The Friday Five: 5 Things Basketball Video Games Should Avoid

Welcome to The Friday Five, a new weekly feature here at the NLSC! As the name suggests, this is a feature that will be appearing on Fridays, discussing five items in list/countdown format. Topics will naturally cover issues related to basketball video games, as well as the real NBA and other subjects that are relevant to our community.

For this first edition of The Friday Five, I’m counting down the five things I believe that basketball video games should look to avoid in future releases. Please note that I’m focusing on specific gameplay-related items that I feel are still an issue even in the best basketball games, rather than making general statements such as “sucking”, “being cancelled” or anything else that obviously goes without saying.

So, without any further ado…

5. Unskippable Cutscenes & Halftime Shows

Don’t get me wrong. Presentation plays an important role in creating the atmosphere of basketball video games. 2K has worked closely with former NBA on TNT producers the last couple of years and it definitely shows. NBA Live 13’s leaked videos didn’t exactly impress, but they did at least show what appeared to be pretty good ESPN Integration.

These efforts have resulted in halftime shows, various stats and promotional overlays and other such things that you’d expect to see during a real NBA broadcast, which is fantastic. It adds to the experience and while the commentary track does get repetitive after a while, it’s very well done for the most part and the bells and whistles are worth sitting through at least every now and again.

That’s the thing though: not everyone wants to sit through them all the time. I know some people do and that’s fine, but there are times when I want to just get on with the game. Unfortunately some of those overlays are unskippable or very slow to skip, which can make things a little frustrating when I’m not in the mood for them. The ability to immediately skip any of them with a single button press or disable them completely would be handy. By all means keep them in the game, but a toggle option or immediate skip would be useful when you just want to get on with things.

4. Mapping Shoot and Steal to the Same Button

Despite what some players (and even coaches) seem to believe, success in basketball is found by putting in effort at both ends of the court. Likewise, basketball video games must feature effective, uncontrived controls for offensive and defensive play, with a smooth and logical transition between the two when there’s a change of possession.

That’s where mapping Shoot and Steal to the same button becomes a problem. If you’re attempting a steal and the ball happens to end up in your hands unexpectedly, you’ll find yourself immediately launching a shot, usually from beyond midcourt at a moment when it’s certainly not appropriate. Your virtual coach in MyCAREER wonders what you’re doing, the commentators wonder what you’re doing (or in some games, break the fourth wall to suggest that you should read the manual), and you wonder why the game would ever think a sane player would want to do such a thing.

In all fairness, this is something that can come about from spamming the steal button and if you do that you’re asking for trouble one way or another, but there are times when a turnover places the ball in your hands unexpectedly in the middle of pressing the Steal button, resulting in a full court fling that you definitely didn’t want to attempt. Mapping Shoot and Steal to different buttons (or using left and right movements of the right stick to try and steal with your left or right hand) eliminates that occurrence.

3. Free throw shooting that’s too easy or too difficult

I’ll be honest; I’m still a fan of the old T-Meter that NBA Live used to have, particularly the way it appeared on the backboard in NBA Live 2004 through NBA Live 06. In my opinion, it’s one of the best ways of both aiming free throws and accounting for a player’s skill at the line that I’ve seen in a basketball game. It also offers an effective way to intentionally miss free throws in a way that gives a teammate the best possible chance of grabbing the offensive rebound.

The problem with the T-Meter is that it is a little antiquated. However, what we’ve seen since isn’t necessarily better or any more innovative, usually coming down to holding down the shoot button and releasing it at the right time, with no need or ability to aim. NBA Live’s most recent methods have been awkward (right stick down, then straight up at the right moment) or too easy (hold shoot, release when the meter reaches the “success window”). Foul shooting in 2K has been reasonably effective and easy enough to get the hang of, but at times it does feel imprecise and limited, with inconsistent shot quality and feedback that’s a bit too vague without some sort of visual guide to the release window.

Oddly enough, the cancelled NBA Elite 11 may have had the best free throw shooting method of any recent game. Its combination of holding the right stick with an on-screen display to gauge the strength and aim of the free throw attempt was a good combination of old and new concepts. I’d like to see future games from both companies innovate a little here and avoid the direction they’ve been taking with free throw shooting, making it challenging but also intuitive, innovative and effective.

Or they could just bring back the T-Meter, I suppose.

2. Psychic Defense & Waterbug Recoveries

If you’ve played NBA 2K in recent years you’ll be familiar with this. It’s shown up in NBA Live over the years as well. The CPU is just a little too good at playing the passing lanes, dashing over to make blocks and recovering to stay in front of their man after having their ankles broken.

There’s a legitimate reason for this, of course. The human player has certain advantages over the game’s AI, being able to think outside the box and seek out advice from other players to devise strategies to beat the CPU. Therefore, the CPU needs to have an advantage to a certain extent, to provide a learning curve and a challenge that the player has to overcome. However, it does get to a point where the challenge isn’t particularly fair and the CPU’s play implies supernatural and superhuman abilities. Therefore, more balance would be desirable.

That of course brings us to…

1. Increased Difficulty Means Superhuman Opponents

You know what I’m talking about. An increase in the difficulty level in basketball video games ultimately equates to the game skewering player abilities to the point where it’s suddenly The Dream Team vs. Angola, and you’re Angola. Instead of playing smarter basketball, the CPU just starts hitting all its shots, making the aforementioned psychic defensive plays and never making a mistake while your wide open layups – if you can manage to get the opportunity, that is – all roll off the rim. Weird, huh?

The tactics that are required to beat the CPU in these situations usually force the player to abandon realism, making use of whatever exploits are available and cheesing as much as possible. For sim-minded gamers who want a fair challenge that requires strategy and proper execution – playing basketball, not video games, to paraphrase Da_Czar – this is particularly frustrating, as it’s not the experience we’re after.

This is more easily said than done of course, as the AI of a basketball game is only as good as the technology that’s available to developers. It is however an area I feel that both EA and 2K, not to mention anyone else who cares to throw their hat into the ring with a basketball video game, should be focusing upon. That way, we’ll see more of this on higher difficulty levels, while lower difficulty levels might feature a bit more of this.

That does it for the first edition of The Friday Five, I hope you enjoyed it! Feel free to let me know the five things that you feel basketball video games should avoid doing in the comments below, as well as discuss any of these ideas in the NLSC Forum.

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January 5, 2013 3:14 am

I completely agree, couldn’t have said it any better myself.

January 5, 2013 10:39 am

I couldn’t agree more with number four. See what I did there?

The Worm 91
The Worm 91
January 7, 2013 4:35 am

nice article..100% agree

January 8, 2013 1:17 am

Amen to that, sir.