NBA Jam Designer Diary #1

Acclaim talks about the past and future of NBA Jam in the first of our exclusive diaries.

Brandon Fish
NBA Jam Producer
Acclaim Studios Austin

To a lot of gamers over the age of 20, when you mention the words "NBA Jam," they can't help but smile. That's what I did the first time I played the new NBA Jam cabinet in the bowels of the student center at Bradley University. It was a game that used real NBA players, was easy to pick up and play even for people who weren't sports gamers, and had all the secrets and extras to keep me coming back for more. After some time and a lot of quarters, I was eventually able to get my initials up into some of the top-10 lists on the machine. Ten years later, I'm now here at Acclaim Studios Austin with an incredibly talented team of programmers, artists, designers, and sound engineers, trying to re-create the magic. We are going to keep a diary of our progress, from the very beginning of the early R&D stages of development, all the way to the very end, when we deliver to the shelf.

The NBA Jam games made a name for themselves with their unique style.

The History of NBA Jam
Before setting out to create a sequel in a series as popular and successful as the NBA Jam franchise, we had to learn about the history of the brand. Fans of the series will have certain expectations of what an NBA Jam game should be like, so we have to build up from the roots. In 1993, NBA Jam was released as one of the first-ever licensed sports coin-op video games. Users could choose a real NBA team with the digitized faces of real NBA stars and play a game of two-on-two full-court basketball. All the gameplay was over the top, with players soaring and catching "on fire" after sinking three baskets in a row. Since there weren't any referees, players could push and shove their opponents to gain possession of the ball. All the high-flying action was accompanied by entertaining play-by-play from the announcer. It was the first of its kind, and it created the genre of over-the-top sports games. Later in the year, NBA Jam Tournament Edition was released, offering updated rosters, more player options per team, and the ability to switch players at halftime. Every player was also given eight different attributes, and there were numerous tweaks, fixes, and additions to warrant the new game. Both versions were highly successful and saw wide release in arcades everywhere.

NBA Jam Comes Home
The following year, Acclaim brought NBA Jam into the home on the 16-bit consoles (the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo). The games were basically the same as the coin-op versions, with a few added options and a practice mode (no defenders). Drawing on the appeal of having a popular arcade game in your living room, these ports also enjoyed tremendous success.

The graphics in the next NBA Jam are a far cry from those of the early games.

A few years later, in 1996, NBA Jam Tournament Edition made its way to the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn. For the first time, the game at home was the same or better than the game in the arcade. New gameplay features like extra-point hot spots and on-court power-ups made their appearance. 1997's NBA Jam Extreme ushered NBA Jam into the 3D era. No longer were the players digitized 2D sprites--they were full 3D models moving on a 3D court. This enabled Acclaim to experiment with dynamic cameras and increase the range of motions available to every player. A professional announcer from TV was now providing the play-by-play.

Following the titles on the PlayStation, NBA Jam '99 debuted just in time for Christmas 1998. NBA Jam '99 was a complete departure from the original NBA Jam. It was a simulation-style five-on-five basketball game. It even had a full season mode, including stats tracking. The following year, NBA Jam 2000 added the original two-on-two gameplay as a separate mode, allowing players to choose between the simulation and arcade styles. Since the release of NBA Jam 2000, there has not been another NBA Jam game published, save for some Game Boy and Game Boy Advance titles. Until this fall, that is.

Distilling the Jam Essentials
With so much history to sift through, we knew we had a lot of elements that we could draw from, both good and bad. We spent some time looking at all the games from the past and some current games so we could make the best choices in our design. We had to figure out what worked, what didn't work, and what the successful games of today were doing right. After looking at everything, we boiled it all down to the Jam essentials:

Over-the-Top Basketball
NBA Jam is not a sim. People like NBA Jam because it's easy to pick up and play, whether you're into sports or not. They expect to see players making crazy, impossible moves and soaring way above the rim. Our next version of NBA Jam will get back to what the series should be.

Shaq gets crazy.

On Fire
Having your player catch on fire, which has now been used in countless other arcade sports games, first started in NBA Jam. It wouldn't be the same game without it, and the same can be said about the many other special effects that have made it into the series. We are keeping all the classic NBA Jam elements and adding new ones to keep it fresh.

Secrets
A staple of the franchise has been the secret characters, arenas, modes, and power-ups packed into each game. Everyone always remembers the "big head" mode. We are going to pack as many extras into our game as we can.

Crazy Commentary
One of the things that everyone always remembers about the original was the over-the-top commentary that matched the play on the court. When the shift was made to using real TV personalities, a lot of the life and energy was lost. We have brought back the original "NBA Jam guy," Tim Kitzrow--who is now a video game voice-over veteran--to do the play-by-play again. We wouldn't have it any other way.

The next installment in the NBA Jam series will highlight the franchise's light tone.

What's Next?
Knowing where we started helps us know where we want to go, but it doesn't tell us how to get there. In the upcoming volumes of our diary, we will begin getting into the good stuff about our how we got started in our preproduction and assembled our concepts and designs. We will also talk about how the look of our game has evolved from paper to pixel, gameplay tuning, going "gold," and a few surprises. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have to get back to work trying to create a new generation of smiles.

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