Out of the Park Developments makes some of the most beloved and hardcore sports-management sims. Its fans come back year-after-year for its signature spreadsheet action. But a couple of years ago, the studio spotted an opportunity to grow its audience and its revenues in the live-service space. In the fall, it launched its Perfect Team mode, and now the developer is already talking about how this is freeing it up to do even more in the future.

As you might expect from the name, Perfect Team takes a lot of cues from the Ultimate Team mode in EA Sports’s Madden and FIFA. It has players build a team by collecting baseball stars from card packs. Some cards are better than others, and they are also likely more rare. Once you have your team, you take them online to compete against other squads. And competing is a lot like the rest of Out of the Park Baseball. It has you building a team, setting lineups for righties and lefties, creating a pitching rotation, and setting up a bullpen. It’s a clever mode that can keep fans coming back for months, and it also enables people to spend more money than just the upfront cost of the game.

It’s also a departure for the Out of the Park Baseball series, which is now two decades old. And OOTP Developments knew it would have to win over some skeptical fans.

“There was definitely skepticism,” OOTP chief marketing officer Rich Grisham told GamesBeat. “Skepticism like, is this going to be pay to win? Number one. And number two, is this is going to suck resources away from making the core game better? Are you guys going to abandon us? That was the key concern.”

It’s easy for long-time fans of a game series to view live-service money as a siren song that could potentially lure their favorite studio away. Resources are finite. If a studio starts seeing significantly greater return on its investment by selling microtransactions, why would it keep doing things the old way? Grisham notes that some fans still have those concerns.

“It’s not like this has been been out for five years,” he said. “It’s been out for three or four months. Our goal is just to demonstrate with the next version of the game how that skepticism is unfounded.”

Perfect Team’s success is benefiting the traditional game

Perfect Team is already doing well for OOTP Developments. And the studio is reinvesting in its team to help with updates as well as new games.

“Perfect Team has allowed us to hire multiple new people for the studio and invest in all sorts of stuff for the core game that we wouldn’t have been able to do,” said Grisham. “For example, we haven’t officially announced Out of the Park Baseball 20 yet, but we’re chatting with our fans about it, because everyone knows we’re going to make it.”

Some of those improvements include new motion-capture sessions to improve the visuals. And the team also plans to bring in some of the live-service technology into the core experience to ensure players have up-to-the-minute statistics.

Perfect Team is also onboarding new fans that could expand Out of the Park Baseball’s player base in the future.

“[Other] feedback has been, this is the best tutorial for Out of the Park Baseball you guys could have possibly made,” said Grisham. “That was a complete surprise. That was not expected. But it makes sense in hindsight because Perfect Team takes a lot of the core stuff from Out of the Park Baseball without having to do some of the more detailed franchise management.”

Week-long seasons

One of the other keys to establishing Perfect Team as a complementary mode to the core game is its seasonal structure. While traditional Out of the Park Baseball has you competing against the A.I. at your own pace, Perfect Team is much quicker and more condensed.

Each season in Perfect Team is a week long. During that season, your squad will play 162 games against a bunch of other people in your league. And the developer separates those leagues like tiers in Overwatch or League of Legends.

“Monday morning at 10 a.m. the new season starts,” said Grisham. “Games run every 30 minutes. You can have this thing on in the background and see if you won or lost every 30 minutes. Then, you can go to the auction house and buy a card. You earn currency when you’re playing a game so you can get a new set of card packs. If you make it to Saturday you have the pennant chase, and then Sunday is all about the playoffs. Monday morning, it’s brand new again.”

Each week leads into the next in terms of your ranking. You may move up, stay the same, or get relegated down a tier. This ensures that each week puts plenty at stake, but if things go bad, you can start to turn them around next Monday.

“You can have a great week and it’s awesome,” said Grisham. “Or you can go on vacation for a week and your team will be in the background earning points for you. You come back and, oh look, I didn’t even have to pay attention last week and I earned 2000 points. Now I’m going to play again this week with more focus. That’s been fantastic.”

The future

OOTP Developments wants to build on this foundation. It also wants improvements in one mode to feed into the other.

To that end, it has brought on two people to work on a mobile app called OOTP Go. The app will enable players to control many aspects of their game while away from their PC. The studio also has the opportunity to expand Perfect Team to Franchise Hockey Manager or to even release Perfect Team as a standalone product.

For now, however, it’s primarily interested in serving its dedicated fans and bringing in new ones.

You can read my full interview with Grisham on the next page:

GamesBeat: Tell me about the state of Out of the Park Baseball: Perfect Team

Rich Grisham: Late last fall we released Perfect Team, which is the new free mode that’s part of our Out of the Park Baseball 19 game. Out of the Park Baseball 19, the proper game, came out in March. As we spoke over a year ago, we’ve been working on this for years. We did a whole lot of planning, a lot of design, and a lot of hoping. We had never done anything like this before, introducing a new live service based mode featuring the ability to basically collect baseball cards from the entirety of baseball and put a team together, and then take that team and compete in a full 162-game season over a single week, against a bunch of other people.

Using our baseball strategy engine, you can set up all your strategies, your pitching rotations and your lineups, make adjustments, rip player packs for cards with different levels — gold, diamond, perfect — and just go out there and see what’s going to happen and compete. It came out a few months ago. We did a beta and then we released it to the public. It’s been an astounding success. We’re all just thrilled. The best part about it is that an entirely community has organically sprung up around it. We have more than 10,000 teams in our Perfect Team leagues, and they’re different tiers. You enter in the minor leagues and then if you’re successful, you get promoted to higher levels, ultimately going all the way to the top tiers.

We’ve created a brand new Discord, and we have more than 2200 people in the Discord. It’s just created this entirely new group of fans that love this thing. It’s been an astounding revelation. I could go on and on, but it’s been an amazingly positive experience for us and for the community. We’re just getting started.

GamesBeat: Was there skepticism when you first announced this to your core audience?

Rich Grisham: Very much, yes. This year, coming up, is the 20th anniversary of Out of the Park Baseball. We have a very long, very established traditional base of fans. They love the game and they’ve been playing it, many of them, for 10 years or more. There was definitely skepticism. Skepticism like, is this going to be pay to win? Number one.

Number two, is this is going to suck resources away from making the core game better? Are you guys going to abandon us? That was the key concern. There still are some of those concerns. It’s not like this has been been out for five years. It’s been out for three or four months. Our goal is just to demonstrate with the next version of the game how that skepticism is unfounded.

Perfect Team has allowed us to hire multiple new people for the studio and invest in all sorts of stuff for the core game that we wouldn’t have been able to do. For example, we haven’t officially announced Out of the Park Baseball 20 yet, but we’re chatting with our fans about it, because everyone knows we’re going to make it. We’ve publicly shown, on our social media feed, pictures of our motion capture video that we did to make the 3D visuals in the game a lot better. We’ve talked about how we’re going to use some live services in our core game to make sure that players can be using up to the minute statistics and things like that.

Obviously we haven’t gone into details on that. But there’s a whole bunch of stuff we’ll be able to do this year and in the future that’s going to be completely paid for by the investment in the infrastructure that we made in our new live services mode that will benefit the core game. It’ll take time for people to see that, but they’re going to see it. They’re definitely going to see it.

GamesBeat: What’s the positive feedback been?

Rich Grisham: A few things. Number one, I did not think this was going to be nearly as fun as it is. It’s so fun, because there’s thousands of potential players that you can get. You could go up against a team that has a completely different set of players than you do. You can look and see how this other team has put things together.

There’s been a ton of, I didn’t think this would be as fun as it is, strategizing how to put my team together and how to find the right player that I want and how to look at individual player attributes and match them up to the style I want to play. You can play an old school style, play sabermetrics style, or pick from all sorts of options. So the number one feedback has been, this is so much more fun than I thought it would be.

The second big feedback has been, this is the best tutorial for Out of the Park Baseball you guys could have possibly made. That was a complete surprise. That was not expected. But it makes sense in hindsight because Perfect Team takes a lot of the core stuff from Out of the Park Baseball — building a team, setting lineups, lineups versus lefties, lineups versus righties, setting your pitching rotation, setting your bullpen, and competing — without having to do some of the more detailed franchise management. Managing finances and scouting and things like that.

That’s been great feedback, which was unexpected and very positive. The third piece of feedback is that just the overall design is incredibly fun. Meaning, you play an entire season in a week. Monday morning at 10 a.m. the new season starts. You’re put into whatever tier of league you’re supposed to be put in based on your performance from the previous week, or if you’re just starting you start in the minor leagues. Over the course of a week you might have a good year or a bad year. Games run every 30 minutes.

You can have this thing on in the background and see if you won or lost every 30 minutes. Then, you can go to the auction house and buy a card. You earn currency when you’re playing a game so you can get a new set of card packs. If you make it to Saturday you have the pennant chase, and then Sunday is all about the playoffs. Monday morning, it’s brand new. Again, you might be in a new league. You might be in the same league. You might get relegated.

But the whole weekly cadence, where Saturday becomes about the pennant race and Sunday becomes about the playoffs, and then on Monday morning it starts again–you can have a bad week and it’s fine. You can have a great week and it’s awesome. Or you can go on vacation for a week and your team will be in the background earning points for you. You come back and, oh look, I didn’t even have to pay attention last week and I earned 2000 points. Now I’m going to play again this week with more focus. That’s been fantastic.

GamesBeat: Do you think that’s been a big part of the reason people are latching on to this?

Rich Grisham: Absolutely. Everyone I talk to says that. It was even new for me. It was a revelation for me. When it first started in our beta, I had my team, and I was really into it. But then one week I had to travel. I had to go to LA and Seattle and Dallas on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I just didn’t have the time. But when I got back on Friday I said, oh, look at that, I didn’t pay any attention to my team this week, but I got 5000 extra points.

I’m only at .500, but that’s okay, because now I’m going to buy a bunch of packs and try to rip some good dudes and set my team up for success again on Monday. I didn’t even realize how great the design was. I wish I could say we designed it exactly that way with that in mind — and obviously our designer Marcus did do it that way for a reason — but it’s one thing to design it and another thing to see the impact of the design. That’s what’s been great.

The other thing, too, the feedback we get–this is a unique mode, but it also has some similarities like other modes like Ultimate Team and Diamond Dynasty. But the biggest difference between our mode and those modes is those modes are based on your stick skills. You have to be good on the joysticks to be good at Ultimate Team or Diamond Dynasty.

For this, you can be me. You can be a dude in his 40s whose stick skills are declining and have just as good a chance as anyone else. It’s not about whether I can hit a button at the right moment. That’s another thing that so many people have told me. It’s so much more fun to participate because, one, they can miss a little time and it’s okay, and two, it doesn’t matter if they’re a great video game player. That means nothing.

GamesBeat: Tell me how you’re avoiding pay to win.

Rich Grisham: A few things. Number one, we have multiple tiers. We have an entry pool. You can start every time. In the entry pool you assemble your team. We give you enough cards to put a full team together without paying anything, and then you get put into a bronze league, the lower tier league. Everyone in the bronze league, generally speaking, especially after a few weeks, has a similar team to you as far as the level of players. Then if you finish in the top six you go up from bronze to silver, and then silver to gold, and gold to diamond, and diamond to perfect.

There’s these layers that weed out the people who are either investing their money or are–you can get great cards not just by buying perfect points. If you rip a card pack and get a perfect level player, you can go sell him in the auction house. There are players that can go for 150,000 or 200,000 points. Between the different tiers, separating the different levels of participation people are going to do, and the fact that anybody can get great cards if they happen to make the right pull, and then turn that card into a lot of currency, those are a couple of different ways. When we first started, I went and spent $20. I said, 20 bucks, but no more. I put together a pretty good team, but now I’m stuck in gold level purgatory.

I’m not good enough to advance out or bad enough to go down. I’m trying to grind and win a World Series and get enough points so I can find an extra starting pitcher to get me over the top. A bunch of players are on Twitch. One of the cool things is that now, when I log in to Twitch and search for Out of the Park Baseball 19, there’s always two or three or four people playing it now. There used to be none, but now there’s always a couple, and on Saturdays and Sundays it’s a lot more than that.

A lot of those guys–we let you have up to three teams per account. A lot of guys have multiple teams. They have their no money spent team, they have their $20 team, and then they have their team where they’re just going to go for it. We have a lot of options and a lot of ways to play.

But we want to ensure that if people want to spend money, they can, but if people don’t want to spend money, they can still have a good time. There’s no perfect formula for that. We’re obviously still learning. But we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that people play the game in very different ways and they like it. We’re going to continue to monitor and tweak and adjust. We’ll introduce new ways to play it in Out of the Park Baseball 20. We’ve talked a bit publicly about how we’ll have tournaments and things like that. If you want to take your Perfect Team and play it in a tournament with a bunch of your friends, outside of the tiered leagues, that’s a whole different way to play it. Between multiple tiers and giving people different ways to play, that’s our approach to mitigating the pay to win concerns.

GamesBeat: You mentioned the gold purgatory. Are you satisfied with feeling like your goal right now is to find that pitcher just through playing the game? Is that satisfying?

Rich Grisham: Yeah, because that’s my own storyline, and it’s a storyline I’m working through a bunch of people in the community. They’re sort of helping me, because I said, look, I spend my own personal 20 bucks on this. I got a bunch of good players. I got out of bronze and silver and into gold. But my goal now is to advance into the diamond league without spending any more money. I’m trying to get that done.

I’m doing a live stream on our network next week where I’ll have a few people help me out. I’ve earned a bunch of points and I haven’t spent them, about 18000 which i’ve earned over the past few weeks. You can either go to the auction house and get a bunch of players, or you can buy 17 card packs and rip them and hope you get two or three really great cards. There’s no one approach to doing it. I’m working with our community and doing some live streams to say, okay guys–by the way, the community, those guys are so much smarter about this mode than I am.

There are guys like Paul Sporer from Fangraphs, who’s a big time baseball writer. He has a whole Perfect Team stream that he does every week and an audience. They break it down to levels where I’m like, man, you guys are good. I’m actually reaching out to the community for help because they really know exactly what the right strategies and approaches are. That’s been a ton of fun too.

GamesBeat: What does that community involvement look like? Is it like, you should make this move, or we can make this trade?

Rich Grisham: We don’t have trading yet. But we do have the ability to put up cards in the auction house. I can say, hey, I’m putting this diamond Ken Griffey up in the auction house. I’ll put a minimum buy of 5000 points. You can do that, communicate that, and then people can go to the auction house and search for it. It depends on what kind of team you want to have. You have the sabermetrics guys who look for certain attributes in players and they’re very mercenary about it. Then there are guys like me who grew up watching baseball in the 80s.

I’m all about starting pitching and defense. That’s how I think a good baseball team should be run. It depends on what kind of team you want to have, what kind of players you want to get, and what kind of strategies. You can set a strategy where, I want my starting pitchers to go a little longer, or I want to have a quick hook, or I want this guy, who might be speedy, to attempt a lot more stolen bases.

I want this lefty only coming in for certain situations, and so on. That’s been the cool thing. We’ve put this new mode on top of a really deep, 20-year-proven baseball simulation engine, and the combination has produced a lot of results that we were not expecting, and that we’re delighted to see.

GamesBeat: What platforms is this on? Is it on mobile?

Rich Grisham: It’s on PC. But next year we’re releasing a free app, a couple of tools we’ll launch whenever it’s ready. After we release Out of the Park Baseball 20 we’re releasing a free app called OOTP Go that will allow you to do a lot of the stuff that you do on your computer today on your mobile device.

GamesBeat: Is that another thing driven by the fact that you have the live service game?

Rich Grisham: 100 percent. We hired two guys–two months after we released Perfect Team, we hired two guys to build this, because we now have the resources to do it. Not only do we have the resources to do it, but with an additional income stream that’s not predictable, but certainly there’s more income coming in now–we just know we can make that investment, because we’ve seen that when we make the investment, it pays off. That wouldn’t be happening without Perfect Team and without the additional revenue coming in from live services.

GamesBeat: Are there any lingering doubts, any problems you’re running up against?

Rich Grisham: Sure. There are definitely issues. The best part about that is our community tells us right away. We can react right away. We’re still a small indie company. We have 2200 people on our Discord. We have two community managers, who we also wouldn’t have if we didn’t have Perfect Team. They’re in there interacting all the time. We’re constantly getting suggestions and feedback on what they like, or what–hey, this doesn’t work, this is a problem. I’ll give you a great example.

We have a feature called Friends. You can put a list of a few people that you identify as your friends, so that we could potentially group you with those friends in a league. That didn’t work very well. We heard very quickly and very matter of factly, hey, number one, what is this thing, and number two, why doesn’t it work? We’re releasing an updated version this week that’s going to make some adjustments on that to make it work even better because of that. We also introduced a new feature that’s going to allow for some better search capabilities, for example, on the auction house. There have been issues.

We made a couple of modifications that people didn’t like two or three weeks ago. We heard about it. We’re learning while they’re learning. I’m not just saying this. The community, the Out of the Park Baseball community, is amazing in such a positive way. A lot of gaming communities are very toxic. Ours is the opposite. It’s the most welcoming, friendly community I’ve ever been a part of. I like to think our community managers have fostered a lot of that. We have a very positive philosophy. We sign documents when anybody joins our organization, that we’re going to foster a positive environment, things like that. It’s by design. But it’s one thing to design it and another thing to actually do it.

We have a very positive community that understands this is brand new and understands that if we make a mistake, we’ll say, hey, you know what, that wasn’t the best thing to do. Give us a couple of days, a couple weeks, a couple months, and we’ll fix it. Or this is something we’ll address in the next version of the game. There’s been a bunch of little issues. Nothing major, but there’s been a couple of days where I’ve woken up and, whoa, we have a situation here. All credit to Marcus, the CEO and the lead designer. We’ve stepped up and we’ve addressed them to the best of our abilities.

You can’t make everybody happy all the time, but overall we have a very happy community. We have to maintain it. You don’t say, well, everyone’s happy, and then go away for three months. It’s a lot of work to keep it going. They have a direct line to us. Fans don’t have to go to anybody else. They go right to us and we go right to them. The other thing that’s been amazing about this is, basically, the enthusiast press doesn’t pay any attention to us anymore. Which is fine. I get it. I worked in the enthusiast press for a decade. You have to produce content that people are going to view, and a baseball strategy game is not at the top of that list.

But this has all happened without really any mainstream enthusiast press coverage whatsoever. It’s been completely successful because we’ve just managed to connect directly to our customers. No middlemen. Just us talking right to them and vice versa. It’s been amazing. We’re a small indie company. We made a couple of big bets. It could have all blown up in the wrong way and it could have all blown up in the right way.

We’re just thankful to our community that it’s gone the way it has. We are working harder than ever to make sure that the next version of the game and the next version of Perfect Team is 10 times better than ever before. I’m confident that everyone’s going to see that and feel that way.