We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Join me as I begin the week here at the NLSC with my opinions and commentary on basketball gaming topics, as well as tales of the fun I’ve been having on the virtual hardwood. This week, I’m tipping things off with my thoughts on ensuring that the journey is worth the time and effort in basketball video games.
In recent years, there’s been a puzzling acceptance of the notion that we should have to work to have fun with the basketball video games we play. I’m not talking about the time and effort it takes to master strategies and stick skills, complete challenges, and level up accordingly. A game that’s over too quickly is generally unsatisfying, unless you’re attempting a speedrun. The best rewards and whatever counts as being 100% completion in a game shouldn’t be quick and easy to attain. For most people, it isn’t fun to be handed absolutely everything.
These are uncontroversial statements that I’m sure we can all agree upon. However, the sentiment has mutated into a bad faith argument about gamers wanting everything right away. That may be true of a scant minority of less patient basketball gamers, but most of us just want a rate of progression that’s fair and enjoyable, with rewards that make the journey feel worthwhile. Again, the key to that bad faith argument is in the wording: “you don’t want to put in the work“. A video game should not have to be treated like an occupation in order to be enjoyed, or feel like a rewarding journey. It’s therefore vital that any rewards system makes us feel like it was time well spent.
Personally, I don’t need seasonal rewards or added incentives to enjoy basketball gaming. I’ve been playing basketball games since the 90s, when they were far more primitive and required significantly more imagination on the part of gamers. If I’m enjoying the experience on the sticks and there’s something to keep me hooked, that’s all I need. With that being said, I also appreciate rewards systems and the concept of live service content. There’s value in being able to unlock things, as well as be pointed towards stimulating challenges and fresh experiences. From Trophies/Achievements to Agendas and rewards, set tasks have their place if they make for a fun journey.
This is why I’ve criticised the Road to 99 and MyREP in previous games, and more recently pointed out flaws with MyTEAM Agendas and MyCAREER’s rewards. They’re fine concepts in theory, but their execution has left something to be desired. Recurring problems include locking offline/NBA-related rewards behind progress that can only be made through online play, repeating rewards from previous games, a slow rate of progression, and rewards that aren’t exciting and/or useful enough to justify the time and effort it takes to unlock them. Any one of these issues would be a problem by itself, but all too often the rewards systems are afflicted by all of them.
The result is that I’ll get about 20 or so levels into MyTEAM, and not see the point of grinding any further. I can still have fun playing the submodes that I like, but I don’t have any incentive to aim for the rewards. It’s the same in MyCAREER. Banners, new player indicators and shot meters, and emote animations for The Neighborhood or The City, aren’t really exciting. Clothing items that offer a minimal boost are only useful for Park players. Offering MyTEAM packs and Tokens is something that I can appreciate, but they’re useless for anyone that exclusively plays MyCAREER and its connected modes. At best, many of the rewards are underwhelming to grind for.
Now, this is the part where someone will chime in and say that the rewards are free and unlockable in time if you just play the game – and optional besides – so don’t complain. While there’s some truth to that and “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” does have merit, it’s asinine to suggest that we can’t fairly criticise the rewards in MyTEAM and MyCAREER just because they’re free. After all, their purpose is to add incentive and enjoyment to playing through those modes and performing certain tasks. If they aren’t providing adequate incentive or enhancing the experience, then they’re not achieving their purpose. That’s fair critique and constructive feedback on our part.
You can simply ignore them of course and go about your business in those modes, which is generally what I do whenever I reach the point where grinding doesn’t feel rewarding. However, that does demonstrate how pointless they become, and how they would be better if the rewards were worth striving for. It’s not about being spoiled and acting like we’re owed something, as so many apologists will claim. It’s about utilising rewards systems to their full potential by making us want to partake in that journey, which in turn results in the engagement numbers that publishers love to boast about. It’s mutually beneficial when we’re given a reason to grind and take part in Agendas.
Beyond underwhelming rewards systems, there’s also the general rate of progression. Yes, we’re going to talk about VC and microtransactions once again. The apologists for MyCAREER will bleat that “everyone wants to be 99 Overall in Week 1!” which simply isn’t the case. What people do want is a journey from their starting ratings to a more competitive level that isn’t completely arduous and unrewarding. That journey from unproven prospect to promising role player to All-Star to future Hall of Famer should be one that we want to savour every step of the way. Instead, there’s immense pressure to pay to skip the grind, which is undisputedly a key aspect of the design.
It’s what the “it’s optional!” crowd fails to realise, or more likely, is being deliberately obtuse about. It’s technically true that we don’t have to buy VC, or opt for the more expensive special editions, to play and level up in MyCAREER. It sure does make it easier, though! More to the point, if it’s actually preferable to pay to skip the early grind, then that’s admitting that it isn’t enjoyable; that it isn’t designed to be fun, but rather strongarm us towards recurrent revenue mechanics. If the journey were worth it, we wouldn’t dream of skipping any steps along the way. Buying VC would feel like we’re cheating ourselves out of fun, rather than making the game actually playable.
To put it into perspective, during a session with NLSC THRILLHO, I was discussing effective methods of grinding VC. I noted that in addition to trying my luck on the daily bonus, I can also partake in the Daily Pick ‘Em (if it’s working, at any rate) to boost my balance. Since I opted for the Michael Jordan Edition, I have a digital copy of NBA 2K23 on PS4 as well, which contains a daily prize and Pick ‘Em of its own that could contribute to the shared VC wallet. As I was saying all this, I realised just how much planning was going into devising optimal ways of earning virtual currency, with none of it involving actually enjoying playing the games in MyCAREER!
So no, it isn’t about people wanting to be maxed out in a week. It has nothing to do with being “broke”, though why anyone would justify pumping more money into a full-priced Triple-A game is beyond me. It’s astoundingly hypocritical that people will defend the supposed necessity of grinding, while also defending buying your way to better ratings because “not everyone has the time to grind”. It leaves gamers with two undesirable choices in a mode that’s designed not to be fun until we pick one. Imagine going to the movies and paying extra so that they’ll screen the good version of a film, instead of an hour of boring filler before finally showing a few entertaining scenes!
We wouldn’t tolerate it, and it’s bewildering that we make excuses for it when it comes to video games. Yes, it’s obviously a different medium, but it’s still a leisure activity that we do for enjoyment. We don’t have to study or sit an exam before we watch a film. We get the experience and enjoy it by paying attention to the story that’s being told. Likewise, we shouldn’t have to work hard to make a video game fun. We should improve and progress as we play through it. A badly-written film wastes our time with lousy storytelling, building to an unsatisfactory ending. A badly-designed game wastes our time to finally (hopefully) have a good time when the grind is done.
There’s a recurring defense for all types of media – video games, TV shows, films – that a work gets better after a certain point. “The first few episodes are rough, but it gets really good after that!” “The first ten minutes is a bit slow, but after that, it’s one of the best films you’ll ever see!” “The first hour or so is a real slog, but the game is really fun once you get past the early stages!” It’s not an unreasonable assertion. Some TV shows really took off after their earliest episodes, or in their second season. A great film may have a part that drags. Forced tutorials and RPG mechanics can make a video game seem slow at first, but then it picks up and is a blast the rest of the way.
At the same time, a work finally improving at some point doesn’t mean that we can’t criticise the writing or design that made it rough to begin with. The amount of time it takes to get to the good part also matters, particularly in video games since we don’t enjoy them passively like TV shows and films. There’s also a difference between a fun journey to the best part, and enduring a slog until it finally gets good. When the latter is the case in a game, it suggests that everything prior to the good part could be trimmed, or better designed. Once again, if it’s preferable to pay to skip straight to the good part, then it’s admitting that the journey beforehand isn’t actually worthwhile.
Look, there’s no way to guarantee that everyone will have fun every step of the way, whether it’s levelling up a MyPLAYER in MyCAREER, building up a collection in MyTEAM, or unlocking additional rewards by gaining XP. Some parts of the journey will take longer, or be more challenging. Certain rewards will be more appealing to some gamers than others. You can’t please everyone all of the time, though there’s value in considering all constructive feedback. To that point though, when the consensus is that the rewards aren’t worth the time and effort, or that parts of the game just aren’t fun, there’s probably a significant issue with the way things are designed.
Unfortunately, those design choices are often deliberate and intended to maximise recurrent revenue and engagement numbers, rather than being a mistake. What’s good for consumers doesn’t pump up the profits that fill the suits’ pockets, so we’re unlikely to see as much change as we’d like. Still, maybe we’ll see some concessions and improvements here and there. The prizes for quests in The City/Neighborhood and Season levels in MyCAREER and MyTEAM alike could at least be achievable in the set time frame without having to turn NBA 2K into a fulltime job. These are meant to be incentives to make us want to play a video game, not work a non-paying gig.
I’m not expecting the situation to improve to the point where things are how they used to be. As pessimistic as it sounds, it’s far more likely to get worse than better. Still, as long as NBA 2K is going to incorporate RPG elements, it’s worth suggesting ways that it could improve. There’s a reason that starting over again in a Fallout game is fun, while going back to square one in NBA 2K is not. Underpowered and sparsely equipped as we are at the beginning of a Fallout game, it’s the first step in a journey that’s fun to embark upon. The same goes for other RPGs and genres alike. They have worthwhile journeys that we want to experience, relishing them over and over again.
If nothing else, improving the rewards system would be a good start. That content can only be acquired by playing the game, so making progression fairer and rewards more appealing isn’t going to forfeit recurrent revenue. That doesn’t mean that they should be easy to attain with zero time or effort, nor does every reward need to be amazing; it’d be impossible for every bonus to impress every player, no matter how good it may be. As I said though, if what’s on offer makes it all too easy to ignore the rewards system, then they’ve failed as a prize to aim for and an incentive to keep playing. By all means make the journey long, but the milestones and destination must be worth it.