NBA Jam Designer Diary #2

Acclaim talks about how the latest installment in the NBA Jam series is coming together.


Brandon Fish
NBA Jam Producer
Acclaim Studios Austin

The start of a project can sometimes make or break a game. The decisions you make at the beginning lead you down paths toward game completion. If you choose the wrong direction, you could either waste a lot of time or develop a subpar title. In our first NBA Jam designer diary entry we talked about the history of NBA Jam and some of the features that make the franchise what it is. In this diary entry, we'll reveal how we took those classic elements, combined them with some new ones, and took our first steps toward creating an incredibly fun and exciting addition to the NBA Jam family.

The next entry in the NBA Jam franchise started coming together in May 2002.
The next entry in the NBA Jam franchise started coming together in May 2002.

The first stage before actually creating a game is preproduction. The purpose of preproduction is to work out all the details of the project, limit the scope of what you will create, identify and solve problems before they arise, and come up with a plan to execute. By the end of preproduction you should have a general game design, a schedule, and a technical design and/or prototype.

Initial Design Ideas
We started the preproduction phase in late May of 2002. Taking what we knew about NBA Jam, we brainstormed as many ideas as we could on different directions to take the game. We had a lot of crazy and not-so-crazy ideas. We toyed with the idea of having arenas from all over the world where you would play ball against people from the host country. We talked about how Jam might translate as an outdoor game. A decision also had to be made about how far away from simulation (arcade) we would go.

When putting together the game, the team brainstormed a variety of ideas.
When putting together the game, the team brainstormed a variety of ideas.

When you work with an outside property, especially with a partner as important as the NBA, there are certain requirements that you must fulfill in order to maintain the license. These requirements can also affect the directions you take in your design. The obvious requirement for NBA Jam is that we must make a basketball game where players shoot the ball into a basket. A not-so-obvious requirement might be that the game must receive an E (Everyone) rating so that all NBA fans can safely enjoy the game. One of the most influential licenses that we decided to pick up was the rights to include certain retired NBA players. When we first obtained the license we knew that we didn't want to do what the other games do and just drop them into the regular game as an afterthought. We wanted to have at least twice as many NBA legends as any other game and create a whole new mode for them. We came up with an NBA Legends tournament that allows you to take a team from today and play against all of the stars from the past by progressing through each era. Everything, from the way the players move and the way the crowd dresses to the style of the commentary, changes as you make your way through each time period to the present. It's really a great addition, and it's a kick to see all of the old stadiums and uniforms.

NBA Jam Design Principles
After knocking our skulls around to get out all of the ideas we possibly could, we narrowed everything down to come up with a base framework for the rest of the design. We selected the concepts that would best fit with the Jam style, would be the most fun, and would give us the most bang for the buck. The main decisions that shaped the rest of game were:

  • Three-on-three basketball: Adding an additional player per side to the original two-on-two game adds a little more depth and opens up the options for some sweet three-player alley-oops.
  • NBA arenas: The game is so much more exciting and spectacular in front of a large, living crowd. This is where the pros play, and this is where the stars are made. We want to capture the buzz and electric atmosphere of today's NBA experience.
  • NBA legends: We decided to feature the NBA stars of the past in our NBA Legends tournament.
  • Superhuman moves with realistic tendencies: We had already decided that we were going to make an over-the-top basketball game when we identified what the NBA Jam series was really about. We want our players to do things that you wouldn't be able to do in real life but still play within their own personality. You want a guy like Gary Payton to always be looking for the open man and an assist, while someone like Shaq is going to try to slam the ball in your grill.

Building the First Prototype
While the designers were going crazy with the initial design, the artists started doing initial concept sketches, and the programmers went to work building a prototype. Building an early prototype helped solve several issues. The first build helped expose what technology we already had and what we would have to create to match the final design. We were able to glean some performance numbers so that our artists would know what limits they would have when they created their artwork. It also proved to the team and the company that we were taking NBA Jam in the right direction.

The game will mix new gameplay elements with the signature NBA Jam elements.
The game will mix new gameplay elements with the signature NBA Jam elements.

We started the prototype with a base of some code derived from our previous project. We had six weeks to complete it and had a lot of self-imposed requirements. Players had to at least be able to dribble, pass, and shoot the ball successfully. We also needed to have a base physics system in place that would actually make the ball go through the hoop and translate into the tracking of each team's score. After six weeks we had a working prototype that was brutally ugly but answered most of our major technology questions. We had a fast engine that could handle up to 10 high-poly player models on the court at one time. We found that we would have to design new technology to create a living, breathing crowd that reacted to the game without looking like cardboard cutouts. A particle system would have to be developed to allow us to add heaps of cool special effects, like being "on fire" and other power-ups.

Being 'on fire' has never looked better.
Being 'on fire' has never looked better.

Going Into Production
After our design was complete, the concept art was hanging on the walls, and our prototype was up and running, we were ready to start production near the end of July 2002. We had a solid foundation to build upon and a well-laid-out path to follow. Actually staying on the path is the hard part.

In our next diary entry, we'll take you down that path and show you how our original concept art has evolved into real in-game graphics. You will see how things change as our designs are refined and different directions are taken. We'll also get into some of the other graphical goodies that will make NBA Jam the most eye-catching and jaw-dropping basketball experience to hit the small screen

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