Baseball Mogul 2005 has all but ignored the recent evolution of text-based sports management simulations.
Time seems to be standing still for the Baseball Mogul franchise. Developer Clay Dreslough and his Sports Mogul company have all but ignored the evolution of text-based sports management simulations--as witnessed by more-comprehensive efforts like Out of the Park Baseball--and have held on to simplistic graphics and monolithic gameplay since 1998. The recently released 2005 edition is so out of step with the times that it reminds us of those rainbow uniforms that the Houston Astros continued to wear long after the Day-Glo 1970s had come to a close.
At times, you might think that you've been playing Baseball Mogul 2005 since the 1970s. It's almost a tradition that this series changes little from one year to the next, but so few improvements have been made between the 2004 edition and the 2005 edition that it's hard to tell them apart. The structure of the new game is nearly identical to its predecessor. You take over the operations of a Major League baseball club, looking after every facet of the organization from setting the starting nine to determining what ticket prices will draw the biggest crowds. As always, the bottom line is the bottom line. While winning on the field is important, success is measured by how much cash you have left over at the end of every season. So while you can win it all with a collection of high-priced superstars, you might bankrupt the club in the process and mortgage the entire future of the franchise for that brief moment of glory in October.
Tense? Sure. There's an undeniable attraction to trying to build a franchise that wins games, draws fans, and makes truckloads of cash all at the same time. But we've seen it all before. It's one thing to stick to what you know and build upon a game's strengths. It's another thing entirely to copy the previous game.
And when we say copy, we mean it. Even the look of the new game is a mirror image of the old one, with the same dreary roster screens and clunky play-by-play interface. Many players have agents whose faces have been in the game for years. The lone addition to the game seems to be a baseball cap-wearing frog, who has been dropped into a number of menu screens as the series' new mascot.
Gameplay in Baseball Mogul 2005 is virtually identical to that of Baseball Mogul 2004. Last year's significant upgrades--specifically, Lahman database support so that you can begin play with real Major Leaguers in any season from 1900 to 2004 and the dropping of the points system for salaries in favor of actual cash--have been carried over in their entireties, with few noticeable additions.
There just isn't enough in the way of depth here. Finances remain far too simplistic to engage all but the most casual baseball gamers for long. You either keep the payroll down and hit the sweet spot with ticket and concession prices--or you don't and wind up crippled by debt. Although this can lead to some interesting moments, especially if you're guiding a sad sack with little fan interest and even less cash (Bonjour, Montreal!), you can only adjust the price of tickets, beer, ice cream, and hot dogs so many times before ennui starts to settle in.
With just these four principal economic factors in the game, there isn't enough to do, especially if you've been playing this series for a few years. This limitation also makes teams too dependent on gate receipts. George Steinbrenner's Yankee empire doesn't rise and fall depending on the number of hot dogs sold in any given week, so it seems strange that this continues to be a central part of staying in the black in New York. So you wind up playing rich clubs like the Yankees and Dodgers much like you do the Twins and Royals, because there aren't enough elements in the game to represent the stranglehold that the wealthy teams have on such things as merchandise sales and TV rights. The former isn't in the game at all, and the latter is too simplistic, with just three options (regular broadcast, pay-per-view, and local blackouts). There isn't enough of a swing in broadcast revenues between rich and poor, either, with the cable channel-owning Yanks bringing in just $20 million or so more than the likes of impoverished small-town rivals like Oakland.
Other financial elements in the game remain unrealistic as well. Rich teams start with about the same amount of cash in the bank as poor ones. (There's only a $20 million or so difference between the Yankees and the Expos, which is meaningless in a game where midrange pitchers demand north of $10 million a season.) This means that teams can fall into debt far too readily. You should at least be able to blow the bank in New York or LA for a few years before running into debt trouble. Falling into debt is still ridiculously suicidal, too. Wind up even a few thousand bucks in the red and you lose the ability to re-sign players who are asking for more than the market minimum, which can gut your franchise overnight. As always, this seems needlessly gimmicky. Can a $200 million baseball franchise somehow not qualify for a bank loan? Can it really exhaust all of its financial reserves in a single season?
Also, you still aren't given room to maneuver when it comes to player contracts. Agents continue to demand sums that can only be adjusted by playing with the number of years in the deal, meaning that a lot of the time you have to simply walk away from superstars. This happens in real life, of course, but there isn't even any pretense that you're negotiating here. You either meet the demand or let the player go. And since broadcasting isn't a meaningful factor and merchandising is excluded entirely, the richest clubs in the game have to abandon star players just about as often as their poor rivals. This makes for a more level field of play, but it doesn't seem right that big-market teams have to suffer the financial issues more common to small-market teams.
But at least those star players are putting up more-realistic numbers now. The out-of-this-world stats (Babe Ruth hitting .552, Steve Carlton winning 34 games, etc.) that marred last year's game have been dialed back to Earth. In the three dozen or so seasons we simmed (from all eras of the past century), the numbers were generally in line with those that are being posted by current Major Leaguers. This means that you still can't go back to the "Dead Ball" era or even the run-challenged late 1960s to see numbers accurate for the time, but at least the contemporary statistics better reflect reality now. Player ratings have been switched from letter grades to numbers as well, which both seems more professional and flows more smoothly with the stats.
All in all, Baseball Mogul 2005 is something like a comfortable old shoe that's finally starting to fall apart. Revamping some of the graphics and switching the player ratings system from letters to numbers make this seem like more of a remake than a sequel. Gameplay has been allowed to stagnate, which is very disappointing considering that Baseball Mogul 2004 indicated that changes were on the way. Playing a big-league owner and looking for the perfect ticket price still possesses a bit of the "just 15 more minutes" magic that made this series so enthralling in its heyday, but this franchise desperately needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.