Smart people recognize quickly when innovation – a word that lards marketing-speak the way Forgetting Sarah Marshall is larded with penis jokes – leads to disaster. Coca-Cola yanked New Coke to the back burner within weeks of its tastebud-scarring release. Just last year, the NBA debuted a slick basketball, then canned it just as quickly when Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant correctly called it crap.
We’re now nearly a month into the actual 2008 baseball campaign and a month and a half into the virtual one, and the folks at 2K Sports didn’t only miss the memo on innovation, they buried it under their copy of the Mitchell Report and a stack of unclaimed Barry Bonds photos. If you’ve spent any time tooling around with MLB 2K8, you know that I’m talking about the game’s godawful new pitching system.
Pitching in the major leagues is hard. Heck, pitching at the local Elks Lodge diamond can be hard. Every time George W. Bush trots grinningly to the mound to toss out that ceremonial first pitch, we’re reminded that blazing a baseball across a strike zone isn’t an easy thing. But MLB 2K8 has made it an all-but-impossible maneuver: Instead of tapping the circle button to launch a curveball or a circle change the way it’s been done in almost every baseball video game ever created, 2K8 asks that you contort the right analog stick, hold it until a pair of concentric circles matches up over the strike zone, then release the stick. Screw up the timing of the release by even a little and a fastball becomes a meatball, and the currently slumptastic David Ortiz is launching your junk into the upper deck. Until you get a handle on it – and even afterward – 10-plus ERAs are as common as Charlie Gibson jokes.
On the virtual basketball court, the stick-control really has been an innovation – cocking the stick back and releasing it almost perfectly mimics the motion of launching a 15-foot jumper. On the baseball diamond, it feels completely wrong. Sure, a pitcher’s curveball delivery looks different than his changeup, but the last time anyone held onto the end of his windup for so long, he either drilled the pitch into the dirt in front of him or bought himself a balk.
I get what 2K is all about. The competition – that’d be Sony’s MLB: The Show series, with its easy-to-control pitch meter/strike zone scheme – has owned the baseball video-game market for several years, basically ever since Electronic Arts dropped down to the college ranks. So 2K Sports had to try a radical approach. Thing is, while the 2K experiment continues, Sony polishes its superior product. In baseball terms, this is like the Pittsburgh Pirates dropping their mascot into the cleanup slot while the Mets trade for Johan Santana. You can see that it’s going to end badly.
The failure of 2K8’s pitching stick also speaks to a greater truth about innovation in gaming – fans are totally in favor of it … as long as it makes things easy. The prospect of striking out 12 batters in a game, the way Brandon Webb does on a good day, is appealing but not if it takes, you know, actual work, like mastering an unforgiving control system.
Later this year, Nintendo plans to expand on the baseball mini-game concept from Wii Sports with a Mario-themed diamond special. Naturally, there’ll be motion control involved, but since Big N wouldn’t know a complex control scheme if it drilled Mario square across his oversized schnozz, the prospect of windmilling arms and Wiimotes can’t help but be less firstname.lastname@example.org