Monday Tip-Off: The Art of Minimalist Modding

Monday Tip-Off: The Art of Minimalist Modding

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 idea of minimalist modding.

With all the tools and techniques that our modding community has developed for NBA Live and NBA 2K over the years, we’ve been able to produce some fantastic projects. From detailed current rosters and multi-season packs to NCAA mods and other total conversions, we’ve been able to re-skin the game and create brand new experiences. These projects can take a long time to complete, but it’s very satisfying to see them come together, for both the creator and the community. I can attest to that, having been involved in quite a few large roster projects over the years.

Of course, these fantastic projects do have their drawbacks. They can be incredibly time-consuming, so even if you have the skills to create all the necessary assets, it’s much easier if you have a few other people helping out. To that point, not everyone can do it all when it comes to modding, so it’s usually necessary to assemble a team or rely on some community contributions to get everything done. As you can imagine, the amount of time and effort required can lead to multiple delays, or projects falling through. It’s why I’ve become intrigued with the idea of creating larger projects that don’t require as much external effort; something I’m calling minimalist modding.

What I mean by that is creating a mod that mostly utilises assets that are already available in the game. That includes the players already in the rosters and the default art files, though it may involve customising lineups, changing player data, and reassigning and reusing art files. In other words, creating something new using only the assets on hand, or more reasonably, very minimal new assets and players that need to be created for the mod. It would still be a project of substantial size and effort – I’m not talking about just uploading an official roster with a couple of minor tweaks here and there – but doesn’t need much (or anything) extra for it to be complete.

Minimalist Modding: Definitive Roster for NBA Live 96

You may be wondering what kind of mods you could possibly make with either a minimal amount of, or no other assets. Surely, nothing much more sophisticated than a roster set in the season the game is set in? Well, that’s part of the challenge and the fun: coming up with a feasible idea and making it happen! First of all, don’t be too quick to cast aside the idea of enhancing the roster for the game’s default season. Yes, there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in updating an old favourite for the current year, which is why I’m working on a 2020 season update for NBA 2K11. However, I’ve also really enjoyed making the “Definitive” rosters for NBA Live 95 and 96.

If nothing else, they’re static. Those seasons are over and in the books, so there’s nothing to keep up with as you’re working on a modding project like that. That closure also means that you can fine-tune the ratings and aim for as much accuracy as possible. You can try to create an update that results in the “definitive” version of the game, which is why I chose that name for those minimalist modding projects for NBA Live PC. As enjoyable as it is to play classic games with modern rosters, a big part of their nostalgia is being able to experience a snapshot of the NBA at that time. With a “definitive” roster, you can create an enhanced, ideal version of that retro experience.

Speaking of retro, it’s also fun to take games and use them to replay even earlier seasons. Aside from the creative aspect of this, there’s also the appeal of being able to play memorable seasons with a superior game. Depending on how far you want to go back, these go from being minimalist modding projects to large undertakings, but if you only want to roll a game back a season or two, it’s generally more feasible to accomplish with the assets in place. You may only need to change a couple of logos and jerseys, and a majority of the players will already be in the game. It’s just the retirees and any players that have faded out of the league that need to be created.

Kobe Bryant Tribute Roster for NBA 2K11

In fact, the amount of retro content already in NBA 2K games over the past decade opens up a lot of possibilities. Between the All-Time and classic teams, and all of the throwback jerseys that are available for all the teams, there’s a large assortment of players, logos, jerseys, and courts already at our disposal. It’s one of the reasons that I suggested five retro teams that we can create in NBA 2K20, or at the very least, get a good head start on. Again, it’s great to be able to add brand new content to the games, particularly teams and players that couldn’t be licensed and officially appear, but I do think there’s an art to being able to recycle and repurpose what’s already included.

Similar minimalist modding projects should also be feasible with the prior gen titles. Unfortunately, NBA 2K11 is a little more difficult. While The Jordan Challenge was a great mode, the actual team rosters are quite thin. It should be a bit easier with NBA 2K12, 2K13, and 2K14, since they’ve added more teams and a variety of players from the 60s through to the 2000s. There’s a lot of potential there for concept rosters such as “What If” scenarios, alternate classic teams, and other historical projects. As I said, the fun and the challenge in minimalist modding would be to work out how to use what’s already in the game to the best possible effect, and fill in any “gaps” as needed.

That challenge and creativity really speaks to me, mainly because it’s a throwback to the early days of our modding community, when we called it patching and we were working with NBA Live PC. It took a while for the tools to edit the art files to be developed, and even when we had them, it was a little longer before art mods really took off. In those early days, we made the best of the situation and worked with what we had, and it was extremely gratifying to cobble together a great roster mod. Not unlike a more straightforward current roster, it was about being able to create a brand new experience, even if it lacked some visual authenticity and few minor details.

Franchise Roster for NBA 2K11

With that in mind though, I’d understand if the concept isn’t as appealing to everyone now. We’ve grown used to in-depth modding projects that impressively re-skin and add new content to the games. A minimalist approach to modding may not dazzle mod users the same way a big total conversion would. However, I could also see modders themselves being intrigued by the challenge, and the creative ideas that it inspires. Likewise, if the ideas themselves produce fun and interesting teams and scenarios to play with, then I believe they’d find an audience. What’s old is new again as the saying goes, and we could create some mods that haven’t been done in a while.

At present, I’m prioritising the 2020 season roster for NBA 2K11, but I can’t help thinking about minimalist modding possibilities. After all, the beauty of many of these concepts is that a bulk of the work is already done, and it’s just a matter of getting the existing assets into place and working out what else needs doing. Depending on the idea, they could be whipped up fairly quickly, perhaps even between working on more demanding projects. In this way, they could also be a way of keeping things fresh for modders when a project is getting tedious to work on, while also giving everyone else in the community something fun and interesting to play with.

So, where am I going with all this talk of minimalist modding? It’s an idea that I’d like to try out when I have the time – as I said, I can’t help thinking of ideas – but I’d also like to throw the challenge out there to the community. Take a look at the assets that are already in a game you’d like to mod and think about what could be done with them, with minimal need to create additional players and artwork. You might just come up with a brilliant idea for a concept roster that’s a lot of fun to play with, in the process breathing new life into an old favourite. Big projects are great when they all come together, but you might be surprised what you can do with a little ingenuity.

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