Monday, April 19, 2010

OOTP: The Art of Believable Possibility

Last Tuesday I downloaded the latest version of Out of the Park Baseball and started playing it. I posted last summer (see July 13, 2009) about how I buy the new version of OOTP every baseball season. Then I can simulate managing any baseball club from any season in baseball history…or play out the current season complete with actual minor league rosters and accurate players on the disabled list on opening day of 2010.

OOTP allows you to control a baseball team at any level. You can be the General Manager and make trades, work the financials, sign players - or you can be the Head Coach and manage each player position, manage games, set the batting orders, arrange your pitching rotation and bullpen. You can also be both GM and Coach. You can even manage a team in the minor leagues if you want.

Once into a season, OOTP spits out literally hundreds of unique news stories covering the action throughout the league. This helps create the feeling that you are part of a "real" baseball season. Once started, a season evolves (as you are managing a team) by the rules of a fairly realistic text-based computer model. Your players are assigned ratings for everything from level of greed to injury proneness to hitting left-right splits, bunting ability, arm strength, etc. Pitchers are rated for their stuff, movement, and control in addition to dozens of other ratings.

The game engine then simulates a realistically random baseball universe. It becomes almost a role-playing game. You can fully employ your knowledge of baseball on a variety of levels and control decisions in a simulation that feels like an actual baseball game.

Because it is ratings-based rather than statistically-based, the randomization can slowly change baseball history. Although each historic player can be imported into the game with very accurate ratings for their actual career stats, within the OOTP game engine there are so many different kinds of ratings and so many different in-game randomizations (though all perfectly within the realm of possibility – an injury here, a bad outing there, a strong hitting streak, etc.) can affect the ratings.

In other words, OOTP is not tied to stats. It is not about replicating the stats of all the players over a given season. Although, even this is an option by selecting a checkbox that forces the game to recalculate all player ratings based on each season's stats rather than through the OOTP development model. I don't play with that option. I prefer to start with historic stats and then allow the random nature of the game to unfold. This allows the game to play out much less predictably than other stat-based games like, say, Diamond Mind or APBA Baseball.

The ratings for each player start changing the moment you begin simulating in OOTP. Odds are they will stay within reason around the historic abilities of the actual ratings (Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds both have extraordinarily high potential power ratings, Sandy Koufax and Tom Glavine have really great movement potential, for example). But, if an injury occurs, it affects the ratings negatively based on the nature of the injury (yes, the game model is intelligent enough to distinguish that an arm injury will harm a pitcher more than a pulled hamstring, for example). If a pitcher wins a bunch of games in a row, pitching deep into games, then that pitcher’s stamina rating will bump up and his individual pitch ratings will rise a bit as well. Or, that player might be traded to another team or become a free-agent and go for more money on a team that they never played on in real life.

Everything is in flux for each player in the OOTP game engine. This makes "real" baseball simulate more or less as it might play out...with slight differences. Over the course of a season it is possible that that difference will allow a team that historically finished, say, third to actually win the division in simulation. Over the course of many seasons (OOTP even allows you to sit back and watch it simulate baseball history from 1901 season by season if you want) these differences start of add up to an alternate but believable baseball universe.

The historic baseball heroes are usually the heroes in OOTP. But some heroes might be missing over time. And a few guys that were just mediocre in real life will rise to the status of hero. OOTP allows this to happen and over long periods of time (say two decades) it can lead to some interesting twists on history. It is the same within a given season. A player who had a great season might simulate as so-so while some guy that was on bench to begin with might end up as a starter late in the season a turn out to have very hot bat with a great glove too. It is not that unbelievable. Generally speaking, every baseball season has stories like that. It is just with OOTP you can't predict what those specific stories will be in any given simulation.

And it is this believeable randomization combined with the suspension of disbelief in the context of a universe of simulated details that makes OOTP a satisfying experience. A bottom of the ninth play at the plate for the win makes you just as excited when you get into managing a season as it would in real life. Deciding whether to walk this batter and face the next one is just as complicated for you as it would be in a real game situation. Pesky, extended losing streaks are no less irritating.

To acquaint myself with the 2010 season, I simmed it several times while kinda roaming around in the game and spotting how things have changed or what new features had been added to OOTP 11. Of course, I always manage the Atlanta Braves. In my first sim the Braves finished 82-80 a dozen or so games behind the Philadelphia Phillies. My second sim the Braves finished one game behind the division winning Florida Marlins. In that sim the Phillies got off to horrible start and never recovered. A believable possibility. In a third sim of 2010, the Braves gave the Phillies a run for their money but came up a couple of games short. They won the Wild Card race, however, and were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the play-offs.

Jason Heyward performed great in all three sims, hitting over .290 each year. Of the Braves starting rotation Tommy Hanson won at least 15 games each season, the most consistent Brave starter. Billy Wagner, once one of the game’s best closers, had one good season with 32 saves, he was injured and missed most of another season (which hurt the Braves), and he blew a bunch of save opportunities in the third sim, two against the Phillies themselves which made the season more difficult. I guess it is reasonable to assume that any of those results could be likely.

The 2010 Braves have a strong starting rotation, but they have very little depth. They cannot afford any major slumps or injuries if they are going to seriously contend. That’s pretty much on the mark with the reality of things and you can see it in the game.

At the “tactical” level the Braves have a decent pitching staff and pretty good hitting. They have the potential to be very competitive. Comparing them with the uberwealthy elite New York Yankees you can see that the Yanks, as usual, have a few more good players. All the Yankee pitchers have high stuff ratings. They will get a lot of strikeouts.

Screen overlaps of the opening day 2010 pitchers for the Yankees and the Braves as seen in OOTP. These are ratings based on historical statistics. The higher the number, the better the rating. Duh. From a color-coded perspective, blue is a "star" talent rating, green is excellent, yellow is good, orange is average, and red is of questionable worth. You can sort these screens by any column, in this case the players are in order by their overall value rating as a pitcher.

Meanwhile, the Braves are actually deeper in terms of contact hitting, even though the Yanks have more star-caliber hitters.

The same ratings scheme for the hitters. These are arranged in order by Contact Rating, the ability to put the ball in play. You will notice other ratings for Gap Power, Power, ability to avoid strikeouts, L/R splits, Speed, Steal ability, etc. The game tracks an enormous amount of data and individual player traits, including their personalities.

Being able to play out the season over and over like this is a great way for me to familiarize myself with the talent each major league ball club has this year. I will be playing this game a lot over the next few weeks.

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