Monday Tip-Off: Cynicism & Developer Blogs

Developer blogs always deliver promising information (NBA 2K19, MyLEAGUE)

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 few thoughts on the cynicism we often feel when we read developer blogs.

NBA Live 19 and NBA 2K19 are just a month away from release, which means we’re in the thick of the preview season. We’re not necessarily getting huge information dumps or new media every day of the week, but the stream of previews is growing steadier as their launch draws nearer. Of course, there are still quite a few things that we’d like to learn about the upcoming games, even though they’re already available to pre-order and will be released in just four weeks. As previously discussed, this has become the norm for basketball gaming’s preview season.

So far, we’ve had one deep-dive developer blog for NBA 2K19, detailing all of the improvements and additions to MyLEAGUE, MyGM, and MyLEAGUE Online in this year’s game. More developer blogs should be on their way, and Mike Wang has also been dropping some important information about gameplay enhancements via his Twitter account, but sometimes it’s difficult to take even the best news at face value. When we take a look back at the developer blogs throughout the years, it’s easy to notice a few patterns and recurring themes. Some people may call it “hating”, but if you’ve experienced a few preview seasons, it can be tough not to get a little cynical.

It’s something that we’ve discussed at length in articles, the NLSC Podcast, and in the Forum, but one of the most annoying trends of the preview season – right up there with having to wait a long time for information and a proper glimpse of the game – is the tendency for developers to throw the previous year’s game under the bus. While it’s meant to emphasise the progress that’s been made in the space of a year, it has the downside of making any subsequent hype or promises seem disingenuous. It’s even come to the point where we can look back at the developer blogs from previous years and find aspects that were touted as improvements now being described as problems.

I discovered a few noteworthy examples when I compared information shared in a recent Game Informer article with the developer blogs for NBA 2K18. One of the biggest issues in last year’s game was that the new motion system seemed to have a lot of teething problems. This not only affected player movement, interactions, and the overall physicality of the game, but apparently also various aspects of the AI as well. The thing is that the new motion system was touted as being a big improvement; understandable as developer blogs are hardly going to talk about a game’s problems, but we now know that certain design choices were made because of technical issues.

Cover player Giannis Antentokounmpo in NBA 2K19

Let’s compare some quotes from the Game Informer interview to what was said in last year’s blog about gameplay. We’ll begin with a snippet about collision detection in NBA 2K19, and how it’s improved from NBA 2K18:

“It was embarrassing,” Wang admits. “There was a bug that we didn’t find until very, very late with the collision detection. That’s another thing that we’re working on right now. We’re spending a lot of time trying to make sure you just can’t go through players and stopping them when you try to run into guys.”

Glancing back at the gameplay blog for NBA 2K18, we were told a very different story about player interactions, physicality, and the new motion system:

The interactions and logic for ball handler/on-ball defender collisions were reworked and it feels MUCH better. In NBA 2K18, if the ball handler can get a step on his man or is a Westbrook or LeBron coming downhill prepare to see a blow-by for a clear drive to the hoop. It feels really good now to get your defender leaning one way, attacking his drag foot, and seeing your ball handler quickly swim by the defender without getting snatched into a heavy bump animation. Sure the Kawhi Leonards of the league can still clamp down slower ball handlers, but for the most part, you’ll see a lot of “hip riding” this year compared to the knockbacks and dribbler stuns from the past. If you find yourself matched up with an extra pesky hard-nosed defender, I recommend pulling off stepback moves from the rides. They’re extremely deadly this year. The whole revamp of the 1-on-1 chess match really opens up the floor game and makes going to the basket with a playmaker much more realistic than before.

Blow-bys turned out to be problematic, swinging too far in the other direction from the “Brick Wall Defense” that was an issue in NBA 2K17. While the changes were made with good intentions, the results were not as good as advertised. The same could be said for the removal of various multi-actor animations, and the enhancements that were intended to be made to interior defense. In looking ahead to NBA 2K19, the admission is made that:

“Interior defense was really rough last year,” Wang says. “When we went to the new motion system we ended up taking out a lot of the multi-actor animations that we had in the past, so it made it really tough to protect the rim. That’s why there were so many missed lay-ups, it was kind of a band-aid to fix all that because you could pretty much get them at will. That’s a lot better now, and so is the hit detection of when you are actually covered and when you are not.”

This is in stark contrast to what was promised in the NBA 2K18 gameplay blog. It touted interior defense as being improved, and the removal of multi-actor animations was specifically highlighted as something that needed to be done in order to enhance the experience:

You’ll also notice that we significantly reduced the number of multi-actor layups in NBA 2K18 and that was intentional. It felt a bit in past games that you could get really good shot defense just by being there and getting pulled into a contact shot. This year, we wanted to make playing defense as a rim protector much more engaging so the onus is now on the gamer to recognize guys attacking the rim and timing their shot blocks accordingly.

20th Anniversary Edition cover player LeBron James in NBA 2K19

A big focus for NBA 2K19’s gameplay is reportedly addressing issues with the “skill gap”; properly balancing stick skills with basketball strategy and overall realism:

“We have to make this game more about bringing back the skill gap and making it about the users, the skill on the sticks to be successful,” Wang says. “It’s all about matching your stick to where the guy’s trying to get to. That’s where you’ll get the set-offs, the brick walls. You’ll get blow-bys if the guy’s stick is the wrong way.”

Of course, we heard the same thing last year, too:

Last year I mentioned how much we focused on the skill of the gamer being king in deciding who wins and who loses. With NBA 2K18, that focus remained but definitely evolved from last year. I think the main course of the evolution was defining what “skill” meant. Last year, NBA 2K17 put a very large focus on stick skills. And while that focus was good, it also took away from some of the aspects that traditionally make 2K gameplay so great.

 With shooting for example, last year we introduced shot aiming and put a heavy emphasis on shot timing deciding makes and misses. The unfortunate side effects to some of these changes were that it became very difficult for us to balance the “stick skill gap” between new users and pro gamers, as well as across the various archetypes. So in many ways, it ended up de-valuing player attributes, defensive impact, and all of the other factors that go into shot success. So we took a step back and looked at the pros and cons of NBA 2K17’s shooting system compared to how we’ve done things in past games and married the best ideas together to create a new system for 2K18. This year I think we’ve struck a great balance between the importance of stick skills and basketball IQ.

With all this in mind, it’s tough not to feel cynical when it comes to developer blogs, and take them with more than a grain of salt. A lot of developer blogs say the right things and mention enhancements that we want to see, but it’s becoming difficult to believe them. Forget about our own perception of whether or not the games actually achieve the level of improvement that was promised; within a year, we receive actual confirmation that things we grumbled about were indeed problematic. Not only that, but we can see that certain aspects that were described as positive changes were in fact flaws that the developers tried to fix with admitted bandaid solutions.

Kawhi Leonard in NBA 2K19

I’m not writing this article to bash, as achieving perfect results in game development is an impossible goal, and the developers for NBA 2K and NBA Live do work very hard throughout a gruelling development cycle each year. I’ll always advocate for constructive feedback, and an approach of being fans and critics rather than fanboys and haters. Developer blogs and transparency are also great for the hobby, so I’m not suggesting Visual Concepts or EA Sports put an end to such previews. However, this retroactive transparency breeds cynicism, and casts doubt on future developer blogs. What we need is less spin and lofty promises, and more honesty in the moment.

If nothing else, there needs to be more awareness about what was said last year, and better explanations for shortcomings and design choices. As it stands, our excitement quickly fades when we realise that we’ve heard it all before. I dislike cynicism for the smugness and close-mindedness it so often leads to, but when we look back through years of developer blogs and note the contradictions and familiar promises…well, as I said, it’s tough not to feel that way. Hopefully, this year’s developer blogs will have a better track record in terms of making promises that can be kept, as well as offering transparency that we can trust rather than making us feel retroactively duped.

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