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How A Big Video Game Was Killed

The last-minute cancellation of EA Sports’ NBA Elite 11 this season isn’t supposed to happen to any video game. How? Why? Kotaku learned the unusual story this week from EA boss John Riccitiello.

“I’m not sure I’m going to give you a good explanation,” Riccitiello told me when I brought up the topic of Elite during an interview in Manhattan this week, “So I’ll just give you the chronology and let you interpret what you want.”

I’m going to pass Riccitiello’s approach on to you, the reader and present virtually all of what he said about Elite, a frank blow-by-blow with some added explanation from me. Then you may interpret it as you’d like.

Riccitiello started his tale by talking about the creative team behind the NBA series, a team ready to transform EA’s long-standing NBA Live series into 2010′s NBA Elite 11.

“A year and a half ago the [development]team in Canada came forward and they said, ‘Look, the way we’re going to take 2K on is that we’re going to fundamentally innovate. And we’re going to essentially give you dual-analog controls that give you an enormous amount of fidelity over the way you play the game.’ You can literally take the ball from left to right, left to right, drive to the basket, switch the ball to your left hand and do a left-handed dunk. And they showed me that gameplay and put the controller in my hand, and I said, ‘This is about as much fun as I’ve ever had playing any sports game.

“They said, ‘We’re going to do this for next year.’ But it was a complete rewrite of the technology. It was an ambitious plan.

“They were flashing from Canada that the game was going to come in hot.”

“Somewhere in the July timeframe, they were flashing from Canada that the game was going to come in hot. In a way, they’d sort of bit off two years’ worth of work that they could only get done in 18 months. So it was going to come in hot. But they were still signaling to us that it was going to come in good, that they were going to get it.

“The demo went on around the same time we were mastering the game [Editor's note: Meaning the game was just about done and ready to go in boxes headed to stores] . The report was – we had known a month earlier that the gameplay was great but that they didn’t synch up well against the animations, which was what….”

As Riccitiello searched for his next work, I extended my arms out to the sides, in the manner of the notorious bug that helped make the NBA Elite 11 demo a mockery. “This guy,” I said. “Yeah,” Riccitiello responded.

“So we knew that there was an issue, but they said we’re going to gert this solved in the next 150 hours before it goes final.

“We’re in the middle of a nail-biter. The demo goes out. We final the game. We do an internal review. We’re not happy. Interaction between the label and sales organisation says the game is likely to be a 60 or something along those lines essentially for the fact that it wasn’t finished. What do you do?

“There aren’t many decisions that are essentially squarely on my desk. This was one.”

“There aren’t many decisions that are essentially squarely on my desk. This was one.

“I thought about it and I thought, alright, at that point I didn’t know how good [rival game NBA 2K11]would be but the rumours were [that it was going to be]good. So we could have shipped a product we weren’t proud of dead against their game that they are proud of and that we would have been proud of to ship ourselves. We would have probably lost 5-1 in the marketplace against that and firmly cemented a reputation for being one to ship secondary sports titles. We could have put the game back in production and showed up back in time for, say, the All-Star Break… but when you look at the data, typically somewhere between 85 and 90 per cent of basketball games ship between launch date and the All-Star game so we would have been competing for, what, half of the last 10 per cent? And the knock-on effect would have been that the team that would otherwise have been working on the following year’s product would have three fewer months to build it.

“So there’s the table: You can ship a product you’re not proud of and compete for marginal share. You can delay the game to get a better product, but that’s going to have a knock-on effect. And we made what I judged to be the best call given the circumstances.”

At this point I asked Riccitiello if this was the most down-to-the wire he’d ever gotten with a game. The cut-off was so close here that copies of the game did make it into the wild.

“You’d be shocked at how many last-minute decisions are made,” he responded. “In most games, whether it’s Crysis 2 or GTA or Red Dead Redemption or, I don’t know, Blur, there isn’t a locked window when the product needs to hit the shelves to compete with the sports season. So what most people would have done, if this was a shooter or a Sims game is say, ‘Look there is no season for Sims, there is no season for shooters.’ The team would never have mastered the game. They would have kept it in production, waved the white flag apology, put it into three or four months of development and delayed the game. But there’s no basketball then, there’s no sequel that’s necessary a year later. So this is one of those things that gets jammed in a different category.

“That’s not a risk anymore if you only take risks that work.”

“To be honest with you, I don’t want to sound self-satisfied, but I’m pretty proud of our ability to make that decision. Because, I don’t think the consumer was served badly by buying 2K. It’s a good game. And I think we’re better served. We were originally going to put Jam in our package. By separating it out people got to see what a good game that is. “

EA killed Elite and shipped versions of its Wii-revived NBA Jam for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 instead. That game, unlike Elite, had come together well.

“I’m actually kind of hard-pressed to find a constituency that is less well off from the decision we made,” Riccitiello told me. “But I think a more important [point]is: it’s very easy to sequel a product when you don’t seek to change it very much. If you seek to change it fundamentally you’re inherently taking a sizable risk. When you seek to change something that is on an annual sequel basis you’re taking a really sizable risk because if the technology you’re betting on doesn’t come together in the first or second cut, you don’t make your window. So from time to time we take those risks. usually, in the sports game business usually only during a platform technology transition. But sometimes, like we did with FIFA, not during a technology transition, and we took a similarly ambitious move four years ago with FIFA and pulled it off – in the same studio with many of the same people.

“People admire game companies that take risks but in retrospect they only seem to admire game companies that take risks when the risks work. That’s not a risk anymore if you only take risks that work. I think of it as like skiing. If you occasionally don’t fall down, you’re not trying hard enough.”

There you go. If you were Riccitiello, would you have made the same call?

For the record, he wouldn’t confirm that EA’s got a simulation style basketball game for next year, be it Live, Elite or something new. But, he said, “We’re EA Sports, for Christ’s sake.”