With the release of MLB the Show 21 coming just around the corner April 20, Ramone Russell - the product development communications and brand strategist for the game - virtually popped by to discuss all that's new in this year's edition.
Not only is it the first entry of the game for the next generation of Playstation consoles, but this also marks the first year MLB the Show will be available on Xbox platforms. We discuss that, new game modes like stadium creator, and a lot more.
Note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and space.
theScore: What were some of the biggest challenges facing this iteration of MLB the Show, the first to land on next-gen and Microsoft consoles?
Ramone Russell: It was a pretty gargantuan task for our relatively small development team to go from developing for one game on one system and shipping one game a year to going to four, especially during the other challenges that were presented to us during this development cycle. But we've done it. MLB the Show 21 will be launching on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox 1, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and we have cross-platform play and cross-progression.
theScore: How do cross-progression and cross-platform play work?
RR: That means if you're playing on a PlayStation 4 and decide to start playing on a PlayStation 5, everything and all of your progress carries over. If you happen to switch to a different platform, it carries over as well. You're basically taking your progression and your profile and you can carry it across the entire ecosystem, it doesn't matter what system you're on. And any system can play against any other system.
theScore: How important was it to ensure cross-platform play was available after learning that the franchise would be expanding to Xbox consoles?
RR: It was a no-brainer. We always try to put ourselves in the consumer's shoes and go, "OK, what features do I want?" Well, the first thing is if you're on all these systems now, I want to take my progression across all these systems. And if I'm on a PlayStation 5, I want to be able to play against my friends who are on Xbox. So, those were two of the things we had to jump on immediately.
theScore: What has the next-gen technology made possible that wasn't on the table before?
RR: The biggest thing is Stadium Creator. If there was one question I got more than any other question over the last seven years, it's been, "Where is Stadium Creator?" And my answer remained the same and it was truthful. When we can figure that out and give it to users in a way that's intuitive and revolutionary, we'll do it. This was only possible because of the extra added horsepower with the next-gen platforms. So, Stadium Creator is a next-gen-only feature but it was also only possible on next-gen. And it's a very, very deep mode.
You can move the foul poles, you can change the wall heights. It was a gargantuan task that (we) have been singularly focused on for over two years.
theScore: So, you probably could have done something sooner but it wouldn't have been able to live up to your expectations.
RR: Absolutely, and that's how we approach every new feature. If we can't do it right, we're not going to do it. We'll put it on the back burner until we can figure out a way to do it right. We've been discussing this as a team for over five years and we've been actively working on it hard for over two years, so it's taken a while to get this feature off the ground. The way that (head graphics programmer) Jonathan Ramsey approached it was he looked at all of the stadiums and we knew what people want - I want to take that scoreboard from Wrigley Field and put it in left field or put it behind home plate and I want to take that MLB the Show sign that's over here in the corner and move it over there.
He was basically able to take all the current stadiums and break them down into pieces that you could take off. The Stadium Creator feature is such an amazing tool that it could literally be a game itself.
theScore: And it's unique to the sport because baseball has more variance in stadium dimensions than others.
RR: Baseball is a very unique sport and all the stadiums are very unique. They all have very different characteristics and they all have incredible architecture. We had to make sure we could bring those things to Stadium Creator. Look at outfield walls. No two stadiums are the same when it comes to the outfield walls, and we give you complete control. You can make some crazy stuff if you want to. Now, can you make other people play with the crazy stuff online? No, because we have competitive balancing rules in there, but we still give you the ability to create stadiums and share stadiums and you can play with those stadiums online with your friends.
theScore: What's the learning curve for something like Stadium Creator?
RR: The game will ship with 30 already-created stadiums. They're gorgeous. You can approach this in one of two ways. You can go into one of the 30 presets and you can just change stuff and move stuff around and give it your own flair and that's going to be a lot easier. Or, if you want to start from scratch and build a cathedral all your own, you can do that as well. You can spend days and weeks on every minor detail. If you want to go that in-depth, you have that ability.
theScore: What are the differences between casual, simulation, and competitive modes of play?
RR: We have the casual crowd and the new crowd coming over from Xbox. A lot of them have never played MLB the Show so we need to make sure that we're able to onboard them correctly. If you choose casual mode, we're going to teach you everything there is to know about how to play MLB the Show. We're going to switch between every different pitching method, let you try them all out, and then you can select the one that you want to use. And we literally stop the game and say, "OK, you're using our new pinpoint pitching. Here's how it works, play with that for a few innings." Then we'll switch to a different interface, explain how it works, and we'll do that over and over again.
Also, when you're in casual mode, the computer isn't trying to kick your teeth in. We want you to learn how to play the game, so the A.I. is not trying to really crush you as much so you can try a lot of crazy stuff. You're also going to hit more home runs, the timing windows are wider, it's going to be easier to strike players out. We're focusing it on a casual, fun, pick-up-and-play experience.
Simulation mode has always been in the game. That's what the game has been every release prior. Competitive mode (the online head-to-head default) is brand-new. What we heard from the competitive crowd is, "I want my stick skills to mean more. I want to have more input on the outcomes." With competitive mode, what we've done is, if simulation mode is a 50-50 split of player rating and stick skill, competitive mode over indexes on stick skills. So, if you're really good at batting, if you're really good at pitching, you're going to be more accurate at pitching, you're going to hit better, and you'll notice it. We've taken some of the randomness out.
theScore: What is pinpoint pitching?
RR: Pinpoint pitching gives you more control on the mound than any of the other pitching methods. The feedback we heard was, "Pitchers aren't accurate enough. If I do this thing perfect, this ball should go right there." We said, OK, how do we get there? Well, we needed a new pitching mechanic because there's always a balance. If we're going to give you perfect accuracy then we have to make sure the input method has enough depth and has enough difficulty and has enough levers you need to check to make that happen.
Pinpoint pitching is the hardest, the most complex, but also the most accurate. It's also the most rewarding. If you hit all of those inputs that ball is going to go exactly where you want it to go.
It's exclusively using both analog sticks, and it's timing-based, too. So, it's a gesture and timing-based mechanic. So, every pitch in the game has a different gesture, and it's how you move the stick. The fastball has the easiest gesture, just up and down. But where the complexity comes in is different pitchers have different windup times and different stretch times. So, not every fastball gesture will be the same speed for every single pitcher. When you add in the complexities of sliders and splitters and curveballs and those different gestures and timings, now you have a really complex and diverse system that's going to be really difficult to master.
theScore: What was involved in introducing two-way players to Road to the Show?
RR: Road to the Show was one mode where we saw a lot of room for growth and improvement to really attack what fans want. We noticed a lot through research that a lot of people would have two different Road to the Show characters, one who pitched and one who hit. With Shohei Ohtani, and him being a two-way player, we said, "OK, let's give you an opportunity to be a two-way player." Anytime you start a new Road to the Show character, there will be an opportunity for you to become a two-way player. If you don't want to, you don't have to, you can focus on hitting. Or, if you just want to be a pitcher, you can do that.
theScore: Fielding saw an overhaul in this year's game. What has been changed?
RR: We found out that people don't take a lot of good routes to the ball, so we introduced a "route-to-ball" indicator - that you can turn off - that teaches you the proper routes to take to the ball. We also have an "off-the-wall" indicator now that lets you know where this ball is going to land. We have a new "rob-home run" meter, we have jump and dive assists. So, onboarding has come full force into the fielding aspect with a lot of on-field aids to help teach you how to field in the game.
On the flip side, we've changed a lot of systems and added a lot of animations to get you more control with your fielding. We have strafing now in the outfield. If you know that the ball is going to hit off the wall and you don't exactly know where it's going to go, your guy will now strafe and you can move him laterally to be able to attack the ball better than you could last year.
We've never had a fielding suite play this tight and play this fun.
theScore: Finally, how has trade logic been changed across various game modes?
RR: Any logic changes that go into any of the season modes - Road to the Show, Franchise, or March to October - all those modes will share the same back-end system improvements. So, we have improved trade logic across all three modes, but trades are really difficult because we see wild trades in real life that we think would never happen. But we have revamped the trade logic. We look more at player rating, his contract, his potential ... we're looking at more factors, so, the trade logic is definitely a lot better than it has been in the past.