Carmelo Anthony is not a happy man. The sometimes unpredictable forward for the Denver Nuggets figured to be the star player on his team for the foreseeable future, but now finds himself in the unfortunate situation of being relegated to bench material and his playing time dropped to nil. His agent isn't happy, Anthony isn't happy, both of them are demanding a trade, and, as a result, 'Melo is mailing it on the floor, night in and night out. Such is one of the purposefully exaggerated but nonetheless compelling problems you could be facing thanks to the upgraded features in the franchise mode of 2K Sports' upcoming hoops game: NBA 2K8.
Naturally, putting Anthony on the bench is far from a winning formula for the Nuggets, but it was demonstrated for us by the producers of NBA 2K8 as an extreme example of what the new player-roles feature has in store for 2K8 franchise players, known as the Association. In previous games in the series, it was easy enough to load your team with all-stars (even at the same position) and players rarely would complain about playing time. In addition, previous versions of the NBA 2K series (particularly NBA 2K5) made stabs at a chemistry system, but there was very little in the way of repercussions if your players were unhappy. The new system should change all of that.
Here's how it works: All the players in the game can be divided into one of five role types. The roles are starter (for guys who get the majority of the minutes); 6th man (for those who come off the bench on a regular basis); role player (players that are on a team for a specific reason, such as a great perimeter shooter); prospect (a player who isn't quite starting material, but has lots of potential); and bench warmer (the guys who are more or less only hit the floor to give your starters a breather). In addition, each role has a handful of "subroles," which are essentially variations on the main role type. For example, the starter role has three subroles that more or less determine a starter's more specific role on the team--from the team starter to a guy who is replaceable if a better upgrade comes along.
As general manager, you can set roles and subroles, which change up the responsibilities and expectations for any player on your team. How that player reacts to those changes is the final piece of what makes the new franchise system in NBA 2K8 so compelling. That's because every player in the game has his own personality, divided along four types: unpredictable (the guys who can lash out at management; think Ron Artest), laid back (the Tim Duncans and Grant Hills of the NBA); neutral (the most common personality type in the game); and expressive (the loudmouths of the league; think Rasheed Wallace and Stephon Marbury). A player's personality will determine not just how he reacts to any role changes you make, but practically everything else that has to do with the tea, from play time to renegotiating a contract. As a result, any change you make as a GM will need to be weighed against not just what you want to accomplish with your team, but also what the players you pay are looking for.
Back to Carmelo. In NBA 2K8, Anthony's got an "unpredictable" personality, which means it won't take much of a change to get him talking mess about your management style. In the game, you'll be able to pinpoint exactly how many minutes you want every player on your team to play, thanks to an easy-to-use slider system that will divide playing time from an available pool of 240 minutes against your starters and bench players. Reduce a guy like Carmelo Anthony's role from the face of the Nuggets to pine rider, and he's going to be ticked off in a hurry. Indeed, sim just a few weeks into a fictional season in NBA 2K8, and you can see that Anthony's morale has dropped to zero, his statistics have taken a dive and, perhaps more importantly, his ratings have taken a significant hit too. In other words, if a guy isn't happy on your team, it's going to show in every aspect of the game. As producers put it, if you go ahead and play out a game with a low-morale player (as opposed to just simming through the game), you'll actually see him physically take plays off, merely jogging up and down the court, instead of getting after it.
Keeping your players happy, then, will be a key component in maintaining a healthy team. To do so, you'll need to not just give your starters plenty of minutes, you'll need to make sure that you're helping them live up to the roles you promised them. LeBron James is the face of the Cavs, and he's not going to take kindly to accepting any other position on the team. However, that isn't to say that player roles can't change at all. Your up-and-coming prospect who has spent a few years improving his skills might be ready for a sixth-man role--as a result, the game allows you four free role changes per year to use on your team.
Player roles and personalities don't just come into play during the regular season; they'll play a big role at the negotiating table when it comes time to sign or re-sign players to your roster. In addition to standard contract terms such as length, yearly salary, and type of contract (front-loaded or back-loaded), you'll also be able to add a player or team option clause, a no-trade clause, and role and subrole as far as negotiating tactics when it comes time to set up a contract for a player. So while a player might not be amenable at a certain salary range as a bench warmer, kick his role up to starter, and he just might listen to your offer with more interest. As the producers put it, no-trade clauses and player options aren't merely window dressing because players will be quick to take advantage of these kinds of perks if available.
In addition, while player personalities will fall into four categories described above, there will be some variation between players of the same personality type and different players will be motivated by different things; young guys might want to win a championship, for example, while vets will be looking for the big payday. The AI is smart enough that veteran stars like Gilbert Arenas will hang back during the signing period, waiting for the offers to roll in, while second- and third-tier players will be quicker to sign their names on the dotted line. As a result, put all your eggs in Agent Zero's basket, and you might get burned if you can't come to terms. Worse yet, with all the other free agents gone early, you could be truly up a creek in the off-season. It's a risk versus reward system that echoes the real NBA.
Another fun addition to the franchise mode in NBA 2K8 include a new position on your staff--player scouts. Obviously, you'll assign scouts to sniff out new talent for your team, and any player in the game under the age of 29 will be assigned a potential rating. The higher the skill of your scout, the more accurate that rating will be; the highest rated scouts ratings derivate only about three percentage points higher or lower, while a mid-range scout can vary as much as 20 points either way. As a result, if you're looking to blow your team out in favor of rebuilding, you're likely best served spending your staff budget on a great scout, and skimping on the coaches, at least in the short term.
Not that coaches aren't important, mind you, or that players can't improve from year to year. In fact, players will progress as always. In NBA 2K8, you can help your players improve their skills by sending them to off-season training camps, which will help them focus on distinct aspects of their game--everything from perimeter shooting, to defensive rebounding, athleticism, and strength training. To send players to camp, you'll need to earn points which can be earned by completing specific goals from season to season. Winning the NBA championship will earn you a good chunk of points, but so will improving your team's win record by 10 games, or sending one or more players on your team to the NBA All Star game. At the end of the year, you can spend your accumulated points on sending different players to training camps, and they'll receive a specific attribute bonus as a result.
Other cool features in franchise mode include a hoopcast simulation mode that was borrowed from the College Hoops 2K system (allowing you to quickly sim games while still maintaining some control over things like substitutions); the ability to play franchise modes with up to eight players (and play any game on the schedule, not just those of the team you control); and detailed player bios covering interesting tidbits on every player in the game.
When you aren't wheeling and dealing in franchise mode, you'll be slugging it out on the court. In our last look at the game from the Leipzig Game Convention, we got an overview of many of the new gameplay features that will be part of NBA 2K8. Today, we got to spend a bit more extended time with those features, and talk to the producers who've helped put it together. One of the first aspects they mentioned to us was the game's improved artificial intelligence on both ends of the floor. As producers put it, to the developers, 2K8 feels like the company's first "full" foray into next-generation consoles, with rewritten AI and animations that look to take advantage of what the systems can do. As a result, player AI has taken a big step forward, and the AI will be more apt to look for mismatches on the floor. Producers said last year's game was focused too heavily on guard play; this time around, the AI will be looking to take more advantage of the big men, move down low, and look for open guys when double-teamed.
Though you can always choose the plays you wish to run at any time, when you have the CPU handling play-calling, you'll be able to take advantage of a new play system that actually draw out how plays are supposed to be run on the floor. Move your guard to the point for example, and you might see a blue line to the left, indicating your player should move in that direction. If you see a dotted line, it means pass the ball in that direction. It's a simple tool meant to teach basketball newcomers how screens and isolation plays unfold on the floor and it works pretty well, though we'd prefer to see the entire play drawn on the floor at once. As it is now, the play diagram reveals itself one step at a time, which can result in a stilted, slower pace as you try to figure out where you're supposed to be at any given moment.
Another new feature, off-ball control, looks to add a nice layer of flexibility to how you run plays on the court. Here, you can take control of a player without the ball by pressing the L1 button and pointing to the player you want to control with the analog stick. After moving that player into position, such as sending him towards the basket or getting open on the perimeter you can call for a pass and then take the open shot. A shortcut method for a similar play is to press the "get open" button (circle on the PS3 controller, B on the Xbox 360 controller), which will choose a random player to get open for a shot.
There are new animations all over NBA 2K8. The signature style animations that were a big part of NBA 2K7 have been increased dramatically in 2K8 with new shot, layup, dunk, dribble, and free throw animation packages that will have virtual players looking and playing more like their real-life counterparts than ever before. In addition, there's more contact animations between players than before, including when going up against one another in the paint (including some vicious looking hard foul animations), and when congratulating one another after a great play. More contact in the paint ostensibly means a tighter interior defense, and less of a dunk-fest on the court.
An new player lock will help those on defense be able to stick with their assignments easier, while a handy, color-coded "shot meter" will give you constantly updated information of where on the floor every player on your team should shoot, as well as how hot or cold he is in the current game. This data is based off of real NBA shot data from the previous season; when playing in season mode, new data will be recorded for all players as the season progresses before being reset to 2006/07 statistics during the following season.
With more than 1,000 new animations in the game (including the infamous "watch the NBA player's momentum take him into the first row of seats), NBA 2K8 is looking like another sharp entry in the long-running 2K hoops series. The only remaining question is: What do we do with ourselves while we wait for the game's October 2 release date? Stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks.