Yesterday afternoon MLB 2k8 producer Ben Brinkman held a phone conference with many members of the online community. Below is a partial transcript. Note that I have taken the liberty of grouping together answers from similar or very closely related questions in the interest of space and readability.
MLB 2K8 releases on March 4th, 2008. We felt strong pressure to add new content for next gen consoles while keeping it a great simulation of the game of baseball. We created all new AI for batter and pitcher, new controls for batting, pitching and throwing. We also added 90 playable minor league teams and a playing card concept that adds new depth and re-playability to the game. This is a big jump from 2k7 in both game play and depth. The demo is coming very soon, just waiting on Microsoft to approve it.
Q: Tell us about the new pitching Interface.
A: We have tried lots of approaches over the years, some worked, some didn’t. This year we really wanted to use the dynamic of the analog sticks in a new way. We started out with a focus on the natural and organic feeling of the right stick to make it feel like you actually are throwing the ball. It sounds more complex than it is, but it is quite intuitive after you have done it once or twice. Part of being more natural means there is more variance especially when aiming for the corner. Expect to throw a lot more balls than in earlier versions, which makes sense because balls and walking batters are part of baseball.
Q: Can you tell us about the development cycle?
A: As soon as one game ships we start working on the next. The cycle is 10-12 months, depending on when the final approval is received.
Q: Was motion capture used for 2k8?
A: Yes, for all of the animations in the game. We used really good actors, watched a lot of tape, and all of the animations were done via motion capture. We spent 2-2.5 weeks just on mo-cap this year. There is a definite improvement over last year in the look and feel.
Q: Is the game running at 30 or 60 frames per second?
A: Our goal was 60 fps, it never goes down to 30. 2k8 is a much more fluid experience, especially on the PS3 which struggled last year. The pitching and batting will definitely all be at 60 fps, but some of the outfield moments, if there is a lot going on might slow down a little bit, but it shouldn’t be very often and not very noticeable. We put in a lot of optimizations. We cleaned up systems under the hood so the game runs smoother. We also were smarter about the graphics so we could take some polys out while keeping the look of the game while boosting the performance.
Q: What content is planned for DLC?
A: Updated trading cards by period, rookie cards, etc. First batch is ready to go and will be available on or around ship date. With new cards come new challenges and uniforms.
Q: What is your favorite achievement?
A: Card Battle achievement, hands down.
Q: Can you explain trading cards?
A: The idea was to add a feature that encouraged and rewarded players for playing the game over and over again. We wanted to reward you to play not just your favorite team, but to play all the teams. There are three different levels in the cards from least rare to most rare. When playing on Legendary difficulty you have a much higher chance of earning the most rare cards. You can look at your collection of trading cards which is pretty cool. You can earn them by completing challenges, doing wild card events within game, etc. For instance, if you steal three bases with Ichiro, you get a card. You can trade cards with other players, and even put together a card team. Each card has a monetary value in the game and you can create a team within the salary cap, then take that and play online against friends. It is a very cool feature, we are very excited about this. It provides a level of satisfaction that did not exist in the game previously. It has really caught on with the dev team and we are still playing the game even now after we are done with the coding because of the trading card feature.
Q: What AI tweaks have been made, specifically toward the fielding?
A: Batting and pitching AIs have been completely re-written from the ground up. Now the pitcher can actually throw into the dirt, the catcher can block the ball with his body, etc. There are an unlimited variety of hits this year. Last year it was all singles and home runs, this year it is much more realistic. With the fielding, the players are much less likely to take the ideal line to the ball, and wall climbs are very rare. Even on the chance you do get a wall climb, you are not likely to actually steal the home run. We also added new animations across the board and re-wrote the base running AI as well. The runners will make much better decisions, including stopping between bases when appropriate. The double play system was completely redone, including all new animations, to make it much more realistic and a better simulation of real baseball.
Q: What is the biggest challenge you faced with MLB 2K8?
A: With any sports title, it is getting everything done and hitting the ship date. We can’t move the start of baseball season, so hitting that is the hardest challenge. Ask any producer for any sports game, and I am sure they will say the same thing.
Q: How do you add new complexity such as right stick pitching while keeping the playability high?
A: That is why we took so much time on this feature. I don’t want a game to be a pick up and master instantly experience. With pitching, right out of the box if you don’t know what you are doing, it is not easy. But if you use the pitching tutorial, and practice, it becomes intuitive. It takes 5-10 minutes, and then it becomes really rewarding experience and the closest you have ever gotten to throwing a baseball.
Q: Level of difficulty last year was a concern, especially hitting and robbing home runs on the lower difficulties. Is that fixed this year?
A: Definitely. I play the game too, and we read the message boards. We rewrote the pitching and fielding with that in mind. There is a lot more realism this year to address those concerns. By definition, it is still easier to hit home runs on the easier difficulties, however.
Q: What did you look at in 2K7 that did not work that you felt was critical to address this year?
A: Last year was more about looking good than feeling good. We added all new mechanics that are more intuitive and consistent with baseball. We also corrected the dive mechanic, so now when you press the dive button, you dive immediately. The AI no longer tries to decide when the best time to dive is.
Q: What stands out the most about MLB 2K8 and why?
A: I love pitching, and playing with the new pitching mechanic feels natural. When you perform the pitching gesture for any particular pitch, it just feels like you really are throwing that pitch.
Q: If we don’t like the new pitching interface, can we use a standard approach?
A: Yes, all of the previous iterations are available still if you don’t like the advanced settings. You can change it back to the 2k7 pitching interface in the options menu quite easily.
Q: What have you done to fix the camera issues?
A: We added two new camera modes this year to help with this in the outfield. We also added quite a few new batter cameras to help players identify incoming pitches to make it easier to react and determine what is going on.
Q: Fielding improvements in general?
A: This is something that really drew my eye, and many others as well. We really improved it this year, and it is not perfect, but it is hugely improved. You have more control because you have more variety in how to catch the ball. It is a lot better, you will play games and feel more in control of your fielders. We also did a lot of work with the ball trajectories based on pitch type, batter side, etc. The CPU fielder will make a lot more off-line throws, more throws in the dirt, etc…and so will the player, for that matter.
Q: Has the league bug for pitcher fatigue been fixed?
Q: Has directional (zone) hitting added?
A: No, but we have plenty of variety in our hitting choices so we didn’t feel the need to add zone hitting.
Q: Is 2K8 more of a sim or does it have more of an arcade feel?
A: We are definitely focused on being a realistic sim. For an arcade feel, The Bigs is a great choice and they do it very well, but we wanted to stay with the simulation approach.
Q: When will 2K release roster updates?
A: We will do them periodically, but within limits. Opening day, All-Star break, trading deadline, maybe others if they are needed.
Q: How does 2K8 handle the rating of overseas players coming in?
A: It is not easy, but we have a guy who looks at Japanese stats and does a pretty good job at integrating them in.
Q: How did franchise mode change this year?
A: Adding in all the minor league teams added a great deal of complexity to the franchise mode. The CPU manager is a lot smarter, and of course there is a bigger pool of players to tap. You can control the CPUs line up, pick your stadium, etc.
Q: Will you be able to set all teams to human control for the franchise mode?
A: No, limited to 4.
Q: Will minor league teams be playable via franchise mode?
A: Yes, schedule will show both minor and major league games (up to 4 per day). The game ships with 18 minor league stadiums plus 3 generic minor league stadiums for the other teams.
Q: How many actual minor league players were included?
A: We don’t have the license for that, but we will include the ones we can, and there is the player editor as well.
Q: How as online matchmaking changed?
A: Online ranking is based on wins and losses, and who the wins and losses were against. So if you beat a highly ranked player, you will get a much bigger boost to your rank than if you beat a new player.
Q: What is the soundtrack like this year?
A: We partnered with a renowned music outlet [refused to identify it however-DC] and put together a top-notch soundtrack. It includes songs from Modest Mouse, The Strokes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, many more.
Q: In the trailer, all the bat sounds were the same. Is that the same in the game?
A: With the trailer, the marketing guys were limited in what they could include. We added all new bat sounds, there are multiple bat cracks based on where the impact is, the speed of the pitch, etc.
Q: Is it possible to restrict the online play to swing stick?
A: Yes, you can choose game types that restrict available pitch and swing types. Also, the online trades work correctly and you won’t randomly have players dropped.
Q: What Playstation accomplishments are included with the game?
A: We don’t support that concept with 2k8, just 360 achievements.
Q: What have you done to capture the casual gaming audience?
A: We try to make everything in the game scalable. You can use the sliders or the difficulties to address different levels of players. People who played 2k7 won’t be on Pro for long, they will rapidly move up to Legendary because it is so natural for them. Also, we have added in lots of tips and tutorials, like the pitching tutorial.
Q: What did not make it into 2k8 that you want in next year’s game?
A: Too early to go into much detail for that. There is a lot more that we can do with the card feature, same with minor league and franchise features. When you play the game I think it will become obvious where we are going next year.
Many thanks to Chase and Ben for setting this up.