2K Sports' NBA 2K series has become so successful that developer Visual Concepts is focusing on making NBA 2K13 more accessible, although they're certainly not ignoring the cries of hardcore fans.
"You want the cool stuff to be accessible at any level," said NBA 2K13 senior producer Rob Jones, during a recent phone interview with Polygon.
Jones was speaking specifically about developer Visual Concepts' decision to shift control of dribble moves to the right analog stick — a major change from which the studio isn't looking back — but the sentiment applies to sports video games in general.
2K Sports' basketball franchise reached an unprecedented level of critical, commercial, and cultural success with its previous two releases. Not only did NBA 2K11 and 2K12 set new sales records for 2K Sports, they also catapulted the series into a cross-cultural awareness that few other video game properties enjoy.
Success on that level — to date, 2K Sports has sold more than 5 million copies of NBA 2K12 — often comes with calls for a more accessible game, one that novices and die-hards alike can enjoy. This year, Visual Concepts is answering those calls, but they're not ignoring the cries of hardcore fans, either.
Dribble moves are a vital element in any basketball player's arsenal; the sheer variety of techniques available to the most skilled ball-handlers allows them to toy with defenders and give themselves the best scoring opportunities. Previous NBA 2K titles featured a wide array of dribble moves, most of which were engaged by holding the left trigger and moving the left stick. Known as "Isomotion," this setup was not unlike a fighting game's combo system in its requirements of memory and finger dexterity. You had to know the various trigger/stick combinations and quarter-circle rotations in order to pull off slick-looking chains of moves that would embarrass a defender, and because Isomotion was situation-dependent, you needed to memorize multiple sets of moves.
"Everybody wanted to control their ball-handling moves in a way that felt more akin to real life than what Isomotion would allow us to do," Jones told Polygon, adding that "in order to build that into the left stick, we would've had to introduce a delay" — exactly what you don't want in a sports game. He also explained that losing the Shot Stick "wasn't an option" for Visual Concepts, so the team had to design a system that was more responsive and more accessible, without eliminating the depth demanded by hardcore players or completely abandoning existing control schemes.
Enter the Control Stick. Visual Concepts mapped all dribble moves onto the right stick in NBA 2K13, and Jones insists the new setup is the way of the future. For one thing, it lets everyone, regardless of their skill level, do awesome moves. "If you just throw the right stick around, you're gonna get cool stuff," said Jones, and indeed, we found it much easier to get around defenders — and look good doing it — by manipulating the right stick. And it allows you to more easily and fluidly chain together dribble moves and shots. The Shot Stick still exists, with two different options: you can either shoot with the right stick (as before) and hold the left trigger to dribble with the stick, or dribble with the stick alone and pull the trigger to shoot with the stick.
NBA 2K13's new scheme is also much more conceptually intuitive: think of it as controlling your feet with the left stick and your hands with the right, similar to the skate/stick setup in EA Sports' NHL series. In addition, the Control Stick unifies certain previously disparate suites of dribble moves, making them easier to understand and learn. The commands for moves in the post, for example, are now identical to those used when facing up a defender; it's a change that makes sense and makes you wonder why things haven't worked this way until now.
"If you just throw the right stick around, you're gonna get cool stuff"
Of course, NBA 2K13 still requires a time investment from players who want to dribble circles around their opponents, so newbies won't quite be on an even plane with longtime NBA 2K players. Jones describes the Control Stick as having an early learning curve with a big reward for players' time investment. When asked if the old system would still be available, Jones said that Visual Concepts discussed it, but he doesn't think that will be the case in the final game. (Update: A 2K Sports representative has since followed up with a definitive answer from Jones: "The old setup is not available.") "When you make a change this big, you want people to adopt it as quickly as possible," he explained.
Everyone will appreciate the new collision system, which makes shots in the paint much more dynamic. (Update: A 2K Sports representative clarified that NBA 2K13 doesn't have real-time physics per se. Instead, said Jones, "Our engine takes into consideration where people are hit from, speeds, and size.") A player going up for a lay-in can now get realistically bumped by defenders, altering his path through the air — as well as that of his shot. These aren't canned animations for contact; everything depends on the momentum of the players involved.
Another improvement NBA 2K fans will notice is passing, which Visual Concepts acknowledges has been a problem area in the past. "Passing is one of the toughest, toughest aspects of the game," said Jones, and to address it, the team dedicated a gameplay engineer to passing alone. Passes tended to feel floaty, and Jones explained the reason: the game prioritized the appearance of a pass and catch, so it had to keep passes slow in order to ensure that a receiver's hands lined up with the ball's position.
Visual Concepts "finally decoupled passing and catching" in NBA 2K13, which fixes that problem while introducing a greater chance of errant passes. "It's not as canned as it was before," Jones told Polygon, which is a good thing: the developers realized that previous NBA 2K titles had too few loose balls compared to real-life NBA games. The team also worked on pass targeting, although much of that comes down to a user's incorrect perception of their left-stick aiming. According to Jones, "there's about a 30-degree difference" between the direction in which most players thought they aimed and the truth. But thanks to those improvements, plus a new control option for user-initiated bounce passes (holding the left trigger and pressing the pass button), NBA 2K13 will let players better direct the flow of the game through passing.
Other changes and additions are indicative of Visual Concepts' desire to open up NBA 2K13 to a wider audience. The Control Stick isn't the only streamlining the team has done; this year, calling for a pick is as simple as holding down the left bumper. And the hop step move, which the developers removed for NBA 2K12 — much to the chagrin of many fans — is back, on the B/circle button.
Visual Concepts also wanted to do a better job of differentiating players and highlighting their particular strengths. So NBA 2K13 incorporates 2K Sports' Signature Skills tags, with a list of abilities that have a material, though perhaps not quantifiable, effect in the game. Most Signature Skills affect probability rather than ratings; "we didn't really want to go there," said Jones, pointing out that attributes alone don't convey players' talents well enough. "Brick Wall" gives players like Kendrick Perkins a better chance of knocking down a player with a pick. Derrick Rose is a "Floor General," a Skill that increases his team's offensive awareness. Each player can have up to five Signature Skills, and they all have recognizable icons to let gamers know which ones a player possesses.
It's all part of Visual Concepts' twofold focus in making NBA 2K13 — the same line that most sports game developers try to toe: making the gameplay as good as they can, while ensuring that it's enjoyable for as broad an audience as possible. The changes coming this year seem geared toward accessibility, but they don't appear to sacrifice the franchise's acclaimed gameplay.
NBA 2K13 is scheduled for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii, and PSP on October 2nd, 2012, and on Wii U this holiday season. Jay-Z is its executive producer.