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MLB The Show's neatest trick was not as easy as it looks

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Tuesday was Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball; on it, every player wears Robinson's No. 42, commemorating the anniversary of his first game for the Dodgers, which began baseball's desegregation in 1947. If you're playing MLB 14 The Show's career mode and the calendar rolls around to April 15, you'll see this happen there, too.

In a video game, the layperson would assume that only requires changing a value in a database. But pulling it off is not as simple as it sounds. These things rarely are.

"It's something that does seem trivial on the surface," Aaron Luke, a designer on the game, told me this week. "We have to put in code that takes a snapshot of the player, showing him as No. 42, and then restore him back to his old number when the game is finished. And if you don't do that right, the player could end up wearing No. 42 for the duration of their career."

In an iterative title, whose code base can stretch back more than a decade, adding anything in can provoke a slew of unexpected bugs, failures and incompatibilities. Developers have to pick their spots and weigh whether what is returned is going to be worth the extra work of cleaning up whatever mess is inevitably made.

"It opened up a can of worms."

This is why The Show's "Player Lock" feature, and its truly seamless introduction, right out of the box, rates so much admiration. It takes the defining trait of the game's most popular mode of play and introduces it to every other single-player mode. You can go from controlling an entire team and all of its management decisions to focusing on an individual player with a more personalized camera view, while your computer teammates and coaches do their jobs.

Non-fans may wonder what the fuss is, but when Player Lock was first described back in November, light bulbs went off over the heads of die-hard players of Road to the Show, a career mode that, according to Sony's internal data, is played by 70 percent of users. Road to the Show is an attractive option for someone who wants more bite-sized games — either four plate appearances a day or seven innings every fifth one — while still making a meaningful contribution to a season 162 games long. The Franchise and Season modes, if they were to be manageable, required bulk simulation of a lot of games, or a hell of a lot of time to complete just one.

They made the decision to build a prototype, knowing that if it didn't work, that would be time spent on something that never saw the light of day. "Essentially we took the core of Road to the Show and removed some of the gates that prevent it from working outside that mode," Luke said. "Of course, that opens up a lot of other things you have to deal with, such as roster management."

Saving your career

Portable careers — essentially bringing your save file from an older version of MLB The Show into the latest version — is something Sony San Diego has talked about for years. I remember discussing it with them as far back as 2011. It's the epitome of the why-can't-they-do-that feature gamers think might be held out for some hidden agenda.

It wasn't. "Essentially there is a lot of data structure that has to change to make that into something that's feasible," Luke told me. This involves how the game stores and accesses information, which was set up a long time ago, before anyone thought that bringing save files forward would be something folks would clamor for.

With the PlayStation 4 coming, MLB The Show had to make a number of changes to optimize for next-gen gameplay. The team was going to have to go into the data structure and rearrange it, so they figured this was a good time to introduce career importation, from Franchise or Road to the Show. It's technically a feature this year, although gamers won't see its effect until next year when they bring files into MLB 15 The Show.

"Because we're doing them this year, it'll allow us to leverage them next year," Luke said. "We're still in development on that feature, and it sounds more simple than it actually is."

"The origin of the feature stemmed from a larger idea, initially, but the core was to lock onto a player and mimic the Road to the Show experience outside the mode," Luke said. "Early in the discussions we would sit around the design table, and we evaluated the core concepts of this grand idea. The best part of it was Player Lock."

In Road to the Show, players do not have the ability to change personnel — pitchers know this intimately, as the game has a notorious tendency to leave you out there with no energy if you have a shutout going, or a large lead. So one of the gates to open was the ability to substitute the lineup, and warmup pitchers and the like, including removing the player you control from the game. When that happens, the game automatically reverts you to total control of the team.

"Another good example would be the issue of how we allow the user to interact with fast-forwarding," Luke said. This is how the game deals with plays in which a Road to the Show (or locked) player does not participate. You can watch a teammate hit from the dugout railing if you like (and I have, in late September games with a playoff spot on the line). But most folks opt to go through a simulation screen where the play results are shown. The game will do this automatically based on a setting elsewhere in the menu.

Player Lock has to allow for the interruption of that simulation so that the user can, if he prefers, reassume control of the entire team or switch to a player participating in that at-bat. "It took a while to get that ironed out, to allow the user to selectively fast forward to something other than a player's next experience," Luke said.

"It opened up a can of worms," he said. From a design perspective, he says, the group of eight at Sony San Diego never doubted the appeal of Player Lock; it was just a question of getting it to play nice with the rest of a very good game.

It would have been a thin accomplishment if their solution, to get Franchise to deal with Road to the Show fast-forwarding, was to make a user declare the player he wished to control through Player Lock at the beginning of the game, and forced him to remain with that choice until the end.

That's not what happened. You can, like a baseball ghost, "possess" individuals from pitch-to-pitch if you want. And with the normal change-sides control, you can go do it to the other team.

Hell, MLB 14 The Show should give a Trophy for playing each half-inning at a different position for both teams. You have to fool with the settings for fast-forwarding and fielding opportunities. I've tried it and, like Player Lock itself, is something that sounds simpler than it really is.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears on weekends.