To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Today, it’s an interview with Dave Warfield, who worked on the series from NBA Live 95 through NBA Live 98.
In addition to joining me on the NLSC Podcast to talk about NBA Live as we celebrate the series’ 25th Anniversary, former Lead Programmer Rod Reddekopp was kind enough to put me in touch with some other people who worked on the game in the early days. I’m looking forward to chatting to them about the history of the series, and we’re beginning those conversations today with a Q&A with Dave Warfield. As I noted, Dave worked on the series from NBA Live 95 through NBA Live 98, focusing on the menus and the games’ rosters. Read on for an insight into the development of classic NBA Live!
Thanks for chatting to us today, Dave! With the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re excited to talk to some of the people who made those early games happen! To begin with, how did you come to work on NBA Live at EA Sports, and what was your role?
As one of the early members of Distinctive Software, we were acquired by EA and became EA Canada. We were asked to help with the last iteration of NBA Showdown, and our team really wanted to make an impression and re-energize the NBA franchise for the 95 release. I had just come off the NHL Hockey game for PC as a designer and stats guy, and was asked to help with the “NEW” game. My focus was on menu design and rosters (including stats, ratings and team makeup). Our initial focus was on the Genesis version, and then I moved over to the PC team as a designer. Updating the rosters as we needed for each different iteration.
Were you a big fan of basketball at the time? If so, who was your favourite team/player?
I was a big fan, and became a much bigger fan as I immersed myself more and more into all the players. The Spurs were my favourite team, and David Robinson was my favourite player, that was until Vancouver got their own NBA team…for a while.
What kind of resources were you provided with when it came to making the rosters? Did the NBA send along detailed information, or did you have to research it through your own sources?
When putting together the rosters, it was a little more challenging back then. The Internet access to information wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is now. The NBA would provide monthly stat packages with basic roster information, and we had a couple NBA scouts that helped us put together the ratings for each of the categories. Our gameplay team would determine what elements could affect the players’ performance in the game, and what we could add/subtract to alter how each player played.
How did you approach player ratings? Were they entirely stats based according to formulas, or was the eye test also used?
Initial player ratings were created using a formula based on specific stats, and then modified using the scouts’ information to fill in the specific skill areas. As we built the game we would update the ratings (or the connected portion of gameplay AI) as needed from a gameplay standpoint, and based on what we had seen at the end of the previous season from different teams and players. We wanted the end product to reflect the teams and players as accurately as we could estimate based on a season that hadn’t started yet.
Did you more or less have complete autonomy when it came to the ratings, or was there input from other producers, or from the league/players themselves?
Our Senior Producer would always have a few suggestions based on his opinions of specific players. Before completion, the ratings would need to be sent to the NBA and Players Association for final approval, which was always a fun process, as there was always going to be 1 or 2 players that didn’t think we accurately portrayed a specific skill.
Originally, ratings in NBA Live ranged from 50-99, at least as far as how they were displayed in-game. Was this done to avoid offending players with low ratings? Did any players ever complain about their ratings while you were with EA?
The ratings range was definitely something that was discussed between ourselves and the NBA, ultimately we made the decision that if a player was good enough to make it to the NBA they had to at least be a level 50 in their skill base. We always would have a couple players input when getting final approval, but usually it was when meeting players at events that we would get playful responses such as “you know my ball handling skills are better than (other player), you should adjust my ratings”, and the occasional “(that guy) should never have been rated a 90 in speed, he’s so slow”.
Players like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley (and David Robinson in NBA Live 95 PC) couldn’t appear due to licensing issues, and were eventually replaced in the rosters by Roster Players. How did that decision come about?
The legalities of video games are always frustrating, especially when your hands are tied as is the case with players like Jordan, Barkley, Shaq and Robinson. We had to weigh the benefit to the player of excluding players of such magnitude, or including a generic named player that still allowed the TEAM to be complete. We figured the gameplayers would prefer the method we used and still have their team perform the way they expected.
The implementation of DBF files in NBA Live 98 PC made our unofficial rosters much easier to make. What were the advantages from your end? What kind of in-house tools did you have to work on the rosters?
As a stats/roster guy both with the NHL and NBA franchises having a tool that the gamers could use to modify their own rosters and teams made so much sense as we always had to finish before the season/ pre-season began. Most of the processes that I used were with an Excel spreadsheet. I then had an import tool for the development team that would take the data, verify it was all correct and allow me to test the game with the new ratings in place. This could happen within minutes, allowing me to make corrections and adjustments almost immediately.
When our founders were mapping the data to create roster editors for NBA Live 95 through NBA Live 97, there were a few attributes they never figured out. Out of interest all these years later, can you recall any of the attributes they missed? (A couple of reference screenshots were provided to Dave here.)
I wish that I still had my old spreadsheets so that I could see what these mystery “unknown” ratings were. The only thing that comes to my mind is a pass/shoot bias, and a chemistry attribute that boosted some stats based on players that played well together. (e.g. Shaq/Hardaway). There may also be a playoff performance rating.
What else can you tell us about the internal mechanics of how ratings worked in those old NBA Live games, something we may have overlooked for all these years?
Each of the ratings were tied to either the players movement when controlled by a gamer, their increased % of success when performing an action, or what decisions the AI would make in a particular defensive or offensive opportunity.
Did you ever check out any of the community’s mods, be it the current rosters or projects like Lutz’s Legends and Champs rosters?
It was always interesting to watch how the community took our games and continued to improve the reality of the current day rosters and ratings adjustments that we couldn’t foresee. We were restricted from using recent draft choices or hot rookies that hadn’t played yet, so to see others take those steps to make sure our gamers were getting them was a very nice surprise.
Which was your favourite game to work on? Is there a game or a particular accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
NBA Live 98 had a special place in my heart because it was the last basketball game I worked on, it had a unique look with a lot of cool features, but nothing was quite as special as seeing that initial reaction to the first of the series, NBA Live 95.
Do you have any interesting or funny stories from your time working on the rosters for NBA Live?
It was a lot of fun back in those days, we were a very tight group, working late into the night, playing golf in the hallways, basketball in the stairwells, or taking a needed game break to play some other games.
What prompted you to move on from NBA Live? What else have you worked on, and are you still in the industry?
As a Canadian I liked basketball, but I loved hockey, so when the opportunity to take more of a leadership role with the NHL product line came up, I had to jump at it. I worked on the NHL franchise until 2004 when another opportunity came along. For 10 years I took my design/producer experience and created a Game Design program at Vancouver Film School. A chance to give back to the next generation of game designers, and have a regular 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule…for a change. I have since retired and now have more time to play games.
Thanks again for talking to us about working on NBA Live! We appreciate the insight!