NBA 2K series fans, prepare yourselves for the 2K Insider because he's going to have a big effect on the future of your favorite basketball series. The mystery blogger/statistician/arbiter of all things NBA 2K will make his first appearance in the upcoming NBA 2K9 as the centerpiece of a new online feature the developers behind the game are calling Living Rosters. We had a chance to get a sneak peek at the Living Rosters feature, chat about the 2K Insider, and get a feel for the new franchise mode in NBA 2K9 during a visit by 2K Sports developers earlier this week.
First of all, the developers at 2K are entirely aware of the competition. As any hoops gaming fan knows, EA Sports' NBA Live 09 announced its player DNA feature a few months back, whereby in-game player attributes will be updated based on real-life results. 2K understands that Living Rosters might sound like a similar feature, and they're quick to point out its essential differences. The crucial distinction, as they put it, is the "human touch" of the 2K Insider, a hired employee whose job it will be to not just act as the face of the 2K Sports community, but to also have a real impact on the rosters in the game.
As with the competition, you can expect to see roster and attribute changes when you download a new 2K roster in NBA 2K9, all based around what's happening in the real world. However, rather than update things on a daily basis, 2K devs told us that the plan was to change a roster when it was warranted. Naturally big-time injuries or huge trades will be reflected in the game on a timely basis. What seems to set 2K9 apart, however, is how those changes are made and how much they can add to the gameplay experience.
The 2K Insider will be able to communicate important news via a blog on the company's Web site, as well as through calling out specific players via an in-game 2K Insider screen that will highlight the latest news and biggest movers in the NBA. In addition, the 2K Insider will be able to affect the stats of players on a regular basis. If Derrick Rose has had a consistent streak of missing from beyond the 3-point line, you can expect to see his 3-point percentage take a hit in the game, courtesy of the Insider.
But while the 2K Insider can take away, he can also give. If Deron Williams continues his success of last season or O.J. Mayo begins to dominate during his maiden campaign in the NBA, you can expect to see not just attribute bonuses but actual new animations available to that player as the season progresses. These new animation packages will be mo-capped, produced, and added during the course of the season by 2K devs and added to deserving players who have excelled during the season (or perhaps even developed a new signature move). In other words, this is new content developed during and relevant to the 2008/09 NBA season, not merely unlockable animation packages that are already in the game.
So, this 2K Insider seems like he will have a lot of power over how 2K9 plays after the game is released in October. While developers say that a lot of his judgment calls will be based on his opinion (and thus open to argument from 2K fans), none of the really important decisions (such as for attribute changes or animation package additions) will be made in a vacuum. The dev team and the Insider will all be discussing big changes in the game, whether new animations that make their way into a specific player's arsenal of moves, right down to the smallest attribute change. In other words, don't blame the 2K Insider if your favorite player takes a huge ratings hit; blame the entire development team. Or better yet, blame the real-life player who blows it on the court in the first place.
While the Living Rosters approach to game updates seems like a gamble of sorts, the improvements to NBA 2K9's franchise mode--dubbed Association 2.0--seem like a sure bet. Franchise mode has always been one of the series' strengths and for NBA 2K9, the team seems to be building on those strengths. One of the biggest changes is the look of franchise mode, now redesigned with an NBA.com flair, with lots of dynamically generated news stories filling up the "front page" of Association mode. These news stories can include everything from key roster changes to big-game performances and career milestones, as well as juicier news such as players going public with their team grievances, and a rumor mill that will feature a mix of realistic and unrealistic stories based on what's happening in the league.
NBA 2K9 introduced player roles and personalities into the franchise mode, essentially a way to gauge how quickly a particular player might express (or repress) his displeasure. For 2K9, a new player attribute--ambition--will work into the franchise mix. Ambition will be measured across three factors: play for winner, financial security, and loyalty. Every player in the league will weigh these three factors slightly differently, and how each of these factors is considered by a player will determine what he or she is looking for from your team. For example, a young player might be looking to make as much money as possible, while an experienced player or veteran staring at the end of his career might want to focus on getting an NBA Championship.
These player ambitions seem to go a long way toward improving the authenticity of the player signing and trade logic in the game. In the past, it was far too easy to build a dream team of players in the NBA 2K series, because you had first rights toward re-signing any player. With 2K9, a player will field multiple offers and decide on what's best for him based on his ambition logic. Another aspect of authenticity in 2K9: Bird rights, where a team over the salary cap can re-sign its own free agents if those players have played three or more seasons without changing teams in free agency. Essentially, this gives your team the right to exceed the salary cap to re-sign a player, while other teams will have to use salary-cap space to sign him.
While authenticity is clearly a big priority for the developers at 2K Sports, it's heartening to see that approachability has gotten a nod in Association 2.0 as well. User interface has always been one of the biggest weaknesses of 2K Sports games in general and the menus in the game look to be improved this time around. For instance, player ratings have been consolidated from the numerical ratings across tons of attributes into simple, easy-to-understand grade ratings for a smaller number of attributes (though the numerical ratings are still being used, and can be viewed if you like). In addition, if you want to try franchise but aren't necessarily the next Daryl Morey, you'll be able to automate a ton of different options for your franchise, including lineup management, simulation strategy, prospect scouting, player trading, NBA Draft, training camps, and more. There's also an improved trading screen that makes three-way trades easier to understand, if not pull off.
While the 2K Insider, Living Rosters, and Association 2.0 are big, it's certainly not the entire story with NBA 2K9. The game will also include five-on-five online play for the first time (we hope to get hands-on with this in the near future) as well as little touches like the correct Oklahoma City Thunder uniform and logo (sorry about that, Seattle Sonics fans), improved crowd animations, and more. We'll have more information on NBA 2K9 in the near future; for now, check out an in-depth interview on NBA 2K9's new features with 2K Sports developers Rob Jones and Erick Boenisch on GameSpot's weekly sports gaming podcast,