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.

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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.

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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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