The NBA Live development team runs a weekly game of basketball at a rec centre across the street from EA Sports' studio in Orlando, Florida. When I visited a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to join them. Absolutely, I replied, but deep down I was still a little hesitant.
They're good. Many of them played in high school, a few of them played in college (including the game's PR manager, Katherine Coulthart, a guard at UC-Davis in the 1990s). The big office bragging right is not the crown and "pimp cane" that goes to the overall leader in head-to-head play on NBA Live 13's early build. It's the tale of taking down two LA Clippers in pickup ball last year.
Granted, it was two-on-five, but, hey, the pros were very confident they'd win.
Still, nearly all of the developers have facets of their game that reflect coaching and practice. I could tell when Mark Bennett, a software engineer, got me posted up and I realised I was in more trouble than I could possibly imagine. My mass and slow footwork were of no use against his technique, and he quickly went up and under to the hoop for an easy basket.
"My game," I told Dave Swanson, the development director, "is also in a pre-alpha state."
This was the reason for my hesitation: exposing how little I understood a sport they are recreating in a video game to release in October. I can watch the hell out of basketball, but I really don't know jack about actually playing it, having not been on any organised team since I hit my growth spurt at age 11.
And that's what makes video game basketball such a struggle for me. Coming to the game almost entirely as a spectator, my attention is almost entirely on the ball, both offence and defence. I'm not seeing the floor in a video game any more than I was seeing it in real life, when I was struggling just to set an off-the-ball screen for Coulthart, who told me she favoured that type of shot back at Davis. The result is that I play a brand of one-on-five or two-on-five basketball that's as sure to get me beaten as it was for Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu when they went against EA Sports last year.
Turns out, that's how a lot of people play video game basketball, too.
"The majority of people don't call plays," conceded Nick Wlodyka, the NBA Live 13 executive producer, who was on the court with us that day. "They run up the court, try to create a shot for themselves or they look for an open guy — and, more often than not, they don't try to find an open guy, they try to create their own shot.
"And that's just... video game basketball," he said with a shrug.
That's not really what I want in video game basketball, or in any kind of sport. My personal value is that I want to recreate a professional game, which is the point of me having the disc in the tray in the first place. I worry neurotically in Madden or NCAA Football whether my playcalling is actually authentic given the situation, and if a play fails, if it was because of my execution or my decision-making. MLB 2K12 has a very intensive pitch suggestion AI, but I stray from it because I like having control, and so then I wonder if I'm appropriately mixing my location and pitch types — a big focus of this year's game. Because I'm not a major league pitcher. I wasn't even a high school one.
The difference is in baseball and football, I'm dealing with set-piece gameplay. There's an opportunity on my end to make my decisions in advance of initiating the play (or reacting to it). Basketball, hockey and soccer are free-flowing sports with continually contested objectives. In hoops, you have to bring the ball past midcourt within eight seconds. As you are doing so, you're being defended. Your own players are moving. You have to know where they're going and why, who might be in best position, and make decisions as you're playing. And I think that's why a lot of people just default to isolation plays or, if their team doesn't have a strong point guard, feeding the ball to a known quantity like Dirk Nowitzki or Dwight Howard.
One of the first things Jason Barnes, NBA Live 10's creative director, did when EA Sports' NBA products were sent down to Florida, was convene focus groups in New York and in Chicago to watch them play video game basketball. Specifically, NBA 2K11, the acknowledged No. 1 basketball simulation whose game that year was a consensus sports game of the year.
Barnes and his team didn't tell the players who they represented or what they were working on, they just wanted to see them play and use those observations to begin the rebuilding process for Live, which failed to launch as NBA Elite 11 in 2010 and took the year off in 2011. He echoed Wlodyka's appraisal of typical video game basketball play.
"What most people do is they get to the top of the key or in an isolation," said Barnes, a former college point guard, "then dribble move, dribble move, dribble move, hope the defender gets faked, and then dunk."
Or, "it's catch the ball, pump fake, pump fake, pump fake, pump fake, pump fake," he says, "hope the guy bites on one of them, and then go in and dunk."
But there were some exceptions.
"Two guys that were just awesome," Barnes said, the admiration evident in his voice, "they ... kinda ran plays more than anybody else. But they were also the most disciplined on defence. They didn't try to swat every shot, or reach in and steal the ball every time, and they were just awesome."
However, "some of the others, you could see they were trying to swat and steal on every possession," Barnes said. "And they were down 25. Now, they clearly knew the game, because they paused the game, set up the camera angle, adjusted their starting lineups, that sort of thing. But they were getting killed."
That's because there's knowledge of a game and knowledge of a sport. Madden for all of the criticism hurled its way, has been legitimately educational to millions wanting to know more about how a very complicated game is played. I can't say the same thing about video game basketball, because accessing its depth often seems to require some outside knowledge on the user's behalf.
And that's fine, millions play basketball recreationally, much more than those playing football in full pads, so maybe it's a fair expectation that every player come to a game able to understand a ball reversal and how to execute it.
Wlodyka, cautiously, suggests that the teammate AI in NBA Live 13 may move that expectation, over to the human player recognising his teammates' movement and acting on it, rather than initiating a play and managing all aspects of it. "It's like, OK , the screen's set, I can work off it and drive, I can work off it and hit the guy rolling off the pick," Wlodyka offers. "The whole idea is you shouldn't have to call plays in order for players to move dynamically. You're the court general, these are professional players. You can call plays if you want — and that's where you can get into the depth of the game, of knowing that this style will work against this opponent, and this style won't.
"But from the outset the focus is on fun," Wlodyka said, smacking his fist and making passing and shooting gestures. "Wow, these guys are moving, wow, I saw that, I recognised the situation, I hit the pass at the right time, it made the right pass for me, I had an awesome experience, awesome bucket as a result."
This is going to be met with some scepticism. My Thursday profile of NBA Live's philosophy — six weeks away from its alpha — arched a lot of eyebrows. The concept of assisted passing — an engine that makes the correct type of pass without the player specifically calling for it — was met with some resistance in the hardcore community. Sure, Chris Paul knows instinctively to lob an alley-oop pass to Blake Griffin when he cuts to the hoop. CP3's an elite point guard. If we're getting a video game in which Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Bobcats — a rookie point guard on the league's losingest team — does the same thing as effortlessly, veteran gamers and league-watchers are going to call it out.
So moving in the direction of a general AI assist in with the other four players on your team carries its risks as well. Go too far and you'll alienate advanced, and very vocal, gamers. Don't go far enough and its a promise undelivered.
Wlodyka, Barnes, Bennett, Swanson and all the rest know this. "We've invested significantly in our off-the-ball AI," Wlodyka says. "We call it move with a purpose."
Those words, "Move With a Purpose," are up on a banner on the wall of the third floor at EA Sports Tiburon, where the game is built. It's classic coachspeak, the kind Barnes would always hear from his old man, who played for UCLA's John Wooden in the 1950s, before Wooden became the Wizard of Westwood and won 10 NCAA Championships.
"Basically, it means if you're on offence and you don't have the ball, your job is to get open, or get someone else open," Barnes says.
It's what he wants to see in the weekly game at the rec centre. It's what he wants to see when he gets back to the office, too.