Monday Tip-Off: Gameplay vs. Game Modes

MyCAREER in NBA 2K17 with the Denver Nuggets

We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with a look at the debate regarding the importance of gameplay vs. the importance of game modes, in basketball video games.

For the most part, we basketball gamers can generally agree that we want to see the games that we play get better and better with each release. Of course, we’re not always on the same page as far as the specific improvements are concerned. At the very least, we may prioritise them quite differently. We need to realise that these differing points of view are equally valid; it’s perfectly fine to like different aspects of the games, and as such, have a keener interest in seeing them improve compared to others. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see your fellow basketball gamers talking about something that doesn’t interest you, and not feel that they’re missing the point.

Perhaps the best example of this is the whole gameplay vs. game modes debate. It’s fair to say that most basketball gamers would agree that both gameplay and game modes are the most important aspects of any given release, but disagree on the importance of those aspects in relation to one another. I’ve recently seen a few comments that have derided the importance of game modes, and over the years, there have been more than a couple of remarks that have downplayed the necessity of getting the gameplay experience right. To that end, I thought that I’d offer up my thoughts on the debate regarding gameplay vs. game modes.

First of all, gameplay is paramount. Quite simply, a game has to be enjoyable to play. When it comes to sim-oriented basketball games, this means hitting upon quite a few important points. The controls need to be deep, fluid, and responsive. The action needs to resemble the real life NBA. The players need to look and play like their real counterparts. The AI of CPU-controlled teammates and opponents needs to be smart, and realistic. Cheesy exploits need to be kept to a minimum. In short, a basketball video game needs to accurately depict and emulate a real game of basketball as much as possible. No one wants an unsatisfactory gameplay experience.

MyLEAGUE is one of the deepest game modes in NBA 2K17

However, the importance of game modes is often downplayed, and dismissed far too quickly. A quality gameplay experience is vital, but it also needs to be given purpose. The reason that game modes have become as deep and varied as they are now is because gamers have ultimately demanded it. Exhibition games lose their appeal after a while. A single season of play is insufficient. There’s a bunch of fun experiences to be had with basketball video games, and game modes are what provide us with those experiences in an organised, structured manner. Great gameplay makes us want to play video games; great game modes make us want to keep playing them.

Don’t believe me? Six words: NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360. The gameplay of the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 wasn’t too bad for its era, and is perhaps even a little underrated. The biggest strike against the game was its lack of modes. There was no Dynasty, no All-Star Weekend, and not even a standalone Playoffs mode. In that respect, not only did it have fewer game modes than the very well-rounded PC and PlayStation 2 versions of NBA Live 06, but fewer modes of play than NBA Live 95! It made the game look very bare bones compared to its predecessors and contemporaries, which has also been a problem with newer NBA Live releases.

NBA Playgrounds provides us with a more recent example. With no NBA Jam games since 2011, and no NBA Street titles since 2007, NBA Playgrounds has filled the arcade basketball gaming niche nicely. It’s been received very positively, sold half a million units in around three months, and has continued to improve since its launch. However, it is definitely very light on game modes. All of the offline tournaments can be completed in a day, at which point there isn’t much in the way of replay value. Gamers have defended this by citing the game’s price tag, but the similarly priced NBA Jam: On Fire Edition contained a much deeper mode in the form of Road Trip.

Regardless of the quality of the gameplay experience in the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06, and more recently NBA Playgrounds, the importance of deep, robust game modes is quite clear. Without a mode to get hooked on, and sink hours upon hours into over the course of several months, a basketball game lacks replay value. This leaves gamers wanting more, and in some cases, may even make it difficult for a title to justify its price tag. When other releases are delivering such an engaging experience with the depth and variety of their game modes, a bare bones title can leave us with a feeling of “sure, it’s fun to play, but not for very long”.

Stephen Curry in NBA Live 18

With all that being said, gameplay is ultimately a vital factor in enjoying game modes, too. If the game itself isn’t at all enjoyable to play, then the depth of its modes is rendered moot. Granted, you can use a deep franchise mode as a basketball management simulator, simply simulating through all the games and sticking to the frontend tasks. There are gamers who do that, but most of us do want to play the games, to say nothing of other game modes that can’t be enjoyed like a simulator title. While game modes give gameplay meaning and purpose, gameplay is unquestionably still at the heart of the experience.

So, what does this mean for the gameplay vs. game modes debate? Well, we could probably still argue as to whether their importance is truly equal, or whether we could feasibly rate one as being slightly more important than the other. However, it’s obvious that both aspects are vital in delivering an enjoyable gaming experience. Titles that have had enjoyable gameplay but lacked deep game modes have ultimately been disappointing. Likewise, releases that included a variety of reasonably robust game modes but had disappointing gameplay have left us feeling unsatisfied, too. Quality in one area cannot truly make up for a lack of quality in the other.

NBA 2K’s consistency in terms of its gameplay, combined with the attention that’s been paid to its game modes, has been a major factor in its continued success. It’s the reason it overtook NBA Live in sales and critical reception around a decade ago. While many of us do have our gripes about legacy issues, we’ve still had positive experiences with the gameplay, and been hooked on our mode of choice. With NBA Live 18 making some big strides in terms of gameplay, it’s important that its modes – The One, Dynasty, Ultimate Team – are also suitably beefy. The gameplay improvements are essential, but they’ll feel a bit empty if the modes are subpar.

The bottom line is that for a title to be a great basketball video game, it must deliver in terms of both gameplay and game modes. There can still be room for improvement in both areas, of course, but without enjoyable gameplay and game modes that provide ample incentive to keep playing for months at a time, a game is going to fall short of being great. The best basketball games that we’ve seen have been solid products all around: fun to play, with modes that have kept us engaged. We can debate which aspect we’d rank first in terms of importance, but at the end of the day, to dismiss the importance of either is to accept a product that isn’t as good as it should be.

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