An interview with the creator of Out of the Park Baseball

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If you look on the Metacritic breakdown for the best-reviewed video games of all time, next to the Half Lifes and Zeldas and Grand Theft Autos, you’ll find Out of the Park Baseball 2007. That’s right, a text-based baseball simulator sharing column space with software that took several hundred more people and several million more dollars to create. You shouldn’t be surprised.

For 15 years now Markus Heinsohn has been coding Out of the ParkBaseball, and each year he releases a great product with smart new features and a willing ear towards public response. Basically, they stand in stark contrast to pretty much every other sports-game developer in the world. He’s been rewarded with an avid, helpful fanbase, and a whole lot of international respect and envy. OOTP features no cover athletes, it’s not even officially licensed by the MLB, and Heinsohn, a German, lives far from the baseball’s cultural heritage. So I guess it’s a tribute to his perseverance, and deep love for the sport that OOTP seems to get better every year. This is his full-time job, and nowadays he’s got a small staff to help him work. We caught up with Markus over Skype to talk about his history with baseball, the challenges of development and why we might be seeing an MLB logo on OOTP in the very near future.

How did you first get interested in the managerial side of baseball?

It was my personal love for soccer management games. In Europe we have a rich tradition of soccer management games, even on my Commodore computers 25 years ago, we typed in the source code of a soccer game we bought in a magazine which took 45 minutes to load from a tape. It was very basic, buying and selling players, that sort of thing. So when I got into baseball I always wanted to play something similar to that, but I couldn’t find anything. So I just decided to do it myself.

So now all these years later OOTP Baseball is probably the marquee baseball management sim, do you take pride in that?

Yeah it’s strange, friends of mine have to remind me of that. 10 years ago I was having dinner with friends and we were talking about our childhood dreams, and I realized that I’m a game designer. I’m doing this for a living. I’m living my dream without even realizing it. OOTP had a bit of a rocky start, it was a small product that nobody was really interested in, but we’ve grown through the years. It’s nothing that’s overwhelmed me because it happened over the course of 15 years.

Are you still as involved as you were on the programming side of things? Are you still coding every day and stuff like that?

Yeah, basically all the baseball things in OOTP are programmed by me and nobody else. A buddy of mine Andreas does the more technical side of things like the online support, and face-gen, stuff that I never cared to learn. Just recently we hired a software developer out of Canada who is joining the company in October, and he’ll be assisting me on more complex stuff like A.I., stuff that might’ve taken too long before. We also hired a full-time 3D developer, who is doing stuff I could never do. So yeah, we’re currently expanding our staff. It’s different, we have to do much more project management. It’s a challenge but it’s fun, and in the future I could see myself sinking into that project manager role even more.

One of the really interesting things about OOTP is how you’re able to cram so much data into that game. You have all these international leagues and minor leagues, you can go back and play with rosters from a hundred years ago, or simulate a franchise into the future for centuries, is it ever a challenge to fit all of that stuff in?

To be honest I’m incredibly lucky to have a great and passionate research team, who are all volunteers. We give them the online database and the tools, and they do all the work. They pull in all the stats, make all the roster moves, and they basically do this all for free. It’s tremendous, we also have volunteers who work on all the text editing and the play-by-play writing, we have this one guy who almost single-handedly wrote all the play-by-play commentary. It’s one of the fun parts for me as a developer, you meet these passionate people who are willing to do all this only for a free copy of the game.

The famous quote that is on your website is from Curt Schilling, who is a gamer and talked about how OOTP was the only baseball sim he’s ever been addicted to. What was it like for you when you heard actual professional baseball players talking about how much they enjoyed your game?

It was surprising, I knew that Schilling played games and he popped up on the forums a couple years before, and you couldn’t be sure it was actually him. We’ve gotten hoaxes before. But he turned out to be real, and we had lots of cool conversations over email and we invited him to the beta team, and he had some great insights, especially on the MLB level. He taught us about the pitcher/batter matchup, and what the pitcher is thinking about in certain situations. I played baseball myself, but not like Curt Schilling. It was exciting.

One of the things I like about OOTP is that if you want, you can zoom in and micromanage every at-bat, or you can take a much more abstracted role, sim all the games, and handle things like a GM. How do you play?

I usually start with a fictional league with the MLB league structure, and I started with my birth year which is 1977. And then I sim it up to 2014 or whatever, and have a fantasy draft, so I dump all these players and their histories into the MLB. Then I’ll manage week to week, and when an interesting matchup comes up I’ll jump into the game at-bat by at-bat. I’m 70 percent simulating and 30 percent playing the game.

OOTP is at the height of its popularity and it will continue to grow, do you ever think about trying to get the MLB license?

Actually this is in our plans. For maybe this year or next year. We’ve been in contact in the MLB, but we’re still small fish compared to what they’re dealing with. They have limited amount of resources in getting us up to speed and getting the artwork. I hope we do come to terms and we could get all the real logos in the game. MLB could also help us promote the game, through channels we couldn’t reach on our own. We’ve been an independent developer for 15 years now, but to reach the casual audience and show them that sports simulation is fun, we need to be able to get to them. We can’t convince them if we can’t reach them.

The people who play OOTP are pretty big baseball nerds, what do you think you can do or want to do to make the game more approachable for more casual fans?

The problem with OOTP is that there are so many options or possibilities. If you wanted you could create a historical league from 1934, combined with a league in India, as well as a modern league with players from Single-A. It’s a thin line to walk, how many of these options can you show on first sight? People need to know these options are there, but you don’t want to scare people away with too many buttons. We’ve tried to streamline the game, and we’ve made big strides, but we still get feedback from people who get killed by all the options. What we have in mind for OOTP 16 is that you’ll have a visual assistant who will guide you through the first few days of a season.

One of my favorite thing about OOTP is that the possibilities of what can happen are endless. If your starting pitcher is out on a walk and he gets bit by a dog, he won’t be able to pitch, and the game will tell you exactly what happened. I once had a player who was attacked by a shark. What was the decision like to include these sorts of really rare, really random occurrences?

My personal dream would be to build a game that’s like an alternate universe. Where everything could happen, like snakebites or shark attacks. They should be rare, but while playing the game things that are possible in real life should be possible in the game. We want to give the feeling that the stuff happening in OOTP is part of a living breathing world. We have a storyline engine that can create really simple storylines, like someone is bit by a snake and he gets evaluated by a doctor, and he’ll either be okay or miss a start. But the storyline system can create really complex stories with an event tree that has no limit. These storylines can take a lot of time to create, and they take a lot of balance. Our volunteers work on this all the time, so hopefully someday all of this will feel totally real.

When you look at Metacritic and you see that your games are some of the best reviewed of all time, how does that make you feel?

Yeah, the girls dig it (laughs,) no it’s weird. It’s nothing that happened overnight, and obviously when you start out coding you think about maybe selling a million copies and buying a Ferrari, but as you go along you forget about those crazy dreams and you just do your job and enjoy it. You’re glad every year that you survive and can grow your small company. It’s cool to look at Metacritic, and you think that you must be doing something right. The stories that people share on our forums too… there was this one guy who was active on our forums and disappeared. Everyone was wondering what happened, and later his wife discovered that he had an account here and told us that he had been suffering from a very bad disease and died, but really enjoyed the game. These are the sort of stories that touch me much more than another A+ review.