Smart people recognize quickly when innovation — a word that’s loaded with marketing-speak the same way that Forgetting Sarah Marshall is loaded 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 new 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 it’s clear the folks at 2K Sports didn’t just 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 already know I’m talking about the game’s god-awful new pitching system. Pitching in the major leagues is hard. Heck, pitching on the local Elks Club 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 thing: Instead of tapping the circle button to launch a curveball or a circle change the way we’ve always 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 your release even a little, and your fastball becomes a meatball, and even 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, this stick-control mechanic 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 from his change-up, but the last time someone held onto the end of his wind-up waiting for the perfect moment to deliver the ball, he either drilled it into the dirt in front of him or bought himself a balk.
I get what 2K Sports is trying to do. 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 now, basically, ever since Electronic Arts dropped down to the college ranks.
Matched up against a game that’s routinely pummeling them into the ground, 2K Sports did what anyone would have: They tried a radical approach. Thing is, while they’re experimenting, Sony’s just polishing up an already 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 how it’s going to end badly.
But the failure of 2K8‘s pitching stick also speaks to a greater truth about innovation in gaming — we’re 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 as hell, but not if it takes 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 Wii-motes can’t help but be less disastrous.