This week, NBA 2K12 revealed that certain of its features—like playing online as one of the NBA's all-time greatest teams—would be available at an extra cost. And thus, 2K Sports became sports gaming's last major publisher to lose its DLC virginity.
Long a holdout against premium downloadable content and "online pass" strategies that horned in on the used-games market, 2K Sports was very proud of the fact it still offered all of its game content on the disc. This sentiment has been personally expressed to me, if privately. This value was the rare holdover from previous-generation console gaming that everyone admired.
The truth is that gamer appreciation just doesn't feed the bulldog, no matter how much we pretend it should. Visual Concepts is a studio owned by 2K Games which is owned by Take-Two Interactive, a publicly traded business. And it was staring down the barrel of a pro basketball labor lockout threatening to do more damage, comparatively, to its NBA 2K business than the NFL's summer lockout could have done to Madden's. Shareholders take a dim view of companies that react passively to such predictable circumstances. So we should have expected this.
Still, it's dispiriting to see a franchise with an impeccable history of fan service make such a decision, while essentially evading questions about it. For a month it was left unconfirmed whether the historic teams anchoring the game's "NBA's Greatest" mode would be available for online play. When I inquired directly, I was given a background statement that said these teams would not be available because the development team was "focused on creating the best offline experience possible for fans."
Here's what I wrote two weeks ago: "Unless 2K Sports was going to set up specific 'NBA's Greatest' lobbies (doubtful) or make the rosters available without unlocking them for everyone in online play only (which defeats the purpose of the "NBA's Greatest" challenge) it was unlikely we'd ever see these online."
2K Sports' long history on this subject earned it the benefit of my doubt, so I didn't think of the third option, which was to separately sell these teams' online availability.
This week, as retail copies went out in advance of review discs, someone with an early copy of the game tweeted a picture of a loading screen advertising a "Legends Showcase" that promised players could in fact take the historic teams online—for a fee. The item is currently unavailable on either console download service, so no one knows how much it will cost.
This is a big deal because, for as long as the lockout holds, NBA 2K12's rosters will remain fixed at their July 1, 2011 state. Not even rookies from the June amateur draft will be available, so it's basically the same as the last roster update for NBA 2K11. While gamers are willing to forgive a game developer pinched by labor strife beyond its control, they take a dimmer view of anything that seems to exploit the situation, even if it's to mitigate losses.
2K Sports could have saved itself some headaches had its business management acted with a little more foresight last year. The label has not been averse to offering premium downloadable content in the past. In 2009, the NBA Draft Combine for NBA 2K10—essentially the first hour of gameplay for the debut of the game's "My Player" career mode—was sold in August. Everything experienced in it was still available on the disc—later—if you waited for the retail release. Still, it showed a willingness to offer paid downloadable content in, I thought, a way that served the interests of gamer and publisher equitably.
When NBA 2K11 landed, everyone realized that not only would Michael Jordan and his cohorts appear in "The Jordan Challenge," so would some of the greatest teams to oppose him in that era. That naturally opened up thoughts of additional historic teams to be sold via downloadable content. Gamers would have paid for this in the same way they pay for Rock Band songs. Such content is not like a Call of Duty map pack, in the sense that you need others who have bought it in order for you to use it. It's a legitimate extension of the game, wholly optional, usable unto itself.
Yes, this content isn't free to produce. 2K Sports would have to secure and pay for rights to the retired players' likenesses. But NBA 2K12 does have two historic teams in "NBA's Greatest" that aren't included on the disc: The 1990-1991 Golden State Warriors of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, and the 2001-2002 Sacramento Kings of Chris Webber, Peja Stojakavic and Vlade Divac. These teams are a free-of-charge bonus inserted into all retail copies at launch.
My time with a preview of NBA 2K12 in August was, as I suggested in the headline, as memorable as a first date. I went to bed, I stood in the shower, I ate my cereal thinking about how great it would be to get "The Jordan Challenge" with the game's refined controls, live-ball mechanics and smoother playcalling. If only they carved out 2K11's Jordan Challenge and sold it as DLC! I thought. Yet last year and this year, whenever I poked 2K about DLC, Jason Argent, 2K Sports' vice president of marketing, politely gave me the "no plans" palms up.
Maybe they're trying to protect the last vestiges of back catalog sales, I thought. While I did call NBA 2K11 "heirloom quality" for "The Jordan Challenge," I now can't see it lasting beyond this year. Even if a previous version of an iterative siumulation sports title offers a unique feature, I can't see that consumers are looking for it in numbers large enough to keep that from being ported forward as downloadable content, especially if it drives interest in and value to the current title.
Had "The Jordan Challenge" been carved out of NBA 2K11 and sold as premium downloadable content for NBA 2K12, no one would have batted an eye. I would have paid for it from my own pocket. Had the 1991 Warriors and 2002 Kings been sold, even separately with no other teams, for "NBA's Greatest," 2K Sports would not face the kind of pursed-lips disappointment it does now on the eve of its biggest release.
Selling a little something on the side is fine. Selling your body, the same part of your body available on the disc, isn't. That's where 2K Sports lost its innocence this week.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.