Yesterday, I had an opportunity to take a look at the next-gen NBA 2K14 basketball game in San Francisco. The 2K team had brought a number of demo systems and even a head scan setup to show us a peek at the 2K14 “behind the scenes” game production. Since I don’t play sports games much I’m not going to “review” or preview the game, but what caught my attention is how extensively 2K worked on making the 2K14 experience immersive – including a “MyCareer” mode where you start as a rookie player and have to deal with the business side of things. NBA 2K14 is not only about playing basketball, but actually about “living” basketball.
Up the graphics ante
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about anything “next gen” without mentioning the graphics improvements. 2K has been working for some time on its new graphics and animations engine in preparation of the new generation of consoles. Although details have not been provided, it seems visually obvious that 2K is using physically-based rendering techniques. If you are curious, I like the Killzone: Shadow Fall presentation on the topic. You don’t need to understand all of it, but you’ll get some interesting bites out of it. This means that the lighting model is based on physical properties of the materials, rather than more approximate calculations. There are two main benefits to this approach: 1/ the graphics production pipeline less “hacky” and more efficient 2/ the final image looks more consistent and elements are well “bound” together.
Interestingly, 2K has painstakingly worked on details that most players won’t see much or at all. For example, we’ve been shown close-ups of objects that were outside of the playing surface, such as phones and other desk elements. They looked very nice and fairly polished. The same thing is true for all kinds of things in the game and the goal is not for you to marvel at them, but rather to make these elements believable enough that you will dedicate all your attention to the game. That’s right, if they do their job right, you won’t even think about because it just makes sense, and just feels right.
Procedural animations to create bear-infinite variations
Once static images look great, the next thing that everyone notices are the animations. Although developers have made tremendous progress since 3D sports game have appeared, players can “swim” a bit during the game, since the artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t have all the subtle animations that happen in the real world (and remember that the current generation of consoles have ridiculously small amounts of RAM memory as well). 2K14 uses the next gen hardware in two ways to improve the animations: 1/ it has better and more capture animations = less swimming 2/ the engine uses physics and context to add computer-generated animations on the fly.
With #2, the number of actual unique animations can raise to a near-infinite number that will depends on the context, current animation, location in the playing field, proximity of other players etc… the new hardware and its massive amount of CPU cores has enough horse power to do that kind of stuff.
Don’t play it, “live it”
2K’s MyCareer is an interesting move, which adds a surprising dimensions to the game. In some ways, it’s an adventure game embedded in a sports game. You have to make decisions that will affect your career and occasionally create some drama on the way. I’m not sure how the public will receive it, but that is definitely the closest that most players will get to an “NBA Career”. Of course, the player can customize its own character and choose how he looks down to the haircut etc. I haven’t seen a female version of this, so it may be difficult for women/girls to immerse themselves into this particular part of the game, but this is NBA 2K14, not WNBA 2K14.
In the end, I like what the 2K guys said during the event: with the better graphics, players are going to expect everything else to match up, so in their view what defines “next-gen” is really “getting everything right” and match the gamers’ expectations. No easy task indeed…
What do you think? Which new features do you care most about? Graphics? Animations? Team management? MyCareer? Or all J?