Hi everyone, my name is Jonathan Rivera and I am the Gameplay Producer on MLB 2K9. As an avid gamer and baseball fan, it was a dream opportunity for me to work on a baseball title. I look forward to building on what we’ve been able to do this year and continue to improve on this franchise. As some of you already know, this year was challenging as we were switching development studios, as the game is now developed internally at Visual Concepts.
With a new team, came a lot of opportunity to evaluate areas of the game that worked and didn’t work. This was a very important part of the process because most of us internally felt like there were many items in MLB 2K8 that separated us from our competitors.
Here at 2K, we are always striving to deliver the most authentic experience to our users. We want the users to look at our game and notice small details like how Kevin Youkilis holds his bat before each pitch and how he transitions his hands from higher on the bat down to a normal grip.
Signature style is something that we’ve been doing quite a while now across our sports titles, and we expanded on that this year even more for MLB 2K9 with over 300 new signature animations. When we announced that Tim Lincecum was going to be our cover athlete, we were all pretty excited to have a Cy Young winner represent our game, but even more than that it was going to be a great opportunity to really nail his signature delivery.
Soon after the announcement was made about him being our cover athlete, he came into our motion capture studio and we were able to capture a lot of animations unique to Tim including pitching from the windup, the stretch, strikeout reactions, homerun reactions, stepping in and out of the batter’s box, and many others. We spend a lot of time researching and perfecting each player’s signature style that it was a relief having the athlete come into our studio and all we had to say was “Do what you do!” The shoot was an amazing experience, and our game will be better for it.
The goal this year was to make the game more accessible while maintaining the challenge our dedicated fans have come to expect, and we did this in five key areas.
One of the things that we all really enjoyed was the control for pitching. We felt like pitching with the Right Analog Stick was natural and it really added a lot of depth to gameplay. The thing that I liked the most about performing gestures was that it forced the user to really think about what pitch they want to throw in each situation. With traditional controls, once you perfected the timing of the meter or button presses, it was easy to get the perfect pitch every time. Because “the perfect pitch” in our game is defined in many different ways including having the “perfect gesture”, it’s not as big of an issue and adds a lot of variety to gameplay. With that said, we felt like the meatball was too much punishment for making even the slightest error last year in MLB 2K8.
Changes to pitching:
Ø No more meatball – The idea of throwing a bad pitch when you made a poor gesture was good but the way we designated a meatball was definitely too harsh. What we did instead was to identify earlier on in the gesture process the pitch the user is attempting to throw, if they don’t finish the gesture or make a poor gesture we simply affect the way that pitch is thrown. For example, Fastballs will be straighter and slower while Curveballs will have less break on the ball. Naturally, this will make those pitches more hittable without making them “meatballs”.
Ø Removed the “Release Timing” - We felt that the “Release Timing” aspect of throwing a pitch made the game less accessible. After thorough focus testing, we discovered that the aspect of pitching that attributed to the most “meatballs” was the release timing. As a result, we kept “Release timing” as an option to the user but not on the default controls. If a user loved the way it worked last year, they can turn it on from the pause menu.
Ø Inside Edge Data driving the AI – Inside Edge is our exclusive scouting service which is also used by some MLB teams to get reports on players. As in previous years, you can purchase these reports during your franchise to earn an extra advantage when facing the AI opponents. Our pitcher’s decision making is primarily based off Inside Edge data for pitchers and weaknesses. When deciding what pitch to throw where, our pitchers have to take into consideration many different variables most simply broken down into two aspects:
o What does the pitcher want to throw and where?
o What are the hitter’s weaknesses?
We spent a lot of time tuning this aspect as it is crucial to the final experience a user has while playing the game. For example, one of our early iterations of this feature resulted in the pitcher’s rarely throwing fastballs because the data indicated that Fastballs are the pitch that hitter’s are most successful against. The problem was that our AI wasn’t taking into consideration enough of “Pitcher’s strengths” rather mostly the hitter’s weaknesses. After much tuning and testing, we ended up with a system that takes all of those variables into consideration and then decides what pitch would be ideal in that specific situation and count.
The same pitch selection logic is used for the user by our catcher. In our game, our catcher suggests what pitch to throw and the location. The decision making of the catcher’s suggestion is the same used by the AI when pitching.
When evaluating the hitting system we knew that we really liked swinging with the right stick. We wanted to keep the same basic swing of pressing DOWN and then UP to time the actual swing. In MLB 2K8, we felt that most pickup and play users struggled with figuring out when to press down thus resulting in many poor hits. In order to fit our overall goal of making the game more accessible, we allowed the user to press down to “set” at any point during the at bat. We found that this not only made the game more accessible, it also made the game significantly more fun and allowed us to implement other aspects of hitting so that the user can focus more on pitch, and location of the pitch.
One of the high level goals that we had going into designing hitting for MLB 2K9 was to give the user the opportunity to read pitches and decide when to swing. In last year’s game, most users would swing at every pitch and be pretty successful. This year, our AI pitches more to the edges and out of the strike zone so it really helps if you can take a pitch and wait for your pitch as MLB players do in real life all the time. To help achieve this goal, we moved the hitting camera a little bit lower than it was in MLB 2K8 which allows the user to get a better read on the pitches low in the strike zone.
One of my favorite new features that we implemented is the ability to influence hit direction. Hit influence is controlled by the Left Stick:
Ø Up for a Flyball
Ø Down for a Groundball
Ø Left to Influence the hit Left
Ø Right to Influence the hit Right
That means if you want to attempt to hit the ball in the air to left field you just hold the Left Stick up and left.
Additionally, this feature really works because it allows a more realistic way of hitting where if you attempt to pull an outside pitch, you are most likely going to get a poor hit. As a hitter you are better off going with the pitch and swinging in the direction of where the pitch was thrown.
Lastly, we implemented zone hitting as an alternate control scheme. Zone hitting is where you have a cursor and you have to put the cursor in the same zone that the ball crosses the plate in addition to your regular swing. Zone hitting works with either the Classic swing (press A button) or Total Control (RStick). We also added a “sweet spot” to the cursor, if you lineup the “sweet spot” of the cursor where the ball crosses the plate, the hitter will get an additional boost to your hit.
For fielding, we really liked the controls of last year’s game but we thought we could expand on the current system and streamline the throw system a little bit more. Our main goal was to fix a lot of the fielding bugs that were in last year’s game in addition to adding a couple of new features to add a level of depth to the overall experience.
We received a lot of feedback in last year’s game about certain animations taking too long to play and feeling like there was nothing you can do to put a sense of urgency to your fielder. Also, once you started to throw in a certain direction, you weren’t able to change your mind so as soon as you start the throw meter you are committed to that throw. As a result, we added two new features:
Ø Quick Throw Modifier – The throws will be quicker but there is a risk/reward to this feature, because you are essentially rushing your throw, there will be more room for error on the throw meter.
Ø Hold Ball – As long as you have the button held down, the player will not throw to any base. This can also be used to pump fake during a pickle.
For baserunning we thought, well we hit, pitch and throw with the right stick, why shouldn’t we run the bases with it too? So, the simple baserunning controls are:
Ø Press A button to select base runner
Ø Using the Right Stick press in the direction that you want the base runner to run to. So if you hit a ball into the gap, just move the Right Stick to the left to indicate that you want to try to stretch a triple. If you want him to stop at 2B, just press UP on the right stick.
We also drastically changed the way you steal bases in our game for MLB 2K9. This is one of my personal favorite features because I think it adds a lot more risk to stealing and gives the user full control over their base runner.
Basically, when you have a runner on first base you press LT (L2 on PS3) to take a lead. To steal, hold LT until it vibrates which will indicate that your runner is ready to take off. The runner will now take off when you release the button. Stealing “on the fly” certainly adds a lot of fun to base stealing because now the user is forced to try to get a good jump on the pitcher. If you get a good jump, you will actually take off right before the pitcher starts his delivery and get a perfect steal.
We also added a little more information for pitchers, if you look over at the runner that’s on base, we give you his “steal rating” which indicates how much of a threat he is, so if you have Benji Molina standing at 1st, his steal rating will be pretty low and you can focus on the hitter.
As always, we spend a lot of focus and attention on getting the right atmosphere for a baseball game. We want our users to feel like they are getting the same experience in playing our game as if they were watching a baseball game on TV. There are many different aspects of presentation that help the overall goal to improve the atmosphere in our game.
First, we wanted to get rid of cut scenes and have everything happen real-time. When replacing cut scenes with real-time events, we not only focused on big events like home runs and world series celebrations but smaller details like, “What happens to the bat after a player gets a hit?”, the answer is the ball boy runs to the bat, picks it up and takes it back to the dugout. Our dugouts now react to the events on the field; if a pitcher is subbed out the manager walks out to the mound, takes the ball from the pitcher on the mound and gives it to the reliever coming in from the bullpen. We felt like that kind of real-time detail would add a lot to the overall experience.
Next, we established players moving around in real time. It gave us an opportunity to create a lot of the same camera shots that are used during a live telecast. We have many shots of the players walking back to the dugout, players running out of the dugout and to their positions in-between innings, the players warming up in the bullpen, etc. When playing our game, I always feel like the presentation adds a level of authenticity to our “broadcast” that enhances the baseball experience for me.
Finally, we focused on improving the crowd in our game. MLB 2K9 has the best and most lively crowd that we’ve ever had. Our crowd now reacts to our game not only over audio but you can see them individually get up after pitches or when a big pitch is coming, they’ll all get up in anticipation of a big hit or strikeout. If a home run is hit, you can see the crowd get up and watch the ball fly out as they would in real life and when the ball lands, our fans will try to catch it.
Well, I think that’s about it for gameplay in MLB 2K9. We are all extremely proud of this game and hope you guys will enjoy. Keep sending your feedback because we do read all of your comments and criticisms. Thanks everyone for reading!