Picture this: It’s the bottom of the ninth and the Braves are down 3-2 at home in the Wild Card playoff game. Bryce Harper, at the plate with Jason Hayward on second, has just taken a second strike to push the count to 0-2. The next pitch—a 95 mph fastball—is in the middle of the plate and Harper clubs the ball over fence to win the game for the Braves.
The year is 2017 and this is Out of the Park (OOTP) 14—the baseball management simulation game—and I have just got into my first postseason proper. Unfortunately I get whopped 3-1 by the Padres in the NLDS.
OOTP has been around for a long time. The first version of the game was released in 1999 and over the years has won a growing fan base. I dabbled with the game a few years back but never had the patience to get into it. When given the chance to review the current version I thought it would be a great opportunity to see how accessible and fun the game was for a relative novice.
ASIDE: I want to re-emphasize the point above. I have written this review from the perspective of a first-timer to OOTP. Have you thought about buying OOTP every year a new version has been released but never quite acted on the thought? If so this review is for you. If you are a hard core OOTP user then by all means continue reading, but this review is a lot less relevant.
The game is simple enough to install. Just go to the website and download the game for either your PC or Mac. It costs $39.99. Follow the on-screen instructions and within 30 minutes (depending on the speed of your internet connection) you are good to go. To get authentic team logos and player pictures you have to install the “all-in-one” add-on, presumably because OOTP don’t have full rights to MLB logos and player images. It is definitely worth doing this—there’s no extra cost—as it makes the game more enjoyable.
Once installed it is time to choose a team and get cracking. I selected the best team in baseball—the Atlanta Braves (at the time of writing)— and kicked off (excuse the incorrect sporting reference) the 2013 baseball season. Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to lead this motley crew to the postseason … would it?
The game engine
OOTP’s game engine is impressive and allows the player to choose his level of involvement. If you want to be GM—i.e., trade a few players, invest in better scouting, control the draft, raise ticket prices to increase salary budget—then there is an option to let your manager make roster decisions and manage in-game.
On the other extreme you can play the season literally in real time and watch a three-hour game of baseball simulated pitch-by-pitch, tinkering where and when you like as Tony La Russa was wont to do. And there is a range of options in between: playing select games or managing games but at a much faster speed. Me? I’ve got a job to do and a family to feed so I decided to play quasi-GM. In essence I’ll build up a great team and if it gets to the playoffs, get involved in the minutiae of in-game management to make certain of success.
However you choose to play the game there are many lower levels of customization. Want your manager to favor players with higher OBP? Then knock the OBP bar a few points up. Want to go crazy with hit and run? Ditto on that bar. And so it goes. Suffice to say you can fiddle with many parameters to shape your team in the way you want it to play baseball.
The ability to customize the game to your own playing ethos is incredible and adds to the enjoyment of OOTP. However, it does come at a cost— the interface is complex and the game has a reasonably steep learning curve. I am not an expert in user interface design but after playing the game for a month I am convinced it is possible to make it simpler.
The current menu system is organized by whether you want to do something at the manager level, league level, or team level. Clicking on, say, the “league” button spits out a sub-menu with a range of options. As I was navigating through the structure I did wonder whether a more “activity-led” navigation system could make more sense, dare I say it, like the ribbon on some of the Microsoft productivity software tools.
On occasion I found it difficult to do some basic tasks that I would have expected a baseball management simulation to do. For example, I was in the market for a new third baseman and ideally what I’d like to do is look at all third baggers and then see who I could construct a trade for. However, this option was seemingly unavailable as the trade engine is team-based i.e., you click on a team and select a player in that team. I am sure there is a (no doubt simple) way to do this but from the interface design I cannot find it.
OOTP 14 is very enjoyable. I have played 15 seasons in varying roles ranging from the tinkering micro-manager making play-by-play decisions to the strategic GM sitting in the boardroom buying and selling players. My personal style tends more toward the GM role—this means that you can play through a season in one to two hours, rather than days or weeks if you want to run play through every game.
In GM mode, if I can call it that, the central part of the game is the trading engine, and here, at least out of the box, the game is probably a little generous in terms of trading. After speaking to the guys at OOTP, this was on purpose to prevent players getting frustrated by trading limitations that happen in real life. If you want to up the challenge of trading, you simply change a setting.
That’s probably the right approach but it would be nice to be able to set up trading realism at the start-up screen. And I still found the trading engine to spit out some funny outcomes. Let me give one example. At the end of the 2015 season, I was determined to sign Miguel Cabrera as a free agent. Interestingly he was asking for a two year contract at $20M a year—which is low in years and dollars given he had been as productive as usual in 2014 and 2015.
I piled in with a two-year $50M contract rubbing my hands with the prospect of adding a big bat to the lineup. Cabrera told me he would think about it but eventually signed with the Phillies. Surprisingly, he didn’t sign a long term/valuable deal … rather it was a two-year $35 million contract.
Determined to get my man I decided to dangle Craig Kimbrel in front of the Phillies’ front office to see if that was enough to snag him. Guess what? It was. He was in year two of a five-year, $49 million contract extension (I couldn’t decide whether that was a good deal or not) and had just come off a 5.26 ERA year. So the Phils give up a great hitter and take on more salary to get a closer coming off a bad year.
Want another trade anecdote? How about Brian McCann and three middling prospects for Neftali Feliz and a Rangers Double-A young gun … as a real life Braves’ fan you’d probably take that. Actually I’m okay with this game trade—what made it slightly one-sided is that McCann had just signed a $17 million average annual value contract and I was able to tie Feliz up for significantly less: $35 million for four years (really??). It was a great deal for me as McCann spent much of the next five years on the DL, which given his history isn’t overly surprising.
If you turn up the realism on the trade engine, some of the foibles disappear, and depending on how realistic you want you OOTP experience to be I’d encourage you to do that.
Playing as GM, a core part of the game is to operate within the financial parameters given; i.e., your budget and player payroll. There isn’t a lot of freedom to increase revenue other than by raising ticket prices, which I did early on despite not having a particularly strong team. After a three years, I was able to shunt the Braves from middling in payroll to having the second highest in the bigs—which facilitated the signing on Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper as big-name free agents on A-Rod style contracts.
Trading is a lot of fun but not as satisfying as unearthing a couple of uber-prospects as you unload a couple of high paid veterans to a team in need. My favorite pick-up was catcher David Freitas (first year in the bigs) from the Athletics in return for Jonny Venters, Mark Trumbo and a couple of other make-weights. Freitas went on to produce a string of 7-8 WAR seasons.
Long term playability
OOTP is one of the deepest sports games I’ve played. I’m still going strong in my 13th year as GM of the Braves. Although I didn’t win the World Series, I reached the playoff quite a few times but eventually the team got weighed down with my mega-contracts (hint: don’t sign Strasburg to a $32M AAV seven- year contract and then give him a $24 million AAV four-year extension), and now the team is in rebuilding mode.
The challenge I find in simulation games as you play for a long time is that you don’t know who the players are. In the early years it is fun to hunt for major/minor league talent that you know; then, as you build a winning team, you generate a bond with some of the finds. But as they age I found it harder to sustain interest. To be honest, in the year 2026 I am probably done with this game instance and will head back to the start and maybe see if I can win with a different team.
I’ve had a lot of fun with this game and I’d unequivocally recommend it to anyone. After a bit of fiddling it is possible to set up the game to play quickly (helpful if you are time constrained) or to a much greater level of involvement if you are so inclined. At $40 the game isn’t exactly cheap, but has a ton more depth than many other modern games that cost 50 percent more.
Sure, there are a few minor niggles—the trade system on default mode is a little lenient and spits out a few funny outcomes (see Cabrera above) but it doesn’t really detract from the fun of the game. And the interface is a little daunting and perhaps could be streamlined, but after a few hours of play you’ll figure it out. In short, it is the best fun you’ll have on a computer without MLB.TV open!
References & Resources
Thanks to the folks at OOTP—specifically Brad Cook—for answer my questions about the game.