There’s an inherent and irreconcilable conflict buried deep within the mechanics of every video baseball game, from Atari Baseball to The Show. No matter how immersive and smooth the graphics, how realistic the player traits and statistics, the paradox persists: we want a baseball game which is both realistic and that we can dominate. It’s something boyish within us, a desire to be 2001 Barry Bonds, to break the mold of expectations, to have little nonexistent digital journalists scrambling to explain our greatness.
The concept of challenge in any video game is a fine line. There are games out there that are far too easy (Mega Man 2) or far too difficult (Mega Man 9) and yet are still enjoyable, because they’re superior in control, graphics, or design. Average games that are too far to one side or the other, however, are set aside in neglect or disgust. This is particularly important for a sports game: we want to feel that challenge, of our ability to overcome it, to come out on top. But total victory, as fans of many major teams will attest, is hardly realistic. We as fans have the patience to live through years of futility and struggle for that one chance at glory. We as video game players do not. Gamers don’t enjoy failing seven times out of ten anymore.
Consider being a Mariners fan. If the game were a strictly representative, realistic depiction of the organization in its current state, there’d be no reason to play; you could listen to them lose on the radio and put up some crown molding or something. The baseball simulation faces a tricky challenge: create a universe that looks and feels realistic, but where the Mariners can still believably win multiple ballgames. It needs to challenge us but still, at the end of the day, make us feel like Billy Beane.
As I write this I’m watching the progress bar meander eastward on my game of Out of the Park 14, as my fake general manager (named “Danny Kaye”) makes his fake little phone calls to scan trade interest in AAA outfielder Marcus Thames. Thames doesn’t net many offers. Most likely, they’re sick of Danny Kaye calling them three times a day about their top prospects and how many org guys it would take to get them.
Out of the Park 14 is the most realistic baseball simulation program on the market, one that provides control over almost every aspect of managing a major league franchise, from ticket sales to scouting budgets to hit and run tendencies to lineups. Perhaps more impressively, however, it can also not provide that control.
Many long-running sports franchises, whose model is to improve and innovate year after year, create an increasingly niche market for themselves. The faithful, annual customers who improve each year want an increased challenge, until you get something like the modern Madden franchise, which requires college credit to learn and play. The beginner and the dilettante find themselves frozen out, and the franchise dies.
Out of the Park, despite its initial learning curve, does a good job of providing the player with what they want and shouldering what they don’t want to deal with. Don’t care about the draft? Let the computer handle it. In-game management decisions too tedious for you? Auto-play the games. In fact, the game is happy to let you treat baseball like a collectible card game, swapping players every five minutes and building a whole new roster, the way I do.
I read something somewhere that said that most gamers, when playing simulation games like Civilization, rarely pick a difficulty level that actually provides a fair test for them. Most people like to win easily. Most people are lazy jerks. I, too, am a lazy jerk.
OOTP 14 is more difficult than previous iterations, mostly due to improved computer AI. Each time I fired up a new game of OOTP 13, I would as my inaugural transaction trade Chone Figgins to the Yankees for Nick Swisher, who could be shipped for any one of a number of talented players. This year shopping around Franklin Gutierrez nets Adam Dunn, who can only be traded for Vernon Wells, who can only be traded for just kidding no team would ever trade for Vernon Wells. Instead of turning my moribund franchises into champions overnight, I found poor Danny Kaye out on the street, probably juggling for loose change.
I could get frustrated that Out of the Park no longer caters to me, that it’s decided to destroy my pretense at being a talented, strategic mind. But instead, it makes me want to try a little harder, earn it a little more. Maybe I won’t auto-play through every single game and concentrate only on trades. Maybe I will actually optimize my rotation, or bother negotiating with impending free agents. Maybe I’ll try scouting a player once. Maybe I’ll try to actually become better at the game.
This is what the old video games did. They killed you, and they made you start over, try a different approach to what stopped you. They made you get better at them. They made you want to get better at them. Out of the Park has made me want to be less of a lazy bastard, and that’s a compliment to the franchise.