By Jon Lewin
In part one of my look at the simulation of an American pastime in MLB 2K11, we examined the broad strokes of creating a baseball simulation -- specifically the players and the stats. Now we turn our attention to the fine details that make the world come alive.
Depicting the Game’s Details The developers at 2K Sports, which was behind MLB 2K11, knew they needed to capture all the little movements and atmospheric details to make MLB 2K11 really come to life.
“If a home run is completely crushed, or if a home run is both clutch and obvious, batters will pause to watch the ball,” says game designer Sean Bailey. “Many batters in our game also have signature pauses when hitting an obvious bomb that are true to their real-life counterparts.” For example, “Dan Uggla waves the bat in a certain way when he’s standing at the plate,” says Bailey, referring to the Braves’ power-hitting second baseman.
The game developers also used motion capture to show pitchers pacing around on the mound when things are going poorly. And when a pitcher gets out of a jam with a strikeout, Bailey says that “some pitchers will even throw in a fist pump or acknowledge the catcher.”
Pitchers’ reactions affect not just the visual simulation, but also the pitchers’ performances. Each pitcher has a composure rating, with veteran pitchers having more composure than younger ones. But all pitchers lose composure when they put men on base. When a pitcher loses composure, the game developers wanted the gamer to feel that loss. Bailey says that MLB 2K11 will “mentally mess with the gamer,” making it harder to aim the ball by literally removing the strike zone.
Staying True to the Players Even when the pitcher keeps his cool, a gamer must still contend with that pitcher’s real-life tendencies. “On the mound, you can’t dominate because you are good with the stick,” says Bailey. If the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano -- who typically walks a lot of batters -- is pitching, “the ball will drift, no matter how twitchy a gamer you are.”
On the other hand, with a hot batter, says Bailey, the gamer hardly has to swing for the fences; just flick the bat and the ball goes flying. The MLB Today mode, updated daily, incorporates real-life hitting streaks and slumps into the game. An unheralded player, like the Tampa Bay Rays’ Sam Fuld, got off to a great start in 2011, so his updated version reflected his hot streak. When the real-life Fuld cooled off, the balls stopped flying off the bat of his MLB 2K11 counterpart as well.
For fielders, MLB 2K11 defines different fielding types, taking into account range and glove. When a batter hits a pop fly, a shadow appears, revealing the area in which the ball will land. Then a yellow circle appears, indicating the actual landing spot of the ball.
For a great fielder like Seattle Mariners’ outfielder, Ichiro Suzuki, the initial shadow will be small and the yellow circle will show up quickly, making it easier for the gamer to get to the ball in time. But for an outfielder with poor range, such as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Lance Berkman, the shadow will be huge and the yellow circle will show up very late, making catching the ball more of a challenge.
If the Inside Edge scouting reports indicate that a team will shift its fielders for a specific hitter, MLB 2K11 will automatically shift the fielders accordingly.
As for the players’ body types, “the big guys are bigger than last year,” says Bailey. “A little guy like Oakland Athletics’ outfielder, Coco Crisp, is clearly smaller than a large player, like Milwaukee Brewers’ first baseman, Prince Fielder.”
Atmosphere Matters When simulating the ballparks where major league baseball teams play, the first step is to match the dimensions exactly -- namely, how far away the fences are from home plate. The next step is to match the background of what is seen beyond those fences. For instance, San Francisco’s AT&T Park has a giant soda bottle just beyond the left-centerfield fence, which also appears in MLB 2K11. (In real life, the bottle is clearly a Coca-Cola bottle, but in the game, the bottle is labeled “Cola Pop.”)
The game also takes into account the time of day, particularly for late afternoon games, when the setting sun will affect batters’ and fielders’ ability to see the ball. According to Bailey, the shadows play the strongest role in Chicago’s Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. The time of day comes into play even when a park has a retractable dome, like Milwaukee’s Miller Park. When the dome is up during a day game, the sun plays a role by shining through the glass windows.
Getting the Audio Right As critical as the motion capture and other visuals are to the overall game, the simulation would not be complete without accurate sounds. “The speed of the ball has a lot to do with the audio that is triggered on a catch,” says Bailey. Similarly, the sound of a ball popping into the catcher’s mitt is based on the pitch’s velocity.
For the gamer, sound offers the most realistic part of the simulation of hitting a baseball. “Perfectly timing a power swing with Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder, Jose Bautista; Cardinals’ first baseman, Albert Pujols; or Chicago White Sox designated hitter, Adam Dunn; is probably the best way to hear the loudest crack of the ball off the bat,” says Bailey. “On the other hand, poorly timing a defensive swing is the best way to hear the quieter foul tips. The better your swing timing, the harder the ball will be hit. This drives the sound effects of the ball off the bat.”
Other sounds include umpire calls and crowd cheers. “As in real life, the score, inning and situation in MLB 2K11 will dictate the intensity and volume of the crowd,” Bailey says.
For sports fans viewing a game on a screen, the ultimate sound to enhance the simulation is to have announcers describe the action. Real-life announcers Gary Thorne, Steve Phillips and John Kruk taped thousands of commentary lines for MLB 2K11. Each line of dialogue is automatically triggered by a specific game event. As the game action unfolds, the ongoing commentary in real time creates the effect of an actual broadcast. So if the gamer gives up too many runs or can’t get to a routine fly ball, he or she will hear it from the crowd -- and the announcers.
Image Credit: http://2ksports.com/screens/new/mlb2k11
Jon Lewin's baseball writing has appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, The Huffington Post and Yahoo! Sports, among many other publications. He is the fantasy baseball columnist for The Faster Times and writes for the Met-Yankee fan blog Subway Squawkers. Lewin has also written about Star Trek for Wizard World Digital Magazine.