R.B.I. Baseball 14 And The Future of Sports Video Games

RBI Baseball 14 on the iPad

R.B.I. Baseball 14 on my iPad

One of my hobbies ever since I can remember has been playing sports video games. Being born in the early ’80s I started off with a NES console and have purchased a console every generation since, although I haven’t picked up a PS4 or Xbox One…yet. Sure I play other games, but the main reason I’ve forked over thousands of dollars on consoles is sports games.

As soon as I got my hand on an iPad a few years ago I started to wonder if the future of sports gaming wasn’t on the touch screen. It took a little while, but I think it’s starting to happen slowly.

Last month R.B.I. Baseball 14 was launched. Gamers of my generation will undoubtebly remember the fun, fast paced action of R.B.I. Baseball on the NES. After almost 20 years, the game returned on April 9th. For the most part, it lives up to the hype. It’s simple, fun baseball with a MLB license.

There are three really interesting things about this game:

  1. It’s the same game on iOS as it is on the consoles
  2. It costs money and there are no in-app purchases
  3. MLB produced the game

Let’s take a closer look at each.

It’s the same game on iOS as it is on the consoles

The game was released on iOS, PS3, and Xbox 360, with Android, PS4, and Xbox One releases coming “this spring”. I haven’t played the game on the consoles, but I have read a lot of reviews, articles, and tweets about the game and from what I can discern there is no difference between the versions.

This is huge for touch sports gaming. In the past games have always been a watered down version of the original. The simplicity of R.B.I. goes a long way in making this a possibility, but the simple fact that they released the same game on a mobile platform on the same day as a console release is very telling. We may not be that far off from touch taking over.

It costs money and there are no in-app purchases

The few mobile sports games that haven’t sucked have been littered with in-app purchases. In-app purchases ruin the fundamentals of games for me, and that’s why I personally try to buy mobile games that don’t have them. I’m happy to pay a premium for a great game. As soon as you give the game away for free and introduce in-app purchases, the game is no longer a game. You don’t win with skill and creativity, you win with either a ridiculous time investment or by opening up your wallet. The business owner in me understands why they do it, but the gamer in me despises it.

R.B.I. was $4.99 in the app store. Presumably it will be the same on Android. For that $4.99 you get the whole game. It’s all about enjoying the game. For a sports game to be successful, I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t have in-app purchases (or limit them to bonuses like throwback jerseys or classic teams).

MLB produced the game

This is where it really gets interesting for me. The game was produced by MLB Advanced Media, a division of Major League Baseball. When leagues itself produce games, their motivations change. It becomes about hooking the fan with great gameplay so that they become an even bigger fan of the game. The game can be a financial loss and still be a success. Leagues also have the advantage of not needing to pay themselves for a license. They can access everything they need from the past and the present without having to jump through hoops and pay outrageous fees. They likely also have more motivation to maintain the game for the long term.

The result, I think, is a much better experience for the consumer. Do I want all sports games to come from the leagues? No, of course not. I still think there are a ton of options to succeed as an independent developer with sports games. I may someday pursue some of those myself. Who I think this hurts is companies like EA. And really, is there anyone out there who isn’t sick of EA at this point?

In the end, I wonder how far we are away from sports gaming moving to touch screens. A game like R.B.I. is nowhere near as feature-filled as something like MLB The Show. But could it be there in a few years? Maybe. Touch screens can have a lot more complex functionality than you might initially think because the on-screen controls can change on the fly. Buttons can come and go as gameplay changes. Not only can they come and go, but sometimes you don’t even need buttons. Swiping runners along the basepaths feels so natural that using a controller actually feels like a step back.

I’ve been fascinated by sports gaming my whole life, and now we’re entering a new era with unlimited possibilities. Touch screens open up new doors for control. App stores allow small indie gamers the ability to compete side-by-side with EA Sports. And the leagues themselves are starting to see the advantages of creating their own games.

I’m excited to see what the next few years brings. Your thoughts?

4 comments on R.B.I. Baseball 14 And The Future of Sports Video Games

  1. Brad says:

    It’s like you posted this here just for me!

    One of the biggest struggles I’ve with my in-progress, sports-themed game is skirting licensing issues. While people are fans of a sport, they’re usually more focused on one particular team. Building an experience that doesn’t alienate the fan from their current teams without dangling a lawsuit carrot in the Google Play store is challenging. For my game, the solution is simply to allow the user to manually edit certain team names – but it will still lose some of that special appeal when the player invests a ton of time to build a dynasty and finally plays a national championship game against [Generic Mascot Name #3].

    The touch screen aspect is an interesting consideration. It doesn’t affect my game (being more a business simulation/decision game), but I can see it being very limiting for a complicated game structure. You only really have a few gestures to choose from, unless you junk up the HUD with buttons. There’s also the issue of your controlling finger impairing your vision of the screen – it doesn’t matter much for the Flappy Bird’s of the world, but for a complex sports games with intricate player controls, it could cause you to plow your running back right into the middle linebacker accidentally. That would be the most frustrating thing since watching my own team play an actual game.

    I’ve put a lot of thought into the monetization methods you mentioned as well. Making a paid app will severely limit the audience that finds your game, even more so as an unknown developer. A free app has a strong chance to get more downloads, but you risk less-invested players. You can put ads in your game, but I have a hard time believing that people click game ads intentionally…that looks like an industry built on glass to me. Or, you can add in-app purchases, which irritates Adam.

    As a user, I think the best choice is a paid app – but it will only work if you’re lucky or already well known. I think well-placed in app purchases is my second favorite choice. I despise the “pay to win” scenarios that some games present, but I don’t mind paying for the 2nd and 3rd levels of a well made puzzle game. I don’t mind the purchases that give you an advantage in a single player game, although I don’t ever purchase them myself. I absolutely despise the new wave of games that want you to buy “energy” so that you can play more than 30 minutes per day, for example – immediate uninstall. Ads are always annoying to me, but I’m not as aggravated when they’re between levels/don’t interfere with gameplay – of course, I’m sure those are less profitable.

    Anyway, I’ll stop writing now before my comment is longer than the original post!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Great comment Brad! I was thinking about your game a bit while I was writing the post.

      One of the biggest struggles I’ve with my in-progress, sports-themed game is skirting licensing issues.

      I like your idea of allowing edits. You could also allow full fledged imports via the web (for instance, a spreadsheet with teams, players, links to logos, etc) and then create a forum for people to share their edits. I know Out of the Park Baseball does this for team logos and stadiums. I actually think this could result in a better game – people could do all D3 schools, or enter in their favorite all-time players. The possibilities are endless, but it is less appealing to the masses out of the box.

      The touch screen aspect is an interesting consideration. It doesn’t affect my game (being more a business simulation/decision game), but I can see it being very limiting for a complicated game structure.

      It can be. FIFA 14 for iOS and Android actually does a really good job of it, but many other games have really sucked. The best games use touch/swipe to their advantage to eliminate controls – running the bases in R.B.I. or performing complex dribble moves in FIFA with different swipe combos. It’s still a long way away from the control of a console controller though.

      I’ve put a lot of thought into the monetization methods you mentioned as well.

      Another difficult decision :) You could pull off a combo of different methods: a free game with limited functionality (maybe 1 season of gameplay and/or no option to edit teams/players), a paid game that you can either buy from the store or upgrade via the app, and possibly also have in-app purchases for things that don’t ruin gameplay (the only example I can think of is the classic jerseys from the post, but I’m sure there’s something applicable to college football).

      To your point, if you’re not a well-known dev a paid app risks never being played, so you probably have to do some sort of free version / paid version breakdown while keeping it as classy as possible.

      I’m excited to play the game once it’s ready (or maybe even a little before then)!

  2. Darrin says:

    I too play only sports games. My friends think that’s crazy to spend money on a console to play maybe three games a year but hey its what we do.

    The iPad makes the future of sports gaming very interesting. The only thing that throws it off for me is the lack of buttons/controller.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I too play only sports games. My friends think that’s crazy to spend money on a console to play maybe three games a year but hey its what we do.

      Haha well put Darrin!

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