We sat down with Rob Hawkey, Game Director at Deep Fried to discuss the unusual baseball title, and he had a lot to tell us about what went into the design and creation of MLB 2K8 Fantasy All-Stars. Slide past the break for all the details.
So, let's just get this out of the way: who's the Aeon Flux fan? Or rather, what can you tell us about the decisions behind Fantasy All-Star's unusual art style?
We wanted to have visual variety and wackiness in our game. Most sport games are made based on realistic stadiums, but for us the style came along with the wacky and cartoony approach we decided on. Having a table top or stomach for a stadium creates an unusual atmosphere in itself. Since we wanted the look to be unique and different for every stadium we had different artists work on different stadiums, so that each artist could bring his/her unique approach to each stadium. With the characters we did a bit of cel-shading so that they stand out from the backgrounds. Once again we wanted them to be fun in all aspects, fun shapes, a bit of classic and humorous animation and some fun silly props to add to the overall fantasy and wacky visual approach.
Is there a feeling that a realistic sports game wouldn't be successful on the DS? Or is it more that the audience of the DS ALLOWS you to experiment more?
When we first started talking with Take 2 about a baseball game on the DS we emphasized our opinion that a simulation focused sports game would not be as successful as a sports game that focused on a "fun first" mentality. We feel that the gameplay in our games should not suffer the limitations of realism. When you look at the most successful titles on the DS they tend to be titles that have experimented with new ways of engaging the user, rather than titles that rely solely on the strength of a license or established form of gameplay. For MLB 2K8 Fantasy All-Stars we knew that we needed to make use of the stylus and touchpad to implement pitching and batting in a new way that would evoke the curiosity of the average DS player. We believe that DS owners are more interested in these new mechanics than just seeing the latest port of their favorite brand from other consoles. We were fortunate enough to be given the freedom to experiment and take our ideas as far as we wanted not only by our publisher but also by the MLB association and MLBPA.
Sports is one of the most realistically-depicted genres, as sports games often aim to represent real people in real places. Do you feel that there are risks associated with breaking from convention with this title?
Yes and no. We have already seen the reaction of traditional baseball game fans on forums when they have seen only screenshots of our game with no description of our gameplay mechanics, and some of those reactions have been negative. However, looking at the review scores and sales for other simulation sports games on the DS we knew that by not just porting the other console versions we have the chance to take advantage of the ability of the DS to represent new ways of gaming that appeal to the mass market, rather than a narrow section of hardcore sports fans. Like it or not, this is the direction that games are moving, and we believe that even the hardcore fans will join in once they see the fun they are missing out on. This doesn't mean we have to fully abandon the facets of realism that appeal to hardcore sports fans. We see the value of incorporating real players and their real stats in the game, as well as using all of the MLB teams and trying to get the player's uniforms to look like the actual team's uniform. We have just attempted to represent these players and teams in a new way that will appeal to all kinds of gamers, including hard core gamers.
What are the specific challenges you face in developing a sports game for a handheld (and for the DS in particular), and what is the best part of developing for the DS? Does it open up any unique features that wouldn't be possible on another system?
For us the biggest challenge was constantly ensuring that we were making a fun game. We spent many days tuning and playing the game to make sure as best we could that the game was accessible to everyone, yet also had enough shelf life to have value for serious gamers. We tried to stick with the "easy to learn, difficult to master" mantra that came out of a game designer's speech at a GDC or E3 a while back This was difficult for us, as we were also inventing a new interface to pitching and batting that nobody has done before. So we didn't have any sort of metrics to compare our gameplay to.
Luckily for us we have a team of highly experienced programmers and artists that easily handled the technical limitations of the DS, yet still produced what we feel is a great looking game. Focusing our art and style in a direction that would look great on the DS allowed us to fully concentrate on the game and using the touchpad to do baseball in a new and fun way. This was another factor in our decision to stray away from the standard simulation versions of sports games on the DS; it's very difficult to get a player or stadium looking exactly like real life when you only have 4MB of RAM and a small screen.
How important is the MLB license to a great baseball game?
Very important. If you want to create a game that will appeal to a broad market, as well as to baseball fans you need to work alongside the people that know these fans best. Having the MLB license is your ticket in the door, but it's still important to make a game that stands on its own otherwise you lose the rest of your potential market. The license can help people feel confident in buying our game, but in the end it's our job to make a great game they'll be happy they purchased.
Being that this is such an unusual baseball game, does it carry any unusual influences? Is the gameplay informed by something outside of the genre?
Our team is a collection of Nintendo-philes, so we're heavily influenced by all things Nintendo. Mario [Superstars] Baseball for the Gamecube, and Mario Basketball [ed: Mario Hoops 3-on-3] for the DS obviously weighed heavily in our opinions as heights of fun we strived to surpass. Really though, the influences that form the look and gameplay elements of our title really come from the weird and wacky people we have working here at Deep Fried. Most of us are children of the 80s that have permanent grooves in our thumbs from NES d-pads. The classic arcade and innards stadiums are just mirrors of our weirdness.
Tell us about the inspiration for the wacky power-ups like "chicken ball."
We have three categories of power-ups: fielding, batting and pitching. The idea for power-ups in general is to greatly increase (but not guarantee) your chances for success on a single play. So while fielding, for example, if your opponent has just nailed a powerful hit with bases loaded that is undoubtedly going to be a grand slam, you can fire off your BrickWall™ power-up to shoot up a brick wall that stops the ball in its tracks and prevents the home run. Or, if your bases are loaded and you're pitching and just need one more strike to end the inning you can spend your power-up meter on the ghost ball which will invisibly fly over the plate. Let's see your opponent try to hit that! Things get really wacky for batting. For example if you want to guarantee you've got enough time to get a man on second home to tie the game you can activate the chicken ball power-up. When you hit the ball into the outfield and the fielder goes to pick it up, the ball will run away from him like a crazy chicken giving you plenty of time to run home!
What can you tell us about the fields and settings? It looks like you guys had a lot of fun designing the environments.
The theme for this game was a tour of the Americas. So our stadiums reflect a lot of the North and South American iconic places, for example: Alcatraz with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, an Aztec temple, and the Arctic North. We also wanted too throw in just crazy, wacky stadiums that just appealed to us as fun places to play baseball, like on a picnic table, or inside someone's stomach. We had our concept artists generate a bunch of crazy ideas and picked our favorites. Hopefully the people that buy our game think they're as fun as we do.
Alright, one last question, because my mom will kill me if I don't ask -- is Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals included in cartoony form? If so, hey, I know of at least one sale!
One of the great things about having the official MLB license for our title means being able to include real players that baseball fans know and love. In MLB Fantasy All-Stars, we have included the actual starting lineups from all 30 Major League Baseball clubs, including Pujols.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Rob!
Glad to help!