Earlier this afternoon, 2K Sports' Ronnie Singh — Ronnie2K on Twitter — gave everyone playing NBA 2K14 a code for a special pre-game player animation as a make-good for the online troubles that paralysed the game this weekend. Naturally, when I went to enter the code on my PlayStation 4, 2K's servers were down.
It's another letdown in what can, by now, be described as the worst launch of a sports video game on the new console generation — NBA Live's included — and something that calls up dreadful memories of how sports video gaming staggered eight years ago in its debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. If you took the outrage against Battlefield 4 — broken online code — and the anger over Forza Motorsport 5 — an unbalanced virtual economy making standard content and features unlockable — and merged it into one game, you'd have the calamity now facing one of sports gaming's glamour franchises at the beginning of a new year.
First, the online troubles. In the six weeks since the game's PS4/Xbox One launch, 2K Sports has battled online connectivity problems that seem only to worsen as new fixes are rolled out. The recent weekend appeared to be the worst one so far, not least because it followed a title update on Friday that many fans hoped would have rectified the matter. It instead introduced bugs into the MyGM career mode and Xbox One gamers found themselves unable to play their friends. The Christmas gifts that added more gamers to NBA 2K14's next gen ranks also added to the social media ferment, which spewed disappointment at 2K Sports all weekend long.
Server availability in NBA 2K14 doesn't just affect online leagues, ranked multiplayer matches, and modes like "The Park," a kind of virtual pick-up game. Because of how NBA 2K14 saves its files on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, it can lock players out of offline modes too, like MyCareer and My GM. As I mentioned in my day-one impressions, the series was dipping its toe into the waters of being sports' first always-online game. And as the mangled launches of Diablo III in 2012 and SimCity this year showed, nothing infuriates gamers like being told they can't play a game's solo mode because of a publisher's online prerogatives.
It is and it isn't as bad as it sounds with NBA 2K14 though. The game does allow you to create an offline save file for your MyGM or My Player mode. It's a wholly separate gamesave though — you'll have to start over, because the game verifies your MyCareer progress with the server online. The game essentially requires you to maintain two identities if you want to have a backup when the lights go out on 2K's servers.
The 2K Games support account on Twitter lit up with complaints of crashes and even, in one very concerning instance, the total loss of progress in a MyCareer save. The label has long had an unreliable reputation in its online offerings. The launch of NBA 2K12, a roundly praised, landmark entry in the series, also was stained by server problems originating in a codebase going back to the series' Dreamcast days. An overhaul for NBA 2K13 delivered mostly smooth performance last year, but 2K Sports made a dangerous gamble making so much of the new-generation game dependent on online server availability, given its historic inability to deliver that in the past.
Why 2K requires singleplayer career mode progress to be verified online by the 2K Sports servers is so far unexplained. It likely has to do with Virtual Currency, which is the cash gamers use to do all sorts of things across all of the game's modes, online and offline. This is the other new "feature" of NBA 2K14 the so many longtime fans find frustrating, and it will linger even once (if) the online problems are fixed. Virtual currency was introduced last year in NBA 2K13 but it is much more aggressively implemented in the PS4/Xbox One version of the game.
Last year, VC was mostly used in the then-new MyTeam mode, an ultimate team format where players try to assemble all-star teams from packs of virtual cards and microtransactions are somewhat expected. But in the singleplayer modes, VC functions almost like experience points do in other sports titles' careers. VC is how a player acquires a new set of "dunk packages" — distinct animations as a player goes hard to the rim — and improves his attributes.
This year, though, in the MyGM franchise mode, the most-often cited ridiculous example is how VC unlocks the simple choice of setting your team's starting lineup rotations. The most crippling aspect of VC's impact on MyGM comes from the fact that simulating any game — and in an 82-game season, most players do skip a lot — returns you no currency at all. The mocking anger directed at 2K Sports comes largely from longtime players who feel they are faced with grinding through every single game of a season, or paying real money to do things that were freely available to them in past editions.
Not even EA Sports, long the whipping boy for gamer mistrust, does this. Advancement in Madden's connected franchise mode is strictly on an XP basis only. Tiger Woods PGA Tour has a split system of XP and virtual currency ("coins"), where the latter buys perks that may be used in career play. For this reason, though, if your console can't check in with the EA Sports servers, you may still play your round or your career event, you just won't earn any virtual cash. It won't retard your created golfer's progress, as his or her development comes through XP alone, and that cannot be bought.
When Forza Motorsport 5 ran into backlash for how it handled its economy — where gamers felt manipulated into buying virtual cars for real cash — the game's developers implemented steep discounts on unlocking cars, gave away some models for free, and boosted the virtual currency payout gamers received for playing. In another example, Grand Theft Auto Online gave players half-a-million in in-game dollars to apologise for problems that mode faced at launch.
We've seen some of this type of economy-goosing and apologizing from 2K Sports, too, through the "locker codes" I mentioned above. These codes aren't one-use, first-come, first-serve; anyone who punches them in (through the game itself, not in the PlayStation Store or Xbox Live Marketplace) before they expire can reap the virtual cash. I'd expect to see free-cash locker codes just about every week, if not more often, until the end of the NBA playoffs this summer.
The problems hounding NBA 2K14 are both typically 2K Sports — the server failures — and also very unlike the label — the Virtual Currency debacle. 2K Sports, until very recently, prided itself on putting everything on the disc. 60 dollars bought you the full experience. That changed incrementally — historic teams here, All-Star Weekend contests there — over the past two years. Now the series seems to have sunk both fists into the molasses, monetizing everything from a created player's clothing to how a general manager makes strategic choices.
For more than a decade this franchise has been one of the best and most trusted names in sports video gaming. NBA 2K has faced its own shortcomings every year — every series does — but these things were smoothed over largely with the benefit of the doubt the game had earned from a reputation for high quality and fair treatment. The past six weeks have shown how quickly that can be depleted.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.