UPDATE: Our review of Out of the Park Baseball 16 is available here.
My parents got me copies of “NBA Live 99” and “Madden 99” to go with my first Playstation, and sports video games have been known to take up the bulk of my time-wasting endeavors. The idea of shooting virtual zombies or jacking cars has never been very appealing to me, but after a while, even running into the little end zone on the TV becomes more of a procedure than a challenge. If you play a video game long enough, you can master it, even if you have my 40th-percentile reflexes and my easily frayed nerves. For me, the most satisfying gaming moments come when you lose your ability to turn a team into a one-man wrecking crew by pressing a few buttons. Life is generally more interesting when doubt and luck are part of the equation. This is why I’ve always preferred to play the roles of coach and GM for my franchises. I’ve developed far too many cases of eye strain staring at trade screens, swapping players on and off the block in order to get the maximum possible value out of the AI in our computerized negotiations. I’ve built dynasties by combing through the depths of the free agent pool, hoping to find that 56-rated, undrafted point guard who would blossom into the next Stockton in his computer-simulated games. It’s fun to take a team years into the future, and see if your master plan turns out to be brilliant or buffoonish.
The “Madden” and “2K Sports” franchises can provide some fun for the wannabe GM, but after a while, patterns emerge, statistics turn bizarre, and the whole thing just doesn’t feel real enough. As recent sports games have sought to make the most of the ever-increasing graphical and gameplay capabilities of their consoles, front office features have suffered. Even titles specifically designed for nerdy sports gamers, like the disastrous duo of “NFL Head Coach” offerings by EA Sports, are more about navigating the eccentricities of the game’s code than managing a sports franchise in a realistic way. I nearly lost hope that I’d ever be able to experience the life of a GM from the comforts of my own bedroom, but sometime in 2008 I stumbled upon a game called “Out of the Park Baseball 9,” a game for PC, Mac, and Linux that recalled the immersive experience the “MVP Baseball” franchise tried but failed to create when it added Minor League teams to its 2004 edition. I was pessimistic, to say the least. I had already walked away from “Season Ticket Baseball” and “Baseball Mogul” a dissatisfied customer, and the fact that the “OOTP” series was created by German developers didn’t exactly boost my confidence. But the reviews were good, and the screenshots made me ooh and ah, so I couldn’t say nein.
Six years later, I’ve become an avid (and sometimes obsessive) user of OOTPs 9 through 14 (which I refer to affectionately as “Nerd Baseball”), and I’ve been lucky enough to obtain an advance copy of “OOTP 15,” which will be released April 21. Short of building you a shiny new office with big glass windows overlooking a baseball diamond, the OOTP franchise does everything to make you feel like a real GM. It sounds like a giant cliche, but the game literally puts the entire baseball world at your fingertips. You can take the reins of your favorite 2014 ball club, but that’s not a very creative use of your options. Do you want to start in the 1998 offseason and build the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from absolute scratch? Start a historical game and go for it. Do you want to start a 64-team league in Senegal and play a 300-game season? You can base your league in any country you want. Do you want to take over the Astros, sign Darren Oliver to a $20 million deal, convert him to shortstop, and put him in the middle of your lineup? I wouldn’t recommend it, but you’re welcome to give it a try (and since you’re Houston, there’s little harm in taking the risk).
As much as I’d love to explore the untapped baseball potential of Albania, I tend to stick to MLB scenarios. When I take over an MLB team, I get access to its full 40-man roster, full minor-league system filled with real players (no computer-generated players with incongruous names like “Ahmad Greenberg” here), and I can also refer to the complete histories and statistics of everyone who has ever played in the MLB. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t allow you to coax players out of retirement; it would be a great way to prove my theory that Sandy Koufax still has it. I also have to contend with waiver rules, minor league options, no-trade clauses, rehab assignments, and player personalities. Players get mad if they aren’t given the playing time they feel they deserve (or that I promised them.) I have control over the coaching staffs of my entire organization (a manager, hitting coach, pitching coach, and trainer for each team). All kinds of off-the-field incidents take place, ranging from the ordinary to the crazy, like owners suddenly dying and getting replaced by their sons, or players finding ways to injure themselves that involve coyotes or lawnmowers. None of these events repeat themselves too often, so they’re fresh every time.
If that all sounds overwhelming, one of the great features of OOTP is that it allows the user to customize the desired level of detail in the experience. Managing the lineups and pitching rotations for six different Minor League affiliates can grow tedious, but I can delegate these responsibilities to my Minor League managers with the press of a button. The option for a complete team of scouts, which I’ve always bypassed, is turned off in the defaults for this year’s version.
Another interesting feature that is new this year is the incorporation of real international leagues and players into the game. This allows players in your universe to bounce back and forth between the MLB, Japan, Korea, and several prominent Latin American leagues. As Asian influence in the big leagues continues to increase, this is a fun feature that allows for even greater possibilities when targeting and scouting players.
Unlike a lot of console sports games, OOTP allows you to simulate games without just clicking one button and hoping for the best. The visual interface is austere, but “playing” a game allows the user all of the options that a manager has in his arsenal. You can pitch around, hold runners on, guard the lines, send the runner, and so much more. You can tell the runner whether to go from first to home on a double or stop at third. You can even visit the mound to give your reliever more time in the bullpen. Sure, the game doesn’t recreate the thrill of a perfectly timed home run swing, but there are plenty of white-knuckle moments when the commentator (whose words are seen but not heard) slowly reveals the outcome of each at-bat. Be prepared for loads of second-guessed decisions (“he struck out; why didn’t I try the squeeze play?!?”) and cursed-out players (“Dunn, how the HELL can you not tag up on a ball to deep right?!?”) Part of the beauty of OOTP is that there are no difficulty levels. When you come from behind to score the winning run, you know you really earned it, and that it wasn’t a result of the game tipping the odds in your favor.
Games generally take about 15 to 30 minutes to simulate depending on the number of baserunners. Except in the case of absolute blowouts, they fly by. On days when my OOTP addiction is especially intense, I’ve been known to plow through a good 15 games at once, but trekking through a 162-game season can be difficult. This is why the game allows you to tinker with every aspect of your in-game strategy, so that the AI can simulate some (or all) games for you without abandoning your managerial style. You can also tailor these strategic settings to individual players, so that even if your offense is predicated on steals, Todd Frazier won’t be taking off for third as often as Billy Hamilton.
One of the most rewarding aspects of OOTP is what it delivers after the games have been played. Player profiles are a sabermetrician’s dream, full of WHIPs and BABIPs and Catcher ERAs, with more splits than you could possibly imagine (want to know how your shortstop did while batting 5th in night games? No problem!) There’s even the option of turning off player attributes entirely and basing decisions solely on stats. I haven’t been brave enough to run a team this way, but OOTP certainly provides more than enough information to pull it off.
One talked-about feature the game added this year is 3D imaging, which the developers admit is still a work-in-progress in the current version. The game has a 3D view of the playing field, which I found odd and disorienting compared to the 2D one pictured earlier. But, as with almost any feature in the game, it can be turned off, and the idea does hold promise for the future. OOTP and its developers are fully interactive and responsive; they regularly release free updates to the game based on user feedback and trial simulations. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the 3D feature improve markedly over the course of this year, thanks to feedback from the game’s loyal users. These users also create their own improvements to the game; player pictures don’t come with the default version, but they can be imported quickly and free of charge through the simple process of downloading modifications.
“OOTP 15” doesn’t look or feel much different than previous versions, but it doesn’t need to. Updated rosters and subtle but significant tweaks in player progression, contract negotiation, and nearly every other facet of the game make it well worth the $39.99 price. If OOTP wasn’t great enough, Out of the Park Developments has announced that the NFL-based “Beyond the Sideline Football” will come out next year, at which point I will cease to be a functioning member of society. But at least I’ll be the first GM in history to win a World Series and a Super Bowl.