MLB 2K8 Q&A: Ben Brinkman on 2K8's New Features
2K Sports unwraps the first details on Major League Baseball 2K8 in this Q&A with Ben Brinkman.
2K Sports has been making the most of its position as the sole third-party publisher of MLB-licensed games. Last year saw the release of not just the latest in its long-running MLB 2K series but a couple of additional hardball titles: The Bigs and MLB Power Pros (an MLB-styled take on a long-standing Japanese series), two very different takes on the national pastime. Now, with 2008 here, we turn to the next game in 2K Sports' MLB series, Major League Baseball 2K8. To get the first details on what looks to be a groundbreaking year for the series, we contacted MLB 2K8 producer Ben Brinkman. As he told us, it seems that the 2K Los Angeles development team has been busy overhauling practically every core aspect of the game, adding a bunch of new, fun-sounding features in the process, as well as getting set for the debut of the MLB 2K series on the Nintendo Wii.
GameSpot: Let's start with your thoughts on MLB 2K7. In hindsight, what worked for you in that game and what didn't turn out the way you'd hoped?
Ben Brinkman: With 2K7, we knew we had a long way to go from 2K6 to get to where we wanted this game to be. The late release of 2K6 also left us with a shortened development cycle for 2K7, so it was important not to get too ambitious. The main thing we wanted to accomplish was to get the gameplay headed in the right direction, and I think we did just that. 2K6 had a lot of issues with user responsiveness and just bugs, where, for instance, sometimes you could throw the ball to a base and the player would just not catch the ball for no discernable reason. We wanted to make sure the game played a good, solid game of baseball and that our customers wouldn't have to purchase new controllers after chucking their old one across the room in frustration.
One part where we felt 2K7 may have come up a little bit short was the realism aspect. This is, after all, a simulation sports game, but 2K7 didn't always feel like playing a true-to-life game of baseball. Three aspects of this are really easy to point to: too many home runs, too many spectacular wall-climbing catches, and too easy to pinpoint your pitches. The goal for 2K8 was to create not just a fun game of baseball, but also a very realistic one. And we are very pleased with the results.
GS: What new features will find their way into MLB 2K8?
BB: Well, to start we added 90 minor-league teams to the game, including authentic uniforms, many authentic minor-league stadiums, and a few generic ones as well. Going hand-in-hand with that, we had to do a ton of work on the franchise mode, so you can expect a better and much more complete experience there.
We've also added many new unlockable "special" teams incorporating both current and legendary players. We've also got a pretty cool new approach to unlockables in general. We've implemented a new baseball-card system, in which you can earn players' cards by completing certain tasks. You can then sell duplicate cards for credits to buy new card packs, which consist of 10 cards and may include a stadium or special team. But by far the coolest part of the card system is the online card battles. When you have enough player cards to fulfill the requirements of a full team, you can then combine your cards to create a team and take head-to-head against other gamers' card teams online.
On the gameplay side, the big push was for realism. One area we knew we could improve from 2K7 was the hitting engine. Why am I able to hit an opposite-field home run on a pitch that jammed me off the handle of the bat? This shouldn't be. So first off, we completely gutted and rewrote the hitting engine, and the results are outstanding. Along with this, we tweaked the swing stick from 2K7 to increase your control and give it a better feel overall. This is dubbed "Swing Stick 2.0." The idea was to give batting more "oomph" when you swing. Baseball swings consist of two motions: back and forward. Basically we took the power swings from the swing stick and made them the default way to swing, minus the loft and power boost. We think it makes swings far more responsive, rewarding. and natural. Everything from going the other way with an outside pitch to checking your swing feels natural. My favorite is ripping that pitch in down the line. There is just something extremely satisfying about that!
We've also designed an entirely new and unique pitching interface which is unlike anything that's been done before. The main input comes from the right analog stick. The execution involves matching a gesture to throw the desired pitch. This enables a lot more granularity from the input than a digital face-button approach. We'll reveal more on this later. I know this might be met with mixed opinions on the message boards, but do us a favor and wait for the demo before you rush to judgment. We've spent a lot of time and iterations on this and, frankly, I will never pitch using buttons again. I really love it.
Finally, there is also a new right-stick throwing interface in the field. While you may have seen similar mechanics in the past, we've put a new spin on it which we believe is pretty innovative in its own right. The biggest goal was to give more control to the user and have the results be intuitive and realistic, and we're really happy with it.
Having said all that, we will still provide the option to choose between the pitching, batting, and throwing interfaces from previous years, but we believe once you've used the new ones, you won't want to go back.
GS: Of the features you just mentioned, which one was the top priority and why?
BB: The hitting engine and the pitching interface were the top priorities. The hitting engine was important because the interaction between batter and pitcher is so integral and crucial to the game of baseball. If that doesn't feel right, then that's a pretty big blow to the realism. We got on it early (as soon as 2K7 shipped, in fact), because after ripping out and rewriting so much code, we wanted to make sure we'd have ample time to tune it and make it feel right. We've been very happy with its status for a while now. I think our batting just feels right-on this time.
The new pitching interface was another top priority because it's a crucial part of the game and the new design was such a big change. Once again, we got on it early, with the idea that it would need several iterations to make it feel good. This worked out, as we were able to get something in early and then just keep getting feedback and keep making adjustments, until we finally have something now that we are really happy with and really excited for you guys to get a chance to play with.
GS: How often do you and/or the development team refer back to MLB 2K7 (or other previous games in the series) when creating the most current game in the series? Is there any feature or aspect of a prior game that inspired something in 2K8?
BB: Not really. We try to take what we learn from previous games and carry them forward (both what we did right and what we did wrong). But as for the game itself, we like to keep moving ahead and focusing on new ideas to build bigger and better games.
GS: One of the focal points for the MLB 2K series has been the pitching and batting interfaces; almost as if the series has been searching for an "ideal interface" that hasn't been arrived at yet. How has pitching and batting evolved for 2K8, particularly from a control/interface standpoint? How close to "ideal" is this system in your opinion?
BB: As with anything, a lot of it is subjective, so it's tough to say that any one interface is ideal. Everyone has a different opinion of what they want. But we feel that 2K8's interfaces produce a very fun and realistic version of baseball. For me, this year I have as much fun with pitching and batting as I did with MVP Baseball 2003. MVP's controls captured the pitching and batting interface on PS2 and Xbox. I believe our controls in Major League Baseball 2K8 have done the same on the PS3 and Xbox 360. That's a lot to say, but like I said earlier, play the demo and try them for yourselves and you'll see what I'm talking about.
We had a simple tenet we frequently visited throughout production of our new interfaces: "When you give up a HR in the bottom of the ninth, you will be swearing at yourself, rather than at some behind-the-scenes calculation that you feel is giving you a raw deal." The opposite applies for hitting. Let me tell you something: when you throw a perfect pitch and the batter is fooled, or when you are looking dead red and you get it and rip a liner to win the game, it's pretty d*** satisfying.
GS: Signature styles have been another recurring theme in 2K sports titles of late. We saw some of that in MLB 2K7, with accurate pitcher deliveries and prebatting rituals for hitters. How have things improved on this front for the 2K8 entry?
BB: It's just blown out. You will be hard-pressed to find a starter without a dead-on signature animation. If a player has a unique stance or delivery, we tried to get it captured and into Major League Baseball 2K8. I think you'll be very impressed.
GS: What have you done with game physics, particularly with regard to fielding?
BB: We felt that the ball "floated" a bit too much in 2K7, and we were able to uncover some inaccuracies in our physics model. For example, things that may have been left out in lieu of frame rate due to the weaker processing power of the Xbox and PS2. We have a much more accurate physics model as a result, and the ball will behave very realistically, be it a line drive down the line, bouncing off the wall, or a throw skipping off the grass. A fun thing we added is a simulation of surface irregularities; basically small pebbles on the infield dirt that might cause the ball to take a slightly different hop. The result is much more realistic-looking grounders and more fun in fielding.
GS: Will there still be an icon to assist in fielding, or is a new system in place this year?
BB: The icon is a thing of the past. I think one of the reasons it was there in the first place was the lack of responsiveness on dives and wall climbs in previous iterations of the game. It's not intuitive to press the dive or wall-climb command several steps before you'd want that action to occur, so the icon was there as a guide. These actions are instantaneous now, so there is no need for the icon. If you press right trigger or R2, the fielder will dive for the ball immediately. If you guide your outfielder to the wall and the timing and positioning are appropriate, up he goes.
GS: Have there been any changes to the base-running controls?
BB: Yes. There is an all-new and more intuitive base-running interface. Runner selection has been moved to the left stick, and you have the option of using the face buttons to set the destination base directly. Plus, you can still use triggers and bumpers to advance all/retreat all, the same as last year.
GS: What can you tell us about artificial intelligence updates this year?
BB: Due to the new throwing interface and the push towards more realism in general, we had to make a ton of updates to the playbook. As a play unfolds, it will much more closely resemble a real game of organized baseball. The most noticeable updates are fielders backing up throws and the use of relay/cutoff men. In 2K7, the playbook was not advanced enough for this and we didn't have enough time to get it where it needed to be, so we simply disallowed throws to bases that were not caught. If you threw to a base and the player covering didn't catch it, that was a bug. In 2K8, these throws will occasionally go far enough offline that they will be uncatchable. The cool thing is that the AI is advanced enough now to appropriately back these throws up and, as a result, runners will rarely be able to take an extra base. Throws can go in all directions now, including throws that require the first baseman to scoop the ball.
GS: What's new with the presentation? Are Jon Miller and Joe Morgan still handling the booth duties?
BB: Yes, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan are back on duty this year, and we've added some great new stuff with Jeanne Zelasko and Steve Physioc, who will be providing some midgame insight from the studio. We've also added new batting and fielding camera options, as well as a real-time news ticker, which most gamers have already seen in other 2K Sports titles. The entire front-end menu system has also been redone in a fashion similar to our franchise menu system from 2K7.
GS: Tell us about the online options. Will you be supporting leagues and/or tournaments? Will 2K Share be supported?
BB: Yes, leagues and tournaments will be fully supported. We've also added some fun new lobby types, such as strikes only, to help gamers pair up with people that want to play the game in a similar way.
GS: This will be the first year for a Wii entry in the MLB 2K series. What can you tell us about that version and how will it be taking advantage of the Wii's unique capabilities?
BB: We are very excited about the Wii this year. Our game is the only simulation experience on the Wii console and offers a different kind of baseball experience for those looking for more depth in their baseball game. As far as the Wii's unique capabilities, we've incorporated all of the Wii's unique controls into our game, making for a very cool baseball experience.
From the very first time the player starts the game, they are presented with a menu where they can use the pointer in our easy-to-use point-and-click interface. The Nunchuk controller is used to move around the interface if they do not want to use the pointer. More importantly, the gameplay is full of Wii-specific controls.
One thing to note is that you play with the Nunchuk and Wii Remote connected at the same time, as they are both used to complement each other during gameplay. Both peripherals are used when pitching, batting, baserunning, and fielding. These controls really make for a very exciting and fun experience for players.
GS: In 2007, 2K Sports has recently expanded its baseball lineup, with the addition of titles like The Bigs and the Japanese-developed MLB Power Pros. What are your thoughts on those two games, particularly with regard to how/if either game influenced the direction of MLB 2K8 or future installments?
BB: Both of those games are great and are a lot of fun, but each is trying to create a very different sort of baseball experience. With MLB 2K8, we take the idea of being a sports simulation game very seriously, and as a result we make every effort to capture the utmost realism of major league baseball, from the way each player looks and moves to the specific mechanics you use to control the action, right on down to the exact detail of every stadium.
GS: Will the recent controversy regarding the steroid scandal in MLB affect the MLB 2K series (or baseball games in general) in any measurable way? For example, do you foresee any drastic "recalibrations" of certain players' ratings as a result of all the controversy?
BB: No. Our games won't be affected by the controversy. We're only concerned with making the most fun and most realistic baseball games we can.
GS: Will there be an Xbox 360 and/or PS3 demo available?
BB: Yes, there will be demos for both 360 and PS3. We are putting the finishing touches on them now and hope to have them out in early February. I think everyone will be very happy when they get their hands on it.
GS: Thanks, Ben.