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Analysis: Play Ball - On Realism In Baseball Games

In a Gamasutra analysis piece, writer and professor Michael Abbott analyzes "realism" in baseball simulations like Sony's new MLB 10: The Show, drawing intriguing comparisons to 1987's Earl Weaver Baseball.

March 24, 2010

7 Min Read

Author: by Michael Abbot

[In a Gamasutra analysis piece, writer and professor Michael Abbott wonders what kind of realism sports simulations like Sony's MLB 10: The Show represent, and draws comparisons to 1987's Earl Weaver Baseball.] Back in 1985, Don Daglow and Eddie Dombrower conducted a series of interviews with Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, widely considered one of the great baseball minds of his era. They wanted to understand Weaver's managerial philosophy and decision-making process in a variety of baseball strategy scenarios. What they learned formed the basis for the AI in Earl Weaver Baseball (1987), one of the seminal computer baseball sims and an early cornerstone title for what would later become EA Sports. Earl Weaver Baseball was the first game to allow players to quickly sim through an entire season. It was the first to depict real-world stadiums and adjust its outcomes to account for their dimensions. It was the first to include both arcade and manager modes, offering players a choice between controlling the on-field action directly, or calling the shots from the dugout. And it was among the first graphical sims to rely heavily on stats, both real-world player data and game-generated stats for the player to digest. More importantly, Earl Weaver Baseball attempted to deliver what every major graphical sports sim has strived to achieve for the last 25 years: realistic gameplay via representational visuals, responsive controls, and accurate statistical outcomes. The holy grail of graphical sports sims is an experience that feels realistic, and we routinely measure these games by their ability to convey that experience. If you'd like to test that contention, peruse the reviews of the latest high water mark in graphical sports sims - MLB 10: The Show - and count how many times reviewers deploy "realistic" in praise of the game. To understand the nature of MLB 10 as a sports sims, it's useful to look back at EA's Earl Weaver game as a kind of swan song in sports game design. Its sequel, EWB 2, employed a 3D camera that radically altered the player's perspective, and the series shifted from simulating the experience of playing baseball to the experience of watching it on television. For the graphical sports sims to follow, there was no turning back. MLB 10: The Show is the culmination of 25 years of game development devoted to simulating a televised broadcast of Major League Baseball, and its fidelity to its source material is astonishing. Sony San Diego has been knocking on this door for years, refining player animations, expanding situational commentary from announcers, generating post-game highlights, and generally wrapping the game in a slick, network-quality audiovisual package. The latest edition is the first sports game to pass my 'sit back and watch' test: put the CPU in charge of both teams, sit back, and enjoy watching a virtual game of baseball from beginning to end. Hardly a substitute for the real thing (especially when the commentary repeats), but for baseball junkies like me, it's a satisfying fix until the real boys of summer return in April. "In MLB 10: The Show, we have taken it further and added more to your gaming experience...All these realistic enhancements to the game make MLB 10: The Show feel and sound like you are actually at the ballpark."[1] As much as I admire MLB 10: The Show (and I like it a lot), it represents a concept of 'sim' very different from the one Daglow and Dombrower pursued when they were picking Earl Weaver's brain 25 years ago. In their perpetual quest to accurately simulate the presentation of sports, modern games appear to be moving farther away from simulating the sports they claim to simulate. Contrary to Sony San Diego's claims, MLB 10 does not "feel and sound like you are actually at the ballpark." It feels and sounds like a television broadcast - which is no small feat - but as a baseball simulation, it's not very smart or convincing. For all its graphical prowess, MLB 10's AI makes a lot of boneheaded mistakes. Managing my beloved Cubbies in Franchise Mode, 2nd baseman Mike Fontenot has a nasty habit of throwing the ball into the stands on plays that should be easy outs. It can happen, I suppose; but three times in one game and at least once in five consecutive games? I enjoy wheeling and dealing, but should I be receiving an email during the first month of the season informing me the Giants are looking to deal two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum? And why didn't somebody teach the AI that running into an out at 3rd-base is a cardinal sin of baseball? I could go on. Despite obvious AI advances in games across genres, graphical sports sims continue to struggle. Baseball fans like me looking for a deep and accurate sim experience are likely to avoid MLB 10 altogether, choosing instead a text-based sim like the masterful Out of the Park Baseball. While I'm thrilled such an option exists (you really must play OOTP if you enjoy exhaustive feature-rich sims), it's a shame we're limited to either/or depictions of of 'realism.' In my heterosexual male sports sim fantasy world, I'm looking for the Anne Hathaway of baseball games: the one with the looks AND the brains. Ironically, the disconcerting gap between 'looks great' and 'plays smart' grows wider with each graphical iteration of the MLB: The Show franchise, but not because Sony hasn't improved its AI. In fact, MLB 10 plays more competently than last year's game, especially in its fielding. The problem is that we have reached a sports game 'uncanny valley' of sorts where graphical verisimilitude jars more than it immerses. Lance Berkman rounding third, digging for home on a base-hit is a thing to behold. Infield dust kicked up from his cleats; uniform dirty from a diving stop earlier in the game; facial features meticulously rendered; his full range of motion captured in fluid animation - and he's out by 15 feet. Lance Berkman has bad knees, but the Skipper inside MLB 10's code gives him the green light nearly every time. When it all looks so real, the disconnect between life-like appearance and life-like behavior feels more confounding than ever. Franchise mode, with its alluring veneer of realistic human interactions, is even more befuddling in this regard. So maybe the problem here isn't 'realism,' but which realism. How exactly does Sony wish to convey realism to its audience? A post on Sony's Playstation blog by one of the game's designers is illuminating: We went into the making of MLB 10 asking the question, “What can we do to make this game more realistic?” Our community and fans wanted even more detail and realism. If your favorite team, stadium, or crowd does things a certain way, we want to make sure it’s reflected in The Show. This attention to detail is what makes us stand out. From new fireworks, splash counters, thundersticks and more, we want you to feel the sights and sounds of real live baseball.[2] Maybe presentational realism is exactly what most fans want, but it seems to me that 25 years of ever-more faithful televised sports simulations haven't brought us much closer to simulating the sport of baseball than Earl Weaver Baseball did. Fireworks and hecklers certainly add ambiance, and I don't mean to downplay the significance of atmosphere in a game designed to convey the sights and sounds of baseball. But MLB 10 heralds itself as "the richest and most immersive baseball experience available" with "unsurpassed attention to detail...authenticity and true-to-life gameplay." Earl Weaver the TV color commentator might have agreed with that assessment; but Earl Weaver the Hall of Fame manager probably wouldn't.

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