Jason Barnes, then at his desk in Florida working on an MMA game, took a call that day from someone on his studio's executive team. "If NBA was coming here," Barnes was asked, "what would you do?"
It was one of the most nightmarish episodes in EA Sports' history. Barnes, a 12-year veteran of the label, felt that keenly. And yet it also felt like the day a longtime dream might come true.
A former college point guard whose father played for John Wooden at UCLA, Barnes had worked in sports video games since the mid-1990s, but never on basketball. "It was always football," said Barnes, pictured above at right next to the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving and a friend of his, during a visit earlier this year.
Even when he was working on NFL Street in 2004, Barnes said he was always bugging the studio's chief about hoops. "I was in Steve Chiang's ear the whole time: 'Can we get basketball down here, can we get basketball down here,'" Barnes said. "I had convinced my wife that, if the opportunity ever presented itself to go to Canada," where the NBA Live/Elite series was then made, "that we'd give it a year."
Instead, the series was coming to him. All of it. Every file, every animation, every line of code. Barnes was one of the "first four" assigned to the game, three of whom remain (the game's art director, Tim Spangler, and development director, Dave Swanson). As creative director, Barnes would feel the burden of salvaging the usable components of NBA Elite 11 and fitting them into a new vision for the game.
What's the first thing he did?
"I grabbed Elite and started playing the hell out of it," Barnes said. "I started taking notes."
EA Sports never shipped NBA Elite, so 2010 was scratched from the label's basketball simulation history. It chose not to release a game last year, either, a decision many viewed as influenced by NBA labor unrest foreseen well before the players were locked out in June.
In reality, NBA Live skipped 2011 because simply reconditioning NBA Elite was out of the question, and starting over from scratch would be impossible in the span of a year. There's also the fact that, with the exception of one lone survivor from the Elite project team, everyone working on this game would be new to it. It's a development team now numbering more than 70, bringing on its most recent hires in October.
"We look on it as, 'We just bought a pretty cool property,'" Dale Jackson, the general manager for NBA Live. "Rather than blowing up the building and starting over from a crater, we wanted to see what was still inside that we could use."
That is where most of 2011 was spent, says Barnes, and Nick Wlodyka, the game's executive producer. As much as NBA Elite reminds the general public of embarrassing glitches, bland animations and a control scheme that threw the baby out with the bathwater, there are assets from Elite that still can deliver a good game.
Barnes, revisiting the creative pitch he was asked to make in October 2010, admits his disagreement with some of Elite's design choices. The controls it aspired to, in which the left stick was meant to be a player's feet and the right his hands, were understandable in one-on-one play but were ill-suited to team play. He also disagreed with the game's attempt to implement skill-based shooting.
But he was amazed at the depth of the motion-capture library for NBA Live/Elite going back some six years. "I've directed 15 to 20 motion capture shoots for other days," he said, "There was 120 [games] of motion capture in there. That's a ton."
One of Elite's many problems was that the game seemed to be unable to bring any real variety of player behavior to the surface. Yet Barnes, rooting through the game's motion capture library, found some spectacular animations. "There are some awesome rebounds, a guy skying up and grabbing the ball one-handed like Dwight Howard does, for example," he said. There was a swat-off-the-backboard block, evocative of LeBron James, on the screen at Barnes' desk the day I visited, and he was delighted to see it had come up in live play. "It's in figuring out how to trigger them and then getting them working properly," he said.
The rest of the game's pitch will be laid on three pillars that Wlodyka repeatedly stresses: gameplay, presentation, and online.
In gameplay, the Live team sees an advantage in being able to, as Jackson, the general manager, puts it, treat an iterative sports title like a completely new product. Sports video games are published annually for a number of reasons, one being that their league licensing partners typically require it. That doesn't leave a lot of time for streamlining or completely changing how the game is played. The NBA Elite team in Canada tried that on a 12-month schedule, and got burned badly.
What ends up happening, Wlodyka said, is because a sports video game has to serve year-after-year customers who expect the game to have consistent controls, control modifiers and feature sets are layered on with each release. "Sometimes in a franchise you get so embedded, and you're trying to add so much depth that you ultimately create a more complex set of controls," he said, "and only your hardcore fans know how to use certain things."
If giving up two years, uncontested, to a direct competitor has any advantage, the chance to push reset and return with streamlined gameplay is one of them, and it seems to be where NBA Live 13 is headed. "If LeBron James has a backdoor pick and he's cutting toward the hoop and he's open," Barnes postulates, "and I press the pass button, the standard A on the Xbox 360, I want to throw an alley oop. I don't want to have to think 'This is an alley-oop situation,' when that is the pass that [Mario] Chalmers or [Dwyane] Wade would throw in that situation. In making those intelligent decisions for the user, it's really just the actions that come out of the decisions the user made."
The team also sees another gameplay opportunity in how NBA 2K treats defense. "Passing and defense have been two places of frustration with 2K; you try to pass the ball, it gets intercepted, now you're moving to icon passing," Wlodyka said. "Is there a way to make intelligent passes without forcing people to use icon passing? In general, in real life, teams aren't always playing deny (the pass) defense. But that's what's happening in 2K. They play deny defense a lot, and that's where you see these interceptions happen."
For presentation, NBA Live 13 will have full ESPN branding and the network's broadcast package, as NBA Elite 11 was supposed to. That audiovisual familiarity will resonate with many players and indeed, before the glitches started showing up, NBA Elite 11's broadcast team and commentary was expected to be a real advantage for the title. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy's audio catalog will appear in NBA Live 13. Analyst Mark Jackson, who has since left the booth to become a coach, will be dropped.
"There's a ton of commentary that's never been heard," Wlodyka said. "There's a lot of cool stuff that we just don't have to rebuild."
The last pillar, online, is where NBA Live 13's team projects the most confidence. These days, it seems no publisher of sports video games other than EA Sports is able to launch a title without connection problems, lag, or other crippling disappointments that chip away at a genre that is natural for online multiplayer. Last year NBA 2K12 rewrote its online codebase and suffered through an embarrassing launch for its online feature set. The NBA Live "advisory council" of gamers and community managers, visiting the same week as I was, straight up said it expects to see, in NBA 2K13, the same online problems the series has battled for years.
Even if it's identified the three strongest areas in which it can compete, and how it will, NBA Live 13 still must face an NBA 2K series that, two years ago, was the consensus sports video game of the year (and a Kotaku nominee for overall game of the year).Last year, NBA 2K12 added in the beautifully executed "NBA's Greatest" mode, a nostalgic look at some of the league's most beloved teams and performers. Whatever NBA 2K13 does this year will likely be more sophisticated than NBA Live, which simply has to re-establish solid fundamentals with video gamers before it starts putting up window-dressing features.
Yet the most palpably concerning expectation felt by NBA Live 13's developers is that gamers will think this should look like and play like a simulation basketball video game built with the luxury of a three-year schedule. It is not. It is a game that will be built on a year's production schedule, the same as its siblings in Madden and NCAA Football two floors above in the same building. The year EA Canada spent building NBA Elite 11 represented a thesis. The year tearing it down was the antithesis. NBA Live 13 will be the synthesis.
Wlodyka credited the label's senior leadership for its patience, considering they are the deal-makers who signed the license with the NBA and then, after Elite collapsed, had to re-work their arrangement with the league to accommodate the two-year absence.
"If they said, 'No, we gotta get this game done this year,'" meaning 2011, "we would not be in the situation we are now," Wlodyka said. If that had been the expectation, he wouldn't have signed on to the job.
"When you're competing against NBA 2K, which has a phenomenal game, you can't do something that's just good enough," he said, "That's not fair to the fans."
There's only one guy on NBA Live 13 who worked on NBA Elite 11. He's Andres Rivela, a software engineer on the gameplay team, who made the 3,000 mile journey from British Columbia to rejoin the project in Florida.
"When the game was canceled, it was a tough pill to swallow for many individuals," he admitted. "Not to say that we didn't agree it shouldn't have been delayed or canceled. We thought it was the right decision."
No one's said anything harsh in his presence about Elite, Rivela said, even unintentionally. It's not a sore subject, but he's not looking at NBA Live 13 to be the redemption of his work on Elite 11, either.
"[Redemption] implies a certain level of failure that I don't think is fair," he said. "It's more an opportunity to finish what was started, and do right by the Live franchise."