Wayback Wednesday: A Tribute to DB Commander

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m paying tribute to some very useful software in our modding community: DB Commander.

There have been a number of important modding tools developed over the years. The early NBA Live editors tipped everything off, bringing modding to games that were definitely not designed with it in mind. They were followed by the NBA Live Toolkit, which made editing the new roster database files so much simpler. The EA Graphics Editor and other tools expanded modding (or patching, as it used to be called) beyond rosters, facilitating a plethora of custom faces, jerseys, courts, and more. When NBA 2K came to PC, REDitor II, RED MC, and other utilities made modding viable.

However, one of the most useful tools in NBA Live modding didn’t come from our community. That wasn’t unusual of course, as some of our most frequently-used modding tools were originally developed for other EA Sports PC releases. The one that I’m talking about today is a commercial solution, though many of us did stick with the shareware release. That program is DB Commander, developed by T&T Solutions. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Although roster modding was made markedly easier with the adoption of DBF files in NBA Live 98 PC, that wasn’t the motivation behind the change. The use of DBFs was purely to make roster data easier to update and access during the game’s development, and the format came to be used in the final product. Still, while it may not have been intended to increase the moddability of NBA Live, it turned out to be a welcome by-product. There was no longer any need to develop tools that simplified the process of editing text strings in the executable and roster data files. Now that the games used a common database format, commercially available software is all that we needed.

NBA Live 06 Players DBF In DB Commander

Well, sort of. Modifying the databases directly required knowledge of the fields and values; intimidating for novices, and cumbersome for everyone in general. After all, it involved editing raw data in rows and columns, instead of the GUI-based editors that we were accustomed to. It was still viable of course, and the DBF format could also be opened by Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. Since many of us had Microsoft Office installed, we likely had that software at our disposal. To that point however, our founders were able to create a Microsoft Access module that simplified roster editing, mapping all of the fields and their values and providing some other utilities.

For the most part, that’s all the average roster modder needed. There were a couple of things that required direct access to the database though, and not everyone had Office on their PC. That’s where other software solutions came in, such as DB Commander. As with the DBF format itself, DB Commander was not developed for the purpose of modding NBA Live on PC. However, it was developed to be used with a variety of formats of database files, including the DBFs utilised by NBA Live. It could therefore be used to safely open, modify, and save NBA Live’s DBFs. Excel could do this too, but it was all too easy to save in the wrong format, thus corrupting the roster file.

Of course, DB Commander did require more patience and knowledge compared to the NBA Live Toolkits. Again, because it involved accessing raw data, you needed to familiarise yourself with all of the fields and their values. Even if you knew what you were doing, unless you specifically needed to use DB Commander to make a certain change – or you didn’t have a compatible version of Microsoft Access – it was quicker to use the appropriate NBA Live Toolkit. Changes in DB Commander are saved upon moving to another cel, which could be confusing for anyone who was looking for a Save command. Some functionality was also lost when the trial period expired.

NBA Live 2004 Teams.dbf File

Nevertheless, it remained a useful application for roster modders, especially when it came to tasks such as adding custom teams, duplicating players, and so on. In time, it became essential. As the years have gone by, there has been significant turnover in our community. People who have the knowhow to create modding tools don’t always stick around. When our founders stepped away circa 2001, others stepped up to adapt the NBA Live Toolkits for use with newer games. They did an admirable job, but the new Toolkits weren’t as reliable. Many people were also starting to upgrade to newer versions of Microsoft Office, which were no longer compatible with those modules.

To that end, I remember there being some panic when it was clear that there likely wouldn’t be an NBA Live Toolkit created for NBA Live 2004. One person asked “Is this the end of roster updates?”, or words to that affect. Absolutely not, I replied! Thanks to DB Commander, we still had the ability to make all the changes that we needed on top of the in-game roster customisation. In fact, that’s why I’d spent time putting together the DBF Guides, explaining the fields and mapping their values. Now that the games would include sliders, we didn’t need the global adjustment utility of the NBA Live Toolkits, as tweaked rosters were set to become a thing of the past.

DB Commander facilitated roster modding until the end of NBA Live on PC. For that matter, it can still be used today. It’s compatible with Windows 10, and since most of us don’t have Microsoft Office 97 or 2000 installed, it’s actually more feasible to use than any of the NBA Live Toolkits. It’s not as simple to use as a dedicated editor with a GUI, and presenting novices with rows and columns of raw roster data is always going to be more intimidating. Dedicated roster modders were able to adjust though, continuing to churn out new mods even as the NBA 2K modding scene was picking up steam. I certainly became well-acquainted with it while working on my rosters!

Two DBFs Open Simultaneously

Even though it didn’t boast the simplicity or specialised functionality of the NBA Live Toolkits, DB Commander did have some useful features for roster editing. Its ability to open up two databases simultaneously – one in the left pane, one in the right – made it easier to copy data from another file. This also made it possible to edit two files at once, which was extremely useful once player data was split between players.dbf and appearance.dbf in NBA Live 2005 onwards. It was also handy to open a second file as a reference for assigning values, such as the team and nickname IDs that were used in players.dbf. It may sound complicated, but it was simple once you got the hang of it.

More to the point, it was preferable to not being able to externally modify any roster data. I’ve always advocated for making as many changes in-game as possible, in order to avoid corruptions and other mistakes. There were (and still are) limitations on the bio data and other attributes that we can access in-game however, so a detailed roster mod does need an external editor. NBA Live’s adoption of DBF files, combined with a readily-available commercial solution, meant that the loss of people who knew how to program and decode file formats didn’t put an end to modding. There are some other similar programs out there, but DB Commander has been a reliable solution.

It’s something that we perhaps came to take for granted. Even though we didn’t have a new NBA Live Toolkit after NBA Live 2003, whenever a new game came out, all we needed to do was fire up DB Commander to start tinkering with the rosters. I did have to update the DBF Guides with new fields and values, but we didn’t have any issues with file compatibility. When NBA 2K came to PC, it was something of a rude shock for modders, as we were now working with files that couldn’t be readily and easily opened and edited. It was actually a throwback to the early days of NBA Live PC modding, which not everyone in the community at that point had been around for.

Leftover Classic Teams Data in NBA Live 08

Thanks to the efforts of talented individuals, external roster editing has become viable for NBA 2K year in, year out. It’s never matched the convenience of DBF files in NBA Live though, with DB Commander at the ready no matter what other tools were available. Once again though, we do have to acknowledge the serendipity of the situation, since DBFs were never adopted with easier modding in mind. It was a great outcome for our community though, and even as tools like the NBA Live Editor have been developed in later years, DB Commander has been a trustworthy fallback. Even when I’ve used Excel 2003 for quick copying of data, I come back to DB Commander.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that DB Commander is a commercial solution, and as per the official website, it technically still is as of 2023. It does remain functional following the trial period, though some of its advanced features are disabled. As is the case with WinRAR, I get the impression that the community has, by and large, taken advantage of this generosity for many years on end! The DB Commander website hasn’t been updated in quite a while (as its design no doubt indicates), though it looks as though it can still be registered. I’m guessing not many people will want to buy it on CD anymore, but that apparently remains an option, along with a site license.

In an era where we need to develop new tools every year, devise Cheat Engine tables, and update them when a game is patched, there’s something very nostalgic about DBF files and trusty old DB Commander. Even if it could be intimidating to be confronted by raw data, and cumbersome to navigate, there was simplicity and consistency that we haven’t always had with NBA 2K roster modding. I don’t want to downplay the importance of the Toolkits, or any other roster modding tool or commercial solution. The adoption of DBF files was also obviously vital. Still, if not for DB Commander, a ton of NBA Live roster mods wouldn’t have been nearly as detailed and impressive.

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