No matter the sport, any coach at any level of competition will tell you that you must be aware of the situation. That lesson is particularly vital in baseball, where the circumstances — and strategies — can change completely from pitch to pitch.
Sports fans love to scream at their televisions when an athlete makes a mental error, like forgetting how many outs there are. Players of sports video games do the same thing when in-game athletes aren’t as smart as one would expect. Sony San Diego, the studio behind MLB The Show, wants to reduce those instances of frustration. As part of a yearslong effort to improve the artificial intelligence of its virtual baseball players, the development team is focusing on situational awareness in MLB The Show 17, which launches March 28 on PlayStation 4.
If you saw the trailer that Sony released last week, you might have noticed this in action. The trailer contains a sequence of side-by-side clips of ground balls to the shortstop. One is hit by the Cincinnati Reds’ Zack Cozart, who is not fleet of foot. The other comes off the bat of his teammate Billy Hamilton, one of the fastest runners in all of baseball.
The balls reach the first baseman at about the same time, and Cozart is actually closer to the bag than Hamilton when the catch is made. Why? Because the Cubs shortstop played the two hitters differently.
“Our game and our AI is so much smarter now at noticing the situation and the players that are in the situation,” said Ramone Russell, game designer and community manager at Sony San Diego, in a phone interview with Polygon last week.
Russell explained that the shortstop knows who is at the plate — Cozart versus Hamilton. With Cozart, the fielder can take his sweet time on a routine grounder; with Hamilton racing down the line, the shortstop has to pick up the ball and hurl it to first as quickly as he can. In previous iterations of MLB The Show, said Russell, the game would’ve just chosen random animations for fielding and throwing; that’s not the case anymore.
“This wasn’t an easy thing to do, and it’s something we’ve been working on for probably about two or three years that’s just now being realized,” said Russell.
These AI advancements make the game more realistic and less frustrating, and cut down on exploits. There’s a knock-on effect, too: It results in greatly increased animation variety. In the past, you might’ve seen some taking-his-time animations when you didn’t want to. But fielding and throwing mostly looked similar from play to play.
In making an annual sports game, developers have to plan things out ahead of time, because it’s impossible to make all the changes you want to make in a single year. Sony San Diego began laying the groundwork for this year’s AI upgrade a while back. In MLB 15 The Show two years ago, the team tweaked the behavior of hitters on routine ground balls: If a batter hit a ball right at a fielder for a sure out, he would no longer bother sprinting down to first — just like in real life. That change also allowed for players to see more animations than before.
“We had thousands of animations that you’d never see, because every play, the guy had to get the ball out fast,” Russell explained, noting that when hitters are always busting it down the line, no ground ball is a routine play. That would result in situations where you’d miss out on turning a double play, even with someone as slow as David Ortiz being the tail runner.
“The players realize the situation — who’s at bat — and they take their time or they don’t take their time, and it looks realistic,” said Russell. “We wanted to get to that, and now we’re able to get to it without the exploits. So now you’re going to see way more animations play, because the fielders are smarter at knowing who’s at bat and what that situation is.”