MVP Baseball 2004 Q&A
We talk to EA about its latest baseball game.
MVP Baseball 2004 is the second entry in Electronic Arts' fledgling baseball franchise, which sprang from the old Triple Play games. Last year's game served as a respectable debut and went a long way toward getting EA's baseball game back on track. We look back on the series' roots and talk about what to expect from the latest game with producer Brent Nielsen.
GameSpot: MVP Baseball 2003 was a rebirth for EA's baseball series, which, up until then, had been the Triple Play games. Could you walk us through the best entries in the Triple Play series over the years and what the games did right? Which entries could have used some improvement?
Brent Nielsen: When the Triple Play series was born back in 1995 (wow) with the Sega Genesis version, the vision for the franchise was to create a fun, action-oriented baseball experience with a little more focus on the offensive side of the equation. Here is a rundown of the entire Triple Play franchise:
Triple Play 96 (Sega Genesis): A franchise is born!
Triple Play 97 (PS, PC): An innovative approach to hitting; easy to pick up and play; action-oriented baseball sim.
Triple Play 98 (PS, PC): One of the better in the TP series. Move to polygonal players, the first-ever two-man broadcast booth, and a much more well-rounded baseball experience.
Triple Play 99 (PS, PC): Franchise still gathering steam; introduction of action cameras enhances on-field experience; PS version suffered from frame rate fluctuations.
Triple Play 2000 (PS, PC, N64): My vote for best version in the TP series. Innovative new gameplay cameras and great gameplay that balanced nicely between a sim and a fun-playing arcade experience.
Triple Play 2001 (PS, PC): More feature-driven than gameplay-driven. Addition of the rewards and unlockables and legendary players made it a deeper, long-term playing experience. Engine starting to show its age.
Triple Play Baseball (PS2, PS, PC): First time on PlayStation 2. Moved to cursor batting system. Definitely coming out on the more arcade side of the baseball category fence.
Triple Play 2002 (PS2, Xbox): Finally, the engine has been taken as far as it can.
For the last couple of years in the Triple Play series, we had really wanted to move to a much more realistic and authentic baseball experience. There seemed to be a division in the baseball category between a simulation and arcade game. I thought there was no reason we couldn't build a baseball game that was both authentic and deep and still fun and accessible at the same time. It became very apparent, especially during the last year of Triple Play (2002), that we were not going to be able to make the game we really wanted to using the same engine. It was at that time we decided that in order to create the ultimate baseball game, we were going to have to completely start over from scratch and build a new engine from the ground up. That is how MVP Baseball came to be born.
GS: How do you feel last year's MVP game reflected all that knowledge? What worked? What do you wish had been done better?
BN: MVP Baseball was really a game that was three or four years in the making. It was years of self-analysis and an analysis of the baseball category as a whole. It became apparent that baseball fans and baseball gaming fans really wanted a realistic, authentic-playing baseball experience. We realized that the old vision of Triple Play being a more offense-driven, action-oriented baseball game was not what consumers wanted. We also recognized that the category was really suffering from a lack of innovation. There had really been no big innovation since World Series Baseball on the Genesis dropped the camera right behind the batter and made him the prominent character in the batter/pitcher view. So, we wanted to focus on creating an authentic baseball game that had some true innovation in the category.
What worked? Well, for starters I'd say that our new pitching interface was a huge win amongst the press and consumers alike. Every other baseball game to date really only let you play as the catcher--that is, here's the pitch I want you to throw, and here's where I want you to throw it. That is only half the battle. Pitching is all about execution, and with our new pitching interface, we gave users an unprecedented level of depth and control over pitching, where you actually got to play as the pitcher and execute your pitches. The new picture-in-picture baserunning was another breakthrough feature. It made the traditionally complicated task of baserunning much easier, and for the first time it actually put the offensive player on the field of play once the ball had been put into play rather than simply watching radar with dots. And finally, the addition of the franchise mode was another big win for us. Individual team goals gave users a reason to play each of the 30 teams. Game impact, manager ratings, and the momentum meter all provided a fresh take on long-term play. And again, we really innovated in this mode with the addition of intervention, where at any point in time during a simulated game you could interrupt the sim and drop yourself right into gameplay to actually finish playing out the game yourself and have a direct influence over the outcome.
What do we wish we had done better? Three things really jump out at me. First, there were a few gameplay bugs that, although rather rare, happened just enough that brought the overall gameplay experience down a few points. These included tags not working 100 percent of the time when they should. There was one where if your fielder wasn't standing in exactly the right spot on a fly, the ball would bounce just beside him and he would dive back for the ball, and another where runners on second sometimes wouldn't advance when they could have on balls hit to the right side of the infield. The second issue was the automated jumping, sliding, and diving in the field. We heard that from reviewers and consumers loud and clear. And finally, I wish we could have gotten more overall depth in terms of features and modes into the game. This was, of course, a result of rewriting the game from scratch. There was only so much we could do in a year, and we needed to focus on the core game experience.
GS: How did you approach this year's version of MVP? What were some of the key elements you wanted to include or improve?
BN: The approach to this year's version of MVP Baseball (2004) was really centered around a theme of "unfinished business" and "building on a great foundation." We were absolutely thrilled with being able to create a game that relaunched EA into the baseball business, and now we were excited about the prospects of having an entire cycle to build on a great new game engine. We had three key design objectives when we set out to create MVP 2004: authenticity, depth, and innovation. We wanted to continue to drive to a very authentic baseball experience while at the same time still making it fun and accessible. We have really been focusing on the key deficiencies in last year's game like fielding, user-controlled dives, slides and catches, and getting even more baseball elements in there like wild pitches, passed balls, dropped third strikes, check-swing hits, pitcher warm-ups, mound charges, and so on and so on. Secondly, there were certain sacrifices we needed to make last year in rewriting the game, so we really wanted to drive hard at feature depth and content. Our new engine allows us to drive to a level of content and depth I have not seen before in an iterative sports title. This game is as deep a sports product as I have ever seen. And finally, continuing to drive innovation in gameplay and features that is still desperately needed in the category.
GS: What existing gameplay features are being improved in this year's game and why?
BN: The big-ticket items this year were everything and anything that anyone complained about last year. Here's a brief list of the big ones:
Improved tags Smarter defensive AI Larger variety of hit types Improved throw responsiveness Improved catching Collision detection for players Players penalized for playing out of position Improved pickoffs and steals 3D polygonal crowd
GS: What new gameplay features are being added and why?
BN: This year has been mostly about expanding the feature set for both modes and in-game. We've gone the extra mile to bring all the nuances of baseball to the in-game while blowing out dynasty to be the ultimate "manage your baseball empire" mode. On top of that, there are a couple of new modes, and it's all capped off by an incredibly deep reward system.
Some In-Game Goodies: All-new batting system: We are bringing hitting up to the same level of depth and control that there was over pitching in MVP 2003. You have full control over your swing with about 15 to 20 different factors all coming together in one moment that determines quality of contact.
Ability to control your own dives: Yes, last year's most requested feature was one of our top priorities. Not being satisfied with simply adding a button, we've used the right stick for full control over whether your player dives, slides, jumps, or climbs the wall. We call it our Big Play Control. Expanding on Big Play Control, we've given you the ability to control your slides. You can choose whether to execute a pop-up slide, hook slide, try to break up a double play by going in cleats-first, or even run over the catcher and knock the ball loose.
Mound visits: Need to buy your closer some time to get limbered up? Stroll out to the mound and let him get another pitch or two in. Your pitcher will also respond by getting a stamina boost or penalty depending on whether or not he appreciates the visit.
An all-new on-the-fly bullpen/dugout management menu: Without even having to go into the pause menu you can warm up pitchers, call mound visits, sub in relievers, sit down guys in the bullpen, call pinch runs and hits, or even sneak a peek at the opponent's bullpen to see how close they are to being ready.
Pitch history: Bring up an on-the-fly menu that allows you to view pitch types, locations, and results per at-bat.
Wild pitches, passed balls, balls in the dirt, and dropped third strikes.
Players and actual managers in the dugouts: We have the licenses for several of the top managers in the league, and they'll be watching your every move.
CPU learning for pitching and hitting: Pitchers and hitters will remember your patterns and make you pay if you get too predictable.
Gameplay tuning sliders: You asked for them, you get them.
New Modes: My MVP: Create a player profile and earn MVP points that can be spent on retro jerseys, legendary players, and classic stadiums. You can also track your own user stats and keep track of your accomplishments with the trophy room.
Scenario editor: Take any two teams, set up their rosters, choose your inning, score, count, runners, and the hitter, and then see if you can make a save or come back for the win.
Pitcher showdown: Following in the footsteps of last year's highly successful home run showdown, this mode features two pitchers dueling it out to strike out the same batting order.
Dynasty Mode: Brand-new player happiness and team chemistry model: Being a top manager is not just about getting the stars, it's about keeping them happy and functioning as a unit.
Farm team system: Class AA and AAA rosters allow you to call up talent and nurture your prospects.
Minor League stadiums.
New off-season menu: Much like in Madden's, you draft, sign your rookies, and participate in a six-week free-agent signing period where strategy and clever negotiations will bring the top guys to your team.
Spring training: Play your Cactus or Grapefruit League schedule and keep an eye on your player progression.
MVP inbox: A new e-mail system will keep you up to speed on your prospects, injuries, trade opportunities, players' happiness, and upcoming games.
Fantasy draft and dynasty options: Customize the way that you want to play out your dynasty mode.
Dynamic stadium attendance.
Keep an eye out for even more detail about new gameplay features in the weeks and months ahead.
GS: What are your plans for the online elements in the PlayStation 2 version?
BN: We've tried to make online play as flexible as possible on the PS2. You can play a brisk, five-inning game online and be finished in a few minutes. You can experiment with the rules to see how National League teams would fare if they used the DH rule, or if AL teams couldn't depend on the DH. When you're in the mood for something meatier, you can play a full nine-inning game with injuries turned on--basically, all the baseball realism you could want. We've added anticheating measures to make the online experience more enjoyable for everyone. Play ranked games and move up the MVP leaderboard, or simply enjoy casual unranked games. Block unwanted opponents. Keep in touch with your friendly online rivals and add them to your buddy list with EA Messenger. We've spent a lot of time making the online experience match the excitement of the offline game--with the added challenge that comes from playing a real, live opponent. We're confident that anyone who loves MVP will enjoy playing online over their PS2 with EA Sports Nation.
GS: What kind of improvements are being done to the visuals and audio?
BN: We've gone to great lengths to have a visually stunning experience with MVP Baseball 2004. Here are but a few of the improvements we've made. In MVP Baseball 2003 we had three body types to choose from for each player, and whichever body type was the closest match was assigned to each individual player. In MVP Baseball 2004 we have an infinite amount of body types scaled to look identical to each player. Now all players in the game look as close to their real-life counterparts as possible. We have more than 600 star player heads modeled after the real players, or twice as many as last year. We also developed a new tool to allow us to have more realistic textures and facial shadowing. In addition to the players we licensed the rights to use MLB managers who have their own heads. MVP Baseball 2004 also has the Cooperstown license featuring more than 50 old-time players, uniforms, and stadiums. The cool thing about what we have done here is created an era-specific color and timing treatment. So, when you're playing a game in a stadium in the early 1900s, everything from the crowd textures to the colors will feel like you're playing a game in that era.
Every one of our stadiums has been redone down to the last detail. We have actual bench players sitting in the dugouts and warming up in the bullpens this year. In past years, our dugouts and bullpens were filled with static 2D players, but this year if Jeffery Hammonds and Neifi Perez are on your bench, they are literally on your bench in MVP Baseball 2004 for camera pans and scripts, and of course so are the managers with their team jackets in the requisite arms-folded positions.
MVP Baseball 2004 also features a number of stadium animations that bring the stadiums to life and make the atmosphere within each stadium much more realistic. Some examples of some stadium animations include planes flying in the skyline, blimps circling stadiums, moving vehicles in the cityscape backdrop, and animating sky based on wind speed and direction. Additionally, the wind plays a role in gameplay, affecting the flight of line drives and fly balls.
Audio has been improved greatly since last year. We think that last year our crowd audio was some of the best around, and it's gotten deeper and better this year. In MVP 2003 we had one crowd for all occasions. This year we have four different crowds that vary based upon attendance. If two last-place teams are playing in dynasty mode, then the crowd is going to be sparse, meaning the crowd reactions and base volume will also be much lower. On the other hand, if the Red Sox and Yankees are playing in October at Fenway, the crowd is going to be ear-splitting. We've also added a slew of new chants. Another new feature in the audio is on-field player chatter. This is not a new concept by any stretch, but what we've tried to do is really make it useful as opposed to mindless gibberish. Prior to the pitch, the chatter tells you the outs and where the possible plays are. Here's an example with a runner on first base with one out: "One down. Infield, roll a pair, outfield shoot three on a hit." Once the ball is in play, your fielders will let you know to which base to throw the ball, or if you should just throw it to the cutoff man.
Umpires, hecklers, vendors, and sound effects have also been upgraded from last year. We now have stadium-specific sound effects, like the train at Safeco or the jets flying over Shea, to really hammer home the feeling that you are actually at the ballpark. Finally, we recorded a slew of new play-by-play and color commentary with the San Francisco Giants announcer team of Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow. There is much more depth this year in the commentary. MVP will be available in Dolby Pro Logic for PS2 and GameCube, Dolby Digital for Xbox, and this year PS2 and Xbox are THX compatible. In short, we've tried to completely reinvent our audio once again and think it's going to make users feel like they are on the field.
GS: What's been the biggest challenge in working on the game?
BN: We really felt that we made a great game last year, but due to it being a first-year effort, there were certain features that we either couldn't include or didn't fully deliver on. The fact that the press and the fans showed a lot of appreciation for our innovations told us that the direction that MVP Baseball is trying to take the genre is the right one. At the same time, they rightly criticized the areas that weren't up to snuff. The biggest challenge this year has been in filling all those holes and creating what we feel is an authentic, fun, true representation of the sport.
Baseball is possibly the toughest sports video game to design, tune, and balance properly because there are so many subtleties. It really is a bunch of minigames that interlock to create one larger experience. When you have those kinds of dependencies it becomes quite a challenge to ensure that everything is accounted for and everything enhances the whole. On top of that, we've been very aggressive this year in rounding out our feature set. The new modes and particularly the massive dynasty mode have been a lot of fun to design and implement, but also a lot of work. It's been tough, but the end product is meeting our high expectations, and everyone is extremely proud of what we're going to release.
GS: What do you think of the state of the baseball game genre right now?
BN: Baseball, more than any other sports genre, is heavily saturated, and each title has its own strengths and weaknesses but none head and shoulders above the rest. It seems to be a category in transition with competitors moving in and out. It is a genre that has been in much need of innovation for some time. MVP Baseball 2003 was a good first entry into the market that brought some much-needed innovation to the category. We weren't the best by any stretch, but we had a ton of potential to grow our game into the best and feel like we've gone a long way to do so with MVP Baseball 2004. I am hard pressed to believe that any of our competitors have made as many improvements to as many areas of their games. We are very excited to see how it unfolds.
GS: What do you think the game is going to bring to the genre, and why is that important?
BN: Baseball titles overall are often overlooked when it comes to the sports genre. Even the best baseball games don't normally get mentioned in the same breath as Madden or other top-line sports titles, mainly because baseball isn't a sport that is accessible to the casual fan like football or basketball. I think MVP Baseball 2004 is going to make people who don't normally pay attention to baseball games take notice of the baseball market. At the same time I believe we will cater to the diehard baseball gamer because of our depth in both gameplay and feature set. From the overhauled batting system to the photo-realistic wrinkles in the players' uniforms, we have really focused on making a complete baseball game, something this category is lacking.
The team here is full of not only baseball purists but big-time gamers. We know there needs to be a fine balance between simulating reality and making a game that is fun to play. I believe we are walking that line successfully with MVP Baseball 2004. With MVP Baseball 2004 we want to have a game that hardcore baseball fans love and that your 7-year-old sister can pick up and have fun playing (the old easy-to-learn, hard-to-master axiom). I think this level of accessibility will bring the genre alive and increase the overall quality of all baseball titles.
GS: Thanks for your time.