The rumour went around shortly after everyone got back from E3. I took a phone call from a person within the industry who knew I'd been down to EA Sports' Tiburon studio to see NBA Live. They asked if I thought it was going to be a digital-only release.
"What? No. That's... dumb," I said, trying to find a reason why I thought it was dumb. The biggest one that came to mind was the fact that, if EA Sports is going to get back into the NBA simulation game, it needs its brand out there, on shelves for, let's say, less discriminating consumers like gift-buying mums and aunts who don't know what a world-beater NBA 2K has been. It drives 2K Sports bonkers, but it's a legitimate concern.
The bigger reason I couldn't fathom a digital-only release is because of the scope of what I saw down in Florida. There was a full-size team there — more than 70 developers. They were working on some complicated things in their presentation, some of which I agreed not to reveal until an embargo date passed but now, I'm wondering if it ever will. At any rate, it showed serious effort. A seriously expensive effort that you recover by selling it for $US59.99.
Not $US20, which is what a report this week said was a figure being given to buyers at GameStop's annual expo in Texas. And that's how I heard it going around the first time too. Retailers were getting their hands on this information there too, and when they're being told what they can and can't expect to sell, it's usually trustworthy information. I suppose EA Sports could be trying to court gamers who are willing to take a $US20 risk and do so impulsively with the click of a button. But it would seem to me they're going to do less business that way than with a product people can give as a gift.
I can't believe this really was the plan all along. Now, I did know that this game was not going to have a lot of window dressing, but that struck me more as a decision to focus on making a solid core product that re-established trust with customers. EA Sports was also aggressively managing the story behind this product. Since then, the total silence communicates nothing other than the plug has been pulled. A grand total of six screenshots have been released. A 10-minute gameplay video was leaked; EA Sports disowned it, calling it a pre-alpha build.
Going to a $US20 digital-only release — and EA Sports has been given multiple opportunities to shoot this down — also reeks of a vote of no confidence. It's a position that requires a lot of salesmanship to keep gamers from thinking they're going to get one-third of the game that NBA 2K13 will be. Instead, we can't even get a solid release date, a month before its competitor will arrive.
There's no reason to think gamers, particularly sports gamers, are in some way biased against digital-only releases and so seeking this course means any attempt to explain it is a waste of time, if you've got a decent game. I do think they rightly distrust what EA Sports is doing when it has steadfastly refused to level with customers on what the hell is really going on here, when every sign points to a shallow-grave burial somewhere in the desert, and when its history of post-release support on its other digital titles is unremarkable.
I'm up to about a rumour every other week on NBA Live so I'm in contact with the game's representatives frequently. I keep being told they have announcements coming. I've been told they still intend to show the game to me pre-release. But at this point, that's not the story that really interests me. I'd really like to know how this came crashing down so quickly, even with the disappointments at E3.
But if EA Sports is unwilling to tell us the story of the game it is making, I doubt it's going to be forthcoming about the one it didn't. The one I thought I saw down in Florida five months ago.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's weekly column on sports video games.