Sony San Diego's MLB The Show series is renowned for its depth and complexity. It offers perhaps the widest variety of control schemes for any sports simulation, but they still don't make it a franchise you'd call "accessible." Hitting in particular has always confounded even the game's most skilled, hardcore contingent — look at the games' online leaderboards, and you'll see low batting averages and high strikeout rates for the top players.
The developers are taking a two-pronged approach to that problem in MLB 13 The Show.
First up is a gameplay tweak: They're making hitting easier across all difficulty settings, opening up the timing window for making good contact. That means that you'll encounter fewer frustrating instances of making what you thought was solid contact, only to foul the ball off. During a recent hands-on session with MLB 13, community manager Ramone Russell pointed out that MLB The Show fans found that specific issue disheartening because hitting was already so tough. Not taking advantage of a hittable pitch felt like missing out on one of a precious few great opportunities you might have in an at-bat, and the handful you might get in an entire game.
So in general, if you square up on the ball and put a good swing on it, it's going to jump off the bat in MLB 13. It may not be a hit — in real baseball, the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time — but you'll have more success overall.
For MLB 13, Sony San Diego is also introducing a new method of play altogether: Beginner Mode. It's not a new difficulty setting per se; it's more of a tutorial layer atop the existing experience of playing an exhibition game. Separate experiences are available for pitching and hitting, so if you're a skilled hurler but inept with a bat in your hands, you can play with Beginner hitting and All-Star or Legend pitching.
Beginner Mode is meant to ease players in, asking very little of them at the start and gradually turning up the challenge. I took turns hitting against two of the American League's top pitchers, the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander and MLB 13 cover candidate C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees. It's usually nigh-impossible to get a hit off those guys, since they mix up their pitch speed and location to keep hitters flummoxed.
But on the first level of Beginner hitting, they'll throw nothing but fastballs down the middle. Hitting is a timing-based exercise above all, and letting players focus on swinging at the right moment is the first step in getting them to understand the act of hitting. Once they've figured that out and knocked around the fastball, MLB 13 will move them up to level 2, where the fastball's location will vary (but will remain in the strike zone). On level 3, the pitcher will start to mix in some off-speed stuff, and only after that will pitches begin to appear out of the zone.
The idea of Beginner Mode is smart not only because it slowly introduces you to the elements of hitting — recognizing pitch location, type and speed — but also because it gives novice players something they've never felt before in an MLB The Show game: success at the start, as opposed to frustration. For a newbie, going up against a guy like Verlander is usually a fool's errand destined to end in failure. But on Beginner Mode, that player can get an instant confidence boost by getting some hits off one of baseball's best pitchers.
If that happens, said Russell, new players are much less likely to give up on hitting; instead, they can work their way up through Beginner Mode to the point where they're competitive in a regular game.
new players are much less likely to give up on hitting
I saw less potential for Beginner Mode pitching, but I already play MLB The Show with analog pitching on the All-Star difficulty level. Hitters can still punish you even on the first level, and the mode doesn't provide much guidance on how to become a better pitcher, like when and where to throw which pitches.
And Beginner Mode could run into some issues with pitcher confidence, a meter in the game that shows how well a pitcher is doing with a particular pitch in his repertoire. If you repeatedly beat up on Verlander's fastball, the confidence meter will be relatively low by the time you get up to the middle levels of Beginner Mode. In other words, players may rank up before they're actually able to hit the pitches in a "real-world," non-Beginner game.
That may not matter as much, though. If Beginner Mode succeeds, it will give players the tools and tutelage they need to know how to hit. Once players are equipped with that knowledge, they'll ideally be ready to face some tough pitching without feeling bewildered. Considering the difficulty of MLB The Show games to this point, that would be a great start.