Sunday, March 21, 2010

The ABDB Archives: EA Games - The Live Effect.

Further to my previous post, I'm continuing my hoops video game stories that I dusted off. Over a year ago, I wrote a couple of stories for handle magazine out of Australia. Unfortunately, the magazine folded just as the issue was to be published, and the stories have been in my archives until now. But inspired by the recent return of NBA Jam, I'm sharing the story of NBA Live and an interview with the game's Producer Sean O'Brien.

Thirty years ago, Atari introduced arcade patrons to a black and white, 2-D, polyphonic tone scored video game, with two non-descript characters ingeniously named Basketball,. In 1983 a small developer named Electronic Arts released One on One which pitted Dr. J against Larry Bird with better graphics, a truer game experience on both sides of the ball and backboard shattering dunks, much to the dismay of the potty mouthed janitor who cleaned up the mess. This would be the beginning of EA setting the sports gaming world on it’s ear.

In 1998, One on One was succeeded by Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, which delivered better gaming intelligence, animation and added Slam Dunk and 3 Point Contests. EA debuted NBA Playoffs, their NBA licensed five on five game in 1989, which would then evolve into the most successful basketball video game of all time, selling over 20 million units to date… NBA Live.

NBA Live producer Sean O’Brien shares his introduction to the seminal game. “I went to college in Vancouver and played basketball,” he says. “My coach at the time was Jay Triano, (Toronto Raptors, interim head coach), who had a really good relationship with the Live production team. In 1996, my point guard and I were the first motion capture talent for NBA Live, which was for Live ’97. That was the first time motion capture was introduced into sports games. We spent 3 or 4 weeks that spring and I think they paid us $8 an hour and went back and did the same thing next year.”

Despite EA’s innovations, NBA players felt that the game hadn’t entirely done them justice. “We get feedback all the time,” O’Brien says. “When the Grizzlies were in Vancouver, Mike Bibby who’s a huge gamer, was choked that he couldn’t dunk in Live 2002 or 2003, and was telling me he can dunk and was quite serious about it, ‘I don’t do it in games very often, but I can throw down a one hander or a two hander.’ He went on this very serious discussion about why he should have a dunk rating in NBA Live and he was disappointed he couldn’t do it. Delonte West two summers ago was complaining about the same thing, but he took it a step further when he was dong motion capture in our studios. He was actually showing us he can dunk, which made it a little harder to argue when you see it first hand. We hooked him up a little bit.” NBA Live has once again taken steps to deliver a true to life gaming experience this year with the inclusion of Dynamic DNA. Synergy Sports Technology works with 25 of the 30 teams in the league providing hard current data on NBA players, teams and their tendencies. This information will be constantly updated online to give an accurate and up to the moment reflection of the league within the game itself.

While some NFL players are ducking the opportunity to be on the cover of Madden due to it’s history of cover athletes succumbing to injury, Live has NBA players lining up. O’Brien explains his theory why, “It’s kind of like the new age Wheaties box. The idea of back in the day seeing Jordan or your favourite Olympic athlete on the Wheaties box is pretty cool, and now the same thing holds true for video games. It’s an acknowledgement that they’ve arrived.” But don’t think just because you’re an NBA All-Star or because you can “whip anybody’s ass at NBA Live” you can make the cover, there are a number of different criteria. “Of course, how hot they are right now, how well they are playing and popularity is factored in. Often times we try and get ahead of the curve, if there’s an up and coming guy who may not have put in his 7 or 8 years in the league and received the accolades, but is someone to watch, that’s always good too. Ultimately, you really want someone who wants to work with you. Whether marketing and promotion is involved, you want a player who believes in your product, and knows a little bit about the space and understands his role in how to promote it.”

For quite some time the reputation of the brand promoted itself. NBA Live monopolized the basketball gaming world on the Play Station, Genesis, Dreamcast, Nintendo, Super NES and PC platforms, but things changed when NBA 2K came on the scene in 1999. Offering an alternative, the video game giant suddenly had stiff competition, many feel NBA Live has yet to recover. “Competition is always a good thing, it’s healthy, I like to know that there’s someone else out there that’s trying to kick our butts,” O’Brien says. “We both took two very different strategies when the 360 and the PS3 came about. Essentially, we rewrote a bunch of technology that is going to set us up for the future, we hope more so than 2K. They basically ported a lot of their tech and upgraded a lot of their art, and have done a great job and that’s why you’ve seen a more consistent offering in quality of game play over the last couple of years. I think when NBA Live ’10 ships this October we’re going to reap the benefits of all of the technology upgrades we’ve done. I hope that the trend moving forward is that Live is back and where it should be and gets stronger in the years coming.”

With EA’s short term strategy for a return to greatness, will the backboard shattering dunks make a comeback in NBA Live? “It was a pretty fun thing,” O’Brien says. “I don’t think the league is too pumped on us doing things like that now. I don’t know this for a fact, but the idea behind us showcasing deficiencies in a product that the league is partnered with is frowned upon a little bit.” So while the NBA are being bureaucratic killjoys, Live continues to strive to develop the most authentic gaming experience out there. “Just like anything, you get used to something one year, you want it better the next. When you get 10 plus years into something, the expectations have obviously grown tenfold,” O’Brien says. “When we started it was: ‘Hey it’s kind of cool that I can play a sports video game.’ To: ‘Hey I really want my sports video game to do everything I expect a sport to do.' Whether it’s a player in the sport or the options within it. We’ve come a long way in thirty years."

No comments: