Out of the Park Baseball can boast a link to not one but two lead designers in the venerable Civilization series of strategy games: Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer talked to us about the game’s “unique unfairness” and now Civilization IV lead designer Soren Johnson has some things to say about OOTP. He is currently working on some strategy games through his new company, Mohawk Games.
“I’ve always been a big baseball fan and was also a close follower of the rise of sabermetrics back in the 90s,” Johnson says. “Further, since I’m a strategy game fan in general, I’ve always been interested in finding a good general manager simulation. Thus, I’m definitely in the core audience for OOTP.”
He adds: “I also kept hearing guys like Jon [Shafer] talk about this league they were in, and I thought it would be fun to take part in a long-term baseball sim. It’s been an interesting experience so far, although I seem to be in year five of a 20-year rebuilding plan.” That league is the New City Baseball League.
Johnson came to OOTP by way of fantasy baseball, where he was not mired in a rebuilding plan. “Back in the 90s, a friend and I took part in some of the first online fantasy baseball leagues,” he recalls. “In fact, we placed in the top three overall two years in a row for ESPN, which won us a computer and a trip to spring training. For many years afterwards, I took part in a hardcore keeper fantasy baseball league, which was a great experience. I have not, however, spent much time with baseball sims.”
Is it a Sim or Not?
Once he became involved in OOTP, however, Johnson came to appreciate the finer things found in baseball sims. “I’m attached to the young players that I’ve drafted, signed, and traded for; I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop over the next few seasons,” he says. “In many ways, I’m now looking at it as an interesting mix of tycoon and RPG mechanics, with the benefit of real human competition.”
He adds: “I often can’t decide if OOTP is a baseball sim or a strange strategy/RPG hybrid. The aspect of developing your players over many years and watching their various traits go up or down shares a lot in common with strategy games, perhaps even more with ones like XCOM or Fire Emblem than with Civ. However, the lack of transparency with how many of the mechanics work makes the game feel more like a sim to myself.
“I often find the way players seem to arbitrarily shift in performance somewhat frustrating, and it’s very hard to know just what difference a certain value makes. What does it mean to have a 8 in Range, for example? All strategy games deal with this issue, of course, but players of OOTP definitely have to deal with the unpredictable nature of the simulation. For some, there’s a big appeal in trying to intuitively understand how such a big, complex system as OOTP works. For others, however, the lack of transparency can lead to frustration. This difference definitely reveals something about the player’s personality.”
Trying to Leap Over a Low Bar
Johnson has also given the solo side of OOTP a shot: “I played through a few seasons solo, mostly in an attempt to bring a World Series victory to the team that broke my heart — the mid-90s Mariners. The team had so much talent that the GM just needed to fill in the gaps with mediocre players, which unfortunately did not happen in real life. It’s funny to see the deviations from future events: I kept trying to use Jamie Moyer even though the sim sees him as a old pitcher going downhill. Moyer’s post-age-30 success is so unusual that it’s almost impossible to imagine a sim that could represent it, but it is also hard to pass on one of my favorite pitchers.”
He adds: “I’ve always been a baseball fan. I grew up in Washington state, and my dad took me to Mariner games in the Kingdome, back in the days of Mark Langston, Alvin Davis, and Spike Owen. I remember that it was a big deal when the team finally had a winning season in 1991, so I was ecstatic when they developed Hall of Fame caliber players in the 90s with Junior Griffey, Randy Johnson, and Edgar Martinez. It’s too bad they never won a World Series, but just seeing them in the playoffs was a huge thrill. The bar was set pretty low in Seattle!”