Q&A: We speak with PlayStation's Ramone Russell about everything new and exciting about this year's pro baseball game.
It's a big year in the world of sports video games, and specifically for baseball games, as PlayStation Studios is bringing its MLB The Show series to Xbox for the first time ever. This opens up the franchise to another audience, and it's also fascinating from an industry perspective as a former PlayStation-exclusive series goes multiplatform.
Ahead of the release of MLB The Show 21 in April, GameSpot caught up with PlayStation Studios' Ramone Russell, the product development communications and brand strategist head for The Show series. In our wide-ranging conversation, Russell briefly touched on the deal to bring MLB The Show to Xbox, saying he's excited to bring The Show to a new group of players. To that end, he also shared that MLB The Show 21 will have new and improved onboarding tutorials to help Xbox fans get up to speed with the basics of the game.
Our conversation also touched on the difficulty of not only making MLB The Show 21 for four platforms--PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X--but also making it during the pandemic. Russell told us about some of the new mechanics in MLB The Show 21, including its new pre-set playstyles and Pinpoint Pitching, which is aimed at hardcore fans who want a real challenge.
Additionally, Russell speaks about the challenge of working on an annualized series where developers don't rewrite the playbook but instead add updates and improve the experience with new features each year.
What's more, the developer gave us some new insight on what might be MLB The Show 21's most ambitious and impressive new features, the Stadium Creator. This allows players to create a ballpark of their dreams, and it doesn't have to be grounded in reality.
"You can do whatever you want. You can take the scoreboards from one stadium and move them somewhere else. You can have a stadium with 30,000 fans or 40,000 fans or 50,000. You can put a UFO in the parking lot, if you want," he said. "If you want a 250-story skyscraper in the foreground, you can. We tried to do it all. It's a really robust feature and we can't wait to see the type of creations people are going to create this year."
There is a special Jackie Robinson Edition that players can pick up to help support PlayStation's new charity campaign. On the subject of Robinson, Russell said the athlete was a force for positive change in baseball and in the world. He broke baseball's color barrier, and Russell pointed out that his fight for racial equality is still relevant today due to what's going on in the world.
PlayStation worked with the Jackie Robinson Foundation to create a PlayStation-branded scholarship that young people can apply to as a jump-start for a career in games.
"This is a program where high school students will be able to submit and apply for scholarships specifically for kids who are trying to look to get a job or start a career in the video game industry. It's not just about, 'Oh I want to be a video game producer or a gameplay designer,' we're looking at all facets of video game development. We're really excited to talk more about that in the coming months," Russell said.
MLB The Show 21 launches on April 20 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. Cross-play between platforms is supported. You can check out our full interview with Russell below.
What is it like from your perspective, in your career, working on a game of this size and scale during the pandemic remotely?
Yeah, that and we're shipping on four different consoles. It's been difficult, but you know, we're getting the job done. We're really excited about the product we're about to release on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S. And we also have cross-platform play and cross-progression across all platforms. So we're really excited about the work that we've done this year with the game.
How did you arrive at a place where you could bring this game to Xbox, as a PlayStation Studio. Obviously the game has been synonymous with PlayStation over the years and now you're reaching this agreement with previously competing platforms. So can you talk about how we got to this place where we're at?
Well right, so most sports games are multiplatform. So we're the latest to join that foray. We have great partners with Major League Baseball and the Players Association and it's been great working with Xbox, too. So we're just really excited to be able to bring MLB The Show 21 to Xbox consoles.
The three different major playstyles--Casual, Sim, and then Competitive. Can you walk us through why you wanted to add these three different styles and what each of them adds to the overall mix?
So every one serves a different purpose. The game has always had simulation, casual and competitive are completely new. They're not just a gameplay style, the actual AI is different. In Casual mode, the computer is not trying to really kick your teeth in. It's a mode based on having fun and learning how to play MLB The Show 21. And also all of our onboarding is there. So all of the fielding aids are turned on, the tutorials are in there, so if you're new to MLB The Show, Casual is where you want to be. You can eventually graduate out of that. Simulation has always been in the game, it's a 50/50 split between player ratings and player skill. Competitive is our other new gameplay style. With Competitive, we're heavily over-indexing on the user skill element. The stick skills. The people with the best stick skills will perform the best in online play, and that's our online default now.
So there's a new onboarding experience for pitching, fielding, hitting. Is that in response to any kind of feedback you were getting from users about it being too overly difficult, or can you just walk us through the new onboarding experience in general?
It's both that, what you just said, and the fact that we're on three Xbox platforms for the first time. We really wanted to make sure that our new Xbox fans would be able to play MLB The Show and have a way to learn all the mechanics in our game and be able to enjoy it like all of our PlayStation fans have over the years.
Something else in the preview video I saw was the Pinpoint pitching. You're giving your fans who love pitching a further way to engage with it in what seems like a far more in-depth and serious way. Can you talk about Pinpoint pitching and what was the reason for bringing it to MLB The Show 21?
We really want to give users a way to be very accurate pitchers. And to do that in a balanced way, we came up with Pinpoint pitching. We're grading you basically on your gesture. Every pitch has a different gesture, we're grading you on your gesture, we're grading you on your gesture timing, and we're grading you on how accurate you are with it. So if you can get all three of those things lined up and perfect, your pitches are going to be very, very accurate. But getting all three of those to be perfect will be difficult. So we believe we have that risk versus reward where if you do everything right your pitch is going to be very accurate but being able to do that is going to be difficult. So we believe we have a really balanced learning curve with Pinpoint pitching.
Being an annualized series, you aren't starting from scratch each year. You're building off the same template. So how do you prioritize what to focus on, and how do you execute that?
Some features are brand new like stadium creator and some features we're continuously iterating on like gameplay. The gameplay director, every single year, that's all he does. He's looking at, how do I make the gameplay in MLB The Show better than it was last year, how do we fill holes, how do we fill gaps, how do we make the game feel better and look better and that's what we've done this year, with a heavy focus on outfield playing--plays at the wall, plays around the wall, and just onboarding. We have lots of new onboarding aids for fielding. We have a route-to-ball indicator that shows you where to go. We have an over-the-wall indication which is brand new and more intuitive. We have jump and dive assists. So the gameplay team has worked really, really hard on making this year's version of fielding in MLB The Show 21 the best the series has ever seen.
In the real world, we have the pandemic. Stadiums are limiting the number of people who can go to games, if they're allowing people at all. Is The Show going to replicate this experience in any way, with limited numbers of fans in the stadium, or are you going to do anything to reflect what's going on in the real world?
No. Our focus has always been on making the best MLB The Show 21 we can for all the platforms, and welcoming in our Xbox fans this year.
The Stadium-Creator mode is a big new addition this year. How wild of a park can I make?
We give you a lot of rope [laughs]. We have been working on Stadium-Creator for over two years basically, we locked them in a room and that's all they've been working on. They've done a fantastic job, finally bringing this amazing feature to life. And it's only possible on the next-gen consoles. You can do whatever you want. You can take the scoreboards from one stadium and move them somewhere else. You can have a stadium with 30,000 fans or 40,000 fans or 50,000. You can put a UFO in the parking lot, if you want. If you want a 250-story skyscraper in the foreground, you can. We tried to do it all. It's a really robust feature and we can't wait to see the type of creations people are going to create this year.
The things that people make, they can be shared with others and people can play these other creations?
Yes, so with create-a-stadium you can share, play, and edit all of the stadiums. You can share them with your friends; you can share them with the online community. They are also available online as well. So you can use Create-A-Stadium with Diamond Dynasty. However, we do have competitive balancing measures in there to make sure you're only playing in stadiums that would make sense and you won't end up playing against any monstrosities that are maybe a bit too crazy.
Games with user-generated content can run into issues with griefing and basically bad people taking advantage of the tools. Do you have a system of moderation and how are you going to respond to the percentage of people who will be jerks?
So we have a system to report problematic stadiums in games. We just ask the community, 'Hey, when you see that, report it.' We'll review it and we'll deal with those situations accordingly.
Stadium-Creator is exclusive to next-gen, but is that to prioritize next-gen or is that because of what's happening under the hood it's just not possible on last-gen?
We prioritize all gens. PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and S. Stadium-Creator was just only possible on the next-gen platforms.
Something else only possible on next-gen is 4K and 60fps. Can you talk about how much more impressive-looking is the game at that resolution and frame rate?
Oh, it's just gorgeous. The colors pop, having a solid 60fps in gameplay is a game-changer. So we're just really excited about being able to offer those things to our fans.
"Oh, it's just gorgeous. The colors pop, having a solid 60fps in gameplay is a game-changer." -- Ramone Russell
You're going to have media bites spliced into the Road to the Show. Is this you dipping your toes into the waters of some kind of single-player campaign?
Media bites are a ballplayer Road to the Show-exclusive feature. It basically came from the feedback that we received last year about, 'I'm playing Road to the Show and I'm crushing the ball or I'm throwing no-hitters and it doesn't seem like the league or anybody notices.' So the Road to the Show team, we got a ton of talent, from all around sports, and the MLB Network, and on next-gen consoles you'll get video media bites every few games. Where the talent is talking about you and your progress in your journey as a two-way player in Road to the Show. If you're on current-gen platforms, those media bites act as a podcast, without the video, so it's a feature we're super excited about.
You have the Jackie Robinson Edition this year, in addition to the charitable campaign that you're rolling out. Can you talk about Jackie's impact on baseball and why you want to honor him in this way this year?
With Jackie being in the game, he's the person person to break baseball's color barrier. But he was also just a powerful force for positive change. And he really altered the landscape of sports and the world. And this is still very, very relevant. So working with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, we've created a brand-new scholarship that we're going to talk more about next year. We've basically spent an entire year working with the JRF to help create a PlayStation-specific scholarship called the PlayStation Career Pathway Program. This is a program where high school students will be able to submit and apply for scholarships specifically for kids who are trying to look to get a job or start a career in the video game industry. It's not just about, 'Oh I want to be a video game producer or a gameplay designer,' we're looking at all facets of video game development. We're really excited to talk more about that in the coming months.
To wrap up, what is it about this year's game that you're personally very excited about and you really want fans to see and appreciate come April?
I think it's everything. The fact that we're multiplatform for the first year. We're on four different consoles--last year we were only on one and that was a gargantuan undertaking. We were finally able to bring the most requested fan feature in probably the last 10 or 15 years, Stadium Creator, and it's a fully-fledged mode. There are over 1000 props in there. They worked so hard on that feature over the last few years, and we can't wait to see what people create.