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'MLB 2002': Capturing the Motion, Emotion of America's Favorite Pastime

March 15, 2001|SCOTT STEINBERG | steinbergs@hotmail.com

Most folks take sports simulations for granted. Sure, it's great fun racking up triple-digit free-throw scores or touchdown dancing on a buddy's keister while sitting on the couch. But just how many people realize how much work goes into the making of a detailed re-creation of one of America's favorite pastimes? Chris Cutliff, 989 Sports senior producer, explains how he tries to keep baseball simulation "MLB 2002" batting 1.000 year after year.

Q: What kind of techniques are used to make this type of game authentic?

A: Most notably, we motion-capture ballplayers to add to the title's realism. Animations are key. You want them to look realistic, feel realistic. We record athletes' movements so that people who are familiar with their style will recognize it in the game.

Q: How do you keep the quality up on such short turnarounds?

A: We start off by updating the game's database, since rosters are constantly changing. We also add new features and new animations since PlayStation 2 is capable of holding a lot more content. And then there's the whole issue of improved visual technology.

But we're always rushed for time. It's a constant challenge to ship products on time. It's easily an 11- to 12-month process for sports games since we want them out at the beginning of the season. Features obviously wind up getting cut in the end, I'm sad to say.

Q: So what kind of neat stuff do gamers miss out on?

A: Specific animations just don't make it into the game. You don't just dump them in. Artificial intelligence has to be built in for some sequences, so more detailed animations don't get added, and you wind up waiting until next year's edition for these perks. We have a priority list of what we want to include, and some of the lower ones don't make the cut and get pushed until the next game.

Q: The key to a great baseball simulation is?

A: Game play is a big issue with 989 Sports. We concentrate a lot on this topic, spend a lot of time tweaking the product, and creating a realistic sim is what we always try to achieve.

Q: Must you eat, sleep and breathe baseball during the development process?

A: Yeah, pretty much. The whole team is here hours upon hours each day trying to get this thing done.

Q: Does this involve trips to the ballpark?

A: Of course. Generally, throughout the development cycle, we send photographers out to take pictures of each stadium that'll be re-created in the game. We also go to the ballparks to grab sound effects and set up microphones around the batting cages. Audio recording sessions with announcers take place too, such as with Vin Scully and Dave Campbell. The assistant producer also checks out the stadiums.

Q: How much input do actual players and coaches have on the project?

A: We bring in several coaches as consultants. Last year we had Davy Johnson from the Dodgers come in and give us some insight from a coach's standpoint. Players come in as well. They contribute their trademark moves and give us their opinion. And there's a lot of baseball knowledge possessed by the team, one of whom has even played in the minor leagues. Overall, these people add a lot of value to the process.

Q: What are some features you'd like to see implemented on next-generation baseball titles?

A: I'd like to see characters whose eyes blink, greater-quality facial animations, players interacting with other players and umpires. More animations, better graphics and separate objects like helmets flying through the air or bats breaking, fingers moving, etc.

Q: Sports fans tend to stick with one game franchise. How do you persuade nonbelievers to convert?

A: By creating a realistic, fun-playing game that the user can relate to. We try to keep it simple enough that beginners can pick it up and play immediately, but also have enough depth in the game that a more experienced player will be challenged.

Q: Stats--important or for the anal-retentive birds?

A: Very important. People want their games to be really accurate and statistics precisely tracked. We keep a running list of players' stats from the previous year with the help of Stats Inc., and their attributes are based on recent performance. A huge database catalogs this information for us.

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Scott Steinberg is a freelance writer specializing in video games.

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