The greatest development in sports games during the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 days was the proliferation of the single-player career mode. Options like Madden NFL’s Superstar mode, Be a Pro in NHL and FIFA, and MyCareer in NBA 2K allow people to step into the cleats, skates or sneakers of a fictional athlete, and take them from no-name prospect to perennial all-star. Players fell in love with these modes, forging connections with their virtual counterparts through the ups and downs of a sports career.
Career modes are the ultimate role-playing experience for a sports fan, and they’ve always been designed with the same kind of character progression that fans of role-playing games know well. But few sports games have offered the other crucial element of the RPG genre: a story.
Players have been asking for story-based career modes for a while, and the one franchise to consistently deliver on that front is NBA 2K. EA Sports introduced a well-received story, The Journey, in FIFA 17 last fall. This year, Sony’s San Diego studio is letting players tell their own story in Road to the Show, the beloved career mode in its MLB The Show franchise. It sounds like a promising start for MLB The Show 17 — not just because it will shake up a mode in dire need of a refresh, but because the developers are baking the particulars of baseball into the experience.
Shape your career
Even as competing sports developers have done more to revamp their career modes over the years, Road to the Show has remained near the top of the heap. It might not sound attractive to spend one or two seasons in the minor leagues before being called up to “The Show,” but riding that struggle bus in Double A and Triple A makes you appreciate the big leagues that much more.
MLB 17’s Road to the Show features a story called Pave Your Path in which you’ll have the ability to control the progression of your career, and not just in the traditional way of choosing how to allocate your experience points. As you may have noticed in the game’s first trailer, the mode will include cutscenes that present you with decisions — think of them as branching paths in a traditional RPG, where the various choices can lead to different outcomes.
“If you create a shortstop, your career might not end up as a shortstop, depending on the decisions you make,” said Ramone Russell, game designer and community manager for MLB The Show at Sony San Diego, in a phone interview with Polygon yesterday. “There aren’t any right or wrong decisions in Pave Your Path. It’s just all about how you feel, and the personality of your player.”
Sony San Diego consulted with current baseball players like Washington Nationals breakout star Trea Turner, whose path to the major leagues presented an archetype that players may encounter in MLB 17. Turner started out as a shortstop, but the team asked him to switch to center field because it had more of a need there. Now, with Turner having finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting last season, he’s returning to his natural position.
“Something will happen,” Russell explained, “and the manager will say, ‘Hey, you’re [at] this position; we want you to play this position.’ And it could be a short-term deal, or it could be, like, ‘Hey, we looked at your skill set, and we want you to move to second base for good. What do you think about that?’ And then you have to make a decision based off of the situation that happens.”
You can see that kind of career-changing choice in the screenshot above featuring the Erie SeaWolves, the Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Russell said he didn’t want to spoil the other kinds of decisions that players will see in MLB 17, but hinted that the cutscenes will focus on what makes baseball special.
“That minor league experience is so unique to baseball — you don’t see it in other sports,” said Russell. “Like, they’re really eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day; there’s five, six guys to a room.”
Russell acknowledged that other games have offered story-based career modes. In particular, NBA 2K’s MyCareer featured cutscenes with general manager meetings — chats that could influence team chemistry — all the way back in 2012’s NBA 2K13. But Russell said that Sony San Diego feels it’s offering something different, specifically because the choices in MLB 17’s Road to the Show can completely alter the path of your player’s career. Of course, not every decision will be that big, and Russell described the frequency of the major cutscenes as “occasional.”
Another way in which Sony San Diego will set itself apart is by delivering additional cutscenes, scenarios and dialogue after the launch of MLB 17. Russell said the studio is still working on the details, such as how much new content it will release and when it will deliver those updates, but said “it’s definitely on our roadmap.” Although Russell didn’t give any hints as to the nature of this post-launch content, you could conceive of a situation in which, a few seasons into your MLB career, you’re given the option to take a pay cut or be released from your team.
Those decisions will be reflected in Road to the Show’s new in-game social media feed, a feature seen in many other sports games. Russell also tempered expectations somewhat, stressing that this is the first year of a long-term plan to add story elements to Road to the Show. We’ll have to see how it plays out when MLB The Show 17 launches March 28, exclusively on PlayStation 4.
Update: Russell described the presentation in Pave Your Path as “documentary-style,” with a narrator that describes the action as it plays out. (The mode doesn’t give your player a voice.) Now we have further details on MLB 17’s changes to Road to the Show, courtesy of the PlayStation Blog.
“Your future at your position, the public’s perception of you, and your role with the team hang in the balance,” said senior game designer Steve Merka. In addition to your club’s manager, as seen in the debut trailer, you’ll meet with people like coaches and representatives — in fact, you’ll be able to hire an agent to act on your behalf. The decisions you make will also cover your player’s life off the field.
Merka also discussed some of the tweaks that Sony San Diego is making to the general progression of Road to the Show. Some of the dialogue choices will come within practice situations, and the right decision can “kick off 2x Training Point Earning periods that help you get stronger, better, faster,” said Merka.
He added that with the extra upgrade points, it will be possible to specialize in both pitching and hitting to create a “bomb hitting fireball pitcher.” It remains to be seen if this system will throw the typical character progression out of whack.
Sony San Diego has also revamped the process of creating your player in Road to the Show. New head shapes will increase the ethnic diversity of created players, and there are plenty of additional customization options for hair and facial hair.