If I'm judging sports games based on this generation of consoles, then NBA 2K stands above the rest. But if I think back to the beginning of this generation, it's hard to imagine saying such a thing. It's easy to forget now, but Live and NBA 2K went their separate ways back in 2005 when the Xbox 360 launched.
NBA 2K was coming off a couple "misfires" as the PS2/Xbox era was winding down with NBA 2K5 and NBA 2K6, which really just means these titles were good rather than amazing, and Live had peaked with Live 04 and Live 05. That being said, both engines were under fire for being a bit outdated as we entered the "next-gen" era. So what ended up happening with the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005 was that gamers got two basketball games that were on divergent paths. The 360 version of NBA 2K6 was a high-res version of the PS2/Xbox game in many respects, and NBA Live 06 was a stripped down game with a new engine and a lack of modes. Again, it's hard to remember, but at the time I do remember many people saying, "Live might not be as good as NBA 2K this year, but it has the much more promising future."
And then the NBA 2K7 demo happened, and trailers like this one happened, and then it was over. NBA Live 07 was actually worse than Live 06 while NBA 2K7 served as the beginning of a gaming dynasty. Yes, the engine still got criticized a bit for feeling outdated, but a mix of signature style, graphical presentation and a renewed focus on refining and updating the game engine really began again with NBA 2K7.
NBA 2K7 and Beyond
I honestly do remember where I was when I downloaded the NBA 2K7 demo. It was a special demo between the Heat and Mavericks that ranks right up there with the NHL 07 demo as one those amazing moments where you can't hit the "restart demo" button quick enough.
Witnessing Dirk shooting (mostly) like Dirk, or Shaq and Wade doing their own shots at the free-throw line created this moment in time where I felt like the series was returning to the greatness it had originally tapped into back on the Dreamcast. The demo does not hold up well these days because the graphics actually pain me to look at, and most of the players have received new jumpers and better signature style over the years, but nothing can tarnish those dorm-room memories that I have of playing that four-minute demo over and over again.
And most everything that made that demo special continues to be special years later. It's a treat to turn on the latest version of NBA 2K and see who has received new tattoos, or a new face model or a new jumper. As a huge NBA fan, I now turn on NBA 2K every year because I know it's going to be the closest thing I can get to seeing what's new in the real NBA. At the same time, as a NBA super fan I also want to see if NBA 2K has gotten Wilson Chandler's tattoos into the game yet; or I might want to see what hairstyle they settled on with Andrew Bogut this year. In some respects,NBA 2K is more than a video game now because part of the fun is simply seeing how close the developers can get to mimicking the look and feel of the NBA ecosystem on a yearly basis.
Why NBA 2K Is Truly Special
But the real point I'm getting at here as we enter full-on hype mode for NBA 2K12 is that what this series really does better than any other sports franchise these days is make each version of the game feel new and fresh on the court.
It's not something as simple as refreshing the presentation to make things seem new again -- though the 2K developers are extremely good at that, and it certainly plays a part as well -- rather there is a fundamental focus on making each version of the game feel different. It's actually a bit hard to define, and incredibly risky in some respects, but NBA 2K is the one franchise out there these days -- FIFA is close to entering the conversation -- where you feel like you have to re-learn the gameplay each year.
And the key element here is that these are not overbearing changes that completely throw everyone off. This is not a Vision Cone change or a new control scheme level of change, but rather a change to deeper mechanics that some gamers may never truly notice. For example, when NBA 2K11 first launched this year, it was funny to notice how low the scores were online during my battles with OSers. The Isomotion controls had been modified, and the way ball handlers and defenders were interacting had changed as well, which led to many of us having to rid ourselves of bad habits. Scores would barely creep into the low 80s even though we played with 12-minute quarters. Now, fast forward to the present day, and I can score 100 points with the Raptors with all the same variables still in play. The same goes for the Jordan Challenge mode. I remember many people saying how hard that mode was at the start of last year, yet now I bet many of you folks can go in and run right through each one of those challenges with ease.
It is these learning cycles that make NBA 2K stand out. With NBA 2K12, these changes can be found all over the court. When I'm in the post, it's clear I can't do the same "money" post moves because they now work differently (and it's an entirely new button to even enter the post). When I'm dribbling around inside the 3-point line, I can't do the same momentum shots this year because they have now been implemented in a different fashion. It's also abundantly clear that it's even more important to stop the ball and really focus on cutting off portions of the court while playing man-to-man defense. In essence, it's like the game does not scare away a casual person by changing how shooting or passing works, but the hardcore user can still turn on the game and not understand or comprehend right away how to really fully use the shot or pass button to its full potential.
When looking around at the genre, it's hard to find other games following this model. As I touched on previously, I do feel like FIFA 12 is going to force people to re-learn how they play the game this year, but otherwise I'm not sure another game has really nailed that aspect this year.
However, I should again clarify what I'm talking about here in terms of having to "learn" a game all over again. For example, you did have to learn how to hit and pitch again in The Show this year, but that was because you had to learn new analog controls. In a sense, The Show also works as an example of something else I think NBA 2K tends to avoid and that is the "just because" syndrome. To some extent, it felt like The Show was almost forced to adopt the analog hitting and pitching controls for a "just because" type of reason. There was nothing truly wrong with the old controls that could not have been updated or fixed with time. Gamers in some sense wanted to see a change to the controls "just because" MLB 2K had analog controls, and "just because" some felt that button-based hitting and pitching was so last-gen.
However, to the credit of the developers at Sony San Diego, those guys ended up doing right by both parties because they created a solid analog system, while also refining the old button-based systems rather than just abandoning them. However, you can look at a franchise like Top Spin as one that really got sidetracked by feeling the pressure of attempting to fit into this everything-must-be-controlled-on-the-analog-sticks movement with Top Spin 3. Luckily, the series bounced back with the controls in Top Spin 4, but these are the types of "just because" situations NBA 2K tends to avoid.
Of course, it's also a tricky middle ground. A game like The Show did to some extent deserve some criticism for not really changing hitting in a way that could be tangibly felt on the sticks and on the field. It did tend to be too easy to pull outside pitches or hit high balls on the ground and so on. But, again, there was not a single issue that really bothered me to such an extent that I wanted the old button-based systems to go away.
Then again, the "leave it the way it is" mantra I have for The Show is also probably why many sports developers don't take many risks on a year-to-year basis. Many of these games do have solid systems with many years of credibility under their belt. So why risk the change?
Well, in the case of NBA 2K, the developers must clearly have a there's-always-a-better-way-to-do-this mentality. Did I really have a problem with how post-up system was initiated last year? Nope. But do I think using the Y button on the Xbox 360 to initiate a post up feels better this year? Yep.
In the grand scheme of things, a simple change like the post-up button being moved is probably not a simple change in the game-development world. I'm sure it's not a change that was made without a ton of testing and thought put into it. So then the question is how do the NBA 2K developers get away with spending what probably is a ton of time reworking the post system in such a way where it feels quite different when compared to last year's version?
To put it differently, if hardcore users are the ones that are going to be fiddling a lot with deeper mechanics like the multiple moves in the post-up system, then a lot of the changes to gameplay are not really things that can be successfully marketed. I don't think it would do a lot of good to talk to Joe Gamer about how in NBA 2K12 it's a lot harder to quickly spin off your man in the post before you use your dribble, or that you can now use an up and under to really try and draw a shooting foul on a jumping defender. It's also great the way you now cut things off while playing post defense in NBA 2K12, but can you really explain that to the masses with a bullet point or 20-second trailer? Probably not, so why try? Just make the change, and worry about "selling" the game in other ways.
And that's where the successful partnership between developers/marketers/PR and so on really works with this franchise. The developers are not worried about making sure there is a gameplay "gimmick" to slap on the back of the box or sell to the "higher-ups" because they have plenty of other ways to do so. For that reason, NBA 2K has done a great job this generation not allowing gameplay to creep too far into gimmick territory; they can rely on the game modes, signature style and other features to carry the load when talking to the general masses.
In other words, it's much easier to spend time refining and redesigning a post-up system on a yearly basis when you can simply say, "look we have Jordan and a ton of other legends in the game this year, isn't that awesome!" Plus, it can't hurt that 2K is capable of releasing trailers that get people excited to play the game simply due to high production values mixed with raw authenticity seeping off the screen. If you watch a trailer like this and don't immediately come away saying, "I just want more of that injected directly into my eyeballs right now," then I'm sorry but you're either a jaded human or you have no soul.
Balancing the marketing and development priorities has allowed the NBA 2K franchise to axiomatically alter mechanics that really worked just fine as is in pursuit of finding something even better. Perhaps being a truly successful franchise allows the developers to take these types of risks, but I would argue many sports games have a secure spot on the sales charts regardless of what they do in many respects, yet they don't take nearly the same type of gameplay risks found here.
Bring It Home
So here we are, less than a month out from NBA 2K12, and it really feels like the series has begun to transcend the genre. It feels like a big moment waiting for this title. It does feel as big as a Madden release or a FIFA release. I know millions of people are going to play this game, and it excites me to think about something like that because I know it's a title that will be deserving of being touched by that many people.
As a final point, I think it's important to remember that I don't believe the NBA 2K developers could get away with the type of gameplay changes they make on a year-to-year basis if certain types of gamers were not focused on multiple portions of the game each year. I do think people would have called a couple entries NBA 2K (insert number here).5 during this generation if all these other changes that happen beyond the gameplay were not also happening at the same time.
But, again, that's the beauty of NBA 2K this generation. It is the poster child for pleasing the hardcore and casual user on a yearly basis right now because it's found a way to make hardcore users feel overwhelmed at the start of each year while mostly avoiding scaring off casuals. By pleasing both sides in that way, the NBA 2K team then brings every user together with the glamour of delicious looking NBA hoops re-imagined in video game form.