Cards, collections, virtual currency— when "Diamond Dynasty" appeared in a retail listing as a new mode for MLB 12 The Show, everyone thought they knew what it was: A feature that would borrow heavily from EA Sports' "Ultimate Team," which has been a cash cow for its FIFA, NHL and Madden franchises.
It would seem to make sense. EA Sports has no baseball presence, and the game is a natural for anything built on a sports card motif. Plus, it might make sense for Sony to move into this territory now, in case EA Sports returns to it after 2K's baseball license expires this year.
After talking with Sony's San Diego Studio, the makers of the widely acclaimed MLB The Show series, it sounds like all "Diamond Dynasty" has in common with "Ultimate Team," is the fact neither gives you a stick of gum when you open a fresh pack.
"I actually like it when people bring that up," said Nick Livingston, one of The Show's designers. It gives him a chance to tell them what's actually different, he said.
Let's start with the fact that this, very deliberately, will not be a pay-to-win game. Those with the wallet and the willingness (or inhuman amounts of time to play the game) can buy packs of highly-ranked cards in "Ultimate Team" and eventually end up with a team full of superstars, capable of manhandling most any competition. Though "Diamond Dynasty" will allow you to buy up a team full of major league stars, there are several controls in place that keep that from being a productive or even an encouraged goal.
The first is the fact teams will be made up of both real-life baseball stars and randomized "Dynasty players" (where Ultimate Team is populated entirely by existing stars.) This presents a two-prong strategy for building your team. One strategy is to acquire a bunch of free agents, who will be available to you for a much shorter time (like, 10 games). The second is to develop the generic Dynasty players, whose names and appearances are all editable, by training them up. Dynasty players will be available for about 35 to 40 games, which accounts for the time necessary to grow them.
You can't, however, train real-life stars. They are 10-game hired guns in the truest sense of the word. And while virtual currency ("budget" was the term used) is acquired in every game you complete online or offline, any extra currency you buy cannot be applied to a player's training.
Diamond Dynasty, quite deliberately, isn't a pay-to-win game.
What unfolds, then, is a team that really does reflect its owner's skill at management and gameplay. A team full of premium MLB stars is not going to last long enough to move you up the leaderboards in Diamond Dynasty. That was very important to the designers in San Diego. "We wanted it to be a real online ranking, where your ranking counts," Livingston said.
"We didn't want this to be a pay-to-win mode. When you look at games like Starcraft, big online competitive games, we used the same sort of base matchmaking and rating system in this mode.," he said. "We want people who go online to be guaranteed to be matched against people who are comparable to their skill level. We also want to give people at the top the knowledge that they really belong there. Only the best people will be at the top of the system. You could throw in tons of money, it's not going to put you at the top of the leaderboard."
For the Dynasty Players, development will be focused on two areas: his "Aptitude" rating, and the number of tools he brings.
Training will show you how much budget you need to spend to bring a player up to a certain rating. A high aptitude makes that process go more quickly. However, "tools"—which show proficiency in the five classic areas: hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing—should also be considered. A low-aptitude player becomes more valuable if he has a diverse toolset. A player with a single tool can become a specialist.
Finally, there is a means of swapping out duplicate MLB stars or cards that you don't want. A "recycler" will allow players to put submit two to five cards and get back one that represents a combination of his talents. For example, putting three pitchers into the recycle will spit back a pitcher with ratings somewhere near the average of all three. Two major leaguers returns another major leaguer. A mishmash delivers a random result, but the rating will be stronger.
That, plus a marketplace where players can post buy and sell orders for certain types of cards, should stand in the place of a trading system, which The Show's designers said they were unable to implement this year.
As to cards, they really only have meaning when they're part of a player's reserve collection. When a player is activated, his virtual card is, more or less, destroyed. Each Diamond Dynasty team will have up to 25 active players, that can compete in online games against other teams, or offline against major league teams from the game (beating them will unlock that stadium for your own use.) The rest, up to your cap of 100, are held in reserve and are only there for collection purposes. No training can be performed on Diamond Dynasty players in reserve.
Though virtual currency is available for sale, I asked why anyone would buy it if it can't be used to boost a team's quality. Livingston said they wanted to leave open the option for Show gamers to try to acquire their favorite players, or a collection of their favorite team. Also, one would have to deliberately bankrupt his team to run out of the freely-acquired money used to develop it. That said, someone in a losing streak or needing a leg up at the beginning may want to invest in short-term free agents.
Diamond Dynasty should appeal to baseball fans' peculiar aesthetics in other ways, too. An extremely deep customization engine will allow you to give your team unique uniforms, logos, and dugout apparel like warmup jackets. The logo creation system will be similar to that of Gran Turismo 5 and support up to 1,000 layers; its text will involve four fonts common to classic baseball uniform design. Dynasty players also are editable in everything except for their attributes. The common example given is bringing your old high school team into the game.