Bryce Harper had a pleasant introduction to The Show this year. Sony hopes you'll have one next year, too.
Harper, today the first officially announced candidate for an MLB 13 The Show cover to be voted on by fans, might be the current baseball player who most embodies the fantasy offered by the PlayStation 3's award-winning simulation: 18-year-old can't-miss phenom beats up the minor leagues, goes to spring training his second year, makes the parent club soon after.
It happens every spring.
"When you're younger, you always dream of being in a video game, or being on the cover," Harper said by telephone last week, during a photoshoot framing him for the prospective cover. "Winning a World Series would be the top-notch goal, but off the field, this is something very cool."
But his candidacy is an allegory for MLB 13 The Show for other reasons, too. This year, MLB 13 The Show will introduce a "Beginner Mode" that, if it lives up to its description, will help newcomers and set-in-their-ways-veterans handle baseball's complicated ritual of patience and explosive action.
It won't be a downgraded difficulty setting, said Ramone Russell, Sony San Diego's community manager for MLB The Show. It's going to be a tutorial meant to prepare you for live play at standard difficulty. Beginner Mode will be a series of exercises in both hitting and pitching. As a hitter, for example, you'll see what fastballs look like, then fastballs relative to a changeup and a breaking ball, and gradually be introduced to all of them, thrown to all parts of the strike zone (and outside.) On the other side of the plate, pitching will teach a player the fundamentals of location and mixing deliveries.
This is intriguing to me, because I've always felt MLB The Show, despite its demanding realism, was secretly one of sports gaming's most accommodating franchises, thanks to a very deep, customizable control scheme that has gone back years. If you know how to look for it, you can fully automate acts you're bad at, such as fielding or baserunning, and drive up the difficulty in pitching, or hitting, to challenge what you're good at or enjoy most, and minimize the phases of the game where you're the weakest.
Thing is, most folks don't approach a sports video game that way. Either they don't know the options, or pride causes them to select the game's second- or third-highest difficulty setting (veteran and all-star, respectively). Fully implemented, The Show's controls are intimidating. I couldn't sit here and tell you how to steal second base in the game, for example. Neither could Harper, who has stolen home in real life (the first teenager to do so since 1964, for that matter.).
"It's really hard; in video games you can't really steal bags," he said. "The catcher is always pretty on the money."
"Beginner mode" however, will focus largely on pitching and hitting; simplified baserunning controls in the game's Road to the Show career mode should help out those who have sound baserunning fundamentals in mind but have difficulty keying them up in the heat of the moment.
Fielding is also going to get a different treatment in the mode's often disorienting first-person view. In whole-team play, a new accuracy mechanism will be implemented to take the background dice-roll out of fielding outcomes. There'll be a "sweet spot" in the fielding meter commensurate to his ratings—loading up and hitting a throw in the "sweet spot" will open up more spectacular animations depending on the difficulty of the play and the player's attributes. Other games have handled this in similar fashion, notably MLB 2K, the Xbox 360 exclusive that won't be appearing next year once 2K Sports' deal with the league expires. The PlayStation 3 is the only console that will feature a new baseball simulation next year.
Harper, for his part, says when he plays video game baseball he's usually fooling around, having a good time with friends. The game is a simulation of his job, after all. Harper's approach to hitting in the game is not at all similar to how he handles the task in real life. And, lnown for a cannon arm in right field, he hasn't gunned out anyone from that position in the video game. But, "I have from center field," he quickly adds.
What's toughest for him, both in game and in reality, is facing the inhuman speed of the game's hardest throwers: Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds came to mind. So did Stephen Strasburg, though he's Harper's teammate on the Nationals. (The comment did make me ask Harper if he'd ever faced Strasburg at full speed for any reason, even in practice. "Oh, no, never," he said. Paying both players' contracts, no sane management would want Harper facing Strasburg at full strength, nor vice versa.)
Russell said hitting timing will be adjusted slightly in MLB 13 The Show to give batters a more satisfying payoff on solid contact. "You're going to see more offense like you do in real life," he said, addressing criticisms that The Show's rigorous contact physics last year made the game a station-to-station game of base hits for most novices. "If you square up on a fastball, it's going to be hit harder than it was before," Russell added. "People are going to be very surprised."
Other upgrades Russell described involved a complex formula in the game's franchise mode, whereby team payroll—i.e., management's willingness to spend—will expand or contract relative to the team's success, and not just because a team made the playoffs or won a World Series. Teams like the Padres will never spend like teams like the Yankees, and vice versa. But especially in Road to the Show, if you end up in a small market or a perennial loser, and take them to a breakout season, you have a reasonable hope of seeing management spend for a supporting cast to get your club further into October, without stranding you there until you become an unrestricted free agent. (I have no idea how this accounts for the Miami Marlins' behavior.)
Player development in Franchise will now be influenced by scouts which have their own ratings—spotting hitting and pitching talent and appraising both. It introduces a human element to the development process. "These guys could end up being wrong," Russell said.
A new postseason mode, and presentational support for it, plus a new booth team comprising returning announcers Matt Vasgersian and Eric Karros with newcomer Steve Lyons, round out the new upgrades Sony San Diego is discussing so far. But probably the most striking presentational changes will be seen in Road to the Show. Russell said the mode is going to be more oriented to a first-person experience this year, removing booth commentary when your player is on the field, augmenting ambient noise, and discarding immersion-breaking camera angles.
"We're trying to refocus things back to on you and your player," Russell said, "hearing the onfield chatter, the base coaches telling you to get back, the crowd boing you or chanting your name, being a first-person baseball experience."
MLB 13 The Show will release in March. Other candidates for its cover will join Harper in announcements to come.