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Level Design and Baseball

June 18, 2012

Schematic view of Fenway Park

In a previous post, I mentioned that there are only a few opportunities to explore level design in modern popular sports. The most obvious of these is golf, where the design of the course can vary wildly, to the extent that some courses can be significantly more or less difficult, more suited to a particular style of play, and ultimately more or less fun. Golf course design is an industry in and of itself, and supports celebrity designers distinct from (although often overlapping with) celebrity players.

The other opportunity for course design in popular sport is in baseball. While the layout and dimensions of the infield are strictly defined in the official MLB rules, however there are no regulations describing exactly where the fence that defines the overall dimensions of the stadium should be located, or what its dimensions should be. Because a shorter and closer outfield fence affords for easier home-runs, this provides the park designers with a small amount of freedom in designing the players’ experience.

Of course, the players’ experience isn’t the only factor under consideration when designing a park. I’ve touched on this point in the past, but one of the primary limitations in designing around professional sports is that money becomes involved to an extent that isn’t typically seen in other game design spheres. In the case of baseball stadium design, the impact of money is seen both on the supply side, how much it costs to build the park; as well as the demand side, that is more home runs are more exciting and may drive ticket sales.

Probably the most famous outfield feature in major league baseball is the Green Monster, the 30 foot high wall at Fenway Park in Boston. Fenway being in the middle of a densely packed urban neighborhood, the wall was originally built to limit views into the park of surrounding apartments and rooftops, who would otherwise be able to watch the games for free. Some measure of liability protection may also have been involved, as lower walls may have allowed errant balls to escape the park altogether, and land outside the park. At the other end of the outfield wall spectrum, San Francisco’s AT&T Park has exactly this problem: a low right field wall allows fly balls to exit the stadium. Fortunately, AT&T Park only faces San Francisco Bay, so property damage is pretty minimal even when it does occur.

But of course, any problems that professional parks have with regard to claiming enough space for a ball park is even worse for the relatively limited budgets outside the pro leagues, such as in public municipal or school fields. Earlier this week, my brother sent me a link describing how the vagaries of space limitations in non-professional sports can cause some interesting special case rules.

It’s a reasonable question if any of this actually counts as level design. I think that if we really want to characterize it as such, we need 2 things: impact and intentionality. The rules have to impact the way the game is played, and they also have to be design decisions that were intentionally enacted for that reason. Otherwise, they aren’t really levels, they’re just band-aids to work around limited resources.

Impact is relatively easy to establish in the major leagues. You would expect that the massive wall reduces the likelihood of right-handed hitters getting home runs, and it’s a fact that’s supported in the hitting statistics. Furthermore, it’s been suggested that the Green Monster gives Boston a pronounced home-field advantage, as practicing in the stadium allows them to become more familiar with the wall and the trajectory of balls bouncing off of it than their opponents, giving them an unequal advantage when playing at Fenway. While I’m not familiar with any specific statistics that back this up, the Red Sox organization seems to think it holds weight: their spring training facility in Florida features a replica of the Green Monster so that players can stay acclimated to it’s behavior in the off season.

Intentionality is a little harder to show. The amateur league rules seem largely designed to minimize the impact of these features on the flow of the game. Rules for hits striking walls abutting the field and rolling down underpass tunnels seem to be chosen to give a reasonable approximation of what the play would most likely have been like if the obstacles hadn’t been in place. Even the Green Monster suffers a bit here. While the wall was unquestionably built intentionally, it’s unclear if the designers recognized the impact it would have on the game, or were primarily concerned with the impact it might have on ticket sales.

Fortunately, we do have a solid, unequivocal example of intentional level design being practiced in baseball stadium design, one that happily leans as much on tradition as on game design. When designing Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX, the architects were feeling particularly cheeky, and decided that a normal ball field just wasn’t interesting enough, so they decided to add a few elements. They looked through baseball history and identified some irregular features from classic stadiums that they could replicate. A hill was placed in center field, inspired by Ohio’s Crosley Field, which makes fielding bouncing balls a little more interesting. Furthermore, a flagpole on the hill sits in fair territory, meaning that a ball can hit the pole without the play ending. Or, as a Dartmouth pong player might describe it: “The flagpole is air”. To clear up any confusion, Minute Maid Park has some house rules that describe these interactions.

Tals Hill at Minute Maid Park

Note the flagpole within fair territory.

So, in Minute Maid Park, we have a clear example of a baseball field where the design of the park inherently changes the rules (the hill) or necessitates a specific rule change (flagpole), and where the changes were made entirely deliberately specifically in order to bring about such a change. There’s no question in my mind that the Minute Maid park architects count as level designers.

Are there any other baseball stadiums that deliberately influence the rules of the game? Leave a comment if you can think of one.

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