Baseball fans will already know this, but games that focussed on their favourite sport have not always knocked the ball out of the park. Past criticisms have tended to highlight the glitches as much as any great innovation in the gaming experience which is pretty revealing in itself. For example, in the case of the RBI Baseball series, the sense has always been that the games are good enough to get by but nowhere near slick enough to make anyone other than die-hard fans of the sport sit up and take notice. Check out the criticism of RBI 14’s visuals here.
Ironing out the glitches
And we’re not saying this just to be mean to the RBI brand. RBI Baseball 15 which came out this spring is undeniably an improvement on its predecessor. The 2015 edition boasts a whole new level of graphics and an updated set of player rosters, but in terms of the evolution of the game itself fans appear to have, once again, been given enough to have something to talk about, but little to get really excited about. Players have tended to be no more than lukewarm in their reactions. And that might be putting it mildly.
Nobody pay for #rbi15. What a god awful video game
— Ryan Cavanaugh (@rycavanaugh33) April 11, 2015
Some of them have been downright negative. But that level of criticism is just a low water mark – most reviewers have been less hostile – even if they haven’t been exactly jumping up and down with excitement.
— Rick Wallace (@XXLGaming) April 1, 2015
A question of immersion
This begs a question. And it’s one that goes beyond the diamond-shaped specifics of baseball. Part of it is to do with the international economics of the sport as against games that appeal to a wider audience and hence a bigger market, and part of it is to do with the mechanics of the game itself. We could sum it up as a question of immersion.
The first of those issues is pretty obvious. If you’re producing a game with world wide appeal you’re going to be turning over bigger numbers and that’s going to allow for a whole different level of input. It’s going to mean more and better development talent and more and better innovations and new features. It’s also likely to make for a more competitive marketplace. Both of those factors make titles such as EA Sports’ Madden NFL 15 and FIFA 15 the stand out sports titles in the past 12 months. Those games set a standard that is – truth to tell – not easy to match, and in the case of RBI15, it is not a level that baseball’s flag bearers were ever seriously going to be able to reach.
But – and here’s the second point – the mechanics of the game make that just about impossible. Unless you’re already wired into the pace of the game, there is a persistent problem with the stop-start nature of the action. Unlike sports like soccer and basketball that deliver unfolding and ongoing action in a way that is uninterrupted and hence wholly immersive, baseball’s stop-start pitch and hit heartbeat makes it easier for a player to miss a beat. If you’re not already pre-set to appreciate that stop-start rhythm in the game, any replication of it is going to struggle to win you over. Incidentally, there is a whole science devoted to studying precisely this sort of immersion.
That ragged level of immersion is not a problem that any amount of cute graphics or up-to-date rostas are going to overcome. In fairness, RBI15’s graphics are a significant step up from its predecessor and, whilst the software has never been entirely glitch free, it has also moved up a notch. May saw the release of a stability patch intended for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Any game is always a work in progress but RBI15’s fans do get to see maybe a bit more of that work than they ought to.
Those issues are as much a part of the complexity of the game and its attempt to render the full three dimensional, physical quality of the actual game in the real world as they are any failure from a design point of view. As we’ve said, it would be a difficult trick to pull off even on the biggest budget.
And that brings us to the other big baseball title – Out of the Park 16. OOTP 16 takes the curve ball that is the uneven pace of the game and, like any great competitor would, turns a negative into a positive. Instead of putting the emphasis on the game’s action with individual players at the point of focus, OOTP casts you in the role of team coach. Instead of playing from the plate, you’re in the dugout and the Commissioner’s office. OOTP is a management game, and from that base line position it is immediately on to a winner. Stopping and starting is the perfect sequence for an unfolding strategy game. It makes decision-making absolutely central.
Thinking in focus
OOTP is a game that accentuates the thinking side of baseball. Anyone with a love of the game’s statistical history will be as happy as can be. If making a bet on a live game is a matter of measuring your ability to read between the lines of a contest, a way to cut away the superficial showboating from the bottom line business of separating the winners from the losers, then OOTP takes you one step further into the mix. Never mind fantasy baseball, or mixing your gaming with keeping up to date with the latest action, OOTP drills down into the sport’s beating heart. Depending on your chosen play mode, every single decision that factors into a team performance can be down to your reading of the stats, your hunches and your judgement. If you think you know your stuff, OOTP is there for you to prove it, and to savour the satisfaction that follows when you get it right.
— The Florida Post (@theflpost) June 10, 2015
There are deeply satisfying layers to playing OOTP that really do make sense of all the rave reviews the title just keeps on collecting. Updated rostas are one thing but international and historical leagues and team owner overall goals give the game a real bite. And you are not limited to just playing with the current crop of stars. OOTP allows you to go back in time and even to mix and match players from different generations. Time travel anyone?
— OOTP Baseball (@ootpbaseball) June 9, 2015
Of the titles described here RBI Baseball is available on Xbox One and PlayStation4, iOS and Android as well as on Mac/PC via Steam. OOTP is available as a download via PC Windows, Linux and Mac OS as well as via Steam. Other baseball titles are available.