NBA 2K12 Works Overtime on a Problem with Roots in the Dreamcast
Within five seconds of introducing himself to YouTube as MrPurple0, the guy is off on a nonstop, highly personal tirade condemning 2K Sports and NBA 2K12. Were it transcribed, it is hard to imagine a period between any of the sentences.
"The servers are garbage, the servers are trash," he says, frustrated by day-of-release problems disconnecting thousands of ranked basketball games in the first quarter. "You're not doing nothing, you're sitting in that little room and you're counting your bread, and it's not fair to the people that paid their hard earned money."
2K Sports titles have been known to have online glitches and connection issues on the day of release, including in NBA 2K, the label's flagship product and one of the most acclaimed sports series in history. Despite even better review scores this year than for last year's transcendental hit, NBA 2K's diehard community turned on the game and those who made it—hard—excoriating both in forums, YouTube videos and over Twitter. They've accused 2K Sports of going cheap on its online features and support, holding back on both to save money in a lockout year that's expected to damage sales.
Not true, says the man ultimately responsible for building the game. If anything, he insists, they spent more on online development this year than ever before.
"Every line of code for our online game was rewritten this year," said Jeff Thomas, the director of development at Visual Concepts, the 2K in-house studio that makes NBA 2K. "It was a huge undertaking by our top team here, and we put our top team on it because we knew we had to get results."
They didn't, to put it bluntly. For some players, it was impossible to find a match; for others, many connections were terminated just as the game had barely begun. If it was a ranked match, someone was saddled with the loss for quitting. Features from the previous version of the game were not included in this year's, further enraging the community. Rumors of paid downloadable content with a heavy online component turned into another set of moneygrubbing allegations.
The explanation for all of this is within that old codebase, Thomas said. And that old codebase goes back all the way to the days of the Dreamcast.
Approaching Kotaku to talk about the online problems, the key thing Thomas wanted to get off his chest was that the game's development team and community managers were not, as MrPurple0 alleged, ignoring the customer, sitting in a little room counting money and doing nothing.
"We're not ignoring this," he says firmly. "We are listening. We are reaching out. We've had guys on the team send [direct messages] to people asking 'Hey, can you tell me what you saw there.' We want to know of all these problems and make sure this is not something that tarnishes our game."
Players have battled interminable matchmaking waits; in the first nine days NBA 2K12 was out, they'd often get disconnected in the first quarter of their game.
One patch already has rolled out to solve the disconnection problem. Still, players may face the interminable matchmaking waits that have made "nba 2k12" the first thing Google suggests when you type "searching for opponent" into its search bar.
To Visual Concepts' dismay, what was happening was more likely to occur in a ranked game between the game's longtime hardcore fans, as it stems from making pre-game defensive adjustments, a technical decision typically made by long-time players. "The game's running something called lockstep," Thomas said, "where 60 times a second they're supposed to see the exact same thing [for both players]. If one machine's getting data that the other doesn't have, then one game diverges or thinks it is doing something different. That causes the game to crash."
Crash it did. A patch to fix it arrived nine days later, but the damage was done. "This was something we missed in our testing," Thomas admits. "These things are difficult to test in a laboratory setting because the real world creates such a different environment."
Well, hold on. Console games are offering online multiplayer betas, in productions like Halo: Reach, Resistance 3 and, coming soon, Mass Effect 3. Has Visual Concepts ever thought about doing the same thing for NBA 2K12?
"We've talked a lot about it," Thomas said. "The problem working against us is the fact that sports titles are on a yearly development schedule," with an immovable delivery date. A two- or three-year cycle—for something that also doesn't have a licensing partner and a contract dictating a release date—allows more room to detach the game's multiplayer component and offer it up for testing, say, four months from release, when there's time to react to the telemetry, fix problems and make improvements.
Four months in sports development is a third of the schedule, and the games always seem to come in hot. If a developer were to publish a multiplayer-only demo to the console services far enough in advance to be useful, it wouldn't look or play a thing like the game to come. And, being frank, betas have marketing purposes. At minimum no one wants to put out something incomplete and ugly.
It also assumes NBA 2K12's online codebase could have been rewritten and tuned to a consistently playable state in eight months. As we've seen, it wasn't in such a state after 12.
"Going into NBA 2K12 the code was still the same code from the modem days of the Dreamcast," Thomas said. Added-on and modified to account for broadband communications and other modern developments, it still was a relic from the old NFL 2K1 days, the first sports console title with online multiplayer capability. Though fondly recalled for dazzling celebrities at the 2K booth at E3 10 years ago, it had to go. This was the year to do it, 2K Sports decided.
The decision to change online codebases affected everything about the game's online offerings. As this would be a first run, Thomas directed the team to remove complex features that, although manageable in the old creaky architecture, couldn't be integrated with the new code in time for the game's shipping date—which, of course, is set by the NBA.
That meant "My Crew" got the axe. This year.
"We love My Crew," Thomas said. "But it's one of the more complicated features to put online. If we wanted to have a game this year, we needed to keep the feature set tight and small. When you get involved with Crews, there's a whole thing with data exchanging that gets involved."
My Crew was the online experience in NBA 2K11 where gamers took their created player from the "My Player" career mode, formed up teams and, in an environment supporting 10-player multiplayer, ran some ball. It was like having a regular rec league game, except online (and with guys who had mad skills).
Though Thomas cannot promise anything, he also sincerely did not rule out My Crew's return in future editions, attributing its absence in NBA 2K12 solely to the new codebase.
Nonetheless, stripping out My Player turned into a disaster for 2K Sports in light of the other multiplayer problems and the paid downloadable content that leaked out before release. Forums raged, petitions were drawn up and more accusations were leveled after it became known, thanks to a screenshot tweeted out by a VIP with an early copy, that a $10 premium add-on called "Legends Showcase" teased the ability to "import your My Player."
It reeked of the hated practice of removing an old feature and selling it back as paid DLC. The rage abated, somewhat, when it became known that the My Player component of the Legends Showcase was not at all like My Crew, and was in fact a singleplayer mode (competing 1-on-1 against NBA greats), not a multiplayer team-up.
But the timing could not have been worse, especially as the Legends Showcase also touted the ability to take the historic teams from NBA 2K12's widely praised "NBA's Greatest" series and play with them online. Thomas said these teams needed to be kept out of the general population.
The inclusion of premium DLC incorporating the legendary players on the main disc aroused suspicions that NBA 2K12 was holding something back.
"If we put Legends teams into Quick Match, it would be a nightmare for anybody who just wanted to play with their favorite team," Thomas said. "How many times do we see the Miami Heat and nobody else online? Everyone would be using the legends teams, so if you're a [Milwaukee] Bucks fan, you're screwed unless you have serious gaming skills."
Some have suggested, theoretically, that the game could incorporate lobbies with restrictions on usable teams — a Legends-only room, if you will. But lobbies, minimized in NBA 2K11 were removed from this year's version and, again, the new codebase is the reason, Thomas said. Because of the time and development constraints in, again, bringing a new online codebase, Thomas said, the multiplayer component had to be restricted to quick matches and team-up play.
"It would have been easy to just squeeze the Legends teams into Quick Match," Thomas said. "And then everyone would be playing with them and no one would be using the modern-day teams. What wasn't easy, though, was to create this whole other complicated mode [the Legends Showcase], that needs people to find bugs and to fix problems."
More patches are planned, Thomas confirmed. At least one will roll out, pending approvals, in "weeks," he said. "Legends Showcase" has no hard release date yet, set only for "Holiday 2012." Plainly, 2K Sports wants to fix its multiplayer house before rolling out a piece of paid content, especially as it is the first paid downloadable content extension to one of its games ever.
The decision to implement NBA 2K12 with an entirely new codebase for its online feature set was an enormous risk, Thomas acknowledged. [Though he did not say if next year's MLB 2K would implement similar new technology, as the games have two different sets of online demands.]
"This is our future," Thomas said. "We know that gaming is going in that direction. You want to be able to get things right out of the box, but we didn't. We've had some problems, but what you want in that case is to be able to solve the problems and they're gone forever." Thomas feels like that is the situation now, and the community furor seems to have dissipated since the Oct. 13 patch.
Still, the risk of bringing in virtually untested, critical technology raises the question of "Why now?" Again, the conspiracy theory: Facing a poor sales year because of the real league's work stoppage, maybe this was the time to replace the transmission, so to speak, rather than in a year with an assured opening day and all the enthusiasm leading up to it. The problems may go less noticed, right?
Well, they sure as hell were noticed.
"The lockout was not on our minds at all," Thomas insists. "We worked harder on 12 than we did on 11 than we did on 10," he said. "We're still working hard on it. We are absolutely dedicated to making the best possible basketball game there is."