While Electronic Arts’ Earl Weaver Baseball series is heralded as the game that brought realism to the forefront of video games based on America’s pastime, Atari subdivision Tengen’s RBI Baseball was easily the first truly amazing home console recreation of the sport. The first game to feature a license with the Major League Players’ Association as well, it gave players an opportunity to play with their childhood heroes. Originally a successful arcade franchise in Japan before it hit consoles, RBI Baseball’s pick-up-and-play game mechanics endeared it to a litany of players and made it one of the biggest cult sports successes of the 8-Bit generation.
First appearing as Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium in arcades and later on the Nintendo Family Computer in 1986, Atari was able to port the game to American Arcades and then bring an English version to the Nintendo Entertainment System a year later. But make no mistake, this is far from a straight port. Featuring 10 Major League teams at the time and both the American and National League All-Star teams, as well as authentic player abilities, RBI Baseball was absolutely a blast to play for both hardcore stat junkies and kids looking for fun with friends on the NES.
The decision to bring RBI Baseball to the United States was one made by Atari for a slew of reasons and one that played a role in their success in the late ‘80s in the arcade and on the NES and later, Super Nintendo and Sega family of consoles. Contrary to popular thought, although it was just a few years after the “collapse” of the video game industry in America, Atari, the once industry leader, wasn’t defeated yet. If anything, they were still were much alive and kicking. Although they now watched companies the likes of Sega and Nintendo try to put the pieces of the console side of the industry back together, they were still creating games for the Atari family of consoles, as well as the NES (among others) and of course, the arcades. Just like their work in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Atari made sure they always had a group of talented creators and programmers on-hand. The end result was the creation of some of the best and most underrated sports titles in gaming history. Among them was RBI Baseball.
“There were a lot of us at Atari who were interested in baseball. We used to go over to see the (San Francisco) Giants or the (Oakland) A’s play fairly frequently,” Peter Lipson, the programmer on the arcade and NES versions of RBI Baseball said. “A few of us would often go to the San Jose Bees minor league park. Several people used to make an annual trip to spring training down in Phoenix- and that’s still going on with a smaller group. This included myself, Don Traeger, along with Mike Halley, John Salwitz, Dave Ralston and a few others. In those days, the experience was a lot more casual. And we had a company softball team, the Survivors, named that because the players had made it through a mass layoff around the time the team started.”
Not only did The Survivors play softball and work together, enjoying many afternoons practicing on the field and nights “praying” for victory at Togo’s bar before every game, they played video games together as well. In-house tournaments of games were common and developers hanging out in the lab and enjoying a co-worker’s in-progress creations were the norm. There was also a love of baseball at Atari- to the point of it being the quasi-religion of the company. Every developer had a team they were die-hard about and their California roots gave them plenty of teams to root for. The rivalries were so intense that rather than a swear-jar, employees at Atari had a jar bet every year. Every Friday, John (Salwitz) would put a dollar for every game the Giants were behind the Dodgers in the standings. If the Dodgers were behind, Dave (Ralston) did the same. By the end of the year, the cash garnered would go towards a night of “prayer” at the Prince of Wales bar in the Palo Alto area.
But a love of baseball was just one part of the RBI Baseball formula, however. The group was smart enough to understand the culture of the industry was changing. There was far more competition than just a few years ago. And rather than fight it, Lipson and the rest of The Survivors embraced it. They knew that if Atari was going to continue to survive, they had to be a team and help out when needed. So while Lipson was the sole programmer on the game, the feedback he got from the rest of the team during the development played an integral role. “We also had a tradition of bringing in coin-op games from other manufacturers and putting them in the common area for anyone to play,” Lipson said. “One of the games that came in that way was RBI Baseball from Namco. I think John Salwitz was one of the others who played it a lot. I forget whether I suggested we do an American version, or if Atari’s V.P. Dan Van Elderen approached me. I think I had just finished developing Indiana Jones and hadn’t started another game yet. I agreed to work with Namco’s engineers to do a version with American players.”
What made Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium, which would later be known to American audiences as RBI Baseball, such an enjoyable game was the gameplay. The controls were simple and fun and made a slow and strategic sport such as baseball far more dynamic. Leadoff hitters were fast (St. Louis Cardinals’ Vince Coleman practically flew around the base paths in the game on the NES). Cleanup hitters hit for power. Fireballers threw hard. Fielding was simple and intuitive. The only thing RBI Baseball needed was an American touch. Something that made it different from every other arcade and NES game that didn’t have any real players in it). That became Lipson’s job. A veteran of the industry who’d go on to work on the Spyro, Skylanders, Tony Hawk and Prince of Persia franchises, Lipson’s involvement with the game was also the first of two baseball games he’d work on in his career.
“A lot of variety,” Lipson said of his career in gaming. “This includes pinball machines, redemption machines, bar top games, movie-licensed games, lots of different consoles, PC games, toys. I’ve been really lucky to have spanned most of the eras of the industry. I’ve done two baseball games- RBI and Relief Pitcher. I quite liked the concept that led to Relief Pitcher, though it maybe didn’t end up as good as I hoped. It’s been so long since then I can’t really speak to its quality. I have a patent on the control scheme for that one too! I suppose you can say that it rose out of some of the lessons we drew from RBI and other baseball and sports-themed games. One game that influenced it too was Ten-Yard Fight, which was a very cool football game. Most sports games, including RBI, attempted to simulate a full game as closely as possible. Even CyberBall preserved the flow of the game. But in coin-op, we usually had different structures. We wanted to have as many opportunities of getting you to feed in another quarter as we could arrange, so games were based on having short waves of action and on losing lives. The role of a reliever, saving games (or blowing a save) seemed to be a perfect fit. It was easy to tune the waves for difficulty, too. There are tons of variables- how many outs left to get, who’s on what base, how fast or aggressive are the baserunners, what batters do you face?”
While console gaming obviously has its differences with the experience of the arcade, the ability to understand how to keep a player hooked was something Lipson has a plethora of experience in. His baseball knowledge certainly benefitted the game as well, but he also got schooled in the Japanese side of the sport during his programming work on RBI Baseball. The experience also gave him an opportunity to have some one-of-a-kind moments that still resonate with him over 30 years later.
“The most memorable parts were my two trips to Japan. I suspect the deadline must have been tight because I remember that I flew business class on JAL in a big 747, which was pretty close to what first-class is now,” Lipson said. “The reason I remember that so well is that I had papers spread out all over the big work area next to my seat as I went through the Bill James’ Baseball Encyclopedia polishing off the rosters and working out the stats. Also had a very tasty bento-box lunch in a nice wooden box, and cocktails in nice heavy glassware; something that’s no longer part of my flying experiences! I traveled with Dan on my first trip, and alone the second one. This was nice because I got to tag along with the V.P., meeting Namco’s president and in general having some perks above my pay-grade. We also got to go to some kind of game convention south of the main part of Tokyo, probably on the harbor, which was similar to the AMOA conventions I’d been to in the U.S.
“Another highlight of the first trip was that we went to see the Yomiuri Giants. Dan (Van Elderen) is well over six feet and looked pretty uncomfortable wedged into the tiny seats of the stadium. They had whiskey and bento boxes for sale in the stands, which was nice, but if you caught a foul-ball, someone in a multi-color striped suit would come and take it from you. They also had a home-section and an away-section, like a college game, and if I recall, even a band. But that may be stretching my memory too far! The second trip I was on my own, staying at the New Otani on the edge of a district with a lot of western influences (like a McDonalds). It was nice starting out the day with a Western-style breakfast because I got them to take me to different places for our other meals. It was tasty, but I was used to American-style quantities.
“Between the two games, (one of the game’s Japanese developers) Ken Watanabe came out to the U.S. and I was able to get good tickets to an S.F. Giants game. We had some morning meetings, I guess, and I took him to a local sporting-memorabilia store in Milpitas so he could get some souvenirs to take home. I was telling him that it’d be pretty easy to scalp tickets, since the Giants sucked those years, and explaining the concept when the guy running the store overheard me and offered to sell us his seats. He had season tickets and wasn’t going to go that night. So we had great seats behind the first-base dugout. In one of the early innings, a foul ball screamed past us and banged loudly into the balls-and-strikes scoreboard on the face of the upper deck, and that was the first time Watanabe realized there were no nets; there were tall nets from first to third base in the park we’d been to in Japan. I told him that it might be a bit more dangerous but at least we could keep the ball if it came to us.”
While these events were special ones in his career, Lipson acknowledged they didn’t change his job on RBI Baseball. Not the designer of the game, Lipson’s hands were tied when it came to implementing any changes to differentiate it from the Japanese version- away from adding American teams and players. “There are a few things that would have been nice (to change), but nothing I really regret about the experience,” Lipson said. “It would have been nice to have the infield-fly rule fixed, for example. Also, it would have been nice to have more to do with the coding of the game. I’m primarily a programmer, not a game designer or producer, but that’s more what my roles were on RBI. I’m pretty sure I never had a version of the game that I could build and run. I think I was given the data format that was used to control the player’s behavior, which obviously wasn’t a direct correlation to batting average, number of home runs, or anything like that. It was probably a set of parameters controlling things like speed and others controlling randomized actions like the odds the ball would be a fly vs. a ground ball or the direction it might go. So I’d go over the stats that were available and try to come up with a nice variety of players who’d ideally generate similar numbers to the real thing. One thing that was tough to find out for many pitchers was what their pitch repertoire was- I mean, everyone knows Bob Feller had a great fastball, but what was his specialty pitch and how often did he throw it? With no control over the code, I wasn’t in a position to mess with the flow of the game, which would have been necessary to implement the infield fly rule or anything else (like, the pitcher covering home or backing up the bases – not that I’m sure they didn’t do that!)”
But don’t confuse Lipson’s inability to change the game’s code for sour grapes. RBI Baseball’s arcade gameplay and real players strike up a legendary formula that has been mimicked dozens of times over, with mixed results. Even 30 years later, the game is still revered by fans. Because of that, being the chief Atari employee involved in a game that set the bar so high for Baseball games is a personal highlight for Lipson. “A lot of the games I’ve worked on have done pretty well, and others are kind of lost in obscurity,” Lipson said. “RBI is one of the few that people still remember and I think the only one that’s still being updated, so that’s very cool. I’m pretty happy with the way the first versions turned out – I think that the teams were well constructed and the balance was pretty good – and I’d like to think that had something to do with making it a success in this country. But the team in Japan had created a game with a great balance between having the feel of playing baseball but making the appropriate concessions to the medium. Short, roly-poly players were absolutely the right way to go and having the outfielders move as a group was too. In coin-op, we prized simple, effective, easy-to-learn controls that still allowed for player skill. They hit that mark very well.”
And although he was unable to make the game much different from its Japanese counterpart, the research he conducted during the RBI Baseball cycle absolutely affected his next baseball game, Relief Pitcher. “(For RBI Baseball) I spent a lot of time going through the Bill James books, trying to choose players and figure out how to turn their stats into data for the game logic. As I mentioned, there were a lot of baseball fans at Atari and I’m sure we let them influence the skills of the players,” Lipson said. “That’s another feature I remember better from Relief Pitcher– we posted a bunch of un-named players with proposed stats on the wall of the lab and let people put their name on the one that resonated with them. So the rosters are full of Atari Survivors players with somewhat sweetened stats.”
Over three decades removed from RBI Baseball and the release of Relief Pitcher, memories can get hazy, but Lipson still remembers that baseball games were never easy to create. In an era where realism is key, Lipson believes it’s even more difficult today because a premium is focused on details- many of which the gamer doesn’t care about in order to have a good time with a game. “The modern ones fall into the uncanny-valley problem. Baseball is pretty tough to simulate or represent realistically. The field’s huge, and the ball moves really fast. I had that problem in Relief Pitcher – the ball moves several feet each frame, and with latency (it takes a few frames for its position to be drawn and for your control input to be read) it becomes extremely difficult to find a way that ball movement can be very subtle or the batter’s response to having much variability. Fielding moves have to start before the camera even shows where the fielders are, and not all the action can fit on-screen while looking realistic. I couldn’t find a YouTube video of it, but one thing I remember is the animation of a player sliding into home. The extreme foreshortening made it look like some kind of Mr. Natural image – the foot was huge as it came toward you, but the player’s upper body was pretty tiny.
“So I guess you could say that one of the lessons I learned then but was reinforced by other games, was to keep it simple and stylistic. I’d made the same mistake in the Indiana Jones NES game – we tried to put too much in too small a space. Super Mario came out during the development of Indiana Jones, with a character taking up four times the space we allowed for Indy and way simpler controls. We just said “oops.. oh well” and carried on. A bit late for a redesign at that time! But games I had a part in designing after those experiences tended to shy away from forcing a realism that wasn’t going to work anyway. I suppose the games I’ve worked on at Toys For Bob, like Skylanders in particular, have shown that philosophy too (even though my design contributions at TFB have been extremely limited at best).”
Understanding from the beginning that RBI Baseball’s main objective was to be fun, Lipson flourished in his role as a programmer. While sales data for a game the likes of RBI Baseball is next to impossible to find, the RBI Baseball franchise stuck around through the next console generation and eventually was able to feature every Major League team and nearly every player, quite an accomplishment for a game that started out as a port of popular Japanese arcade game. “I know it was successful in Atari’s eyes, but I don’t have any memory of sales figures if I ever knew them,” Lipson said. “I do remember I got a $10K bonus for it, which was one of the better game bonuses I got while I was there. That’s a small fraction of the bonus that one of the successful coin-op games could bring, but I was pretty happy with it!”
Although the series was shelved in 1995 after its appearance on the Sega 32X, in 2014, the brand was revived by Major League Baseball Advanced Media and has been a released yearly since on a variety of consoles from the PlayStation 3 and 4 as well as the Xbox One, 360 and Nintendo Switch. While not as highly-regarded as Sony’s MLB: The Show series, RBI continues to add new features and get better yearly. For Lipson, seeing the series still alive and kicking is a cool feeling.
Nevertheless, he’s not shy to admit how proud he is of the original. “I was pleasantly surprised to see its long-term success,” Lipson said. “The design was so good, being so well matched to the technology of the day and I hope my roster choices and the way I tried to balance the teams made it appealing here, so I wasn’t surprised that it was successful when it came out. In some ways, I feel about it the way I feel about Angry Birds. That game’s essentially the first well-crafted version of the old TTY game Artillery. They got all the touches right – the characters look good in the chosen media, the controls are smooth and appropriate to the technology, the art style’s appealing – so that game kind of fills its niche, forcing others to differentiate.
“RBI did that for the arcadey-style of a baseball game. Many others have tried to fill the most-realistic-sim niche for baseball, and the definition of that niche will change as tech changes. But basic, simple arcade-style action is always fun, and RBI has that locked up. I wish the teams that are updating it each year the best of luck, but I do hope that people do remember the original’s simplicity and fun factor.”