Acclaim's All-Star Baseball franchise has been a solid contender in the baseball genre since its debut in 1999 on the Nintendo 64. The series has managed to find a good balance between adding new features and fine-tuning its existing components without breaking the core game mechanics. We talked to producer Tom Green about the All-Star franchise as a whole, and we also asked him some questions regarding the latest entry in the series (All-Star Baseball 2005) to find out what to expect from the upcoming PlayStation 2 and Xbox game.
GameSpot: Could you walk us through the best entries in the All-Star Baseball series over the years, and tell us what the games did right? Which entries, if any, do you look back on and go, "What were we thinking?"
Tom Green: ASB '99 came out the same year as QBC '98. I had the pleasure to work on both titles. They were the first "Hi Rez" N64 games and, at the time, were the most realistic-looking titles available on the market. ASB '99 had a 2D batting icon and was a decent first baseball game for the studio.
ASB 2000 was the first game to have the 3D batting icon and started the whole "play the whole 162 game season" trend. Nintendo Power voted this the best-looking N64 game of all time. Not just baseball. Not just sports. But all N64 games.
ASB 2001 we outsourced to High Voltage. They did a great job of "fine-tuning" the game while we, in Austin, started developing for the next generation of consoles. ASB '01 added the Cooperstown Legends, such as Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and Nolan Ryan. We averaged an 87 percent review score and received several awards for this title, including the "Incite Award for Excellence."
ASB 2002 came out for the PS2 and was a launch title for the GameCube. The pitch speeds in this game were incredibly fast. They scared away a lot of casual gamers but attracted the hardcore baseball audience. This was the first game to have throwback jerseys, mascots, and broken bats.
ASB 2003 we did for the PS2, GameCube, and Xbox. This was the birth of our franchise mode. Expansion mode was a big hit, as was trivia mode. Adding check swings to the in-game made fighting off those fast pitches more bearable. It sold over 600,000 copies and was/is the best-selling ASB to date.
ASB 2004 had more features than any sports game ever. There was a pickup mode, a scenario mode, a Cooperstown license, a Curtis license, Negro Leagues, a multimedia section with exclusive interviews, 75 stadiums, etc. The front-end interface was a 3D locker room atmosphere with a nostalgic feel, and it got a lot of praise from reviewers.
GS: How do you feel the series has evolved since its debut? What worked? What do you wish had been done better?
TG: Every year the team has pushed to make as many improvements as possible to still get the game out for the start of the next baseball season. I'm really impressed that we've been able to constantly add new features while retaining all that was included previously. ASB 2005 has zone, timing, 2D batting, 3D batting, FielderCam, the traditional fielding perspective as well--plus it has all the features we've always had, plus online play. It's a monster of a game. Not too many features have gone by the wayside over the years that I miss. The only thing I'd like to bring back would be evasive slides. We had them on the N64 and haven't had time to re-implement them. We could do more with our hot/cold zones as well. They were a bigger part of the game back a few years ago. We still have them, but they don't influence the game the way they used to.
GS: How did you approach this year's version of ASB? What were some of the key elements you wanted to include or improve?
TG: This year we tried to keep it simple. Adding more and more features would only take time away from improving the gameplay. We wanted the TWIB Challenge to include the most memorable games of last year's season and went the extra mile to make this happen. We've got the Alou foul ball, Blalock's home run in the All-Star Game (last year it counted), the six-pitcher no-hitter by the Astros, Pedro's bad inning in Yankee Stadium, and many more. Video tutorials have been added as well to assist the user if he or she needs some helpful tips. Graphically, all the stadiums got a face-lift, the player models are bulked-up, we got a lot of new animations, and the front-end menus are much easier to read and understand. The audio is improved, with new play-by-play and color commentary, new crowd sounds were recorded at Yankee Stadium, and Xbox owners will have the option to use customizable soundtracks.
GS: What existing gameplay features are being improved in this year's game and why?
TG: We improved batting by giving the user the ability to use the analog stick to swing. It feels more like swinging a bat to me. We loosened up the accuracy of pitching, since last year pitchers hit the exact spots they were aiming for on every pitch. Dives and jumps are much more responsive. (I'm tempted to say that they were worthless the last few years.) Fielding from the player's perspective makes it all so much more of a real experience. And now we have online to boot.
GS: What new gameplay features are being added and why?
TG: Online play. Everyone wants to prove that they're the best. Now we have the leaderboards and stat-tracking to prove it.
GS: What are your plans for the online elements in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions?
TG: We have downloadable rosters, which will include top rookies as they enter the league, headset support, and for Xbox owners, your custom soundtrack will work for online games as well for menus and batter-walk-up/pitcher-entering music.
GS: What kind of improvements are being made to the visuals and audio?
TG: Each stadium's grass has been raised two inches, and there's new lighting and multipass textures to make the dirt/grass much more realistic. The player model is a lot more muscular, and the wrinkles on the texture maps were redone. Plus, the uniforms get dirty/grass-stained on dives this year.
As for audio, we got Brennaman and Lyons back in the studio and rerecorded hundreds of new lines. Lyons is absolutely hilarious. The Spanish play-by-play is brand-new this year as well. Oscar Soria, the Español announcer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, is the real deal. We also worked on the crowd sounding a lot more enthusiastic and added a lot more team-specific chants.
GS: What's been the biggest challenge in working on the game? How do you keep a franchise fresh?
TG: Time. We only have 10 months to develop each ASB game, so we have to quickly prioritize what direction to go in and then get started. We listen to everyone's ideas. Everyone on the team has some "ownership" of the series. We have a very comfortable environment where all team members will throw out suggestions on how to improve the game. Our designers are obsessed with baseball and know all the intricacies of the game. There's a slew of great ideas; we just need to decide what all can be accomplished for '06.
GS: What do you think of the state of the baseball game genre right now?
TG: It's competitive. I'd like to commend EA, Sega, and Sony for making some major improvements to their respective games as well. I've seen all the preview movies and screenshots, and everyone upped their game this year. Baseball fans will be very happy here in a few weeks. I'm dying to see how people like the FielderCam.
GS: What do you think the game is going to bring to the genre, and why is that important?
TG: You've got to keep it fresh and innovative. The FielderCam is a new way to simulate playing actual baseball. I hope all baseball video game fans give it a shot.
GS: Where does the series go from here?
TG: Well, I'm not sure if it's next year or not, but online has a ton of possibilities. Eventually, we'll give leagues/drafts/seasons/World Series online. Baseball also has a great history, which could be reenacted with the right licenses. Whatever we decide to do, I promise we'll keep pushing the envelope of realism while paying homage to the sport we love.
GS: Thanks for your time.