Out of the Park Baseball 2007 Review (PC)
“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” – Bill Gates
Having spent the better part of the last decade as an observer and active participant in the sports gaming community, I’ve come to expect certain things from the developer/gamer relationship. Being knowledgeable of the business side of the industry, yet at the same time being a consumer at heart, I understand that there is a delicate balance that is sought in multiple areas of game development. Do we try to please the silent majority or the vocal minority? Can we please them both at the same time? How "sim" can we be and retain our pick-up-and-play audience? How over the top can we make it and still get the hardcore group to buy in?
While questions like these and the thousands of possible responses to each are being volleyed around in boardrooms from Redmond to Orlando and on message boards across the unlimited depths of cyberspace, it’s near impossible to find the right answer. However, I found a company that I teaching a clinic on customer service right now, and developers around the world should be listening.
Sports Interactive is a small London-based company development house that is owned by Sega. Since 2005, they have also owned the rights to a text-based baseball simulation known as Out of the Park, or OOTP to most in gaming circles. OOTP is the brainchild of programmer Markus Heinsohn, who released his first version back in 1999. The series evolved over the years and accumulated legions of die-hard fans for its realistic simulation engine, depth, and sheer replay-ability. However, success hasn’t always been easy. In May 2006, Heinsohn and his team at SI released a much-anticipated version of the game, Out of the Park 2006, and were greeted with resoundingly mixed reviews. For the first time in the series history, the loyal fans who had been so dedicated to the franchise were not happy.
Though many in the media, including Operation Sports, enjoyed OOTP 2006 and the changes that had been made from previous versions, OOTP loyalists were not pleased. There were screams of questionable AI, numerous bugs, and an ultra-slow simulation engine causing many fans that had helped build a huge community of online leagues and in-depth mods, to scrap OOTP 2006 and continue to play on older versions of the series.
With a backlash coming from the people that had helped to build the franchise and OOTP’s best source of advertising, the team at Sports Interactive did what more developers need to do – they asked for help. Instead of simply trying to appease the masses by cramming another version down their collective throat, they stopped, they listened, and they extended an invitation to their staunch supporters and most vocal critics to help them make Out of the Park 2007 the best effort yet.
Dozens and dozens of OOTP veterans spent months testing every aspect of the game, breaking what they could, praising what deserved it, and reporting it all back to the folks at SI. Adjustments were made and a new build was released to be run through the ringer again. Even as development neared its final days, 100 more consumers were invited to spend five days with an early version of the game and report back on all things good and bad. There were literally hundreds of people working together to produce a great final product. The result - the best version of OOTP to date.
If you’re not familiar with the OOTP series, Out of the Park is perhaps one of the most open-ended sports games ever created. When I say open-ended, I mean to say that there is really no right or wrong way to play this game. At its core, it is a baseball simulation. But, what you want to do with it is completely up to you.
For the single player, the options are beyond belief and actually a little bit intimidating when you are first introduced to the series. You have the ability to create a baseball universe that is uniquely your own and do with it what you please. If you want a simple 20-team league with no minors, you can do it. If you want a full league setup with three levels of minors, rookie ball, a Colombian winter league and both college and high school feeder leagues playing simultaneously to feed your draft with talent – you can do that too. That’s what makes this game so remarkable - it can be what you want it to be.
If you’re more of an old-timer, OOTP 2007 also lets you start your league as far back as 1901 and, with a few clicks in the league setup wizard, you can tell the game to adjust everything from finances to strategies to statistics based on the period in which you’re playing in. And as the years go by, the league will adjust accordingly.
Just to give you an example of the capabilities, I set up a fictional league of 20 teams a few weeks back. In my new North American Baseball Counsel (NABC), we had ten teams from the United States (five from each coast) comprising the US League and five teams from both Canada and Mexico making up the MexCan League. In a few short minutes, I had the entire league setup and ready to begin play in my chosen year – 1960.
When I started the action, everything reflected the time I was playing in. Superstar players were making less than $100,000 per season. The home-run king managed to muscle a mere 27 balls over the fence. The average ticket price was less than $3.00. It was 1960.
I began to sim the league forward stopping to check in on the action every 10 years. By 1990, salaries were well up into the millions, borderline All-Stars were hitting 25-30 longballs in a good year, the situational reliever was starting to be used more, and average ticket prices were not over $12.00 in nearly every market.
I continued to sim through 2007 before finally stopping to assess the history of my league. I’ve literally spent hours combing through the careers of fictional players that are just numbers on a page. Following franchises through brief dynasties in the late 70’s. Browsing through the Hall of Fame and learning about the accomplishments of the players that were enshrined. Hours and hours of entertainment – and I hadn’t even really “played” the game.
While OOTP 2007 is a simulation, you can actually play the games. No, not like MVP or the MLB 2K series, but you can actually manage teams on multiple different levels instead of simply simming a universe. You may want to create a manager and take him through an entire career. You’ll field job offers, usually in the lowest farm system, and then take control of that team as a manager, with no GM controls. You’re simply setting lineups and staffs to get the most out of the talent that has been provided to you. This creates the unique challenge of playing the hand that is dealt. If you have a young shortstop that is tearing it up for you on your Single-A team, you may suddenly get a message from the GM telling you that he has moved that player up to Double-A. Now you’re forced to adjust on the fly. Your owner will set expectations for you that you are expected to meet. Don’t make them, and you may find yourself in the job market again.
Eventually, if you do make it to the big show, you become a general manager of an entire franchise and now control your team in nearly every way. Your owner still sets expectations and your yearly budget, but you are in charge of the staff, the players, and the product on the field at every level. You do have the option of letting the AI handle certain functions for you. Again, OOTP 2007 can be the game that you want it to be.
OOTP 2007, which is only available from Sports Interactive’s website and can not be found in stores, does not have an MLB license and therefore does not give you any real-world teams or players to use. Wait, before you stop reading, all that means is that just because SI doesn’t give them to you doesn’t mean you can’t use them in OOTP 2007. That’s the beauty of the game; with the deep and passionate modding community;,you can make the game whatever you want it to be. Within a week of release, full logo and uniform files were available for all Major League teams as well as most of the upper minors.
Wait! Uniform files? Why do we need uniform files in a text-based game?
I’m glad you asked. One of the new additions to the series is a groundbreaking feature in OOTP 2007 called FaceGen. FaceGen puts a face with the name – so to speak. When your league has this feature enabled (it is optional and may slow down some older rigs), virtual versions of the players, managers and everyone else in the league are generated complete with full uniform of your design. If your player is not happy with his playing time, not only is that reflected in the morale system, but you will literally see it in his face. And, even more impressive, your 20-year old 180 pound rookie hayseed will not look that same when he’s a 37-year old grizzled vet who is carrying an extra 45 pounds. The FaceGen system actually uses age and BMI in generating the appearance. A small addition, but one that adds a ton of life and realism to the game. If I could make one suggestion for a future version, certain characters that would not wear a uniform like a team’s scout, doctor or General Manager, should be able to have on a suit. Even better if the suits fit the year.
While I am certainly having a blast with the single-player options available, where I think I am having the most fun with OOTP 2007 is in the online leagues that I am currently involved. Like the single-player action, all of the same great features are available, but instead of playing against the AI, you are competing against real owners. In most leagues, you make all of your adjustments to your team and strategy in your version of the game and upload them to a league commissioner on specific days of the week. The Commish imports all of the Owner’s files into his game and runs a predetermined number of days in simulation mode. The results are posted with a new sim file that is then downloaded by each Owner to prepare for the next sim. Online league commissioners, one of the most thankless gigs out there, are raving about the new interface in OOTP 2007 that makes running a great league even easier. If you like this game, I can’t recommend it enough to get involved with an online league.
Do the big boys like EA Sports and 2K have the ability to do what the team at Sports Interactive does? Yes and no. The people at SI certainly have more freedom to adjust to the wants, needs and complaints of their core-users. Not being bound to the same contracts and expectations of MLB or the NFL like the large development houses are give them more of a blank sheet of paper to start with. No one is watching over their shoulders to tell them what they can’t do. Steer clear of copyright infringements and they are golden. This leaves them wide-open to work hand-in-hand with the modding community. which only helps them enhance their product once it hits the market. That’s not to say that the major players don’t work with their community. Every year, EA's NCAA Football drops with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge and a sheepish grin when they try to tell us that RB #5 on the USC roster is not necessarily Reggie Bush. Then follow it up with a “well, I suppose someone could go in and modify all the names if they wanted to.” That’s a tough code to crack indeed.
What every developer does have the ability to do is to listen to the people who spend their disposable income on their product. They should be reading all of the reviews. They should be surfing the forums. They should be checking the blogs. Don’t just tell me you are, show me you are. Heinsohn and the entire team at Sports Interactive showed their community that they are listening with the release of OOTP 2007. No matter what was being said and at what volume it was being shouted, they were listening. And they still are.
In the world of sports gaming where, more often than not, you are selling a franchise, not just a single title, it’s imperative that you remember that customer service doesn’t end when the sale is final. I think sometimes the big boys need to remember that just because you already have my $60, don’t lose sight of the $60, $120 or $600 that my word of mouth can generate for you down the road when I am telling a friend, who tells a friend. OOTP 2007 proves that Sports Interactive gets that. And because of it, they’ll get my money again next time. That’s as American as baseball itself.
I could write another thousand words about all the things that Out of the Park 2007 is and can be. The depth is unlike anything that most sports gamers will ever experience. There are so many different ways to play and enjoy this game, it is almost as if there are five or six different games all rolled into one. With the advances that were made for this year’s release, I can confidently say that, not only is this the best version of OOTP to date, this is the best baseball game I’ve ever played.