The State of MLB Video Games

The Show franchise stands as the best of the current crop of MLB games.

2010 was the first year since 2002 where I did not purchase a new video game baring the Major League Baseball license.  I’m not sure if there was one particular reason but I was surprised with myself that I just did not have the desire to get a new one.  Perhaps this ties in with my previous post about my feelings on video games in general and my lack of interest, but I always felt that my baseball obsession was enough to overcome that.  Maybe it was because the home town team, the Boston Red Sox, had just completed a rather drab off season and appeared to be stuck in neutral as the season approached.  Or maybe it was just the product itself hadn’t advanced enough in a year to warrant another purchase.

Whatever the reason, my apathy towards the idea of purchasing a new baseball title did not return completely this year.  In all likelihood, I will make a new purchase in 2011 and it will likely be for the latest title in the MLB The Show series put out each year by Sony.

The Show has been my franchise of choice over the past few years ever since Take Two Entertainment acquired the exclusive third party publishing rights to the MLB brand, thus putting a dagger into my preferred franchise of the time EA Sports’ MVP Baseball*.  This agreement did not apply to first party publishers so Sony was able to keep putting out a new game each year, which was a great thing because Take Two’s title has been consistently mediocre each and every year.

A great franchise that died too early.

*I always felt the consumer lost out big time with the exclusive rights deals brokered for sports games in the middle part of the last decade.  Take Two’s acquisition was largely a response to EA securing exclusive publishing rights to the NFL brand, thus killing off Take Two’s fantastic NFL 2k series and leaving gamers with Madden as their lone option.  In the span of a year, my two favorite sports titles were no more.

The Show has risen in quality over the years and has even surpassed the level of the final MVP game, though who knows where that franchise would have been now had it been allowed to exist.  The Show shamelessly ripped off MVP’s pitcher meter, a system where the player has to time his or her button presses with the release points of a pitcher’s delivery for optimal pitch execution.  This is a good thing as the pitch meter has been the single best addition to the baseball video game since the behind the plate hitting camera.  The Show has been able to add considerable depth to its franchise mode, clean up some annoying bugs, and give gamers the highly addicting Road to the Show game mode where players create a character and try to achieve Hall of Fame status over their career.

The first baseball game I ever bought and one of the best all-time.

The only problem with what I just stated is that most of those additions were either made or perfected for 2007’s game.  Since then, little has changed aside from incremental boosts to the game’s visuals and gameplay balance.  The last few years the game has felt like a $60 roster update.  If the same is true of this year’s title than Sony can safely assume that I won’t be purchasing the game in 2012, I’ll get my fix this year and let that title last me a couple of years.  So without further adieu, here is how I think this title can be restored to glory (bare in mind, I did not play last year’s game so if anything I propose was added for 2010 that’s why):

  • Better franchise mode – This is kind of a loaded suggestion but I’ll spell out exactly what I mean.  The current franchise mode is pretty solid, it lasts longer than most gamer’s attention spans and gives the player control over GM duties as well as Ownership duties.  There’s just one major issue that has bugged the Hell out of me over the years and that’s the ability to negotiate with players on your roster at any time.  Presently, the user signs a player to a given contract and the player plays out that contract to its end, barring early retirement.  I want to be able to approach said player in the final year of his deal about signing an extension, rather than waiting until the end of the season.  This better allows me, the gamer, to better manage how many expiring contracts I have to deal with at year’s end.  Since players cannot be predicted to re-sign no matter how much money is thrown at them, a year in which 3 or 4 core players are up for free agency can be devastating.  Also, let’s improve the feedback received when negotiating with players in free agency.  As I said before, their whims are impossible to predict since they won’t always just take the most money (no matter how crazy an offer you make them, it’s no guarantee of anything) which is fine, humans should be hard to predict.  I just want a sense of how interested the player is in my offer.  It’s a mechanism that has existed in virtually every game the last 8 years and even exists in The Show when working on trades.
  • Attrition and Improvement – For me, even though players come and go the franchise mode feels very static.  For the most part, the superstars of today will still be superstars 10 game years from now, which just isn’t realistic.  A 40 year old Tim Lincecum shouldn’t be firing 97 mph fastballs consistently nor should Albert Pujols find himself leading the league in home runs.  At the same time, those hot-shot rookies with A ratings for potential do not tend to get any better.  This pretty much destroys the minor league system and affects gameplay balance because while I, the user, know that minor leaguers do not improve no matter what the scouting report says, the AI still assumes they will and overvalues them in trades.  As a result, the game is interesting only so long as I can keep restocking my roster with real Major League players as opposed to the ones generated by the game for the annual draft.  This grossly affects gameplay balance in later years as most divisions seem to be won by 85 – 90 win ball clubs while mine win 110+.  And that’s with me simulating the outcomes of 99% of the games, so it’s not like I’m physically playing the game and just beating up on the computer controlled clubs on the field.
  • Waiver system – The Show has been good about adapting the various GM roles to the video game system but one has been omitted for too long and that’s the waiver wire beyond July 31st.  In the real world, players can be traded freely up until the non-waiver deadline of July 31st.  After that, any team wishing to move someone has to put that player on waivers at which point every team in baseball can put in a claim on him.  If a team claims the player the team that currently owns the player’s rights can either pull the player back off of waivers, allow the claiming team to take the player, or work out a trade with the team who claimed the player.  If multiple teams put in a claim then the team with the worst record is rewarded with the claim.  If no team claims the player then he has been cleared through waivers and the current team is now free to trade him to any club interested.  This system is not in the game, so after the July 31st trade deadline passes no trades can be made.  This should be an easy fix.
  • 40 – Man Rosters and Options – Right now, there is no way for me to view who is on my 40-man roster which determines who is eligible for the Major League team and who is protected from the Rule 5 Draft.  The only way to know who is on the 40 is to individually look at each player, which is tedious and time consuming.  There’s also no way to see how many options remain on a player.  Options allow the front office to freely shuttle the player back and forth between the big league club and the minor league affiliates.  And there’s no way to sign free agents to minor league contracts.  Again, easy fixes.
  • More Customization – When I create a player, particularly a pitcher, I want to be able to fully customize his pitches.  MVP did this so why can’t The Show?  Particularly, I want to determine pitch movement.  Using the normal clock format is easy.  I want my guy’s curveball to break 11 to 5, or 10-4.  Maybe my guy’s cutter breaks down more than horizontal, so let me do that too.
  • Manage Mode – Right now manage mode is way too detailed.  That’s better than being on the other end but how about some middle ground?  In MVP, manage mode was done on an at-bat basis, in The Show it’s on a pitch basis.  To me, manage mode should be an alternative to just simulating the game that allows me some input.  The Show seems to think of it as simply an alternative to swinging the bat and throwing the ball, that you just watch and put on plays on a per pitch basis.  The end result being games take just as long this way as they do playing, actually they’re probably even longer.
  • Playoffs – Another simply one would be to let me tell the CPU that I want to go with a 3 or 4 man pitching rotation in the Playoffs.  Also, have the AI do the same.  I shouldn’t be facing the opposing team’s 5th starter in the ALCS, that’s just stupid.  Of course, I can pick who starts each game so it’s not like right now I’m forced to throw a 4th or 5th starter, but it’s just annoying having to keep changing it.  The simple solution would be to allow the gamer to leave spots in the pitching rotation empty.  Right now, the game won’t let you play or sim a game without a valid 5-man rotation, which is stupid.  Even if it’s the regular season I should be allowed to have a 4 man rotation if I think it will work, the consequences be damned!  And let’s make game 7 of the World Series feel different from a game played in May.  If the CPU’s starter is a bit shaky early on the manager should have a quick hook.  I want to get a sense that the AI is going all-in to try and win the game as opposed to living to play another day.

I think that’s enough for one entry.  I’m almost certain I’ve forgotten about some other annoyance I have with the franchise but if most or all of the above were inserted for a new game I’d be pretty content.  At least give me the sense as a consumer that I’m not paying for the same game over and over.  Gimmicks don’t work and I don’t care if players sweat more realistically this time around.  I just want a great simulation of the game of baseball.  The developers have come close over the years to giving me just that, but so far no one has hit one out of the park and I’m beginning to think no one will.

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