R.B.I. Baseball 14's creators at Major League Baseball Advanced Media have said all along that their aim is to return to the franchise's roots with the game, which is launching nearly two decades after the last entry in the series. We spent a half hour playing the Xbox 360 version of R.B.I. 14 last week, and while some aspects of the baseball title pleasantly surprised us, we're unsure if the studio's approach will resonate with modern audiences when it launches this Wednesday.
R.B.I. 14 will cost $19.99 on consoles and $4.99 on mobile devices. The PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and iOS versions will be available April 9, with an Android release to follow soon afterward. MLB Advanced Media is aiming to launch the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions in May.
"Bare-bones" is perhaps the most accurate one-word description for R.B.I. 14. As we reported last month, the game offers exhibition matchups for one or two players, as well as one-player season and postseason modes, with no online play. The limited scope extends to the gameplay experience, and that's intentional, according to the developers. A six-person team at MLB Advanced Media is overseeing design, art direction and production, while Montreal-based Behaviour Interactive is handling development in terms of programming and art.
Unlike most sports titles from the past two decades, R.B.I. 14 doesn't provide any ratings for players or teams. Until they jump into a game, a casual baseball fan would have no way of knowing whether the Detroit Tigers are better than the Houston Astros (they are), or whether Aroldis Chapman's fastball is faster than C.C. Sabathia's (it is). There's no bullpen management in R.B.I. 14 — you just bring in a new pitcher, no warm-up needed.
According to Jamie Leece, vice president of games at MLB Advanced Media, the studio went with this approach for a couple of reasons. These days, sports-game publishers often release full player/team ratings to the public before launching a game, so fans can dissect and debate the assigned attributes. Instead, MLB Advanced Media wanted to imbue R.B.I. 14 with an old-school sense of discovery: The idea is that players will come to learn about baseball clubs and athletes by trying out different teams, instead of just sticking to a particular favorite club.
MLB Advanced Media also wanted to keep people playing the game, as opposed to getting bogged down in management menus.
"We've gone to great lengths to minimize the distractions that would slow the pace of a game [down]," Leece told Polygon. "So when we look at stats and we talk about, 'Are there menus where you can see all this deep stuff, and can I see stamina somewhere, and do I have to use a bullpen?' All these things, conceptually, are great. However, they all interfere with the pace of the game."
Leece expressed a belief that not all players are interested in fiddling with lineups and bullpens, and said that people who are into that stuff can play Sony's MLB The Show series, which he called "the best sports game in the marketplace."
"There needs to still be some skill"
Once players get into a game of R.B.I. 14, they'll find a simplified experience that still leaves room for experienced players to put their skills to good use. All hurlers have three types of pitches at their disposal: normal, fast and off-speed, with the latter having the potential to dive into the dirt for certain pitchers. As in the original R.B.I. Baseball titles, you'll be able to curve the ball from side to side after it's out of the pitcher's hand; better pitchers will have more control here, and slow pitches are more movable than fastballs.
R.B.I. 14's spartan interface provides only the most basic information about the current situation, pitcher and hitter. Pitcher fatigue is something that players have to be cognizant of, especially since it happens much faster than in real life — hurlers generally last only three to four innings before they start serving up meatballs. But curiously, for a game geared toward all audiences, R.B.I. 14 is rather subtle about conveying that detail. You'll have to watch your pitcher's body language to tell how tired he is, like when his shoulders and glove start to slump.
"If we made it more obvious than that, then the skill of the players would be negated," said Leece, explaining that the game rewards players who have a watchful eye. "There needs to still be some skill."
This also applies to fielding. Just like in the old R.B.I. Baseball games — and unlike in modern baseball titles — there's no marker on the field to indicate where a fly ball is going to land. Instead, you have to watch the shadow and height of the ball in mid-air to determine, on the fly, where to place your fielder.
"A bad game isn't made better by multiplayer"
Another major omission that today's gamers will notice is the lack of any online component to R.B.I. 14. To be sure, it's tough to do online play well; consider MLB The Show, which has built up a stellar record of high praise for nearly everything except the poor quality of its online offering. And as a timing-based affair, baseball is particularly difficult to pull off online.
"The big thing that we haven't executed on that we'd really like to execute would be, obviously, online multiplayer," said Leece, adding that MLB Advanced Media is considering adding online play through a downloadable update. "But we won't do it unless it's right — we won't do it unless we get the experience right. ... In a game like this, we'd want to make sure that the play over the internet would feel like the play of you beside a friend on the couch."
Asked about the reasons for the lack of online play, Leece explained that MLB Advanced Media and Behaviour Interactive built R.B.I. 14 from scratch over the past year or so, and that development officials decided to prioritize the creation of a high-quality core game above all else.
"When you're tackling a project like this, when you're building any product, you've got to manage risk," said Leece.
Earlier in the interview, we had mentioned 2K Sports' now-defunct MLB 2K franchise, which always had better online play than The Show but was such a mediocre experience in comparison that you probably wouldn't have wanted to play it anyway. Referencing those comments, Leece continued, "A bad game isn't made better by multiplayer, right? So we need to get the game right first and then multiplayer matters. If we're serving two masters, we may end up [...] not satisfying either."
"We've gone to great lengths to minimize the distractions that would slow the pace of a game [down]"
After diving into MLB 14 The Show last week, it took a little time for us to get accustomed to the throwback nature of the mechanics of R.B.I. 14. But within a few innings, we were trading strikeouts and runs in a nail-biting game with Leece. We both sighed in exasperation after a whiff, and cried out with joy at home runs. It's hard to put a finger on just why, but within a single exhibition game of R.B.I. 14, we got into it. Leece's Tigers ended up defeating our Kansas City Royals, 6-5, and we're eager for a rematch. We're not sure if that'll hold up in the long run, especially for people who don't have local competition and can only play the CPU, but it's a start.