Baseball fans have started to come to terms with the idea that MLB 13 The Show will be their only video game option next year. MLB 13 The Show needs to come to terms with that, too.
Consistently well reviewed, The Show's dirty secret is that there are areas of its product that are growing stale, are undersupported or even broken. But it's serving a single platform constituency and the noise was drowned out by the annual clamor over the even worse shortcomings MLB 2K was serving as the sport's supposed flagship title.
It appears unlikely that any credible publisher has the money or a studio with the time to build an Xbox 360 baseball simulation by March 2013. Without MLB 2K to kick around anymore, gamers will go headhunting for whatever The Show isn't doing well, or isn't doing at all. Video gamers hate the overdog, big corporations, and having no options. All three labels apply to The Show next year.
So this is a critical hour for Sony. I've touted The Show as a game capable of selling a console. We'll find out next year, when diehard baseball fans without a PS3 will be faced with the decision to buy one or play the old version of a disappointing game.
One would expect Sony's San Diego Studio has been preparing for this, as Take-Two Interactive has sent signals for more than two years that MLB 2K would be finished when its licensing deal expires this year. They're about three months into their production cycle. These are the areas in which The Show must improve or innovate if it's to continue to get the benefit of the doubt as the Tiffany product in sports video gaming. This isn't so much advice as much as what I hope San Diego is working on.
Support Online Multiplayer or Get Rid of It
If it's the only option for baseball next year, then MLB the Show's straight-up unplayability online, for years now, will become an even more glaring weakness. It may be that baseball, a game of timing, is simply impossible to recreate meaningfully given the current state of the art of networking in the U.S. and all of the variables it contains. Just look at the strikeout totals in the multiplayer leaderboards. A baseball video game that is enjoyable online on the day of release would be a landmark achievement and sales driver, because 2K couldn't deliver that either. If Sony can't get this game to that state, it should jettison online multiplayer altogether and stop wasting money on the servers. I have given up on it and suspect many others have, too.
Bring Life to the Broadcast Booth
Your long slog through your career in Road to the Show makes the game's threadbare commentary painfully apparent. I think the world of Matt Vasgersian but he is shackled to an outdated commentary engine given to repetition and dead air. Dave Campbell's dialogue library is really showing its age, and a majority of his work sounds like Dave Campbell playing Dave Campbell. Eric Karros should be thanked for his service and sent home. The Show has world class visuals and a smooth, if minimalist, broadcast presentation. The commentary supporting it has not pulled its weight in years.
If You Promise Something, Deliver It
The Show's biggest embarrassment, perhaps overshadowed because it affects a smaller population of users, is the broken state of its cross-platform play with the PS Vita. Naturally, this must not happen again next year. But The Show also led gamers to believe they'd have an Online Home Run Derby—a baseball mode that would actually work online because the pitching and hitting could be done entirely on the hitter's console. If undelivered promises like these happen next year, Sony and The Show can expect to be ripped for it, regardless of how many people use the feature.
Do Something Revolutionary to the Sports Genre
That's a tall expectation but not impossible. If you look at the across-the-board unfulfilled wishes of sports video gamers, probably the top one is career-mode importation across release years. Nowhere is this more necessary than in baseball, where a player's career lasts longer on average and a Hall of Famer's—ostensibly the goal of Road to the Show—averages about 17 seasons. That's a hell of a lot of work to put in each year. I've never done it, and I've always started over.
It would drive sales of an annual sports title if a gamer knew he could continue his long-playing career—either as a single player, or as a franchise owner or season general manager—in the next title, with all of its upgrades and refinements. Sony San Diego told me two years ago they had seriously looked at this, but warned there are developmental challenges the average gamer may not readily grasp. They still need to make this happen, not just for what it would do for The Show, but also for the goodwill it would return in setting that as an expectation of sports video games, pushing other developers to adopt it.
Baseball does change year to year, but that's mostly in personnel. While the Rays and A's have plans for a new stadium, there are no certain dates of their arrival. No expansion is planned. The postseason format was changed this year. Even if there are future structural changes to the league—franchise moves, new stadiums, playoff changes—gamers would accept them as a retcon without complaint. This is the best time to pry the roster file out of Road to the Show, Franchise and Season, and make it importable into a future version of MLB the Show. I do realize that is much easier said than done.
Steal MLB Today and Make It Better
There are a couple of things MLB 2K did well that The Show couldn't do without incurring the bad will of straight up copying an inferior competitor (or a legal action). But there's no copyright or software patent on facts, and a team's projected lineups and starting pitchers are published every day. MLB Today, especially with its "Season" addition this year, should have been an improvement. Instead, it was a broken, barely supported mess.
In the right hands, this is a great concept, especially when given the "rewrite history" context of MLB Today Season. But that mode, in MLB 2K12 only lets you play the current game on the calendar, a painfully limiting aspect. What I want to be able to do is play today's game and then play forward from that on my terms; or go back to a pivotal game, replay it, and alter my favorite club's fortunes that way.
I don't think gamers want to play alongside a 162-game season in real-time as much as they would want to jump into the middle of one and take it from there, or in September—six months after release—use it as wish fulfillment when their team starts to fade. That type of functionality would properly differentiate this from MLB Today, and turn it into a pick-up-and-play season mode that can deliver the full context of a pennant race.
Tip Your Cap
Campbell, remarking on pitch location, will occasionally reference the Konami Code. I think another Easter egg would be a classy gesture. A line of commentary appearing randomly after a strikeout for out two of an inning could have Vasgersian say, "So that's two Ks. And that reminds me, we wanted to tip our caps to our friends in Northern California, they've helped a lot of fans have some great moments in sports."
2K Sports may be a competitor, but in the games development community they are also colleagues. The label appeared on stage at Sony's E3 presentation last year. And 2K Games makes titles for the PS3, too. Something like this could acknowledge that, in the end, game developers honestly do the best they can with what they have.
I know Sony San Diego will. I just hope they are given enough to work with next year.