Monday, April 7, 2014

The Man Behind Out of the Park Baseball

Out of the Park Baseball 15 is set to be released. It is the latest installment of what I believe is the best simulation sports game ever invented. My addiction is the only proof you need.  Markus Heinsohn created the first installment of the game in 1999 and should be enshrined in Cooperstown because of it. I had the chance to exchange emails with Markus about OOTP 15 and the history of the series. Enjoy!

Me: Let’s get right to the big news, Out of the Park Baseball 15 and the leap into the word of 3D. There are plenty of us who have been wanting this for a long time but there are also many who do not want this at all and are worried it is somehow going to ruin the game. Has making OOTP 3D always been a goal of yours for the game or was it brought on by feedback of your loyal customers?

Markus: A little bit of both: We always knew we’d have to go the 3D route eventually, especially given how successful it has been for Football Manager, but we’ve also had people asking for it on our forum over the years, so the demand was there. However, we also realize that we have long-time OOTP players who have zero interest in 3D, which is why we’ve made 3D ballparks and 3D in-game ball flight optional in OOTP 15. If you don’t want it, simply turn it off and play the game the way you always have.
The same will also hold true moving forward as we work toward adding 3D players on the field in OOTP 16: That will be optional too, so if you don’t want to see it, you can switch it off.

In the long run, leaving it optional won’t ruin the game because everyone will be happy. Personally, I’ve always said that the greatest 3D graphics engine ever created is your imagination, so I understand why some people don’t want anything to do with 3D.

Me: Great stuff, count me as one of the loyal customers who has looked forward to 3D and the best part as you said is that it can be turned off if you don't want it. Can you go into more detail about the ball flight animation? While OOTP has always been my favorite text sim, PureSim Baseball always did a really good job with their ball flight animation. It wasn't perfect but the pop ups and fly balls etc were pretty good. I also loved the pitched ball and the sound of it hitting the mitt for a strikeout. I found myself playing the 1999 Red Sox a lot on that game with the great Pedro Martinez. How much time has been put in to make that part of the game fun and authentic?

Markus: Since its introduction, ball flight in OOTP has been 2D, so you would see where the ball went but you didn’t know if it was in the air or on the ground, and you didn’t know if it was an out or a hit. It served its purpose, but I knew that when we eventually added 3D to the game, we would need to address that part of the graphics too. A lot of work has gone into making sure that the ball flight is realistic, so you’ll see a ball smashed on the ground through the infield, versus a base hit that’s hit in the air and drops in the outfield. And, of course, everyone will love watching home runs end up in the seats. Like the addition of 3D stadium support, this is just the first step in the long walk toward full 3D action on the field in OOTP.

Me: You have been working on Out of the Park Baseball for over a decade now. I jumped on board for OOTP 5 and really got hooked on OOTP 6.5. What is the most difficult aspect/feature to get right when creating a baseball simulation game? Have the problems changed over the years?

Markus: The hardest thing to get right is making sure that all the different pieces of the game work together to create a seamless world. AI GMs need to make realistic decisions based on so many different factors (their team’s current win/loss record, payroll, the contract status of their stars, their owner’s attitude, etc.), the players need to behave in natural ways as their careers ramp up and eventually decline, the managers, coaches, and scouts need to make proper decisions, and so forth. All of those things need to mesh just right and make you feel like you really are sitting in the GM’s office, and/or in the dugout, making the decisions your real life counterparts face all the time.

When it all comes together, it’s beautiful. I love hearing from people who say they pulled off an amazing mid-season trade and made a run at the division title before experiencing some incredible player heroics in the playoffs. They talk about those things the same way all baseball fans talk about iconic moments in the sport’s history, which is how I know OOTP is working the way it should.

In the early days, the problems involved getting basic baseball mechanics to work. Teams needed to manage their rosters properly, they needed to know when to put on the hit-and-run, etc. These days, the problems are more complex because the last several years have seen OOTP add all kinds of minutiae that most games gloss over or abstract in some way. For example, in OOTP 15 we’re going to have real international leagues with real teams and players, so that adds a layer of complexity to everything: It needs to feel natural when, for example, a star pitcher decides to leave Japan for the majors in the US, or when an aging veteran in the US heads overseas to get another shot at extending his career.

Me: In my opinion the greatest thing about OOTP is all the different ways you can play. It feels like 20 games within one making it impossible to get bored. I have several dynasties and in each one I play different ways. In one I go into George Steinbrenner mode where I control everything, in another I am strictly the GM and hope my manager does a good job with my lineups and in another I am just the manager and play out every single game and hope my GM goes out and gets me more talent. I know OOTP tracks the way people play the game, what has the information that has been collected tell you about how people play the game and has that information had any effect on the features in OOTP 15?

Markus: In OOTP we track basic user activities (if the user accepts it). For example, which screens are visited most often and what game types are created. This way we can figure out how the average user plays the game and what parts of the game are most important. For example, the player profile screen is by far the most visited screen in OOTP, so it has to be as close to perfect as possible. But we can also conclude if certain areas of the game are not properly designed. If a certain screen that we think is rather important does not get utilized by many users, we should think about improving it or placing it in a more prominent spot.

One example of that in OOTP 15 is the Manager Home screen. We discovered that it wasn’t used as much as we wanted, so we reworked it and made it more functional manager screen.

Me: Can you give us an idea of your schedule when creating an OOTP game? Obviously you are now hard at work putting the finishing touches on OOTP 15 but when did the work begin on OOTP 15? When will the process start for OOTP 16? How many others do you have working on it with you and has the schedule and timetable changed over the years?

Markus: I solicit ideas for OOTP year-round. People post their wish lists on our forum and I keep a running list that I prioritized based on what’s easy to implement and what will be a bit tricky. (Sometimes something that seems simple affects other parts of the game, so putting it in OOTP isn’t as easy as some may think.)
Even though we put out OOTP updates the entire year, I usually start work on the next version of the game in the late summer. I come up with a feature list and start the basic programming work after the World Series ends. Our graphic designer, Daniela, works closely with me during that time to make changes to the user interface and the overall look and feel. OOTP’s co-founder, Andreas Raht, also works with me on the game. He’s a very talented programmer too, and he handles all the technical areas of the game, like online leagues, FaceGen, database issues etc.
The schedule for OOTP 15 pretty much fit in with what I described above, and work on OOTP 16 will likely proceed according to the same timetable (although I may start on that earlier because 90% of the work on that version will related to the 3D game visualization engine). That process really hasn’t changed much over the years. The only time there have been deviations have been when other things have taken up some of my time during the offseason, such as when I was helping Sebastian get iOOTP development off the ground during its first year, or this past fall when I spent three weeks ripping all baseball-related elements out of the OOTP project so Francis had a good foundation for our upcoming football game, 'Beyond the Sideline Football.'

Me: I blogged about the Community of OOTP a while back and gave them a lot of credit for making OOTP such an incredible game. From my perspective, they make the game so much more enjoyable for me because I am so limited when it comes to programming skills.  When did you first start to notice the talented community of OOTP and has it changed how you go about programming the game?

Markus:  It took a couple years of sales growth and word of mouth to spread before the community began to gather around OOTP. After all, OOTP 1 sold just 250 copies. I knew early on that I wanted the game to have as much customizability as possible, since so many other kinds of games have benefited from community involvement. Look at Doom, for example.
I first started to really notice the community a couple years into the game’s existence, when our forum opened and a lot of regulars starting setting up accounts there. I can’t say they’ve changed my approach to programming the game, since their presence was always part of the plan, but having such a great community made it easy to, for example, put FaceGen in the game. I knew as soon as we announced it that our community would step up and create a realistic player images, and they did just that. It was amazing.
And, of course, the current state of our community made it a no-brainer to put customizable 3D stadium support in OOTP 15. As soon as we put that on the feature list, we knew the community would step up and create all kinds of amazing stadiums, past and present. From what I’ve seen on the forum, they can’t wait to get started, and I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Me:  The facegen that the community has come up with is amazing. I love looking at my 1939 Red Sox and how authentic Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr look. The authentic uniforms they have created to go along with the facegen are also incredible and is the icing on the proverbial cake. I spend more time setting up uniforms than anything else. My wife makes fun of me and equates it to playing with a barbie doll and playing dress up. She might have a point, but I still love to do it.

While 3D is the big feature news for OOTP 15, the feature that I am really excited about is the ability for teams to retire numbers. Is it insane for a 39 year old grown man with kids to be this excited about being able to retire numbers on a text simulation baseball game? Probably, but who cares.

Anyway, it seems like a relatively simple idea but was it a simple feature to add to the game? Can you give me an idea how the retired number feature will be displayed? Thank you, thank you, thank you and thank you for this feature! Can you tell I am excited?

Markus:  I’m glad you’re happy about that feature. Let your wife know that playing with uniforms in OOTP is more like playing with GI Joe. :-)
It wasn’t a very difficult feature to add to the game, so since it was an oft-requested one, I thought I would add it to OOTP 15. I’ve added a Retired Numbers screen to the Info tab in the Team Home Screen, and that’s where each number is displayed inside a circle, like they do in baseball stadiums. There’s a basic editor that lets you choose a number to retire, and you can write a description where you can put the player’s name and other information. 
AI-controlled teams will automatically retire the numbers of players with Hall of Fame quality stats, and in commissioner mode you can retire other numbers too.

Me: That sounds incredible especially the AI-controlled teams also doing it. I can't wait! It is now time to voice my one pet peeve. As you may know, I blog a lot about my different OOTP dynasties and I love all the different options OOTP gives me. As I have said before, it is like 10 games in one with all the different ways you can play. However, I wish there was a way I could start up my OOTP and instantly replay the 1986 postseason or replay the 1975 World Series or see if the 2004 Red Sox could beat the 1927 Yankees in a Best of 7 series. I know there are "workarounds" to set these scenarios up but it takes a lot of time. Is this something that is possible in OOTP 15 or in the near future? Is this the first time you have heard this type of request?

Markus:  No, that’s not the first time I’ve heard such a request, and I doubt it will be the last. :-)
From a programming perspective, the problem with putting such functionality in OOTP is the same as the issue with manually setting up those scenarios: time. Given our limited resources, we need to make the most of the time we spend programming OOTP, and putting something like that in the game isn’t worth the hours it would take, from a cost vs. benefit perspective, given that we would have to not only program it but also deal with all the roster setups. Andreas and I would rather spend just as much time implementing a feature that would get us more bang for the buck, so to speak, such as the 3D stadium support in OOTP 15.
While the feature you describe would be a lot of fun, it’s something that really only appeals to a small subset of our customers, and even among them, it has limited interest. What I’ve found is that someone usually wants to replay a specific postseason for various reasons, and just limit it to that. For example, they want to replay the 1986 World Series (I know I’m in that camp :-) but after they’ve done it a couple times, they lose interest in such a feature. 
I can’t imagine putting that feature in OOTP any time soon, but as we grow and possibly add programming staff, we could devote someone’s time to putting things like that in the game. That’s a way off, though.

Me: Ok ok ok, I refuse to pout. Moving on, As many people know and I am sure many others don't know, you were born, raised and currently live in Germany. I have heard some of this story before but it is worth repeating. How does a guy who grew up in Germany create the greatest baseball simulation known to man?

Markus: In 1991, a friend of mine took a trip to Miami and returned with a glove and a bat, so we started hitting tennis balls around. We found a few others who liked baseball too and eventually formed a baseball club. Then we got into organized baseball leagues around 1994. I was a decent pitcher with a fastball in the low 80s, but I knew I was never going to make a living at the sport, especially since the top professional baseball players in Germany (yes, there are some) make what minor leaguers in the US earn.

Meanwhile, I played a variety of computer baseball games and was learning programming. By 1998, I had played enough baseball games to realize that there were none I really liked, and my programming abilities had gotten to the point where I could write complete software, so I decided to create my own game. It was finished in 1999, and I decided maybe I could publish it and see what might happen from there. I was fortunate enough to do this as the web was rapidly increasing in popularity, so I was able to connect with other like-minded baseball fans and get the game to many of them.

As the cliché goes, the rest is history.

Me: I have heard that story before but always find it fascinating. The other thing you did not mention is you are not a big fan of American Pro Football. Many have asked over the years, including myself, when you would make a Pro Football simulation game that is as great as of Out of the Park Baseball. I had given up hope because you always explained that you don't have enough knowledge of the sport to make a simulation game of high quality. Things have changed though, would you mind giving my readers the latest news about a football simulation game?

Markus: About 2 years ago, we decided to expand our product line as Sebastian (our iOOTP programmer) introduced us to his buddy Malte and told us about their hockey game, which they had been developing in their spare time - Franchise Hockey Manager. Now, the game was released a few months ago, and apart from a few hiccups and lessons learned, FHM is a big success for our company. 
Early in October 2013, Andreas and I discussed why we shouldn't try the same approach with the most popular sport in the US, football. I personally enjoy watching football games on TV, but my knowledge about the sport is far from good, so I wouldn't be able to develop a good football game. But, sometimes in life things just fall right into place, and a couple of days after Andreas and I had the conversation, we found out that a very nice and clever English chap named Francis Cole, who is a lifelong football fan who I've known from my days working for Sports Interactive in London, has been developing his own little football game for about a year. And after talking for a few days in October, Francis agreed to join Out of the Park Developments and develop a football game with us.
The game is called Beyond the Sideline Football. Trust me, it was quite a ride until the whole team managed to agree on a name. And this is it. We feel that it is a good match for our product lineup and "BTS" sounds like a pretty tasty sandwich (in our graphic designer Daniela's humble opinion), and what can possibly be wrong with tasty sandwiches?
BTS will be based on the complete OOTP code base, which means that the GUI of BTS will be very similar to OOTP and that it will have all the great technical functionality that we've developed for OOTP in the past (FaceGen, online leagues, HTML output, text engine, storylines, world database etc.) and which are tested & verified to work quite well.
Obviously, football is a different game than baseball, so the game flow will be different too. After all, the teams just play one game per week, so there has to be stuff to keep you busy on the 6 days that you are not playing. But we'll talk about all that once we reveal more info in the coming months.
There is no scheduled release date. We will release the game once we feel it is rock solid and has a good set of features. Francis already had an impressive football code foundation with an awesome 2D engine and will save plenty of time because he will use parts of the OOTP code, but still it's way too early to make a good estimate on how long this whole project will take. 
Here are the features we’ve announced for BTS Football. We encourage people to follow the BTS Football Twitter account for the latest updates. There’s also an FAQ here:

Me: That sounds incredible. I am a baseball fan first but football is a close second and imagining a football game that is built using the same basic principles that have made OOTP so great is really exciting. Markus, I want to thank you for your time and responding to all of my email questions. I have really enjoyed it and am looking forward to playing OOTP 15 and blogging all about it. Is there anything you want to add that you didn't get a chance to talk about?

Markus: I think we covered everything, so I don’t have anything to add except: I hope everyone enjoys OOTP 15 as much as we enjoyed creating it. It’s by far the best version of OOTP yet; we are very proud of it. Thanks!

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