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 a challenge that basketball titles are still facing: masking the inner workings of certain gameplay mechanics.
Game development isn’t easy. It’s something that is all too easy to forget when we’re grumbling and making snide remarks about a game we’re unhappy with. That’s not to say that we cannot and should not be critical, and then channel that into constructive feedback. After all, that’s how we can take an active role in the development of the games that we play. However, we do need to keep in mind that creating a realistic and enjoyable basketball game isn’t as simple as typing plain English into a file, and then saving it as a program. Unfortunately, coding just doesn’t work that way.
Indeed, there is a certain amount of trickery when it comes to designing video games. Like a magic act, various techniques are used to create illusions and cover up how it’s done. Of course, a magic trick is ruined if you spot wires, gimmicks, or the moves that make it happen. Similarly, the special effects in older movies can be very distracting, whether it’s the strings holding up puppets, or primitive CGI. The analogy here is that sometimes when we’re playing a basketball game such as NBA Live or NBA 2K, we can spot the strings, see through the sleight of hand, or notice the shortcomings in the special effects. Masking those tricks is an important challenge in future games.
As far as basketball video games have come and as much realism as they’ve managed to achieve, there are still quite a few old design tricks on display. They’re what we call “canned” or “scripted” moments; elements of gameplay where our skill on the sticks and even the specific input is overridden by a decision made by the game. Examples of this include the ball warping into an opponent’s hand on a rebound, the CPU being able to quickly react with a protective dribble on a steal attempt, interceptions that occur because your teammate suddenly moves behind a defender, the AI’s ability to play by its own rules when it comes to physics, and all the tricks of comeback logic.
Although they are frustrating, they are a necessarily evil for two reasons. The first is technical limitations. For example, live ball physics is something that both NBA Live and NBA 2K have experimented with, but both titles have had to pull back on the idea when it hasn’t panned out as well as hoped. The second reason is that they contribute to the realism, and allow the CPU to remain competitive. NBA players do make bad passes and miss easy shots, and highly unlikely comebacks do happen, so there should be moments of sloppiness and incredible runs. Making a game that doesn’t resort to these tricks to achieve that level of realism and challenge is easier said than done.
Masking those tricks has generally been the aim, as it is with most ambitious aspects of game development. Effects such as fog, or loading low-poly versions of buildings and features until you get close to them, is a tried and true method of overcoming limited draw distances. The early Mortal Kombat games crammed in extra characters through the use of palette swaps, making the most of the limited amount of memory available to them. Al Lowe, the creator of Leisure Suit Larry, has described the clever hack that made the maze puzzle in the third game possible. Boundary Break is a great series that demonstrates many of the secrets and inner workings of game design.
Unfortunately, as evident by the examples I mentioned above, basketball games don’t always do an effective job of masking their tricks. It’s quite obvious when the CPU decides it’s going to go all out to win, as your players will seemingly forget how to play basketball, while your opponents suddenly possess superhuman skill. You can’t help notice how a missed shot or defensive lapse feels convenient for an opponent, or when a safe pass turns into a dangerous one because your teammate suddenly moves behind a defender. Obvious button reading bestows psychic powers of anticipation upon the CPU, and again, there are times when it simply defies the laws of physics.
I’ve lost count of how many rebounds I’ve missed out on in NBA 2K because, even though I’ve boxed out, had good position, and timed my jump properly, a player with better rebounding ratings gets the board by willing it into their hands. If you go into Instant Replay, you can even see the ball change direction in mid air, as if drawn by a magnet. CPU players can slip away from you easily, yet will lock you into a two-man animation when boxing out or defending on-ball. They’ll also force body steals on a collision, but clip right through you at the other end, the ball warping back into their hands. In some games, we’ve even seen the ball hop off the rim, as if sentient.
Canned moments are also quite blatant on regular steals in both NBA Live and NBA 2K. Even without spamming the steal button, your player will sometimes make a wild swipe at the ball or flat out grab and foul the opponent. Failing that, the moment that you press steal, your opponent will immediately counter with a defensive dribble if a theft isn’t meant to happen. Other times, your hand will simply swat clean through the ball. A similar issue has been noted on block attempts in NBA Live, with the player’s hand clearly clipping through the ball if the game has decided that a shot is not going to be rejected. Timing matters, but we’re still at the mercy of RNG to some extent.
Once again, technical limitations and gameplay balance are factors here, but it seems some games have done a better job of masking it than others. Oddly, it feels like some examples have actually become more blatant in recent years, despite technological advances. The challenges of implementing realistic live ball physics without ruining the gameplay seem to be the chief cause of that, with mixed results leading to both NBA Live and NBA 2K shying away from the plans they had towards the beginning of the current generation. It seems that the technology isn’t there yet, or at least, isn’t suitable for a realistic depiction of basketball that isn’t frustrating to play.
Moving forward, I think that will continue to be an important challenge for basketball games. It’s likely going to be the next big development in the genre, and with that in mind, we may not see a significant improvement until the next generation. More time and better tech is likely needed in order to phase out the old tricks, or do a better job of masking them so that they don’t feel as artificial. I would imagine that developing AI that can win through basketball smarts rather than unbalancing the game is a goal for the teams at EA Sports and Visual Concepts, along with unprecedented realism on the virtual hardwood in terms of player and ball physics. It’s what we all want to see.
Then again, perhaps it isn’t a priority, or something that most gamers desire. A couple of weeks ago I questioned whether basketball gamers are still sim, and noted that for a lot of gamers these days, the desired experience seems to be more about mastering the mechanics and meta-gaming, rather than having a realistic representation of the sport. If the focus is on the online multiplayer modes, then refining the AI so that it’s more realistic and balanced with less contrived inner workings – or masking them so that they appear that way – sadly won’t be at the top of the agenda. We’d still see some improvements in balance for online play, but the AI likely wouldn’t be optimal.
Even if the technology isn’t going to be at that point for some time, I’d like to see NBA Live and NBA 2K work on masking those aspects of gameplay so that they don’t feel as canned and contrived. After all, we don’t need magical powers in order to perform impressive illusions. Movies don’t need to harm anyone, or clone dinosaurs, or physically build what can be crafted through CGI. Resourcefulness has allowed video games to push the limits of hardware and become deep experiences that rival the popularity of other forms of entertainment. Here’s hoping the folks at EA and 2K have a few tricks up their sleeve, with the smoke and mirrors to cleverly mask them.