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Brand new ballgame: A look at MLB’s in-house development of R.B.I. Baseball 18

MLB Advanced Media started out managing websites. Now it’s developing its own video game

R.B.I. Baseball 18 - Houston Astros center fielder George Springer swinging a bat
George Springer of the World Series champion Houston Astros in R.B.I. Baseball 18.
MLB Advanced Media
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

The New York Yankees weren’t the first sports team to don pinstripes, but the distinctive pattern is as closely associated with the baseball club as it is with boardroom suits. The Yankees’ home uniform, a simple design featuring thin navy stripes on a white background, is an enduring classic: It has barely changed in more than a century.

Basic though it is, the pinstriped design presents some challenges for the makers of baseball video games. In the kind of discussion that happens all the time at studios working on sports titles, the developers of R.B.I. Baseball at Major League Baseball Advanced Media were debating last fall how best to bring the Yankees’ uniform to life in the game. Areas where the pinstripes met a seam didn’t look quite right, so the team fetched some nearby reference material.

“We walked down the hall to Billy, who does all of our merchandise stuff — he manages the shop, he gets all the jerseys through,” recalls Peter Banks, director of marketing for MLBAM’s gaming and virtual reality department.

In this case, “down the hall” meant elsewhere in the company’s sprawling multilevel offices, which sit inside a former Nabisco factory in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. MLBAM serves as the league’s digital media arm, maintaining its websites, apps and livestreaming platform. The firm produces some mobile games as well as one console title: R.B.I. Baseball, a 1980s franchise that MLBAM resurrected in 2014 amid dire circumstances in the baseball video game market.

Until recently, the company relied primarily on outside studios for development of R.B.I. Baseball and its other video games, with a small group at MLBAM overseeing production and managing publishing duties. That has all changed over the past year. Banks’ anecdote is a story from the development of R.B.I. Baseball 18, for which MLBAM took an unprecedented step: The company built a sizable internal team to develop the game itself.

As the only instance of a professional sports league producing its own console video game, R.B.I. Baseball was already a unique product. Now MLBAM is going further, hoping to cement the game’s place in the market by responding to feedback from critics and consumers with a major expansion in its scope.

In the hole

Fifteen years ago, baseball fans were awash in video games. Back in 2003, no fewer than eight MLB-licensed titles were released on consoles. The plethora of choices included a now-unimaginable six simulation games, such as 3DO’s High Heat Major League Baseball 2004 and Acclaim’s All-Star Baseball 2004. Among the two arcade-style options was Midway’s MLB SlugFest 20-04, in which players could catch “on fire” and attack each other with wrestling moves.

Today, none of those three publishers exist, although a lack of success in the sports space alone didn’t necessarily cause them to close. Contraction has been the defining force in sports gaming over the past decade and a half. There was a bloodbath in the genre during the mid-2000s, as publishers succumbed to bankruptcy or market shifts like the rise of exclusive licensing deals.

Take-Two bought its way into the field by signing such a contract with Major League Baseball in January 2005. The deal, which was reportedly worth $200 million to $250 million over seven years, locked out all other third-party publishers from producing baseball titles — including Electronic Arts, maker of the beloved MVP Baseball series that constituted Take-Two’s stiffest competition. One year later, the sport’s only remaining games were Take-Two’s multiplatform Major League Baseball 2K6, Sony’s PlayStation-exclusive MLB 06: The Show and the last effort from Midway’s expiring licensing agreement, MLB SlugFest 2006.

Defeating EA ended up being a pyrrhic victory for Take-Two; the company would eventually regret ever signing the MLB agreement. And the failure of the partnership created an opportunity in the gaming market for the league itself.

The Bigs 2 - Prince Fielder hits a home run at Wrigley Field
Take-Two released The Bigs 2, an arcade baseball game, in July 2009. Five months later, the publisher said it expected that its baseball business would lose $30 million to $35 million in the following year.
Blue Castle Games/2K Sports

Take-Two released a series of mediocre MLB 2K games and spinoff titles that never achieved much success, and the publisher eventually found itself losing as much as $30 million to $35 million annually on its MLB contract. By 2012, Take-Two was feeling the seven-year itch: The company declined to renew the deal on a long-term basis, but worked out an arrangement that allowed it to release one final entry in the franchise, Major League Baseball 2K13, in March 2013. The end of the MLB 2K series threatened to leave the league in an alarming situation: It would have no licensed baseball video game on Xbox platforms in 2014.

“We had nothing on the Xbox at the time,” says Noah Garden, then the executive vice president of revenue for MLBAM and now the EVP of commerce for the league, “and we just didn’t really want to be dark on [that] platform.”

Sony’s MLB The Show series was regarded highly enough that some baseball fans bought a PlayStation 3 for it. But that didn’t mean the league had any desire to leave Microsoft’s customers out in the cold. Although the companies were starting anew in November 2013 with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively, the bulk of the potential audience would still be playing on the older systems by the time the next baseball season rolled around — including the 80 million or so Xbox 360 consoles that Microsoft had sold worldwide by then.

On such short notice, there was no chance of an outside company picking up where Take-Two had left off and still being able to ship a game by the spring of 2014. That was doubly true for a simulation sports title, a field in which fans’ baseline expectations for graphics, modes and features were rising every year. This presented a significant barrier to entry, not to mention that development costs had already skyrocketed during the transition to high-definition gaming in the mid-2000s.

With no better options available, MLB took the extraordinary step of deciding to produce its own video game. But the company never had any interest in going the simulation route.

The pitch

As the sports gaming market shrunk in the mid-2000s, the first casualty was the small but popular subgenre of arcade-style games. While simulation titles are released every year for seasonal sports like baseball and basketball, and have a built-in returning audience that provides a level of guaranteed revenue, it’s more challenging to annualize arcade sports titles and get customers to come back year after year. Rising budgets made it harder for publishers to justify the investment required for games like NFL Blitz or NBA Street. When MLBAM was figuring out the kind of baseball video game it wanted to make, its executives kept returning to that gap in the market.

“There wasn’t another option for baseball fans to try a different type of baseball game,” says Jamie Leece, vice president of gaming and VR for MLBAM. “If you go back to the original R.B.I. [Baseball], or you go back to NHL ’94, or even some of the early FIFAs, even PGA Tour back then, it was just simple, pure fun. And regardless of whether you had a video game background or familiarity with controls, you could play a sports game, and it was an equalizer.”

back cover of R.B.I. Baseball on NES
The back cover of 1988’s R.B.I. Baseball for the NES highlights the presence of the MLB Players Association license. It also advertises “intensely realistic” action.
Namco/Tengen via Daniel Maxwell/MobyGames

A less complex baseball game would have the potential to reach a wider range of gamers and baseball fans, and it would be more conducive to development across consoles and mobile devices. What’s more, it wouldn’t run any risk of being seen as a competitor to MLB The Show, Sony’s incredibly realistic — and intimidatingly complicated — simulation franchise. MLBAM’s next step was tying the product to an old-school brand, for some name recognition and nostalgia.

The story of R.B.I. Baseball can be traced back to a Japanese baseball video game named Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium, which Namco released on the Famicom in December 1986. The U.S.-based Atari Games, a maker of arcade machines that was formerly a Namco subsidiary, brought the game to American arcades in 1987 as Atari R.B.I. Baseball. It was one of the first baseball video games with real-life MLB players, although it did not feature actual team names, logos or uniforms.

The following year, Atari Games released an NES version of the arcade game under its console gaming imprint, Tengen, called R.B.I. Baseball. It spawned a franchise with annual entries from 1990 through 1995, when Time Warner Interactive — the gaming division of Time Warner, which had acquired Atari Games in 1993 — released R.B.I. Baseball ’95 on the Sega 32X.

“We looked at it and said, ‘Hey, it’s a great franchise to revive.’ Everybody looks back [...] we all loved R.B.I. Baseball,” says Garden, adding that he was a big fan of the series himself as a high schooler in the late 1980s. “We settled on R.B.I. in our mind because we thought that that game was the best to translate to what we were trying to accomplish.”

Atari Games’ rights to the “R.B.I.” trademark expired in 1995, and the name lay dormant until 2007, when a game studio called Six Degrees Games registered a new trademark for “R.B.I. Baseball.” After deciding on that brand — knowing that it would evoke memories of the old 8-bit and 16-bit games — MLB acquired the rights from Six Degrees Games in 2013.

six members of the R.B.I. Baseball 18 production team at MLB Advanced Media
Six members of the R.B.I. Baseball 18 team at MLB Advanced Media. Standing, from left: Noah Garden, Jamie Leece, Jason Schreiber, Peter Banks; seated, from left: Alexander Reyna, Jason Teirstein.
Alex Trautwig/MLB

Rough early innings

MLBAM didn’t have to look too far to find a development team for the project that would become R.B.I. Baseball 14. Leece had joined the company in the spring of 2012, after spending nearly three years at Montreal-based independent studio Behaviour Interactive. That was the company that MLBAM hired to make the game.

The development cycle for R.B.I. 14 wasn’t necessarily rushed; Leece told Polygon prior to the game’s launch that MLBAM had known for some time that Take-Two was getting out of the business. But MLBAM and Behaviour still had to build a baseball game from scratch, and it showed in the final product, which launched in April 2014 to a poor reception. Complaints cited the skimpy selection of modes; simplistic, generic graphics and animations; gameplay that was faithful to the first titles in the series, to a fault; and the lack of online play.

MLBAM went with a different Canadian developer, HB Studios, for the next two entries in the franchise. HB has an impressive track record in the sports genre, and the company was able to work with MLBAM to take some notable steps forward in R.B.I. Baseball 15 and 16. Yet even at at the same budget price of $19.99, the games failed to excite critics.

Despite continuing unfavorable reviews, the series proved to be commercially viable. Garden says sales rose “pretty dramatically over the first few years,” and he stresses that the company wouldn’t take a hit on the game just to ensure that an MLB-licensed title continues to exist outside the PS4.

“If we didn’t think it was a business where we were going to make money, we wouldn’t do it to lose money for the rest of our lives,” says Garden. But he does acknowledge that MLBAM is still in a tough spot: If the company were to cease making R.B.I. Baseball, other parties would be unlikely to jump in to address “this middle market [where] there’s a tremendous amount of fans” whom the league wants to reach.

“We just don’t think that there’s a lot of folks out there that would necessarily want to invest the effort to do the sort of game that we’re doing,” Garden says.

R.B.I. Baseball’s first three years of sales indicated that it was worth dedicating more resources to the series, according to Leece and Garden. And it appeared that it would take a significant investment to deliver the kinds of improvements that the franchise needed.

R.B.I. Baseball 14 - Michael Wacha pitches to Dee Gordon
An image of R.B.I. Baseball 14, the first iteration of MLB Advanced Media’s revival of the franchise.
Behaviour Interactive/Majesco Entertainment

Coming inside

The development cycle for R.B.I. Baseball 17, says Leece, was “really a transition year of realizing that we kind of tapped out what we could get out of external developers.” He clarifies that that’s not a knock against Behaviour or HB, or work-for-hire studios in general. But the executives at MLBAM realized that outsourcing didn’t fit with their greater plan across video games and other media, including broadcasts of MLB games.

MLBAM likes to be at the forefront of emerging platforms and experiment with the possibilities that they present. When Apple launched the iOS App Store in the summer of 2008, MLB.com At Bat — the league’s official app — was one of the original 500 apps in the store. The company has kept up that adventurous spirit with forays into virtual reality and, soon, augmented reality. All of MLBAM’s interactive efforts, including those experiments and video games such as R.B.I. Baseball, complement each other. And bringing the R.B.I. team in-house was a way to increase the benefits of that cross-product synergy.

Leece explains that MLBAM’s internal development teams leverage each other’s work on multiple pieces of software, so that everything feeds into everything else. “We’re building systems in other products or assets in other products that are helping R.B.I., or are coming out of R.B.I. and helping other products,” he says. That kind of workflow is much tougher to achieve when you’re trying to coordinate with an outside development team, according to Leece, especially since the studio may not be inherently tied to your vision.

“We felt that building a team ourselves — having a vested interest in both the technology and the project — would raise the quality of the product, and therefore give us a better foundation going forward,” says Leece of the decision to spin up a full development team for R.B.I. Baseball within MLBAM.

The gaming unit works in the same office as groups that deal with many other aspects of the league’s online presence. That physical proximity also pays dividends — an idea that comes to mind as Peter Banks, the marketing director, continues his story of hunting down authentic MLB gear for the developers to work off of: batting gloves in addition to uniforms.

“We bring them down here, and then Zack’s in here modeling exactly how the light’s reflecting off the surface,” says Banks, highlighting a member of the R.B.I. team. He acknowledges that it’s not unusual for sports developers to have access to real-life equipment, but says, “I feel like there’s something that happens when it’s all just right here that feels really unique to me.”

“It’s 24/7 baseball around you,” Leece adds, describing the MLBAM offices, “and I think that influences the product.”

R.B.I. Baseball 18 - photo of developers at MLB Advanced Media offices with R.B.I. Baseball sign on the left
Exposed brick walls can be found throughout MLB Advanced Media’s offices in Manhattan, lending the space a startup feel.
Alex Trautwig/MLB

R.B.I. Baseball 18

MLBAM’s gaming department now consists of more than 30 people who are working primarily on R.B.I. 18, many of whom were hired within the past year, plus some external contributors to help with specialized fields.

Leece describes MLBAM’s first effort, R.B.I. 14, as something that “felt like this betwixt-and-between product,” characterizing the response as “it kind of in some ways looks like a Sega Genesis game, yet it’s on my Xbox 360.” The team was aiming for an art style that was neither cartoony nor photorealistic, and the result didn’t resonate with players.

The R.B.I. series “has suffered a little bit of an identity crisis in the past,” admits Alexander Reyna, director of experience design for gaming and VR at MLBAM. “We want to have a visual identity that feels consistent for our product.”

Improving the visuals became MLBAM’s top priority for R.B.I. 18. The team “reworked literally everything,” according to Reyna. That includes character models and the way they’re rendered — there aren’t just three body types anymore — as well as animation systems. The developers added true-to-life animations for elements like batting stances and pitching motions, so Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka now has his deliberate windup represented in the game. And players will be able to recognize their favorite baseball stars, now that MLBAM is implementing hundreds of character models using data from face scans.

That’s not to say everything is perfect now; in the games I played in pre-release versions of R.B.I. 18, I encountered some wonky animations and strange interactions. But even in the early builds I tried during multiple visits to MLBAM’s offices over the past few months, serious problems seemed much less prevalent than in previous years.

Plenty of work has gone into presentation elements, too. A more dynamic camera system zooms in on players in certain circumstances — which makes the face scans all the more important — and is smarter in providing the right perspective on fielding plays. I saw this in action on bunts and dribblers in front of home plate, which were much harder to pick up from the camera angle in R.B.I. 17.

MLBAM has also replaced the amateurish sound effects and music snippets found in the older titles with licensed music, and overhauled the menu interface with a modern tile-based design. The result is a game that immediately feels more contemporary and polished, and less like the kind of experience you’d expect from a budget title. (In fact, MLBAM is raising the price this year: R.B.I. 18 will cost $29.99 on PS4, Nintendo Switch and Xbox One — up from $19.99 — and $6.99 on Android and iOS, up from $4.99.)

The team’s other major area of focus in R.B.I. 18 is the game’s array of modes. For the first time, the series will let players partake in a Home Run Derby contest. I found it to be a quick and fun offering that’s well-suited to R.B.I.’s pick-up-and-play ethos. The mode builds off of MLBAM’s existing work over the past few years with its popular Home Run Derby mobile game. While the mode in R.B.I. 18 doesn’t support head-to-head online play, it will offer networked leaderboards.

R.B.I. Baseball 18 - photo of developers at MLB Advanced Media offices, with Alexander Reyna explaining something to other developers
“That stretch is ultimately going to pay dividends for years in the future for us,” says Alexander Reyna (center) of MLBAM’s extra effort to implement face scans in R.B.I. Baseball 18.
Alex Trautwig/MLB

The second feature that’s new in R.B.I. 18 is on the opposite end of the complexity spectrum: MLBAM is going above and beyond the fans’ most common feature request — the ability to trade players — by introducing a full franchise mode. It’s a major expansion of the existing setup, which allows for playing multiple seasons but without any persistent year-to-year tracking of statistics.

Franchise modes are commonplace in modern sports games, though less so in nonsimulation titles. Jason Schreiber, director of development for MLBAM’s gaming and VR division, notes that the team’s main design challenge was to figure out, “What does [franchise] mean for R.B.I. Baseball?”

MLBAM decided on a mode that runs for up to 10 seasons. Upon completion, it rates the player’s performance with a letter grade that’s based on their win-loss record and the number of World Series titles they won. Built into the mode is some “weighted randomness” in player progression, which Schreiber explains as a way to introduce variability in the arc of each athlete’s career. The game maps existing players onto various preset trajectories: Older athletes are more likely to retire within a few seasons, while younger stars will stick around.

The franchise mode supports trades and injuries, although the AI won’t initiate trades. There’s a fun wrinkle to roster management: Over 100 MLB “legends” from bygone days are available in the free agent pool, split into two sections — those who retired in 1990 or later (guys like Nolan Ryan and Chipper Jones) and those who retired before that year (Hall of Famers such as Ted Williams and Phil Rizzuto).

From what I’ve seen, R.B.I. 18’s franchise mode is a basic, no-frills setup, which seems to be a good fit for this kind of game. But the mode does contain a key option that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other sports title: It allows users to import roster updates after they’ve started playing.

Say your favorite team calls up a prospect halfway through the 2018 season, and MLBAM adds him to R.B.I. 18 in a subsequent downloadable roster. Even if you started a franchise in March, with the opening day rosters, the game will let you import the latest file to get your playthrough up to date. You’ll have two choices: overwriting the rosters entirely, or adding new players only. Either way, you won’t lose any progress or accumulated statistics. This is a great option to keep the rosters fresh, since the franchise mode doesn’t include any minor leaguers; as older ballplayers retire, it generates fictional ones to replace them.

“We wanted to still keep it simple, and not have stuff like managing your minor league rosters,” says Jason Teirstein, a producer at MLBAM. “We figured that this was kind of a nice balance — this gives you a deeper franchise experience, without a lot of that managing the overhead.”

Along with minor league players, money is nowhere to be found in R.B.I. 18’s franchise mode; users won’t have to worry about negotiating contracts or setting ticket prices. Schreiber says that “the core for R.B.I. Baseball is maintaining a streamlined, fun experience,” although he notes that MLBAM can always go deeper in future years if fans ask for increased complexity.

photo of woman working on R.B.I. Baseball 18 at MLB Advanced Media offices
Plenty of R.B.I. Baseball 18 developers have adorned their desks with baseball paraphernalia. Of course, that’s not an unusual sight throughout MLB Advanced Media’s offices.
Alex Trautwig/MLB

Rounding the bases

R.B.I. 18 will be released in March, before the 2018 season’s opening day, which means that at this point in January, the development team has about six weeks left to finish polishing the game before it must be ready to get printed on discs and cartridges.

The final product is taking shape, which makes this the perfect point for Leece to take a step back. He says that around this time every year, he examines the previous year’s R.B.I. game and the one that will soon be released, comparing them directly to see how far things have come.

“This time, it’s a remarkable achievement year over year in looking at it,” Leece says. “And it’s a real proud moment, because we’ve worked on this together as a team here internally.”

Leece is beaming, and he’s confident that the leap that R.B.I. Baseball is taking would’ve been impossible if MLBAM hadn’t brought development in-house. “There’s no way we could’ve done this with an external team,” he says, expressing excitement that the developers — and the game — will benefit even more next year from having a year of experience under their belts.

There’s a diverse mix of experience levels, with old hands who have seen the game evolve over the years and can offer perspective to the newer hires. Garden has been with MLBAM since its inception in 2001; Leece was his first hire when the company decided to get into video games. Banks and Schreiber joined the team less than two years ago. Reyna was the third employee in the gaming department, and Teirstein has also been around for every iteration of the franchise under MLBAM. Of course, the bulk of the team came on within the past year, as the company staffed up for R.B.I. 18.

“We certainly invested more in this version of R.B.I. than any version prior to this,” says Leece. “But at the same point in time, we know as a league the kind of product that we want to deliver to our fans, so we’re investing more for that.”