Monday Tip-Off: Head in the Cloud – Basketball Video Games & Always-On

Gaming in NBA 2K14's MyCAREER

We’re at midcourt, the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Get your week started here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to basketball video games.

Always-on remains a controversial issue in video gaming, right up there with downloadable content, microtransactions, and third party developers producing platform exclusives. So strong is the backlash against it, Microsoft even had to change its approach with the Xbox One, and is arguably still feeling the effects of its initial stance as the console continues to be out-sold by the PlayStation 4. The message is clear: gamers do not like always-on.

As the online component of basketball video games has become a bigger part of the experience, our community has started to feel the sting of always-on and cloud saves. Key game modes require a constant connection to the Internet, and while a couple of them can also be played offline, issues can arise when there are temporary connection or server issues. But what happens when the server is shut down for good?

The controversy in the wake of the NBA 2K14 servers being shut down back in April, and issues with Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network last Christmas, perfectly illustrate the dangers of an always-on approach. It’s imperative that both Visual Concepts and EA Sports take heed of the situation, and incorporate some appropriate measures when developing future games.

First and foremost, there needs to be adequate contingency plans in place. Originally, VC responded to inquiries about the NBA 2K14 server shutdown with assurances that saved games would still be available to play in offline mode; microtransactions and other online elements would no longer be available, of course, but the saves themselves would still be playable. This wasn’t the case however, as users found that saved games they had spent hundreds of hours playing – and in some cases, spent real money on, too – were no longer accessible.

LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant in NBA 2K14

Although the situation would ultimately be resolved by reactivating the servers for NBA 2K14 and extending the online support for all 2K titles from 18 to 27 months, the initial response describing the saves as “retired” was a clumsy and ill-advised PR move that came off as condescending, and only made gamers angrier. And while it addresses the situation for now, it raises a couple of questions. What happens when the server is shut down again, when 27 months is up? Will we run into the same problem with NBA 2K15, NBA 2K16, and beyond?

It stands to reason that servers are going to be shut down eventually. At a certain point, there simply aren’t enough people playing a game to justify the cost and effort of keeping a server maintained and running. But when the servers are shut down, it’s vital that any modes that can be played offline continue to function in a satisfactory manner, and that saved games don’t disappear along with an inaccessible cloud.

There also needs to be a contingency plan in place for temporary outages. Currently, if you start a MyCAREER game in online mode, utilising Virtual Currency and allowing for microtransactions, you can’t play that game if the server, network, or your Internet connection is down. Well, you can, but it will permanently become an offline save. In other words, if there are a few days of connectivity issues, you’re going to have to avoid playing a saved game that you’re presumably really invested in and enjoying.

Cloud saves also present problems for basic functionality that has been a part of sports games for a couple of decades now. The ability to create custom rosters is a vital feature, but due to the absence of local saves, roster editing in NBA 2K14 was somewhat limited and cumbersome. Fortunately, NBA 2K15 did see the return of Create-a-Player, and more user-friendly roster editing and sharing facilities. Meanwhile, custom roster functionality is completely absent in NBA Live 14 and NBA Live 15. Sadly, it did not make a comeback in NBA Live 16, and I would suggest that it absolutely needs to return in NBA Live 17.

DeAndre Jordan in NBA Live 16

Of course, even with locally saved rosters, a dependency on cloud storage and server up-time creates certain issues when it comes to sharing them. Take the current sharing facilities in NBA 2K15 and NBA 2K16, for example. They’re effective and easy to use, but obviously useless if the server is down, or permanently unavailable following the inevitable shutdown. While it’s possible to locate and share roster files outside of the game, it’s useless to do so, as the files are tied to the user’s profile. That’s an issue that’s hit us for the first time on PC, as NBA 2K15 and NBA 2K16 are digital only releases on Steam.

There always seem to be a contingent of the basketball gaming community that’s still getting enjoyment out of an older release, and putting some good work into keeping it updated. Beyond the PC releases of NBA Live and NBA 2K that are still getting updates here at the NLSC, dedicated fans of College Hoops 2K8 have been releasing new rosters over at Operation Sports, long after online support for the game has been discontinued. Unfortunately, that isn’t feasible for any of the games released in the past couple of years.

Obviously, both EA Sports and Visual Concepts are looking to sell a new game every year, and naturally want (and expect) a majority of dedicated fans to buy the latest release. They can’t guarantee online support indefinitely, and there’s usually some incentive to at least consider upgrading to a new game. For all of the declarations gamers make that they’re never buying another basketball game from EA or VC, the new games still sell copies. In fact, NBA 2K16 has already sold over four million units.

That said, not everyone is going to buy a new game every year. There are going to be gamers who want to get a few years out of a title, either because they don’t care for changes in the most recent game, or they’ve spent a lot of time (and possibly money, with the rise of microtransactions) in one of the modes. And of course, there are others who just want to dust off an old favourite every now and again. It’s important that gamers aren’t restricted from doing that…within reason, of course.

James Harden in NBA 2K16

The thing is, cloud saves are not going anywhere, and there are going to be fun and innovative modes that do require an active Internet connection. There’s value in that technology, and NBA Live and NBA 2K should be harnessing it to create a diverse, high quality basketball gaming experience. Cloud storage offers a convenient method of sharing files, or backing them up, should you accidentally delete or overwrite a local save. Basketball gamers want modes like Ultimate Team, MyTEAM, online leagues, MyPARK, and so on. And it’s fair enough that some of those modes will be unavailable, or at least limited, once a game is a few years old.

However, it’s essential that the online components do not restrict or inhibit basic functionality, render too many key game modes unplayable, or otherwise negatively affect the gaming experience, whether there’s a temporary outage or a permanent discontinuation of the servers. Moving forward, EA and VC must ensure that interruptions to online connectivity have as little impact as possible, and that we don’t see a repeat of the difficulties that were experienced following the shutdown of the NBA 2K14 servers. Both developers – indeed, all game developers – must utilise the technology carefully and responsibly, in order to show good faith to the consumer, and provide the best experience possible, for as long as possible.

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October 12, 2015 9:46 pm

Dear Andrew, each of your new long read is better than another. Thanks! 😉

October 12, 2015 10:43 pm

‘For all of the declarations gamers make that they’re never buying another basketball game from EA or VC, the new games still sell copies.’ — an excellent opinion. Fun, fun, fun! 🙂

October 13, 2015 12:34 pm

The argument is often made by game publishers (like 2K) that annually-released games (such as the NBA2K series) or on-going game series (like Call of Duty) have a limited shelf-life. It is for that reason that publishers (companies out to make money) eventually throw in the towel when a game reaches a certain cost-effectiveness status. The fact that many (if not most) players of such games do move on from the previous release to the new one once it comes out contributes to the shortening of time for a game to reach such status. But as Andrew pointed out, some people don’t move onto the new one, and even some of those who do move on still want to play the previous release(s) occasionally.

For the above reasons, the longevity of such games could be prolonged indefinitely if game publishers would prepare ahead of time to shrink or shift the server-side service(s) required for game functionality to the absolute bare minimum hardware required to provide a title’s service(s). (Doing so could potentially require only a single server or blade.) I can’t imagine that the limited number of requests that go out daily for the now 2-year old NBA2K14 could possibly require more than a single server or blade on a 16- or 32-server or blade cluster. Considering how few people would be using the service(s) as time goes on, it’s not a matter of resources for any company with an extensive established server cluster if they can make a proper shift to minimal hardware. If they’ve already got a room (or several rooms) the size of a garage or small house hosting various services for a multitude of games (as some of the very large publishers do), the cost of dedicating a single server/blade out of the hundreds at their disposal is almost nil.

Something else they could do is sell the service to a third party. An even better option than that would be to make it available to everyone and allow public hosting. Doing either would extend a game’s life dramatically, and the latter would allow any individual to setup a minimalist machine on their own network to run the required service(s) so as to allow him/her to continue playing the game.

No game should ever simply die and cease to function. If I still had a functioning Commodore-64 or Apple II, I might find myself tempted to fire up One on One: Dr. J vs Larry Bird for nostalgia’s sake. (And I could actually do that if I had the hardware and software.) The sad reality of today is that our society has shifted to disposable everything: razors, cell phones, etc.. Now, even game makers want us to dispose of our old games for their new ones. That’s what gaming has become, and it really ticks me off at times.

So, I say, to Hell with always-on! My it die a swift and miserable death, and soon.