When it comes to their baseball franchise, the producers at 2K Sports are full of two things – apologies and promises. Apologies for the virtual atrocity that was "MLB 2K9," and promises of big changes to come in "2K10."
"It's not like Major League Baseball is yelling at us and telling us to make a good game," says PR rep, Ryan Jones. "But 2K Sports takes a lot of pride in making great sports games. We weren't happy with last year's title, but we're dong everything we can to improve it."
Adds producer Ben Bishop: "There's a lot of pressure on us to make a good game, and obviously Major League Baseball wants to see as good of a game as possible, but the biggest thing for us is improving the quality of this franchise."
Just how do they plan to do that? I sat down with Bishop after playing a few innings to discuss the fine points.
Jon Robinson: 'MLB 2K9' was pretty much panned across the board. What did you think of the final product when it shipped and how did the failure of last year's game help shape the direction of '2K10?'
Ben Bishop: MLB 2K9 was certainly a challenging project for us because of the fact that we switched developers and the game came to us (Visual Concepts) a little later than we expected and it was a new code base. There was a big period of adjustment as we just tried to get our heads wrapped around what was there and what we could do in the time that we had. In a lot of ways, there were things that we just had to leave on the table and know that we had to get the game ready by a certain period of time, and we really feel that with '2K10' we were able to go back and get to all these things that were left on the table and start fresh with a code base that we were now familiar with.
When you look at it, '2K10' is a lot of what we wanted '2K9' to be, but we just weren't ready to get it there. The game has really evolved a lot this year, everything from the visuals to the gameplay mechanics to being able to add things like My Player, as that was certainly a big weakness for us last year, not being able to play through a player's career. I really think we've turned things around this year and now we can continue to move in the direction we want for the series.
Robinson: In trying to convert gamers who were maybe left with a bad taste in their mouths after '2K9,' what's the first thing they should look at with '2K10' so they know right away that this is a different game?
Bishop: Our key goal on the gameplay side was really to bring out that intensity and that drama of the hitter versus pitcher battle. That battle is key to us and we really wanted to bring back the simulation aspect of it. We wanted to make it accessible to any type of player, but we really want to play up how whether you're the hitter at the plate or the pitcher on the mound, you're working for any little advantage you can get. We have new pitching mechanics, new methods of swinging, we have a new feature called The Batter's Eye, and we have new fielding animations that really make the game look and feel so much better.
The other thing I want to mention is the addition of My Player mode. This is a single-player experience where you're playing through your individual player's career, and this has become something that's important in all sports games, so the fact that we were able to add that this year in combination with all the gameplay stuff, I think we're finally back to where we need to be.
Robinson: When people hear about My Player, everyone is automatically going to think that you're just ripping off Sony's Road to the Show mode. What makes your single-player experience any different that what Sony is already offering?
Bishop: I think they do a really good job, and they've been doing it for a while, but with 'MLB 2K10,' people will find more similarities to 'NBA 2K10's' My Player mode than they will with Road to the Show. We've taken some things from NBA, like how they do the skill points and drills, and then we've also taken some things from some other career modes and tried to build our own. One of the key things with ours is that we're always trying to give you a sense of where you are in your career. We always want to let you know what you need to do in order to make it to that next level. When you start out, you're given specific goals of what you need to do to make the Majors, then once you make the Majors, you're given this new set of goals to let you know what you need to do to make it to the Hall of Fame. So you have this overall goal of making it to the Hall of Fame. It's not just about playing through for a while and seeing how far you can get without having much to shoot for. With the Hall of Fame, there's that specific goal you're going for, and we give you plenty of goals to achieve throughout your path that will hopefully help facilitate that process and make it flow more smoothly.
And with baseball, what's neat is that you are actually only playing specific events involving your player. That helps you get through your season a lot more quickly. If you don't want to play all nine innings of a 162 game season, you don't need to worry about it. With My Player, you're only playing the key moments involving your player and that lets you get through a game in about ten minutes.
Robinson: How many seasons can you play in My Player? Is there a draft?
Bishop: You play 15 seasons, but there isn't a draft. When you start out, we wanted to give you some flexibility with your career, so when you create your player, you can select what team you want to play on.
Robinson: Getting back to the gameplay, last year there were so many glitches, how did you address the A.I. concerns? Is there a new engine?
Bishop: I wouldn't say that it's a completely new engine, but there are definitely some areas that we went in and started from scratch. Fielding was a big one – we pretty much redid the entire system. We put a lot more resources into just making the A.I. better. We also added more animations than we ever had before, trying to cover any situation that might come up just so it looks smoother. We have spent a lot more time polishing this year, where we didn't really have that luxury last year because everything came to us so late. This year feels much more like a natural cycle where we've not only been able to add all of these things and fill some holes, but we've had the time to really make them stand out and play the way we want them to.
Robinson: Has the frame rate been addressed at all?
Bishop: That's another area that's key for us. It's already at a pretty solid state and we're not quite done yet. We still have some more time for polishing and tuning, but getting the frame rate to 60 frames per second is key. We don't want you running into all of these bugs. For us, this game is all about making the experience more fluid and polished so that you feel like this game is actually a finished experience.
Robinson: You mentioned earlier how the key to the gameplay revolves around the battle between pitchers and hitters. Can you go into more detail about how this has been improved over last year?
Bishop: We'll start with batting. For one, the camera has been adjusted to give you a better perspective on the pitches as they're coming in. It's fairly subtle, but it turns out to be a significant difference. It just feels like you have a much better eye for pitches as they're coming in. The new view has you looking a little more up and it gives you a better sense of what is coming off of the pitcher's hand.
The second thing that we added is Batter's Eye. This gives you a tip-off of what pitch is coming, and if you're like me and you have the tendency to swing at every pitch, now I have a better sense of what pitch is coming in and I can decide what I want to do with it early on. Now if I see a breaking ball is coming low, I know this is the pitch to lay off on, but if I see a fastball coming inside, I'm swinging at it because it's a better pitch to hit. Just having that idea that a changeup is coming and you have to sit back, it's a huge advantage, but it's not like it works for every hitter. This feature is actually based off of a player's eye rating, so the better hitters will get to utilize this information to their advantage. You will actually see something that says fastball, breaking ball, or changeup on screen, and in some instances, it will even show you the location. The truly elite players seem to have that ability to read the pitch a split second sooner as it comes out of a pitcher's hand, so that is what we are trying to replicate. It's that extra little piece of information that will hopefully get these great players over the top.
Robinson: Defensive swings have also been added to the game. I know for me, I'm trying to get hits, I'm not going up to bat to foul balls off on purpose. Do you think gamers can react quick enough to determine when they want to swing defensive and when they want to swing for power or contact?
Bishop: What you're saying is a pretty common mindset for people playing baseball video games. But for us, the big thing we're trying to encourage this year is people trying to work the count more. We actually have all this data under the hood saying how strong every pitcher is on different counts. If a batter is ahead 3-1 in the count as opposed to being behind 0-2, obviously they are going to have a much better chance at success. With a 3-1 count, the pitcher feels the pressure to throw a strike with the next pitch, so you might get something good to hit. But if you're behind in the count, the pitcher knows he can throw some garbage just to try and get you to swing. So we tried to build all this in under the hood, and by using things like the defensive swing, hopefully you can foul off some of that junk and work the count back in your favor in order to find some success at the plate. It's definitely a transition, getting used to the defensive swing, but I do it when I'm down 0-2 or 1-2. If I see a pitch coming in and I'm not quite sure if it's worth hitting, I use the defensive swing to keep the battle going and wait to see what he throws next. Hopefully if you do that a couple of times, you might get a fatter pitch to hit. It takes a little bit of patience, but it's a really cool tool.
Robinson: What's the biggest new addition to Franchise mode?
Bishop: There are a lot of little things, but I think the biggest feature people will enjoy the most is SuperSim. This gives you so much freedom and flexibility throughout your season to play and sim the way you want. Basically, right from the calendar you can bring it up, and you can sim through each game in various chunks. You can go from at-bat to at-bat, you can go half innings, you can go full innings, and as you're doing this, you can watch the game unfold and decide how you want to react to what's taking place. So if you fall behind, you might want to jump in and start playing in order to try and rally your team back. If you see your team ahead, you can just continue to sim and not worry about playing. If you want to just focus on hitting, you can SuperSim through the pitching, and do all the hitting yourself. There are so many ways you can go, and that's key when you're playing through a 162 game season. It's a lot more involved than just hitting simulate and getting the results. It takes a little bit longer than your typical sim, but you have way, way more options on what you want to do with each particular game.
Robinson: Obviously, you guys play Sony's game and check out the competition. Where's an area you see with '2K10' where you think you have an advantage?
Bishop: I think our My Player mode is something that really stands out. I forgot to mention this earlier, but I love how our skill points are distributed. We actually have them broken up into different skill points where we have hitting skill points, base running skill points, and fielding skill points. In 'NBA 2K10,' it was just one big pool. But in 'MLB' you don't have to feel like you're wasting points on fielding that you could've spent on hitting. You improve your fielding skill points by going out and doing things on the field. And when you earn these skill points in fielding, you then use them on fielding and you don't need to worry about where you're allocating your points. This just gives you extra control.
We also have these clutch moments that happen in the game that are a nice touch. And when your player comes through in the clutch, it will have a direct impact on your team as a whole and will help you win the game. It's not just about accruing stats in your individual career. The better you perform in these clutch moments, it will help your team not only win, but improve over time. I think it's definitely a deep mode, and I think we give you a lot of information about where you're at in your career that might not be present in other games. We want to give you a sense of where you're at in your career and give you the tools to advance your career to the Hall of Fame.
Robinson: Is it true that the better your player performs in clutch moments and helps your team win, that it will even increase your team's budget and help them sign free agents?
Bishop: Eventually, yeah, that's one of the longer term effects. As your player gets better and is more successful in these clutch moments, your team will eventually build up around you. You even start to have a little bit of influence on the team's direction. You can start to influence which free agents should be signed and things like that where you'll be able to help your team get better. So again, it's not just all about you and your stats. You're also trying to help your team win.