Reading between the lines of an open letter by NBA Live‘s new executive producer, one understands that whatever comes next in that franchise is really no continuation of last year’s effort, which, like its 2010 predecessor, was aborted a few weeks before its assumed date of release.
Remember, at the time, EA Sports said it realised its game wouldn’t be ready for an October launch, and said, “rather than launch midway through the season, we’re going to sit out the full year and stay focused on next year’s game great.” At the time I asked, quite pointedly, if any heads rolled because of it. “Nothing to announce at this time,” was the response.
Well, we already know the project’s creative director, Jason Barnes, was sent packing — from what was a dream job — sometime before the mass layoffs in April. At E3 the game’s executive producer went on stage to hype the new ballhandling engine. His name is Sean O’Brien. Nick Wlodyka was the executive producer I talked to for the series in 2012, so one assumes he was pushed out as well. Dale Jackson is no longer mentioned as NBA Live’s general manager — that’s now Daryl Holt.
Finally, this game will be PlayStation 4 and Xbox One only.
It’s worth bringing up all this inside basketball for a couple of reasons. Whatever EA Sports was doing last year should be assumed to be dead and buried. That was going to be a $US20 or $US30 download-only title that featured multiplayer and a franchise career mode and not much else. Despite intimating that they would take a year to refine that product — which I said at the time made zero sense — EA dumped 13 and its leadership and poured everything onto next generation, the smart play.
“We didn’t feel the package was up to the level of quality [of FIFA and Madden] so we pulled back, to maintain at least the perception of sanctity and quality,” Andrew Wilson, the man in charge of all of EA Sports, told me last week. “When we looked forward, we said, ‘Listen, we’ve got a great competitor who makes a great game, what is the best way for us to go forward? Investing the the current generation of platforms … just seemed inappropriate.”
Wilson said what they’re attempting with “BounceTek,” the new ballhandling mechanism, wouldn’t have translated at all to current generation hardware. “The dribbling and level of control would not be possible on generation three; we’d be shaving around the edges, to shoehorn the game into generation three.”
So whatever’s coming is not and never was anything built last year for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
The other reason EA’s internal wrangling is of note is that, in O’Brien, they have someone back who was part of the franchise’s last real success. NBA Live 10 was a good game. If you care about Metacritic scores, it was in a dead heat with NBA 2K10. I know. It’s just forehead smacking to think EA Sports went from that, to two rockets blowing up on the pad.
Of course, 2009 was also the one year that Mike Wang worked on NBA Live, defecting to EA Canada from 2K Sports before returning a year later, when 2K Sports just said fuck it and started bombed everything back to the stone age with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, the entire 1992 Dream Team, Jay-Z, Dominique Wilkins, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Vinny Johnson et al.
“After playing and evaluating the state of NBA Live and talking to as many people as I could, I realised that the overall vision was lacking,” O’Brien said in his note to gamers. He says he went and pulled in Gary Paterson as his senior creative director, so there’s Barnes’ replacement. Paterson delivered the real-time physics FIFA now uses.
O’Brien also name checked Scott O’Gallagher, a guy I met during last year’s visit, who at the time was part of a community advisory group and now is a designer on the team. I recall, vividly, O’Gallagher holding forth with a few designers on the differences in players’ jab steps, and not just those of notable stars, but ordinary players, too. O’Gallagher vows that ballhandling in NBA Live 14 is vastly different from what was attempted in NBA Elite 11, much less NBA Live 10.
All of this combines to send the message that, again, EA Sports wisely buried a mistake rather than unwisely reinforcing it. NBA Elite was stripped from EA Canada and sent to Florida. When that didn’t work, the label sacked the game’s leadership and handed it back to EA Canada alumni. As I’ve said, rather than stick with a sure loser of a hand, EA Sports at least had the balls to fold. But it’s still put a lot of money in the pot, and that’s why it’s still in the game