I'm sitting alone inside AT&T Park playing "MLB 13: The Show" on the stadium's Jumbotron.
As surreal as it sounds, there are other media and Sony representatives inside the club section, but for a few innings at least, I'm actually the only person in the seats down the first base line as I take a few swings as virtual Buster, Hunter, and the rest of the defending champs.
The audio of the game is turned off, and as I lace a double into the gap, I can't get over how completely silent the stadium is while I sit there getting my first hands-on of the new game.
I walk inside to re-join humanity and play the game under more normal circumstances on one of the various screens set up inside the club section, checking out everything from the new hitting to the changes made to Road to the Show until I'm joined by the game's Community Specialist, Ramone Russell, who sits next to me and helps break down everything "Show" fanatics need to know about the upcoming game.
If only I could bring the Jumbotron home to play all of my games.
ESPN Playbook: What's the one new feature in "MLB 13: The Show" that fans of the franchise should be most excited about?
Ramone Russell: One feature? That's tough. But the one thing people are going to be talking about, it really isn't a new feature, but it's a change that we made based on feedback we received about our game, and it's our new hitting system. We opened the timing window up a little bit because people had been complaining that there just wasn't enough offense in our game. Last season, in real life, you saw all those games where there were 15, 16 hits and the score was like 14-9. We never had that in "The Show" last year. In our video game, every time you played, it was a pitcher's duel. So what we did was, we opened up the timing window, then we added this new push/pull attribute system. MLB.com gives us the spray charts for every single player in the league, looking at every character we have, and then characterizing them as either push, pull, or extreme push, extreme pull, or balanced.
For example, Prince Fielder is an extreme pull hitter, so he is categorized like that, and now he will hit the ball more to his field. In turn, you'll see more defensive shifts come into play based off of these spray charts and how each hitter is labeled. I think that's what people are going to be talking about when they first play "MLB 13" because the hitting is way more dynamic than it was before. We also upgraded our ball physics again. Last year, we started our new ball physics engine from scratch, and this year, the physics have really been improved.
The last few years, you've added a few new mechanics for virtual pitchers to try out, from the pitching meter to pulse pitching. Anything new we can look forward to from the mound in this year's game?
We haven't added any new ways to pitch or hit. What we've done is re-balanced and re-tooled all of the existing ways we have in the game. I think we have four different pitching methods and five different hitting methods, and that's a lot. I don't know if any other baseball game has ever given you that many different choices. So for this year, we wanted to make sure, whatever you like to play on, it's really balanced across the board. People really liked pulse pitching last year because of the challenge, even if they ended up walking guys when they weren't trying to, compared to some of the other pitching methods that were a little easier. So what we did this year is, we made pulse pitching a little easier, while making the other pitching methods just a little more difficult to balance out the game. We didn't want to just open up the timing window for hitting to where now offense is king and there's nothing you could do about it from the mound. Everything is balanced out.
Road to the Show is always one of the most popular features in the game. What have you added to the experience this year?
It's all about focusing in on your character and trying to deliver the best experience. This year, what we did is really give you a different experience from when you're playing Exhibition. So the first thing we thought was, let's change how it sounds. Baseball is so much about the sound, so now, we put the microphone on the field with you. We don't want the game to sound like a broadcast, because this isn't a broadcast, this is your guy. So if you're a centerfielder, you're not going to hear commentary. If you make a play on the ball, you'll hear the commentary, because they're talking about your guy, but for the most part, what you're going to hear is this enhanced crowd audio. You're going to hear different chants, you're going to get booed, and most importantly, if you're running to the ball, you can get called off now by another outfielder or another player who will scream out "I got it!!" That's cool, because that never happened before. When you're in the batter's box, it's the same thing. You'll only hear commentary when they're talking about your guy. Otherwise, you're hearing the pitcher grunting, you're hearing the catcher talking, the umpire is talking, you can really hear the crowd, and it provides a much, much different experience from an audio standpoint.
From a gameplay standpoint, we redid all of the cameras and all of the presentations. We have over 1,000 brand new presentations. We also took out the green-light system for base stealing. We tried to take out things people thought were annoying. If you have good speed, you should be able to attempt a steal, and now that our green-light system is gone, you can just run and go for it. Same thing with baserunning. People thought our controls were cumbersome and didn't make sense. Now it's real simple: Up is to advance, down is going back to the base, so we shouldn't get any complaints about that.
One of the first announcements Sony made about "MLB 13" was the addition of Playoff mode. What details can you divulge about this new feature?
With the postseason mode, we have a new playoff presentation package. What we wanted to do was give you a way to jump right into the playoffs and experience what it's like in a different situation. In years past, you either had to make the playoffs in Road to the Show, which could take years, or you had to play through all 162 games of your franchise. Now you can pick any team and it kicks off this playoff presentation package that you only get in postseason mode. We recorded every game of the World Series this year, and that's the audio you're getting for the postseason. The first strike of a playoff game, the crowd goes absolutely nuts, and that's the kind of thing you'll get this year. They play the national anthem, you'll see the players without their ball caps, and you'll see tons on animations and scenes that you just won't see in a regular game. That's the whole focus of the postseason, to make it feel like a completely different experience.
The other big "back of the box" feature is beginner mode. Why did you feel it was necessary to try and explain how to play a game that's been out for years in the most simplistic terms for people?
I think all development teams have postmortems and whatnot where they go back and talk to the consumers and try to find out what went right, what went wrong. That's something that we've always done, and consumer feedback is something that we pride ourselves on. One of the biggest things we heard, the most negative feedback we heard, was how our game was inaccessible and difficult. So that's where beginner mode came about. Every year, we've tried to address this, but we just never did it right. So we wanted to make a mode that actually teaches novice users how to play our game. So when you're hitting, beginner mode is very straight forward. The pitcher only throws you fastballs right down the middle until you can prove that you make contact a few times. And because we use adaptive A.I., you rank up, and once you rank up, the pitcher will throw you fastballs and change-ups until you can recognize the change of speeds. Once you do that, you move up to level three, where now you're getting three pitches and they're moving around the zone. It's that constant progression you face until you graduate out of beginner mode. We've had our kids come in the office and try it out, and people are scoring runs in the first inning, so it's working. It's doing what it's supposed to do. It's teaching you how to play the game.
You talked about the new baserunning mechanics in Road to the Show. Is there anything new to baserunning in Exhibition?
We have a new baserunning mechanic that's real simple. If you want to steal, hold L2 until the controller rumbles, then when you let go, the guy will take off. If you want to cue up a steal on the pitcher's motion as opposed to your hand-eye coordination, you can tap L2 and he'll take off at the first move the pitcher makes. On defense, we've also added something called button-accuracy fielding. Throwing the ball with the buttons was always just about power and throwing strength. What people wanted was a way to implement accuracy and power, so now if you button mash your throw, accuracy is still a dice roll, but if you use the new system we've developed, you'll have more control over your accuracy. This also takes into account player ratings, so if you have a gold glover out there, he's going to have a massive sweet spot for you to time everything just right, but if you have a bad fielder, it might not be so easy. But I have to say, this is the most polish we've ever put on a game, and it's easily the most fun "MLB: The Show" we've ever had because of all the additions. There isn't one area of the game we haven't touched. From franchise to online, we fixed everything that needed to be fixed.
Can you go into more detail about the changes to franchise?
We ripped out a lot of the core systems and started over from scratch. We ripped out player progression and started over from scratch. We ripped out the training system, and started over from scratch. So now, if you just want a guy to focus on contact or power, you can do that for four or five years, and you'll really see the change. We redid scouting to add more of a human element, implementing guys in the draft who will be first-round busts, as well as some surprise players who may not get drafted until the later rounds, but turns out to be a superstar. Scouts can be wrong, and it happens all the time in real life, so now it happens in the game. We've also redone the way our budgets work, so now you can take a team like the Padres or Pirates, and as long as you're over .500, your budget is going to go up, enabling you to buy better players, better scouts, and this enables you to put a better product out on the field.
How about online? A lot of people call "The Show" series the best offline sports game. What's the plan to make it a great online game as well?
Online is always tough because there are no servers, it's a peer-to-peer connection. Last year was our best year online, and if you're wired, you should be fine. You need to be wired because baseball is such a twitch game, we always encourage people to use a wired connection to get the best speed. One thing we added this year are ping indicators. You were going into games blind last year, not knowing if your opponent had a strong signal, but this year, before the game, we have a ping indicator that goes in, pings both of your IPs, and lets you know beforehand what type of experience you should anticipate. Same thing with leagues. We started over with leagues, streamlining everything and making it easy. Another thing we noticed online was everyone pitching with their No. 1 pitchers all the time. That's all they did. But now, we have this energy system where, if you pitch with a No. 1 starter, he has to rest, and now, what you can't do is play as CC Sabathia one day, then play as Matt Cain the next. If you use a No. 1, all the No. 1s are now tired. Same thing goes with the closers. We saw people were exploiting the closing pitchers in the game and using them three innings straight. If you do that this year, all of the closing pitchers in the entire league will be tired for your next game, so now you're going to have to think and actually strategize about what pitchers you want in the game and how long you want to use them.