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After a season like no other, in which the LA Dodgers walked away with the World Series, a new baseball campaign beckons to bring a sliver of the ordinary back to extraordinary times. And with Spring Training edging towards its conclusion, Sony’s flagship sports simulation MLB The Show 21 is on deck, promising a raft of new features – including a Stadium Creator! We caught up with Sony San Diego’s Ramone Russell to discuss the challenges of developing during a pandemic, the new Pinpoint Pitching mechanic, and playing baseball in a motion capture studio.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Push Square: Where does this rank among the most difficult projects you’ve ever had? Not only have you expanded the number of platforms you’re releasing on, but you’ve also had to do it through a pandemic. How have you overcome those challenges?

Ramone Russell: It’s definitely been number one [in terms of difficult projects]. I can’t think of another year that’s been more challenging. But we’re a really close-knit team, and we really looked at the challenge to bring baseball to a new set of fans, and we’re really excited by what we’ve been able to accomplish.

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Yeah, it’s really impressive! So, in a recent livestream you introduced the new Pinpoint Pitching mechanic, and we’re really excited to try that out. However, it’s a very complicated system, so can you talk a little more about how that gets from the prototype stage to being put in the game?

It’s definitely complicated! It’s the hardest pitching method to master, but it’s also the most accurate. So, with all game design choices you’re always trying to find the balance. Pinpoint Pitching, the genesis of that feature came from this idea that our fans wanted a more accurate way to pitch. And we looked at all the pitching methods and said, “That’s not here already.” [Associate Producer] Kyle Saul decided, “Let’s do a gesture pitching style, where you do gestures with the right analogue stick.”

If you can nail your gestures, because we’re grading you on three different levels, your pitches go pretty much exactly where you want them to go. That’s great, but the flipside is that you have to nail everything. There’s a lot of balance and depth and variety in every pitching motion, and we’re just really excited about the feature and how people take to it.

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Kinda reminds us of the PGA Tour games – a little bit anyway! Can you tell me a little bit more about your motion capture process? Sony San Diego has a motion capture studio as part of your office, and recently you talked about the fielding and all the animations you’ve added. How does that process come together? Are you literally playing baseball in a motion capture studio?

Yeah, exactly! Chris Clements, our Animation Director, and Chris Gill, our Gameplay Director, go over to our motion capture studio which is maybe a two block walk from our new studio, and we literally have a list of thousands of animations we need to capture in any given year. And so we have a mound that we ship from Santa Monica, and we’re literally playing baseball in a giant warehouse, and that’s how we get every animation for the game. We added over 1,000 new gameplay animations for MLB The Show 21!

Is it former players or is it actors?

It’s a mix! All of the baseball related motions are all done by actual baseball players; the celebrations and dances are normally done by, y’know, us. Just people in the studio.

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One of the best things about MLB The Show 20 and previous versions is the way everything feeds into Diamond Dynasty to an extent. One of the things you’ve talked about with the new game is how your Road to the Show player will transfer across to Diamond Dynasty as well. So can you talk about how you’ve balanced that?

You no longer have a Diamond Dynasty player and a Road to the Show player; you now have a Centralised Ballplayer. There’s a very important distinction: your Centralised Ballplayer is who you take through all of the modes; that’s Road to the Show and Diamond Dynasty – you can use him in Programs and Moments. However, the Diamond Dynasty and Road to the Show experience are still very separate, they’re just sharing the same player now.

Okay, that’s cool! So obviously one of the big new additions this year is the Stadium Creator, something that a lot of people have been asking for. In one of the recent trailers, there’s a clip where you see some alien spacecrafts in the skyline. How creative can we expect to get?

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Exactly, there’s a mothership in the trailer! You can get fairly creative. Jonathan Ramsey, who’s the lead graphics programmer for Stadium Creator, this is all he’s been working on for over two years. Literally, he’s been sitting in his office, trying to figure out how to deliver this feature in a way that’s going to make our community happy. We’ve been thinking about it for seven years, and working on it for about five, and between Ramsey and Principal Designer Michael Compton, they have created one of the most powerful designers in any video game I’ve ever seen.

You can basically create whatever you want, and the editor’s very smart. Let’s say stands, for example, because that was always going to be a head-scratcher. Like, “How do we get the stands right if we let people change the outfield walls?” So what’s really intelligent about the editor is that it knows if you’re moving stands and it’ll try to pull them together. And that’s really great, because if you’re trying to put in another stand, the game will say, “Okay, I see what you’re doing, and it’ll just snap in.” So we spent a lot of time trying to make the editor as intuitive as possible.

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But you can go as crazy as you want. And so we’ve attacked that in two ways: first, there are thirty different created stadiums that we designed that will be in the game, and you can edit and share to your heart’s content. Second, if you want to start from scratch where there’s nothing but grass and you want to build everything, you can do that as well.

So what’s to stop someone from building a giant wall and stopping anyone from ever getting a home run? Is that something you can do?

It’s something you can do, but you won’t be able to use it online. The way that we attacked competitive balance so that created stadiums can be used online without griefing is we have over 150 outfield wall presets. If you use one of those presets and don’t change anything, your stadium can be used online; if you change anything on the outfield wall, it’s now invalid. And there’s a little indicator with a bat in the top-right corner of the screen, and once you touch that wall, it turns red and you can’t use it online. But everything else you can change: you can pick the grass patterns, you can put 50 UFOs in the background, you can choose your batter’s eye – you can mess with all that stuff. But the dimensions of the field, that is how we do competitive balancing!

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But you could, theoretically, go crazy and use it offline if you wanted to?

Absolutely! You could go crazy and have a green monster on the left and the right side!

Sounds like a lot of fun! Apart from the Stadium Creator, can you talk a little bit about some of the new things that you’re doing with the PS5 version specifically? How have you improved the presentation, for example? Are you using the DualSense controller at all?

Yes, we have DualSense support and 3D audio support; gameplay’s going to be a smooth 60 frames-per-second. And when you’re playing in Road to the Show this year, we have a visual podcast which really helps draw you into what you’re doing and how it’s affecting Major League Baseball. Those features are only available on the next-gen versions of the game; the Road to the Show podcast on current-gen is just audio, but on next-gen you get the video clips.

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And are you working with recognised broadcasters?

Yes, we have Robert Flores who’s a friend of the studio; Cliff Floyd, Sean Casey – a lot of talent from all over the sports world, and a lot of talent from MLB Network. And a few guest surprises that people will have to play the game and discover for themselves.

Obviously, you’re releasing on Xbox this year. Can you elaborate a little more on the decision to do that?

We just wanted to bring baseball to more people. Major League Baseball, the Player’s Association, and Xbox have been great partners, and we’re really happy to be bringing baseball to Xbox fans this year.

And you say you want to bring it to more people: are there any plans for Nintendo Switch and PC, perhaps?

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This year we’re just focusing on making MLB The Show 21 the best game on PlayStation and Xbox consoles.

So, just wanted to ask you a longer question really. Video games can be a great entry point for sports; Madden is a great introduction to NFL and The Show is obviously a great place to learn baseball. We’ve seen both NFL and MLB bring seasonal games to London – two years ago, the Yankees and the Dodgers played in the UK, for example. Do you have any discussions with Major League Baseball about how your game can help broaden the appeal of the sport globally? And if so, what do you feel that the game brings that can help with that?

We think it does that now! People love participatory mediums, and video games are one of those. We’ve been making a really good baseball game for a long time. We want more kids playing baseball, and what better way to start them off than with MLB The Show. That may spark their interest, and maybe they go outside and grab the bat and the glove and start playing. Who knows?

Yeah, on that note, in one of the recent trailers you talked about changing the onboarding process. Is that something you feel can help broaden the appeal of the game in terms of teaching people how to play?

Yes, we spent a lot of time on our onboarding process. We have three new gameplay styles, and one of them is called Casual mode. And so in Casual mode, it’s something we want our users to select if they’re new to the game or are confused about anything. In Casual mode, the AI isn’t really trying to beat you, and we’ve really placed the emphasis on learning the game of baseball, as well as MLB The Show.

Every single pitching method, like Pinpoint we discussed earlier, we teach you how to use those and how to be successful and we’ll go through all of them. Same thing with hitting and fielding, and it also has all of our new fielding onboarding aids. We have route to ball indicators that shows you, “This is the path you should take to catch the ball.” We have diving jump assists that let you know, “This is when you should jump.” We have off-the-wall indicators that let you know, “Hey, the ball’s going to play off the wall.” So all of our onboarding and all of our beginner type features are in our Casual mode this year, and all you have to do is turn it on, and we’ll explain everything about how to play MLB The Show 21.

Well, thanks so much for your time Ramone, and best of luck with the launch next month!

A huge thank you to Ramone for taking the time out to talk to us about MLB The Show 21 – we're really looking forward to the game. Are you eager to get your gloves on the new game, and which features in particular have captured your imagination? Hit a homerun in the comments section below.