The Tough Road of Being a Sports Developer

NBA 2K14 marks another impressive leap in a franchise known for breaking boundaries, and yet few appreciate the series' many achievements.

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The marketing speak is indistinguishable from that of so many other sports franchises: refined animations and improved physics create the most believable experience yet, and streamlined controls make it easy to pull off the same moves the real players do. And yet, NBA 2K14 actually lives up to those bold claims. Visual improvements serve a greater purpose than mere eye candy here. By making it possible for Paul George to pull up for a long jumper after creating separation with a crossover juke toward the basket, what was once a jarring clash of disparate animations now becomes one smooth motion that impressively mimics the real thing. But who cares about that? It's just another sports game.

After playing through a heated contest between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks, I spoke to NBA 2K14's lead gameplay designer, Mike Wang, about the struggles and triumphs of being a developer of a sports franchise. The goal of 2K Sports mirrors that of so many other developers around the world. "For us it's finding a good balance between making a fun and interactive experience while also being true and faithful to the sport," said Wang. What makes NBA 2K so special is that it delivers on these lofty ideals. Through technical achievements and creative tweaks, the latest entry in the long-running series does an impressive job of translating the televised competition to the realm of video games. And that success isn't by accident. "We're very much perfectionists in our own craft."

"We're very much perfectionists in our own craft."

You would think that any developers who sit atop their respective genres would be revered by those who consume video games. Although the technical achievements in NBA 2K stand proudly alongside other benchmark endeavors, rarely do you hear 2K Sports mentioned in the same breath as other prestigious developers in this industry. It's as if the lifelike animations exist in a vacuum, where only those who live and breathe sports games realize just how amazing the underpinnings are. Wang doesn't take this slight personally. As the man in charge of constructing the gameplay, he doesn't face many direct competitors. However, he feels bad for his team. "I feel a lot worse for our leads and our artists and our engineers," he said, "who put a ton of work in, more work than I bet a lot of these other game companies do, but don't get that love."

The disconnect between 2K's technical expertise and the accolades it receives is difficult to understand. It's not because there's an inherent ambivalence toward games that try to be realistic. Just look at the praise heaped upon developers such as Turn 10 and DICE, which have triumphed in their respective attempts to bring the atmosphere of racing and warfare to consoles. Nor are yearly franchises ignored. Assassin's Creed is roundly applauded for its technical achievements, even though each entry makes only nominal improvements over the last. No, sports developers alone are segregated into their own place, forever destined to compete among themselves while the other games stand in the spotlight.

It has gotten to the point where sports games are taken for granted. Yearly entries that lack breakthrough improvements have created a feeling of aggressive indifference for those who have never embraced the joys of fielding a virtual team. People who don't play sports games turn up their noses at this side of the industry, focusing instead on genres that are more to their liking. Wang isn't blind to these feelings. "Our guys never get the credit that they deserve." And he's completely right. It's not that sports games are judged differently from other games; it's that they're not even in the same conversation.

Wang believes that developers given multiple years to fulfill their vision have an inherent advantage over those who work on a yearly schedule. "[Sports developers] don't have the liberty of a two- or three-year cycle," he said, "so you don't get to see these big jumps." Because there isn't an obvious technical leap from one entry of NBA 2K to the next, a layman may not recognize how dramatic the improvements are. But if you compare every second or third entry in the series--putting NBA2K on the same development timeline as other franchises--you can see a jump that's on par with its more respected peers.

"Our guys never get the credit that they deserve."

It's an issue that every sports developer has to overcome, and there's no easy solution. We think about and analyze sports games differently than we do other genres. The comparisons always boil down to the real sport, rather than other games, which is a very different mark than other developers have to hit. Wang believes that 2K Sports' work is on the same level as anyone else making high-profile games. "We're not really mentioned in the same breath. There's just as much work put in. We're just as talented, if not more talented, than a lot of other teams. And so I hope we're mentioned with all the other AAA titles out there."

The abbreviated development cycle doesn't only affect the recognition 2K receives; it also hampers the finished product. Wang explained, "As a developer, you know you have a timeline that you have to finish within a year. So we start a new feature or new gameplay, and it will usually take at least a couple years to perfect it. Our users will generally get the alpha version of it, and then by the next version it becomes final." That's the sad reality of being a sports developer. For instance, last year 2K integrated the shot stick, which allowed you to perform moves with the right analog stick. But it's not until this year's version that the kinks have been ironed out. That's how long it takes to implement new features, and the team doesn't always have time to perfect things before release.

What would happen if 2K were given two years to release each entry? "If we were able to go every two years, the features would be fleshed out in a more obvious way, instead of being halfway done and then fully done," Wang said. But that decision is above his head. The team can't concern itself with a fantasy scenario where a new version of NBA 2K comes out every other year. Instead, they focus on creating the best experience possible in the limited time expected of them. "For us, the hard part is, you have a year, and you have to do something significant."

Sports games are not only viewed differently from other genres, but they face development problems that are unique to them. Within one year, they have to provide improvements that justify the existence of a brand-new game, all while refining the core mechanics to impress even those who have spent hundreds of hours partaking in virtual competitions. It's a relentless, demanding schedule, and Wang is ready for the tasks he faces. "If we're at that point where we feel we can't innovate any further, we can't take the game any further, then we shouldn't be here."

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92 comments
blitzinD
blitzinD

Maybe when a guy can sue claiming a current sports game is still essentially his 20+ year old code, and WIN, you may want to consider that most sports games get exactly the recognition they deserve? They're mainly cash vacuums for the developers that make them.

blueboxdoctor
blueboxdoctor

I get Madden every year and there are changes from entry to entry (some not as good, but as the article notes, comparing sports games from 3 years ago to now allows the changes to be refined), but as others have said, if you're not a fan of the sport then it's difficult to notice these changes.  I think the problem with sports games compared to other yearly releases is sport games pretty much have to look the same due to each sport having specific fields and teams while games like COD can change the MP maps and as Assassin's Creed is proving again, the entire game world can change even if the core mechanics are basically the same.

expeditopaz2008
expeditopaz2008

One message to 2K: don't kill online servers just after a year of release of your games, to force us to buy the new edition. You are doing wrong.

Angeli201
Angeli201

NBA 2K13 would've been a great game but they messed up the blocking and rebounding system...

ShienYeh
ShienYeh

Where is the god dxxn patch for Pc version  2k13 ?

SpinDie25
SpinDie25

Another year of breaking boundaries? I have to look twice at the cover of my sports games to see which one i actually put it the console..they are look the same

CincoToes
CincoToes

I think the reason why sports developers don't get much love in the gaming community is because the gaming community isn't into sports. The people who come to these sites daily, generally, aren't athletes. If you've played a sport, can you imagine one of those screaming CoD kids making it through practice without getting the shit slapped out of him? Please. Here, in the gaming community, dorks are kings who can look down their noses at jocks in a way they can't manage irl. And so, sports games get no respect in the gaming community.

Guimengo1
Guimengo1

NBA 2k has been stale in a bunch of aspects, for example the difficulty actually increasing the AI's ratings by 2,7,15 points. Or the still lack of proper player spacing, how aspects of the game are inexplicably locked for changes, or for the 2nd year in a row the late shot release to achieve perfect timing. There's plenty more, a simple web search will reveal hundreds of posts with user feedback of perennial issues.

A quick note on the "1st version of improvements is alpha, 2nd year is final". That's a simple fix. Set up a game update so when the feature is fixed, it is available to the people who paid $50-60 dollars for the game with the unfinished/unpolished gameplay aspect. There's no excuse.

badman11226
badman11226

Football need to return to 2k.  Madden suck ballz

llantaeusll
llantaeusll

People can say what they want to about EA sport games but truth be told 2k is right behind them. People brag about 2k12 and 2k13 improvements but true be told many of those improvements aren't even needed plus they wind up screwing up something else. 2k13 felt like an arcade game. 

netter99
netter99

this is the best sports game out there probably tied with fifa, I play this game all the way up to when the next one is released but maybe thats because I just love basketball as a sport in real life also. 

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

No disrespect to the 2K Sports team, but honestly, the NBA 2K franchise hasn't been better than 2K11 gameplay-wise (and when compared to 2K13, definitely presentation-wise as well). It seems that every "improvement" that was made for 2K12 and 2K13 actually made the games feel like a step back. I hope 2K14 will get the series back on track, but I won't hold my breath. Especially when the only modes that 2K seems to pay attention to are just the online modes and My Player. Association hasn't really been touched since 2K11. That is just sad and lazy.

Loshead
Loshead

Wow.. I actually agree with something Tom Mc Shea has written...Whats happening to ME!!!!!

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

This can help point out the real problem with yearly sports game releases, that is the price tag. I believe every year the critics are becoming more harsh, due to the fact that the full new game price tag is very rarely justified.

That is not to say that every release is bad, but that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to improve the game so much in 1 year, as to justify the $70 price tag. If that number goes down dramatically, then gamers will be more content and reviews won't have to be so hard on the new release...

Adenosine
Adenosine

In terms of money making, you have to acknowledge that sports game devs are impressive. It's like they have the power of that tailor from "The Emperor's New Clothes". They are practically selling nothing new to gamers, yet people still buy their games.  Basketball is basketball, golf is golf. Football will always be football, as soccer is soccer. 

As long as people keep buying them, no matter how monotonous the game looks like, the developers will continue selling them every year or so.


Maybe I'll go make an "evil" sports game where using drugs is allowed and part of the main game mechanics is using them without getting caught. If you ever get caught, you'll have to social engineer your way into winning the hearts of the people instead of making them mad because of your cheating spree. You'll be able to donate money to charities and causes so that when time comes you get caught, people will let you off easily. You'll also be able to commit adultery, murder, and other crimes, and it will be your job as a sports celebrity to try and lessen the publicity damage as much as you can lol!



ziproy
ziproy

Gamespot WTF?! First you defended CoD as innovative and now you're trying to tell me that sports games developers are just as good as everyone else?? Come on get real, this is just a load of BS

nocoolnamejim
nocoolnamejim moderator

Sports game developers might get a bad rap based on the fact that these improvements that Tom mentions happen once every three or four games but the developers in question sell you basically the exact same game as the previous year with updated rosters inbetween those versions that occassionally make big improvements.


Oh, and each year the developers in question CLAIM that they've made revolutionary changes. So, somewhere around 70% of the time they're lying and swindling gullible individuals out of their money.


Sports games are the reason why I always disagree when people rage against Gamestop. If any sort of game deserves to be bought used most of the time, it is sports titles.

kozzy1234
kozzy1234

Best sports series since NFL 2k5

fourfootthug
fourfootthug

MyPlayer mode has so much potential waiting to be tapped. I love hoops, but I feel even core gamers who don't really follow sports can feel like an NBA star playing through this game mode. Just needs more polishing I believe 2K will eventually deliver on.

DIGN
DIGN

Woah, we're sorry that we didn't realize how hard it is to copy and paste year after year. Mabie if you did something NEW like using real physics instead of crappy preset animations I might pick up a copy. Which is why I'll be picking up NBA Live 14 instead of 2K if I ever pick up a sports game this year, at least they're trying to innovate.

Jeronimoe
Jeronimoe

Very good write up Tom, though 2K makes a solid game every year they really dont get the praise. Frankly its best best sports game on the market because I believe a sports game should mimic the real thing in both visuals and execution as best as possible. 

picho86
picho86

Sports games are made for casual, light gamers and a few pros. I really don't think the core gamers care much about sports games, because they are pretty shallow. It's great that they're realistic, but to me they are boring as hell. 

It doesn't help that they're releasing the title year after year with minor improvements.

Angeli201
Angeli201

I played 2k13 for almost a year and i never blocked a dunk attempt...

arqe
arqe

@CincoToes Good point but "The people who come to these sites daily, generally, aren't athletes.  " This is a flawed statement i think comparing it to CoD players.

Also what 2K says is wrong i think. If people not that into sport games why they sell this good ?

What he should talk about is nonsese backlash. You know people they dont need hate to make backlash or hate speeches about games / consoles. It doesnt matter. Whatever you do you gonna these results. Will sell good but more people will talk nonsense.

And what can people expect from yearly sport games ? Want players to fly ? Drive in fields ? ...

Ensabuhnur
Ensabuhnur

@CincoToes I think that is only partially true.  Back when 2k was still allowed to make Football games the accolades they received was mainly due to fans who have played the sport to some degree and who understood the nuances of it.  To see a company work so hard to build a game that was authentic to the sport is always refreshing.

I think the issue now is that for most sports games there really is only one developer either allowed to make the games or who makes a game so good that the only thing we can compare it to is the previous entry.  Back in the days of the original Xbox and ps2 there were many sports devs for each kind of sport and back then it seems like they got more credit for producing a superior product,

Today EA is the defacto NFL king and 2k rules the NBA gaming market - both mainly due to a lack of competition

llantaeusll
llantaeusll

@SavoyPrime Agreed...... I can't believe people will praise 2k but overlook the fact the game hasn't improved all that much. When 2k12 came out, the player tendencies and cpu rebounding was screwed up and you couldn't put legends on your teams. Also the cpu made 3 pointers like crazy. How can 2k get away with hardly improving the Association mode for 3 years?


DIGN
DIGN

@SavoyPrime Online hasn't been touched actually, there are still lots of bugs.

datdude03
datdude03

I agree that ghosts is very subpar due to the 10+ year old engine &"knock off"infinity ward studio, but no one believes or respects how much the sports devs are limited with time & resources. If you think you can do better, by all means, help change the industry

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

@nocoolnamejim or they can help 'fix' this situation by lowering the price tag (as if you are buying a massive expansion of the original game), rather than blaming the reviewers/gamers/critics again and again....

VeloRakic
VeloRakic

@DIGN U comparin NBA Live with 2K? MAAAAAAAAAAN thats hillarious :D NBA Live looks "and i mean that in all honesty no kidding" like the engine and graphics are still form 2001 :D btw NBA Live looks so bad it should be a free indie-like a game.

dmastor
dmastor

@DIGN Spoken like a man who never played the game. 

blutosan
blutosan

@picho86 Absolutely agree.  When I play sports games, I feel I have cotton on my fingertips.  It's like no matter how well I play, the players and team that I am controlling will not play much better than their pre-programmed level of ability.  I can make them play worse, but there is a limit to how well I will do and it feels at a certain point like I am simply a spectator.

Geardudu
Geardudu

@picho86 I liked the last Fifa Street because it's different from standard sports games. Also the way you can play offline co-op with 4 friends, each one upgrading their own character differently on the team is really cool.

CincoToes
CincoToes

@Ensabuhnur I feel what you're saying about competition and how it relates to sports game's lack of respect in the community. Good points.  

The problem is that even though the web wasn't as big back in the 2k football days as it is now, it was big enough to see the same pattern that exists today. Sports games just aren't looked at in the same light as other genres. For as big a chunk of the entertainment landscape that sports holds, somehow it gets noticeably less respect in this neck of the woods. Aint a new phenomenon either.

Bringing 2k back to football would help though. More competition, and I'd get to buy a football game again.

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

@llantaeusll Good to know that I'm not the only one noticing. I'm really hoping EA can get NBA Live back to contender status so NBA 2K can step their game up. The lack of competition has made me them lazy in my opinion.

SavoyPrime
SavoyPrime

@DIGN Servers were improved a bit, but it is buggy. My Player is as well. Even after patches.

ModestDude
ModestDude

@datdude03 I can bet money, if 2K was available to mod. Modders would do more in 1 year than they would do 2-3 years. 

DIGN
DIGN

@datdude03 He doesn't have a large development team and budget like 2k does...

DIGN
DIGN

@VeloRakic @DIGN Spoken like a true 2K fan and someone who hasn't touched a basketball in their life.

DIGN
DIGN

@dmastor @DIGN What haven't I played? 2K?

The game where all you have to do is walk to your hotspot, hold 'X'(or use the stick), release at the right time and score a 3 every time?

DIGN
DIGN

@SavoyPrime @llantaeusll Finally someone else that wants to see NBA Live compete, for some reason everyone else is a dedicated 2k fan and they don't want to play anything else. 

Competition fixes anything, that's why Madden is sucking, because 2k stopped making football games.

llantaeusll
llantaeusll

@SavoyPrime @llantaeusll Yeah, I first noticed it when 2k12 came out but I tough it out and adjusted to it. 2k13 I was like omg this has gone too far. Offense is just out of hand on the game. Defense is non-existed. My average games consisted of me and cpu shooting around 65% or higher. There would be games when Kobe would go 19-20 lol. Too many dunks in games. The only thing 2k13 did better than the 11 and 12 was the passing. I love the passing.

I hope Live can bounce back. I wouldn't mind seeing Sony or Microsoft make their own basketball games as well.

CincoToes
CincoToes

@focuspuller We seem to have different meanings of watch and like. 

"...watch games regularly at home or at pub. Has a degree of knowledge of the teams, who's on them , the history, and what's going on." That sounds like somebody who likes sports to me.

Somebody who just watches sports, on the other han, just watches some sports sometimes. Fun with semantics, I suppose.

focuspuller
focuspuller

@CincoToes @focuspuller I meant watch. As in watch games regularly at home or at pub. Has a degree of knowledge of the teams, who's on them , the history, and what's going on.

I LIKE sports but I don't watch them, I'm not that level of fan, except (English) Football.