Last year, EA Sports’ NBA Live series made its long awaited return on next generation consoles after a four-year hiatus. However, it failed to live up to expectations and received a cold reception from critics and gamers alike. But rather than fold and cower to the powerful NBA 2K series, EA went back to the drawing board and overhauled everything heading into NBA Live 15. Life+Times caught up with executive producer Sean O’Brien to discuss where last year’s installment failed, how they plan to win back the hearts of their fans with NBA Live 15 and more.
Life+Times: Was there concern with how last year’s installment of NBA Live was going to be received?
Sean O’Brien: Yes. My hope was people would understand that we are a work in progress. I didn’t put enough weight into what the expectation from the media and players would be. It really was me looking at this opportunistically as we built our team to create a better product. But the reality is that it is extremely challenging to catch up to everyone else’s product. We have a strong competitor in NBA 2K. There was genuine excitement for NBA Live coming back but general disappointment when it did not measure up. I knew the product wasn’t where we wanted it to be but I didn’t realize how lofty those expectations would be. But I’m also pleased in the trajectory we showed over the eleven months leading into what NBA Live 15 looks like today.
There were some things that we did that were just flawed. It wasn’t necessarily the team but the time window we had to work with the new technology. Basic things you take for granted like passing, shooting and dribbling animations, they needed to look amazing. We actually had to break things down to make them better for 15. Visually, the technology was good but the assets were not. With the game I’m playing in my hands right now, I feel really good about this as a solid basketball game. I’m beyond excited about what the future looks like.
L+T: Were you able to pull from what worked for the other EA Sports franchises and put that into your game?
SO: A lot of what we’re pulling from is the response from players. What people were excited about and what they latched onto in a negative way. I think Madden did a tremendous job of presenting their game with the different cameras, the storytelling and the immersion you feel when playing Madden feels like no other before it. A lot of the credit goes to the guys who worked on it and they helped over here with NBA Live. We wanted to do the same here. If LeBron hammers home a big dunk and goes up the court with a signature look on his face because its two minutes left in the fourth quarter, we want to get the camera on the floor so you can experience that with him. We want that immersion that makes you feel like you’re in the game.
L+T: What are the biggest new features for NBA Live 15?
SO: We’re playing catch up. It’s not a roster update. It’s really the furthest thing from that as a result of our place in the market. Our focus was on three things: Graphics, gameplay and onboarding. We knew we fell short in all three. With graphics, a new lighting technique and a new philosophy that has gone into scanning assets, I am not exaggerating when I say the game looks completely different versus last year. We also focused heavily on gameplay. What it’s like in the half court and in transition. Making sure that the player is always in control and responsiveness is important so when you push a button, you get that expected result while still maintain the fidelity of animation. We wanted to shore up the passing, catching, rebounding, defending and shot blocking. These are things you expect. We wanted to really beef up Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy’s in-game commentary. So a lot of banter within the game about a situation that’s relevant to the game you’re playing and making sure there’s not a lot of dead air. It feels much more organic and alive. Onboarding is the last thing and one of the things we overlooked. The control scheme is different than NBA 2K and we never really taught you how to play our game. We used our cover athlete Damien Lillard and created a fictional venue to walk you through the journey of playing the games so ultimately you’ll have more success than if we just drop you into a five on five. We want to make sure our users understand what they are doing. It’s really up to us to provide more depth in the future.
L+T: Physics are a huge deal, whether it be ball bouncing or players running into each other, has that been fixed in 15?
SO: Last year we made a big deal about the dribbling physics. The technology was there but it didn’t feel great. We really focused on making sure you still had the responsiveness with any sort of left stick movement with the basketball. This is night and day from last year’s version. That’s a good example of something that we fixed. The ball and rim interaction is a lot better as well. We also introduced real time physics for any action that happens on a shot. If I go up for a shot and the defense tries to block it, so there are real collisions that affect how the shot goes up. It’s amazing the amount of things you see with our physics engine. You won’t see an arm going through an arm that reminds you that you’re playing a video game. You see these amazing looking characters but they need to move and behave how you expect them to when there’s contact. Physicality in the paint, shot adjustment and how players interact are all in there.
L+T: What features are going to separate NBA Live 15 from NBA 2K15?
SO: I’m going to be brutally honest when I say that I don’t think there is anything in the game this year feature wise that separates it from the pack. What we’re really trying to differentiate is around feel and responsiveness. We’re trying to provide the full sense of physicality. That’s how we start to differentiate. You’re going to see the real differentiation in NBA Live 16 and beyond. The reality was that we had to fix the core of our game before offering you something else. For instance, we want to sure up our online play so it doesn’t lag and gives you a seamless experience before we try to add all these elements that won’t work when you try to get online. We don’t want a bunch of average things. We want one really great thing and build off of that for the future. Take it one step at a time.