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 taking a look back at Own the Paint in NBA Live 08.
Post play is an aspect of offense that not all basketball video games have been able to satisfactorily represent. Early hoops titles in particular were limited in this area, owing to a lack of animations and physicality. It wasn’t until games could feature a variety of moves, and the ability to properly back down and otherwise interact with defenders in the post, that we could really enjoy feeding big men down low. Even then, movement and controls could be clunky, which made posting up far less enjoyable (and viable) than simply driving the lane or taking jumpshots.
NBA Live 08 sought to improve upon post play with Own the Paint. While the name may sound gimmicky now – and certainly drew a few sceptical eye-rolls back in 2007 as well – it was a genuine and admirable effort to expand upon player control in post-up scenarios. I first experienced Own the Paint at the NBA Live 08 Community Event, and was immediately impressed by the new moves that we could pull off. Even after playing NBA 2K games with better post play mechanics, I still appreciate Own the Paint. Let’s take a look back…way back…
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of Own the Paint however, I want to reiterate a point I’ve made before. While NBA Live undoubtedly faltered during the seventh generation – and it cost them dearly in the long run – the series was hardly moving in an “arcade” direction, as far too many gamers claim. That the gameplay fell short of the realism and quality that we were hoping for doesn’t change the intention, which was to make a simulation title. It’s why the developers introduced features such as Go-To Moves, Own the Paint, and in subsequent years, Player DNA. Even Freestyle Superstars had aimed for realistic player differentiation; it was simply just too OP.
We’ve seen similar issues in NBA 2K over the years, when new controls or player attributes have been implemented. In an effort to make the new feature impactful in improving the gameplay as intended, it ends up being too powerful and unbalanced; too easily exploited. I won’t say that Own the Paint was completely immune to that, especially on the lower difficulty levels where it was easier to score in the lane in general. As with Go-To Moves however, you’d be met with resistance if you tried to force the issue and mindlessly spam post moves every time down the floor. On the higher difficulty levels, you’d need to pick your spots and elude/overpower the D.
Mindful of the possibility of introducing powerful new offensive moves with no way to counter them, the developers also implemented what they referred to as a “jostle system”. As an offensive player tried to make their move while posting up, a defender was able to stand their ground, push back, and try to anticipate what they were going to do, in order to go for the stop. In this way, it wasn’t just about expanding shooting controls down low, but also representing the battles that took place between great post scorers and elite paint protectors. To truly own the paint – one way or another – you’d need to win those battles with savvy post moves, or tough, hard-nosed defense.
Performing post moves on offense was simple and intuitive, with what the developers described as a three prong shot system. When backing down a defender, pressing the shoot button as normal would perform a contextually appropriate shot. Tapping the button performed a simple up fake. A quick tap of the shoot button before quickly pressing it would perform a fake and counter shot combo, such as an up-and-under or a step-through. With your back to the basket, tapping the right stick performed fakes and jukes. Holding the right stick in a direction while backing down would spin off the defender, a move that could be combined with a fake for maximum effectiveness.
Go-To Moves also came into play here, as players such as Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal could use Own the Paint moves to set up their signature fadeaways and hooks. The pro-hop button still doubled as a power dribble/drop step control in the post, and the dunk/layup button could be used for more elegant or powerful finishes. In short, post play had come a long way from wide, barely-controllable spins off of backing down, and shots that were limited to jumpers and a hook in the right spot. On defense, players made their opponents work and kept them honest by using good footwork and anticipation to hold their ground and block/challenge shots, as well as draw charges.
While it may sound like there were a lot of moving parts, these new post controls were easy to master. The three prong shot system was basically an expansion of the existing controls, with the addition of countermoves and a wider array of contextual shot animations. Right analog controls had long been used to perform moves in triple-threat and post-up scenarios, and the pro-hop/power dribble and dunk/layup buttons were likewise well-established. Defense was a matter of intelligent movement with the left stick, and the familiar right stick and jump/block controls. Similar to Freestyle Air, Own the Paint added new controls without compromising the existing mechanics.
In an era when post play was still a valued skill among big men, and a vital aspect to represent on the virtual hardwood, Own the Paint proved to be a fine addition. As I mentioned, it was generally balanced thanks to the “jostle” approach, and pulling off a smooth up-and-under or elusive hook shot was immensely satisfying. Needless to say however, it wasn’t perfect. Although there were some slick new moves, a couple of them did look awkward, even at the time. There also could’ve been more moves at our disposal, and the simple controls and contextual animations meant that you wouldn’t always get the move you wanted. In all fairness though, there was room for growth.
As noted in previous retrospectives, shooting in NBA Live 08 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 was also affected by the removal of shot timing. While shot success always factored in ratings, defensive impact, slider settings, difficulty level, and a dice roll, we lost some measure of control over the situation without the concept of an ideal release window. This naturally affected post shots as well, so depending on the difficulty and tuning, there were moments where shot success didn’t feel as sim or fair as it perhaps should’ve. To that point though, it was no worse than regular jumpshots, so there was plenty of incentive to mix it up in the paint with the brand new moves.
Despite the features list for the prior gen and PC version using the same “Dominate in the Paint” blurb promising all-new moves, Own the Paint was exclusive to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release. Unlike Go-To Moves and Hot Spots, which appeared in the prior gen version in a limited way, there was no simplified version of the three prong shot system. Indeed, the only post moves listed in the controls of the prior gen version of NBA Live 08 were the ability to dunk or layup with the appropriate button, shoot a fadeaway by holding the left stick away from the basket, or perform a power dribble with the pro-hop button. The prior gen version was assuredly an afterthought.
Interestingly, despite being a prominent selling point in NBA Live 08, Own the Paint was somewhat downplayed as a gameplay feature in NBA Live 09. The controls were retained and remained just as intuitive, but outside of cleaning up a couple of the shot animations, there wasn’t much in the way of improvement. Even the lone paragraph in the manual describing the post controls was copied from NBA Live 08! On one hand, it makes sense that the marketing focused on new features, and that the developers tried to enhance other areas of gameplay. On the other hand, it also felt as though a great innovation had been pushed aside before it could truly fulfil its potential.
Of course, this was a common problem with NBA Live, particularly in the wake of its golden era. Excellent ideas with plenty of promise would be implemented, only for future games to fail to expand upon them. Some ideas were quickly dropped due to a change in direction, leading to releases that felt very different to their predecessor. As much as we sometimes criticise NBA 2K titles for feeling the same and stale, there’s also been consistency and continued improvement to staple features. 2K has had its moments of chopping and changing controls and other aspects year-to-year, but it’s generally been better handled than in NBA Live during the seventh generation.
To that point, NBA Live 10 dropped Own the Paint moves completely. Unlike Go-To Moves, which were essentially integrated into signature styles and packages, there was no replacement mechanic for expanded post play. Spinning off defenders was still possible, but there were no counter shots. This meant that for all of the other gameplay improvements made in NBA Live 10, the post game unquestionably took a step backwards, and it never truly reached the same level in subsequent NBA Live games. Mind you, if not for the ill-fated attempted revamp with NBA Elite 11, which drove Mike Wang back to Visual Concepts, who knows how it could’ve improved!
Even though it was short-lived, Own the Paint was a successful attempt to expand upon post controls in NBA Live. The series may have been struggling overall to get to where it needed to be, but the developers were making a concerted effort to improve gameplay and strive for a deep, realistic representation of NBA basketball. Did the moves always look as good as they did in the trailer? Of course not; trailers always spotlight moments where everything comes together without the awkwardness we’ll inevitably encounter during gameplay! Still, at a time when post play mattered, Own the Paint brought those epic battles on the low block onto the virtual hardwood.