NBA 2K14 did more than perhaps any other PlayStation 4 or Xbox One launch title to usher in the new generation of consoles last November. But it had an Achilles' heel, its lackluster online infrastructure: Network issues severely hampered access to all of its modes.
It was a humbling setback for Visual Concepts, the company behind the venerated NBA 2K franchise. So the studio put some of its top developers on the task of shoring up the network side of NBA 2K15, and is promising that the situation will be much better this time around.
"We realized last year that we had issues at launch," said Rob Jones, senior producer for NBA 2K15, in an interview with Polygon during a demo of the game this week. "Internally, we thought that we'd be OK, and obviously, it didn't turn out the way we expected."
According to Jones, two of Visual Concepts' top engineers spent the entire NBA 2K15 development cycle working on network infrastructure. The studio rewrote the game's matchmaking logic as well as the way it delivers content to players. The developers also compartmentalized the various modes, so if connectivity for, say, MyTeam goes down, the problem hopefully won't prevent people from playing MyCareer. On the back end, NBA 2K15 will alert Visual Concepts' support staff as soon as a problem crops up. And it will give players error codes, so they'll be able to look up specific issues online.
"Do we anticipate that we're going to have some kinks? If we didn't, we'd be stupid, because I don't think there's a single game that's ever shipped that doesn't have any," said Jones. "But, are we better prepared to answer them than we've ever been before? Yes."
Visual Concepts also learned some other lessons from the blowback to certain elements of NBA 2K14. It wasn't technically an always-online game, but its two main modes, MyCareer and MyGM, both used in-game funds known as Virtual Currency (VC), which players could earn by playing or purchase with real money. The deep integration of VC led Visual Concepts to store save games from those modes in the cloud on 2K's servers, rather than locally on players' consoles, in order to prevent people from hacking saves for ill-gotten VC gains.
Jones acknowledged that VC was too pervasive in NBA 2K14, and noted that he's the kind of person who never wants to spend money on microtransactions when he's playing a game like this. Yet the first time he entered the conversation screen in last year's MyGM mode, he was presented with two "free" options and others that cost VC.
"It's the first screen I walk into!" he said.
MyCareer mentors teach you "what it takes to be an NBA player"
That screen has been changed for NBA 2K15 based partly on feedback from Jones, who added that the game's implementation of VC isn't nearly as pernicious as last year in general. Basic team management functions in MyGM are no longer locked behind VC expenditures; in fact, you can only spend money in the mode on a few optional accelerators. Spending VC is still the way you improve your created player's attributes in MyCareer, but the upgrade system has been tweaked to mitigate the ability to buy your way to the top. The only other places where VC matters is in buying cosmetic items for your player and, of course, in MyTeam.
Conversations in MyGM will carry more weight: NBA 2K15 tracks what you tell NBA players, and their morale will be affected by how well you follow up on your promises. MyCareer once again takes the form of a story mode with cutscenes — "it is definitely the way we foresee doing things for now," said Jones, although he told Polygon that all of the cutscenes themselves are new for this year.
In NBA 2K15's MyCareer mode, your created player starts as an undrafted rookie with a chance at a 10-day contract. The tale is one of mentorship: When you make it to an NBA team, a player will take you under their wing and teach you "what it takes to be an NBA player," said Jones. As you can see in the MyCareer trailer below, which 2K Sports released yesterday, Visual Concepts brought players from every team into the studio and recorded dialogue for the mode.
Visual Concepts wants to encourage MyCareer players to build their created ballers in a more well-rounded way. So in NBA 2K15, you'll spend VC to upgrade general areas of skill, but not specific attributes. For example, you'll put VC into improving your shooting, but you won't be able to specify layups versus mid-range jumpers. According to Jones, the old setup allowed players to create athletes who were one-dimensional but could still dominate because they were rated a 99 in, say, three-point shooting. That's another thing: You can't max out your ratings by spending VC. Instead, you'll have to earn badges by playing the game, and that's what will turn your athlete into an elite player.
On the gameplay side, we saw plenty of subtle improvements during our demo that should make the on-court action better than ever. AI-controlled players don't do the odd-looking thing of sprinting just to move a few feet. Instead of starting and stopping abruptly, they move more naturally. Visual Concepts tweaked the way collisions in the paint work, in an effort to fix what Jones characterized as a "disconnect" between the contact you'd see and the effect it had on a shot's chances of success.
"we have to be perfect at this"
Of course, NBA 2K fans believe that NBA 2K15 is likely to be the best-playing entry in the series yet. But all of Visual Concepts' improvements will be for naught if people can't actually play the game they've paid $60 for, and the studio is well aware of the stakes.
"We are confident that it's way better than it ever has been before. And then we ship, and that's the true stress test," said Jones of NBA 2K15's online infrastructure. "We have to be perfect at this."