level."
That doesn't always mean a graphical bump, Russell says. "We've reached visual maturity on PlayStation 4. It looks as good as we want it to look, so we've shifted our attention to other things. We've got brand new stadiums to put in the game, and they look gorgeous; we have brand new equipment to put in the game, things of that nature."
Nevertheless, MLB The Show 20's game engine will feel "completely different," Russell says. Some fundamental changes are being made to the hitting in particular, which reflects the flexibility of MLB The Show's technology.
Among this year's changes, MLB The Show 20 is introducing a new "Perfect-Perfect" system intended to further separate baseball's superstars from the rest of the bunch. Players who are able to hit a ball with perfect timing and perfect contact find green grass at about an .800 clip based on internal beta testing, Russell says. What's more, a Perfect-Perfect hit can mean different things for different players. For example, a Perfect-Perfect from Minnesota Twins veteran slugger Nelson Cruz is apt to result in the ball going into the stands, where a different player may instead smoke the ball down the third-base line.
The hitting is the main focus this year, which is good because it's been a major point of contention among fans. Luckily, it's not the only area getting improvement for MLB The Show 20. A "First Step" system for outfielders will determine whether they're able to get a proper jump on a tricky ball. Sony San Diego feels plays at the plate were too predictable previously, so a new indicator is being introduced to make it more skill-based. The popular Road to the Show mode will let you bond with teammates by completing plays with them—for instance, turning a double play with the first and second baseman?—which will boost your stats in turn.
The intended result is for the action in the field to feel dynamic rather than rote or scripted. "The games are a lot more alive; it's more exciting. You're not going to be able to say, 'I know exactly what's gonna happen when I put this ball in the gap. I know I can send him home, I know he's gonna be safe.' You're gonna have way less of those moments and way more, 'I don't know what's gonna happen when I put this ball in play.' That's what makes baseball so exciting, and we think we achieved that this year with all of the changes I mentioned," Russell says.
MLB The Show 20's gameplay additions are emblematic of Sony San Diego's overarching philosophy for the series: changes are data-driven, rarely splashy, and frequently part of a greater plan. It has a strong visual identity predicated around capturing the feel of gameday at the ballpark?—the little audio cues, the immensely detailed stadiums?—that compensates for its occasionally stiff character models. MLB The Show has changed a ton over the course of the generation, but of all the major sports sims, it's felt the most consistent.
It's an approach that's worked for the series. MLB The Show has managed to maintain a Metacritic score in the mid-to-high 80s, with a Last year was one of the franchise's best entries in quite a while, and if MLB The Show 20 manages to accomplish its goals with hitting and feeling, there's reason to believe that its momentum will continue right to the PS5.
MLB The Show 20 will be out March 17 on PlayStation 4.