'NBA Live 10': Producer Interview

When producers of a sports video game want to talk to you about their product eight months before it ships, they are either extremely confident about their title or completely desperate for attention.

In talking to the producers of NBA Live 10, I find it to be a little bit of both. For years, all you heard is how this is the season Live turns things around, this is the year Live overtakes 2K, this is the year EA Sports takes that foundation that's been built on the next-gen technology and really shows the world what a basketball game should look and feel like.

And yet, while the game has shown improvement, it is still nowhere near the level 2K Sports offers in their NBA franchise.

Why should Live 10 be any different?

Well, for starters, EA Sports went out and hired the gameplay designer from the NBA 2K team, Mike Wang, a guy known throughout the sports gaming world as one of the brains behind popular concepts like 2K's Signature Style.

But that's not all as the team is putting all of their focus on gameplay as they hope to return the franchise back to the glory days when NBA Live was a game right below Madden on the sports gamer's wishlist every year.

Will it work? ESPN sat down with Wang along with Live's lead producer Sean O'Brien and game designer Ryan Santos to find out as we get the dirt on the direction the franchise is headed this coming season:

ESPN: New team, new direction I assume. Where are you guys taking the Live franchise?

Sean O'Brien: It's important for us to recognize the technology investment that has been made with NBA Live the last couple of years. Basically, it's about building a foundation, and the nice thing for all of us is that we're in a good situation here where there is a good, strong technology foundation for us to work off of. It's important to recognize all of the work that has been done the last couple of years. That being said, the cool thing for us is that we are here to finish the journey, but finish it in a little different direction as we offer a different perspective, a different flavor.

What do people think of the NBA Live franchise right now? I think if we asked you that question four years ago, I think your answer would be completely different than if I asked you what you think of NBA Live right now. One of the things that we want to do is to go back to those days where NBA Live was a top tier franchise across sports. It was really Madden and NBA Live at EA Sports that led sports video games, and that is one of our goals, to bring Live back to that status.

In terms of a higher level direction, we want to turn NBA Live more into a service rather than a packaged good. That sounds lame and boring, but what it means is that traditionally we've shipped a package good at the launch of a season and then maybe provided a piece of downloadable content or a title update and called it quits. Next time we'd talk to the consumer is 12 months later when we shipped it again. But I think this past year with Dynamic DNA and some of the stuff we have planned moving forward, we want to talk to our consumer when it's relevant throughout the season.

The idea of providing those real-world updates, whether it's injuries, whether it's how a player is playing with his new team after being traded, whether it's the tendencies of a player shifting over the course of a year or even the course of a week, and evolving that even more so as we move forward. At the same point, that is all well and good, but we really need to nail gameplay. That is why I'm really happy Mike Wang came to EA last year, to bring a fresh perspective to how we do things and to bring some of those wins he had at 2K in helping create a very strong basketball title.

We want to evolve Live back to what it was before -- being culturally relevant, being one of the best-playing sports video games on the market, and like I said, being a service rather than a packaged good consumers see every 12 months.

ESPN: By bringing Live back to its glory days, does that mean you're trying to make it more of an action/arcade title rather than a pure sim?

Sean O'Brien: I wouldn't say so, no. I can understand why you're saying that, but that's not what I meant. I think if you look at NBA Live a few years ago, I think you had a fondness for it. There isn't that sense of fondness now, what we get are frustrations based on the quality of product and also a strong competitor. I think our goal in sports is to be seen as a leader in terms of the quality we're providing. But when it comes to gameplay, we're not headed in a more arcade direction. We're sticking with the simulation or the exaggerated simulation that we want to do with a sports video game.

ESPN: But we've heard this same 'building a foundation" line for at least three years now with this game. Why should we believe anything will be different in Live 10?

Sean O'Brien: It's easy for me to say, hard for you to believe. I think ultimately we can say it right now but until we show you software from NBA Live 10, that will be the determining factor on whether or not you believe me. I think that what we can say is that 07 was a complete technology re-write in terms of gameplay, then we saw big jumps in 08 and big jumps in 09, but it's still not where we wanted to be. But I think the beauty of this is we've got a new guy who is leading our gameplay effort, and having Mike Wang gives us a new and fresh perspective on what our game is all about.

Mike Wang: I think we agree a lot on all of the controller throwing moments we've had before in Live. Some things just weren't right. The basic fundamentals of basketball were wrong, but there is some really solid basketball foundation stuff there. Some of it has cracks in it, some of it is kind of broken, so what we wanted to do with this year's game is staying away from the new innovation, staying away from the new funky thing you could do with the controller. What we wanted to focus on was getting basketball right. And that's what I'm really excited about because when you play an early version of the game, it already feels a lot different. It feels like real basketball. Like Sean said, it's hard to tell you something over the phone, but I haven't been this excited about a product in a long time.

Sean O'Brien: And that's the thing you'll notice when we start showing the game this summer or at E3. There won't be a new Freestyle control or any sort of marketable gameplay mechanic feature. It's more about just building solid gameplay. And that may sound not very exciting, but if you understand where we are, that's an extremely serious message that we're filling in those cracks in the gameplay Mike mentioned, then adding another level of depth that we'll get into later in the summer. It's not a gimmicky feature, it's more of a core part of an NBA basketball game that is missing right now.

Mike Wang: And I wouldn't say that we're not doing new stuff, as there are some exciting innovations in this year's title, but we're really focused on the fundamentals and getting things right. One of the things I always struggled with at 2K was when we were porting up from old gen to now, it's still just a port, and 2K has been covering up a lot of those problems with new animations. But with NBA Live, the foundation with the technology is really special, and what I see here is the potential for something that can be great. I think we're just now starting to realize that potential of what the hardware can give us, and we're capitalizing on that right now.

ESPN: So E3 won't be about a new form of liquid AI?

Sean O'Brien: [laughs] We're not about liquid AI or player sweat anymore. It may not sound exciting when you're reading about the game, but once you get your hands on it and realize that this is a different Live, it's a different direction than where we've been headed, I think it will be compelling in a different way.

Mike Wang: I think in a way we're shadowing FIFA a bit. They needed to start over in order to make soccer right, and we know that the fans will follow back to us once we get basketball right. That's where we're at.

ESPN: Have you guys been happy with the speed Synergy has provided its updates to Live?

Sean O'Brien: There were initial hiccups, but we internally expected these hiccups to happen when the season started and we were trying to input everything from their server to our server, but I don't think we did a good enough job of communicating to consumers that this is when we're attempting to get this thing live but that there were going to be some issues that we needed to work through. We ended up having our first update I believe five days after the season started, but since then it's been refreshing and surprising to us how seamless it has been. We're finding that on any given day, 75-80 percent of our connected consumers are downloading Dynamic DNA every day. That's a pretty powerful number and we're starting to see in the community people recognizing how powerful and how cool it is.

We're always looking at new ways to bring this information from Synergy into the game, and that's exclusive to us, and I think you're going to see some big innovations with that and continue to support that daily update that makes NBA Live relevant every day of the season rather than being outdated day one of the season.

ESPN: What was the one gameplay aspect that frustrated you most about the 09 game that you wanted to fix?

Mike Wang: The first one for me is rebounding. It's just not right. The way guys go and position themselves, it just fundamentally wasn't basketball. With that you get guys jumping over your back, too many offensive rebounds, guys not boxing out properly, users not being able to get to the ball. It was just broken.

The other thing I'll say is that Live in the past struggled with controller response and feel. It felt almost like a turn-based basketball game where you triggered an animation and then you just watched it and you had to make decisions like you were playing chess. But basketball is a fast-paced, twitch and react game. It just needs to be more explosive in general. Live always felt robotic to me, so that's my first priority of what I'm fixing.

ESPN: Back in the day, Live introduced Superstar moves, then 2K answered with Signature Style. But then Live responded by dropping these moves all together which I always thought was strange. Are you going to add more trademark moves back into the game?

Ryan Santos: We recognize that and we're really doing the research on what guys have what signature moves. And while the focus is five-on-five, we really want to add this stuff back into the game to help nail the authenticity.

We also want to nail the player look, from the sneakers on their feet to their tattoos to those signature animations. Right now, we have guys on the team who are hardcore basketball heads who watch games every night and we see something like a new dunk LeBron is doing and we want to get that stuff in the game. Just looking at the authenticity of the game, I think that's something we've been lacking in the past and something we haven't been paying enough attention to.

Back in 2003-2004, we had all the throwbacks and all the Nike shoes and I think we were looking at what was current with these players, and this year we're doing a big overhaul on all of the player models, all of the faces, and we want to be really accurate with all of the sneakers these guys are wearing so we can feed into the lifestyle and culture of the game. We want to connect with the consumers who are checking out the sneaker sites, the guys who are paying attention to when LeBron wears his Big Apples in New York, and really trying to add that into our game.

Sean O'Brien: To me, the signature stuff and the trademark moves, those need to be contextual. That stuff just needs to be there. To me, that falls under the label of authenticity and we're not going away from that, we're just not going to brand it anything. What we're going to try and do is make sure players are performing like they do in the real world and in the right context. So there is a huge focus on player differentiating this year. It's something we're not going to shy away from this year or moving forward.

ESPN: You need to add LeBron's chalk toss while you're at it.

Sean O'Brien: No comment. [laughs]

Mike Wang: And you can't downplay the importance of Dynamic DNA with all of this stuff. When you introduce a big feature like that, the first year you're never going to see the full vision of the feature. But for this year, I think you're really going to see all of that. We're implementing that Synergy Sports data into every aspect of gameplay right now and it's going to have a lot more of an affect and show through. Like Sean said, player differentials and signature stuff, that's huge to us because that's what NBA basketball is all about. You need to differentiate the stars and the teams as well, so I think this is a huge focus for us. Don't expect just a minor upgrade with this, there is going to be a huge difference.

Sean O'Brien: This was just year one of what's going to be at least a five-year deal with them and we're going to continue to evolve, and the impact that data will have on our game will also evolve every year. Year one was just the tip of the iceberg of what it will be moving forward.

Mike Wang: At 2K, a lot of it is just window-dressing, a lot of it is just animations, and that's stuff we're already starting to do, collecting more data on that end, and Live is going to surpass that pretty easily. And the under-the-hood stuff with Synergy, that's what is pretty huge and it's something we could never do at 2K. That's why I'm so excited about Live.

ESPN: Will we also see the Synergy Sports info feed in Dynasty mode this year, making your franchise mirror what's going on in real life?

Sean O'Brien: That's a great idea. [laughs] We have something we're building that's extremely cool this year and we obviously won't go into detail with you now because it's quite early but we've heard this feedback from our consumer. This was the number one thing people have been asking about since we announced Dynamic DNA. There will be something that we will announce that I think you'll find pretty cool, pretty interesting.

ESPN: The other thing I'm curious about moving forward is online team play similar to NHL's EA Sports Hockey League. You had a mode in last year's game, but it was pretty limited. Will we see something similar to the NHL online mode this year?

Sean O'Brien: Without spilling the beans on what we're planning, that particular offering suits hockey extremely well. Again, without saying too much, if you think about how you play hockey in the real world, not a lot of people just roll down to the rink with their skates and their stick and play hockey. I think it's a very structured and organized way you play. You play in a league, you've got stats. We're pretty intimate with this being Canadian, and I think that's why it was so successful, because we know how it all works and that goes back to the relevancy to the culture of the sports. We're doing something that is a similar concept but a different direction if that makes sense.

ESPN: Like NBA Street?

Sean O'Brien: [laughs] We'll have something in our game that is similar in concept but different in direction, but that's all I'll say.

ESPN: You mentioned how the player models were going to be overhauled and how you're trying to appeal to the culture. Any hints on what to expect?

Ryan Santos: A little background on me, I started at EA as a tester on NBA Live '98. I always wanted to work on basketball and I was given the chance in 2000 to join the dev team as an artist. I was an artist on Live from 2000-2005, then I worked on NBA Street V3 and Homecourt. So I've been working on our basketball products for a long time, but coming back to Live, this is a new role for me. Sean has given me the opportunity to be a game designer and really affect the game in a way I always thought a basketball game should be. With a visual background and my cultural background, I think we can bring a lot of that flavor that we had with Street into Live and add a lot of that lifestyle appeal Live used to have.

Back in 2003-2004, we had a soundtrack by Just Blaze, we had Mitchell and Ness throwbacks, we were current with all the sneakers, and those things were really relevant with the basketball-heads in general and our consumer. That's a lot of what I'm trying to do this year. When you boot up the game, it's going to look and sound like a whole new game. We're doing a lot of things and leveraging a lot of our relationships with partners like Brand Jordan and Nike, and that's something that being EA and having that brand power, we can leverage those relationships and build on our history. This is our 16th year, and this is the year I think we're really going to turn this thing around.

Sean O'Brien: I know a lot of people are jaded, a lot of people are going to be skeptical, and to be honest, I get a lot of those questions like "how is this year going to be different" internally as well. And that's not a knock on what's happened prior to now, but I think a lot of people have heard how this is the year for NBA and how we're going to be better than 2K, but what we're saying this year is that we have a new direction and I strongly believe that this is going to be an unbelievable basketball title this coming year.