March 12, 2010
Q&A with Developer Jason Villa
Baseball video games have come a long way from the early days of arcade-style gameplay. Today, with franchise modes and career progression, the need for additional data is apparent. Throw in the fact that you have a more informed audience—and as a baseball audience, a very fickle one—and you realize how important it is to get your team and player ratings right, or else it may not matter how well your product plays. The developers from Sony Computer Entertainment San Diego are aware of this, and they use some of today's most advanced data in order to craft an authentic baseball experience for you in your living room. Jason Villa, a producer on MLB 10: The Show, spoke to us about how they do this.
Marc Normandin: A lot of people have the mistaken impression that you guys put all of these player and team numbers in by yourselves by hand. There's a lot of talk about bias, specifically East and West Coast bias, because that's all the media cares about, right? So, let's clear the air: How is it you come up with these player and team rankings?
Jason Villa: The team rankings are basically a culmination of the players and the makeup of the team themselves. So, there is quite a bit of debate—some good, some bad, though I guess talk in any form is good. We get a lot of our data from our stat source, which is Baseball Info Solutions. We get a tremendous amount of data—they do quite a bit of work with things like the Fielding Bible and other literature. That group has done extensive work in terms of watching pitch-by-pitch, fielder ratings, pitcher velocity, pitch break, pitch type—we get all that information in data form, we're talking thousands of stats—and that's how we make up the attributes and player ratings, and then they eventually make up the team ratings. So, it's not done by hand, in short.
MN: You're using some pretty advanced stuff with John Dewan's work. How far back did you start using this sort of data in The Show?
JV: We had initially gotten info from a different company, when I started on the team back in '04, but now we are in our third year of using Baseball Info Solutions. We've always had stats, but what was good about the transition over to the new company was that we were able to have more face time and more talk time with them to get exactly what would translate best for the game. There are a lot of stats that you aren't going to find on MLB.com or ESPN.com that we specifically asked for.
An attribute is going to translate a lot differently than just stats—although stats ultimately make up the player attribute, there are things that are more intangible like their range, or their play making ability. We've asked for some pretty specific stuff to translate into the game a lot better than the overall high level stats you're going to see on any website.
MN: I thought that maybe you were using something, because in your pre-release projections the Red Sox were second in defense—I figured there wasn't any real weighting system used for defense, since they were awful last year and are much better after some free-agent pickups. It's cool that there is that immediate change, especially for something like defense, which is still somewhat of a new frontier.
JV: It's difficult when it translates into hard numbers, because the perception of a team isn't always how the players are playing. A bad series of games can hurt a team's fielding percentage, so using hard numbers for something like that would automatically create some controversy.
MN: So, for player ratings, what do you get from BIS?
JV: Everything from throwing range, speed, velocity for their fielding, to their at-bats, contact, power, hit types, hit variety. For pitchers… the amount of pitcher data we get is just mind-boggling. We're talking about hundreds of stats on a per-player basis that assemble their attributes.
MN: Do you have an in-house projection system, or do you pay for someone to do that?
JV: We do have a "potential" rating, because, we're in a baseball game and we're going into the future, to like 2025, 2040, so we have to have a potential rating to translate over years how a player is going to become. So there is some subjectivity there, and we do the best we can—we do have some calculations from some programmers who are baseball fans, which is really helpful on the front-end stat side. But we do put quite a bit of thought into it, and the potential rating is how we determine how a player is going to pan out in a year or two or five years down the road.
MN: Is there anything different you do for the created players in terms of projecting their potential?
JV: With the new training system, we tried not to dictate what's going to happen—we wanted to let you make your path. We had two training modes last year, but only in baserunning/stealing and hitting training. This year we've added the other two to round out the suite of training modes for your player, what we feel are the important parts of being a baseball player. Fielding is new this year, and also pitching, which brings a whole new element of how you're going to perform on the field based on how you do in your training sessions. It's huge, because in the real world the more you practice the better you're going to get, the bigger you're going to get, but in the virtual world you're essentially accumulating attribute points and training points to use along the way, but you're also actually doing the actions on field.
MN: How do you develop the other minor leaguers, the other created players who play alongside you?
JV: With 60 teams between Double-A and Triple-A, multiply that by their 25-man rosters, we've got a ton of created guys down there since we're not able to use real minor-league players. We do quite a bit of player generation, and if you've ever used our create-a-player you see how robust it is, so we're able to do that kind of randomly and generate all kinds of players with fake names.
In terms of their attributes, we try to assemble a good balance of what's currently in the minors. We look at stats there and ability there and try to actually give value to their different attribute areas as you would see in the minor leagues. Throughout the year you're going to see guys come up with you from Double-A and Triple-A to the majors. We do get stats from our stat company for the minor leagues—not individual stats, but trends—and we try to mimic what you would see in the real minor leagues.
MN: Is there anything you are specifically targeting to improve in the future, stats-wise? One of the cool thing about a sports franchise is that each year you get to build on the previous product, so you're always looking forward even with this completed one releasing days ago.
JV: Definitely, you know friends and family are asking, "What are you going to do now?", and the answer is "Well, starting working on MLB 11". But you're absolutely right, we look at the competition, we look at telecasts, we try to gather information from all over the place. We want to increase the number of real-time stats, and we're looking for a way to kind of blur that line so the stats you're seeing in the real major leagues you're getting in the game immediately. We want to do the immediate info, so when a player is at-bat, how they are performing against this pitcher in this kind of count, we want to do that, and are looking into doing that for MLB 11 already.
What we are doing and have been doing is giving you weekly roster updates. You're not only getting roster changes and injury changes, but we've added the ability to update attributes. So if some random guy is just on fire, we're going to update his attributes with the roster update.
MN: How often are you planning on updating those attributes? Say a guy does very well for a month and you update him, but then goes back to where he was in the next month, are you updating him again?
JV: It depends—right now we're trying to do it at least once per month, but yeah, a guy who is hot could fall on a bad day on our update. But we're looking to increase it from just monthly attributes to bi-weekly to weekly if we can get the process down. What's good is that, as we’re learning how to do this properly like last year, the process will speed up. We'll probably have our first roster with attribute updates for April, maybe even the beginning of April when the games start.
MN: Not everyone wants to run out and buy a new version of the game every year, so what do you want to tell the people with MLB 09 about MLB 10?
JV: With MLB 10, what we've tried to do is, every year, we've got a ton of features, and there's really no area we don't update, improve, or change. We've added over 1,200 new gameplay animations. They're pretty quickly noticed playing between 09 and 10. One of the biggest changes—and it's really just the start for us, so it's going to get better—is our real-time presentation. We still offer these, but in the past we had cut scenes where you go from real-life play to a scene that's been already set up; it feels like you're going back and forth in time. With real-time presentations, you see everyone on the field moving like they are supposed to, coming in and out of the dugout, dodging players on the field. Coupled with our new camera system, where we've placed cameras in locations you would find in real stadiums in the camera wells, it gives the game a real broadcast feel that you won't find in MLB 09.
We've also added a catcher mode to Road to the Show, where you can call pitches, high and low, pitch type, field your position just like you would all of the other ones. The new pickoff system—this sounds like a minor thing, but to those who have used our pickoff system in the past it's pretty cool. You can go third to first, quick pickoffs, casual pickoffs—it's an interesting element of the game, and it gives you that feeling of cat-and-mouse that you haven't had in the past. That's just a few things in MLB 10 you haven't seen in the past.
The online gameplay has also improved—it's been kind of a thorn in our side for the last few years, not for a lack of effort in the past, but because it's such a difficult thing to time online with baseball being such a precision game. With a couple of days under our belt, we've seen the numbers, and the feedback has been very, very good from the public. People are really going insane there and playing games over and over, because it's pretty seamless and feels just like offline, which we're excited about.