MLB The Show 19 designer and community manager Ramone Russell is often refreshingly candid about the unique challenges facing Sony San Diego. "We're still a relatively small sports game developer, and our resources are very limited, and we hear everything. There isn't a piece of feedback, there isn't a feature, there isn't anything wrong with the game out in public that we don't know about," he says.
In discussing this year's version, he talks about how the team uses a "Matrix-like" system to play through tens of thousands of innings to tune the hitting mechanics. He talks about the new mode, March to October, which he hopes will put a fresh spin on franchise mode. And he talks about the realities of making an annual sports sim. "I wish we had five years to make a game. I wish we had eight years to make a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. But us sports developers, we have eight months, and our team is still small."
Despite Sony San Diego's small size, MLB The Show has been consistently lauded as a top baseball sim. Of course, it helps that it's the only baseball sim, what with R.B.I. Baseball being a total non-starter, but the fact remains that it compares very well with its competition in other sports. If it has a weakness, outside of maybe online play, it's that Sony San Diego tends to be pretty conservative with its updates.
But no longer. This year's version will be rolling out two new single-player modes, Moments and March to October, as well as some pretty significant improvements to the presentation. For solo players, it's some much-needed affirmation amid the continued dominance of modes like Diamond Dynasty.
Last week I stopped by Sony's office in San Mateo to check out these improvements, as well as to chat with Russell about the opportunities and challenges facing this year's version. Here's what he had to say.
In the Moment
USG: Looking at MLB The Show 19, it seems the the overall approach to this year's version is streamline some things, but to also add new solo modes with a bit of a narrative arc to them. Is that fair to say?
Ramone Russell: You can definitely say that. Streamlining was a... I guess a two or threefold thing. Diamond Dynasty was heavily streamlined. A lot of user feedback, a lot of user testing went in. We looked at pitching, hitting and fielding. We do that every year. We're always trying to fill holes and finish out systems that we created the year before. MLB The Show 18 was all about throwing. We found out that our throws weren't efficient or fast enough, so we added hundreds of new throws.
This year we found out it doesn't really matter how good and fast your throws are if your catches aren't efficient enough, so we spent a lot of time on recording hundreds of new, efficient catches. What would happen last year was that you'd have a fast guy in the box, there would be a dribbler or chopper hit, and the player would wait for the ball with his hands out. You're be pushing up on the controller and he's not moving, and then you're screaming at the game, which is our fault. And what was happening was our catch analysis didn't have a catch to sort.
Now we have hundreds of catches, so when you push up on that controller, you can go attack that ball. We have hundreds of low catches, low-mid catches, mid catches, and high catches that are filling all of those holes. They make the guys way more efficient and separate them out by ability, which you saw a few times in the game already. Sano couldn't make that ball, and then the left fielder got frozen on that rope and couldn't move because he was a bronze level fielder. If that's a diamond level fielder, if that's a Mookie Betts, they're going to tend to make more plays than the others guys do.
Moments have been done before in Madden and NHL. They were ultimately done away with because people weren't playing them enough. How are you ensuring that people will want to engage with them on a regular basis?
They won't be monotonous. They're going to be things that you want to do. Like, who doesn't want to try to have Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. hit back to back home runs? It's one of the harder moments in the game, but who doesn't want to try to do that? And there will be really great rewards when you finish those storylines. It could be five to 10 different moments, but at the end of that, there will be a really awesome reward that you can get. You're also continuously getting stubs, you're continuously getting XP, and you unlock even more stuff. But there's also a curated experience in these storyline moments, where you could get a Ken Griffey Jr. MVP card that everybody wants, and we've made most of the rewards in the game sellable.
I was gonna say that one of the problems that those games had was that the moments were often too sterile, so it didn't feel like you were in the moment. It felt like you were playing just a random gameplay scenario, over, and over, and over again.
But you see, like what you already saw from here was it was very curated. We're taking a look back in time. Do you remember how this happened? Can you do it? Or can you change history?
With historical filters and that kind of thing.
Yeah, it's pretty cool. So, tell me about the decision to kill Immortals, because you introduced that last year. Obviously it didn't work out. What went wrong?
They ended up being the endgame card for that position, and we didn't necessarily want that. If you had Ted Williams, there wasn't a better card than Ted Williams. So by getting rid of them, it allows us to do multiple cards, so it won't be a case where it's by far the greatest card in the game for that position. There'll be multiple different cards, and you'll have to decide, "Do I want this MVP Ken Griffey Jr.? Or this other Mike Trout? The MVP season Mike Trout?"
We don't want there to be a meta for any part of the game, and that includes endgame rewards. So, Immortals are gone and tickets are gone. It's now been turned into this much better system, which is XP. Play the game, get XP, continuously unlock stuff for all of the game modes. And if you want a specific card, or a specific thing, there is an avenue in the game for you to grind it and get it. It's also not monotonous, like getting 600 saves with a player. We've gotten rid of all of the monotonous grinds in the game.
On the March to October
March to October is an interesting new feature, it's kind of a slimmed down season mode, but with some interesting narrative hooks. Tell me about developing that.
It started off in our early development. I think we do what most video game companies do: We look at community feedback, we look at telemetry data... I think people have a misconception of what telemetry data is. Every video game you play, the developers track everything. Doesn't matter if you're playing online. We know how many games have been played everywhere, we know what the overall batting average is for the entire game. [The batting average] was way too low, so that's why we put a lot of work in to make the game easier on the lower levels while making it harder on the higher levels.
And throughout all that research, what we found when we were talking to the franchise and season guys was that they don't want to play 162 game seasons. They don't necessarily want to do Quick Counts, they don't necessarily want to be in these menus. We're giving them ways to play the games quicker, but it's not quick enough. They want to feel like they're a part of it. We came to the conclusion, "This is a different mode, that's separate, and let's call it March to October, because that's what every fan wants to do." They want to get their team to the playoffs, and hopefully win the [World Series].
What we're doing going forward-because March to October is something that will continue on into future versions of the game-will be creating curated and focused experiences, with unique narratives, about your team and the things that you're doing. Losing a game has an effect. You go on a losing streak, and the next key moment is, "Let's end this losing streak." Had we won that game, we might have went on a winning streak.
That's what we really, really ended up liking about March to October. It's been the best-tested feature we've ever done. Everybody who's played it has absolutely loved it.
Yeah, I really like it so far. I think you're right in that franchise mode, in particular for a game like MLB The Show, just takes forever. You've added a lot of different ways to play that I really appreciate, but at a certain point, it's not as satisfying to simulate everything.
Where is that middle ground? And the middle ground turned out to be a brand new game mode called March to October. Because you see there's literally only one menu in the game, and that's the win projection menu. That's pretty much it. Like, it's all about playing the game, putting you in those emergent storylines, and trying to get to the playoffs. And if there's a tiebreaker, we'll throw you in that, you'll get a unique presentation scene, and you'll play the entire game.
I feel like, across the sports gaming landscape, solo modes have become less common in general, because there's a perception that developers want to focus on the online modes, which increase engagement, can be monetized, and everything else. You guys are really going kind of all-in on solo modes this year it feels like. What do you think solo modes bring to the overall experience? What are the benefits to you guys for focusing in on solo modes like Moments and March to October?
Well, the gaming landscape continues to change and evolve, and yeah, everybody loves Apex Legends and Fortnite, but not everybody wants to play online. Especially with sports games, some people just want to sit at home, they don't want to have to be with other human beings, they still want emergent experiences. So, that's why the two new game modes this year are both offline game modes. Moments is an offline game mode. You'll never have to play another human being in Moments. March to October is an offline game mode. Through all of the research that we do when talking to fans and talking to our consumers, they still want those things, and as long as there's a market for people still wanting those things, we're gonna still continue to try to give them experiences that they're gonna know and love.
"People are Worse Than They Actually Think They Are"
Getting back to hitting really quickly, I feel like last year, there was a lot of discussion about hitting. There was a lot of frustration around it. Tell me a little about that, and how you're addressing it with this year's version.
Oh God, yeah. Hitting's a weird thing. I think it's one of the hardest things to get right in video game sports because you fail seven out of 10 times in baseball, and that gets you to the Hall of Fame. That's not how it is in basketball or football, so you need that... we always want to keep the integrity of baseball. It's a hard game to play. If you're a first round draft pick, you're on a bus in the minors, eating PB&J. If you're a first round draft pick in the NFL, you're playing day one.
So, we want to keep that integrity, but we also want to look at what people are saying, and hitting was too hard. The more we looked at the data, we discovered, "Oh man, not only are people bad, people are worse than they actually think they are. So what do we need to do to make the game more accessible, not necessarily easier, but more accessible, and what do we need to do to where the outcomes match what's happening in game?" That's why the fastball's a little bit faster and the timing window is a little bit smaller. Hitting's a little bit more forgiving from All Star difficulty on down.
On the higher end, the guys that are really good at the game, the game's not hard enough. And it's a weird dichotomy. For everybody else, which is like 98% of the people that play the game, it's too hard. So that's why off-speed pitches are a little bit less effective. You should see deeper counts, to where the pitcher maybe has to go to his number one pitch and you can sit on that fastball, which is the same thing people do in real life. Contact hitters matter a lot more.
If I pulled up the email from our lead A.I. guy who does hitting, it's like 60 pages of the last eight months of us play testing, and play testing, and play testing. We're able to do these things, what we call infinity sims, where we can make the game play itself really, really fast. So, basically, it looks like you're watching The Matrix. We'll go home at night, we'll set the game to play itself, and the game just goes forever. We'll come back, and the score will be 1,000 to 900 with 50,000 innings played. Then we put all of that data into a machine, and it kicks out averages. And from there we can look at, "Okay, so we don't have enough errors in the infield. Okay, the pitcher's stamina is too great. Oh, curveballs are too effective." Then we can tune the game that way.
We're tuning the game a lot more based off of user feedback, and basically looking at every single individual who played the game. What was the batting average? What was the total amount of home runs? Why are people failing at the game? And that's how we find out, "Oh, it's PCI skill." The vast majority of people can't move that little yellow indicator over the ball. It's for many reasons. One, we don't have the dexterity, and two, pitch speeds are really fast. So let's drop the pitch speeds on the lower level, and let's make timing play a bigger role in hitting success. Whereas in MLB The Show 18, it was god level PCI skill. If you had that, you were good, if you didn't, your skills would top out, and you didn't have an avenue to get better.
With us looking at laying off pitches, looking at timing more, making timing more important, we're putting people into different buckets, and we're letting you get better at the game. And again, dynamic difficulty is still in the game, and we recommend everybody play on dynamic difficulty because it'll give you your own difficulty setting based on how good you are at the game.
The Realities of Making a Sports Sim
Online franchise was cut last year and it's still not back this year. Tell me where you guys are with that.
We're always looking to explore different ways for people to play the game. It wasn't cut last year, it just wasn't in the game. We redid all the online technology, which meant every single line of code for every system online had to be rewritten. So, at the beginning of the cycle, we got a list. What are the most important things? And we started checking those things off that list, and then we got to a point in the development cycle really, really late where we were like, "Okay, this isn't going to make it," and that's just what happened.
With online play, it seems like every year you guys have some kind of issue with server drops, or games not being recorded, or events not going properly. I was kind of wondering what's going on, and how are you addressing it with this year's version?
Well, things have gotten better every single year. Last year, like I said, we rewrote all the code, so we didn't have the issues we had in [MLB The Show 17]; like, we weren't dropping the games. But other issues popped up, and those issues were, as I'm sure you noted, people were losing their stuff. So it took us a few weeks, but every single individual who sent us a trouble ticket, we looked at the backend, and we made sure that every person who lost something, they got back what they lost and then some. Out of the thousands of tickets we got, we answered every single one, so everybody got all of their stuff back.
That's why we've also done two separate alphas. We did an alpha last year. The alpha last year was to test the new online technology, get us some data. The alpha this year was to continue to test the online technology. We also wanted to test out hitting and pitching, because the servers, for the most part, worked really, really well last year. We just had this other random issue that popped up.
We continue to work on it. I wish I could look into the future and say, "MLB The Show 19 is gonna be the smoothest launch." We think it's gonna be, but if there are bumps in the road. We'll make sure we do all the work necessary to make sure we fix it as soon as possible, and to make sure that every single customer is happy with what happens.
Okay. I want to ask you one more question, and it's kind of a big question. So we're at the end of the current generation. What is the state of the sports genre right now?
I think it's great. I think it's really healthy. I think there are experiences that people didn't know they wanted, that they have now, that everybody really enjoys. I think sports games are really, really healthy, I mean, NBA 2K stays in the top 10 in sales for the entire calendar year. It's one of the most successful game franchises, period. Not just sports game franchises. It's one of the most successful franchises, period. Our fans have been very supportive of us, and we continue to see really good growth.
I think it's really interesting, because I think by most measures, people would consider the annual sports sim to be almost an archaic concept, because we have DLC, and live service games, and all of that stuff. How is it continuing to work in this day and age?
I don't know, because I'm not getting younger. It's getting harder. I wish we had five years to make a game. I wish we had eight years to make a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. But us sports developers, we have eight months, and our team is still small. It's bigger than it was a few years ago, we're up to 90 people. We were maybe 75 a few years ago. We're still a relatively small sports game developer, and our resources are very limited, and we hear everything. There isn't a piece of feedback, there isn't a feature, there isn't anything wrong with the game out in public that we don't know about.
If we can fix it within a timely manner, and not break anything, we always try to do that. I don't know if the public really understands that. We want to give people everything they want, but we do have a finite amount of resources. When we do pre-production, everybody's tasked out. A programmer, his entire year is tasked out, every single day, up to the hour, he has things he has to do. So, if something happens, like, "Hey, let's do this feature," he looks at his calendar and is like, "You've tasked me out for eight months. Where am I gonna get the time?" So if we can do it, we always try to do it, unless it's a situation where it might break the game.
Whenever the game launches, we don't know how it's gonna play. We do all our testing, but our team's only so big. There's only so much testing we can do, and that's true with every game. Once you put it out in the wild, that's when you really learn what happens. Then you try to pivot, and evolve, and to make the game enjoyable for everybody.
MLB The Show 19 will be out March 26. Want to know more? Here's what we know about MLB The Show 19's new features, pre-order bonuses, and more.
If you enjoy reading about great video games, you'll find a neat collection of more in our ever-growing list of the best games of 2019. It's easy to lose track of new releases, so use this list to make sure you don't miss the games we think are essential.