Tuesday, August 16, 2005

MLB Showdown 2002: Broken & Bloated

2002 was in my mind, a real low point for the MLB Showdown brand.

Tom Wiley the game’s inventor had left Wizards and the rest of Wizard’s R&D was not fond of the game at all. They disliked the game’s base mechanic, the game’s primary focus on luck and dice, but in particular a lot of people at Wizard’s R&D just felt a sports game was incompatible with Wizards as a whole.

In 2002, after Wiley's departure, the brand was given a temporary steward and a new card format. While the 2002 card format was superior to the treatment given in 2001 and 2000, the cards still suffered from ‘over-treatment’. In 2002 it had these awful ‘lines’ around the top of the card that just obscured the photo and in particular, made non-foil cards look rather cheap and tawdry.

The game also went under a small revision, players complained about the lack of ‘action’ on the batter’s card, because even the best batters only rolled on the batter’s chart 25% of the time, the game largely boiled down to high rolls on the pitcher’s chart. To combat that, the OB number on batter’s was extended higher but more outs were added to the batter's card.

This revision however made a huge mistake, it kept the 2001 cards (designed to work on the older statistical breakout) legal in tournament play. Those cards were a little broken to begin with, but when combined with more action on the batter’s chart they became lethal.

The game also had too many open ended rules, rules many of us (including myself) clamored to have changed. Cards that allowed you to draw an open number of cards based on some sort of trigger, cards enchanted an entire inning, but there were no specific cards to break enchantments and cards that could be put into stackable play. The game had never really defined how its ‘stack’ worked, which is amazing since the company created Magic, (the game that first invented the ‘card stack’ and the resolution rules within).

As an aside, I’ve always argued Showdown should have a ‘non-stack’, or in other words, have immediate resolution rules. The idea is all cards resolve immediately and in the case of resolution triggers, resolve in the order in which they were played when the trigger fires and resolve immediately. This rule, (the exact opposite of how Magic resolves a stack) solves 99% of all rule ambiguity that has arisen in the game.

The game also had useless defensive cards. In fact, the best defensive cards were used to GIVE UP runs, in favor of card draw, or ridiculously defensive cards actually used on OFFENSE, like doubling a person’s defensive ability just to increase swing pump, a combination actually ALLOWED in original tournament rules and to this day, I use a poster child of just how sloppy Wizards R&D can be with any non-Magic TCG.

The key problem with the game's strategy, (still to this day), is +’s to the pitch (the bread and butter of defensive cards) are statistically miniscule in advantage compared to +’s to the swing. Also the strength, scope and playability of +’s to the swing were far more rich and far more complimentary. Offense also had mechanisms to reroll outs in 2002, but defense had no ability to reroll hits.

It lead to the worst era in MLB Showdown history, the 2002 Aggro years and also one of the most embarrassing moments in Wizards R&D history, a national tournament, where a baseball simulation game was yielding on average over 50 runs a game. Meanwhile stunned members of Wizards R&D were forced to watch their own game butchered, hacked and exploited, making a mockey of baseball in the process.

Curt Schilling, an all-star pitcher who ACTUALLY PLAYS MLB SHOWDOWN, stopped considering the game seriously after the strategy card mess. Aggro players in their 20’s were literally crushing 10 year olds in tournaments by a score of 48 to 13 and we’re doing it by starting the game with 16 intentional walks, (another open ended rule Wizards never addressed)!

Sadly, the best tournament player that year, wasn't even a baseball fan. The 2002 national tournament prize was season tickets to your favorite team, the national winner that year proudly boasted he would just sell the tickets right away and as such wanted Cubs tickets, even though he lived nowhere near Chicago and indeed, had not attended or even cared about baseball in many years. He just knew Cubs tickets would fetch the highest price on eBay. He didn't even know who Ernie Banks was, when I asked him.

That sad scene actually affected the brand. The brand had lined up hall-of-famer and Nego-League legend Buck O’Neill to attend the National tournament that year. However, when associates of his showed up to scout the tournament atmosphere, they promptly returned to Buck with the advice of “stay away”. Who could blame them? The game was not only breeding poor sportsmanship, (evident to anyone who lingered in the tournament room for more than 10 minutes) it was also making a mockery of the great game of baseball, something any real baseball fan would and should never tolerate.

The tragedy of 2002 wasn’t that Aggro crushed the tournament meta-game, or that it actually scared away hall-of-fame sponsors and advocates. No the tragedy was that all of it could have been avoided.

Myself, and many others in the company had warned Wizards of the broken nature of the game, but our fears were ignored. In fact, some at Wizards actually thought a “breakable” set of strategy combinations would be good for the game, suggesting it brought ‘skill’ to the game. The same reasoning I suppose, that Wizards used when it was revealed just how broken the Pyschotog deck was in Magic around the same time.

You can’t develop a sports card product that way. While Aggro players were having a ball and patting themselves on the back for their strategy decks (and sometimes boasting about being the strategy's creator, when in fact most had copied the deck off just one player), that same small core of players were shredding the brand’s credibility. Remember as stated in earlier posts, if your tournament environment is not rich, your product’s longevity is doomed, that is a TCG industry rule, that I have as yet, never seen broken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Aggro players. They just wanted to turn a 200 dollar investment into a 1 in 10 chance at earning a prize that could be converted into 10,000 dollars with a simple posting on eBay. There were probably 10 decent MLB Showdown players on the national tournament scene in 2002 and not much more, so the odds were very high you could succeed.

No, like I say, its not the fault of Aggro players at all. I blame Wizards. I blame their R&D, their marketing and their brand management, the whole kit and caboodle. They had turned MLB Showdown into a disaster and the ever so important bottom line was getting worse.

The game's initial inertia and small growth atrophied in 2002, the game's audience was shrinking.

Miraculously, despite all this, MLB Showdown survived into 2003 and we enter the Worth Wollpert era.

2003: Wollpert Downer Syndrome

3 comments:

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  2. I take it the 2003: Wollpert Downer Syndrome was never blogged? The two Showdown articles are a great and really interesting read, not to mention really sad. As having played the game since it's release (and still play and collect to this day) I agree with all points you've made and would really like to hear the rest of it. Shoot me an email sometime. andy128775@yahoo.com

    Thanks.

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  3. Anonymous4:22 AM

    Would also love to hear the rest of the story. Still play sometimes with buddies and played on the tournament scene from '03-'05, drove into Cali from AZ and had a good run at the SD Super Regional in '05. Cellycupinfo@gmail.com

    Kevin

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