It's looks almost like the real thing. Video games have come a long way in my lifetime. It has been amazing to me as much as some of the things I have seen in watching the game of basketball. I have always been interested in how they make these things happen. NBA Live 09 takes over 200 people to make and the process goes on for an entire year. I decided that I would find out how this game I played for years comes together. I mean when I am not writing a blog on basketball or reading about basketball, I am usually playing video games of basketball. What better way to get out your frustration of Bryan Colangelo not making a trade or Sam Mitchell not making the right call than to do it the right way in my opinion. So I reached out to the folks at E.A Sports and asked if I could talk with them about NBA Live 09 and find out how they make the game I have played for years. I was able to chat with Marcus Stephenson who is an assistant producer that works on the NBA Live franchise of games. He was great to talk with and tells me that the Raptors are actually pretty popular around the E.A Sports office. They do a lot of the work for making the game based out of Vancouver. Seems the right place to be making a basketball video game, after all it was a Canadian that started this whole game. I am not sure what Dr. Naismith would think about NBA Live but they work hard to make his game come to life on your T.V screen.
Among the topics I talk about with Marcus is the new Dynamic DNA feature that has been added to the NBA Live Game on the latest game platforms. The players in the NBA have said it almost is like the scouting reports they get to study to play the real games. There is a good reason for that. The data that is being used in basically coming from the same place. We will get into that in detail later. But first thing is what exactly is the role of Marcus in this process. In talking with him I would learn the role of producer and assistants is not that far removed from the concept of a producer of a T.V show. The basically creative the vision or the idea of what the game they are making is to look like. That idea is then passed on to the skilled computer and technically people to make that idea become reality. It is a lot more complex a process, but in plain english that is how it happens.
The one thing that I as a player of the game has always been most concerned with is the ratings. Marcus tells me not just I am but the guys in the league are too. I often wondered that and seems they do care. To offer some evidence of this fact Marcus told me about when "The Matrix" Shawn Marion visited the folks at E.A. Shawn is a cool guy as I know from meeting him at Vince Carter's Charity game back in like 2000 or 2001. But not so cool that he didn't want to know the scoop on his virtual counter parts ratings.
Marcus Stephenson " We had Shawn Marion in here last year. It was pre-trade so he was still with the Suns. The first thing he said when he shook hands was we need to talk about my ratings later in the day. It was really funny."
But Marcus tells me that almost all the NBA players are aware of the ratings they have in the game. So it is not just Shawn Marion that is interested in it the majority of the players are and I would suspect lobbying to get a bump. Players will call up EA and look for reasons for ratings they have. But if you are the folks at EA you have to love that your game matters to these guys. In fact the stars that enter the NBA have grown up on playing the NBA Live series. It has to be a great factor for them from a marketing standpoint. Marcus agreed and talks about that aspect of the players being fans of the game.
Marcus Stephenson " We love to be the game that the players play. They have grown up playing this game and in Canada it is NHL while in the states it's Madden. You hear from Canadians that they bought two games as a kid, NHL and NBA Live. In the states it is Madden and NBA Live. It is really funny to hear the athletes say that. They get so involved in it. They call us when there rating is down. It is so funny it is the first thing they want to talk about is their rating in the game. They are just really into it and it means something from a marketing stand point. The players grew up playing this game and this is the game that they have played since they were young. They love to speak about it and we really don't have to do anything, because they will talk about it all the time to the fans and the communities. So it is really good "
In fact being a fan of the game is part of what can make this happen:
The cover of the NBA LIVE game itself. In talking with Marcus I asked about what goes into getting on the cover of NBA Live. He said that it is not just the fact that you are a star in the league but also that you are some one that is a fan of video games. Tony Parker has been on the cover in France for a number of years. But this year the native of France in on the cover of the main edition here in North America. Parker is know to be a junkie for the video games. I remember him being featured on the show NBA XL here in Canada, and Tony Parker was as into winning at the video game as if he was playing for the Spurs. At the All Star Contest that EA put on in New Orleans he won the competition as the top NBA player at the game of the guys invited to compete. It was right around this time that he was being considered for the cover of NBA Live. Which is something he really wanted to happen. In him winning the contest it was a great selling point to have him be on the cover. Now Parker is having injury issues this season but it not to the point of a "Madden Curse" for the folks making NBA Live. In fact both EA and Spurs fans can be happy because Tony Parker was back after 3 weeks on sidelines with a bad wheel he was back "In the game" last night. Marcus tells us what EA is looking for in the guy that goes on the cover. About this year having Tony Parker as the cover guy for NBA 09 and being the first European player to be on the cover for North American gamers.
Marcus Stephenson " There is a lot that goes into are cover guy each year. But most importantly do they like video games? Do they play video games? Are people going to connect with who is on the cover? We want them to like the game so when they talk about the game they know what they are talking about. So Tony Parker, really wanted to be on the cover. We thought it would be great with him being an international player and that is becoming so popular in the NBA. What better player to represent that than Tony Parker. But it really has a lot to do with their passion for video games and there willingness to front our game."
Raptors Andrea Bargnani was on the cover in his homeland of Italy this year. EA is looking for a high profile player but also a guy that is a fan of video games as well. It is that combination that can get you a shot at being the next guy on the cover of NBA Live. But for the folks at EA that is a two way street. They are big fans of the NBA as well. I had seen a feature on the making of the NHL game that EA makes and they showed a lot of the folks that make that game would often play ball hockey in the down time they had. The folks that work on NBA live have their fun as well. A big event that goes on for the basketball folks is they get a net and lower it down and have a slam dunk competition. I will let Marcus tell you about this in detail. These guys are big fans of the NBA just like you folks that read this blog and likely a lot of you play their game.
Marcus Stephenson " They are complete nuts about it. We are actually having are annual dunk contest here. We lower the rim down and some of our software people or whoever wants to get in on it does like a big studio wide dunk contest. We all the studio come in and we have judges. It's really good we have a really good time "
That studio where they hold their dunk contest has also seen a ton of people from the NBA pass through it's doors. We have all seen the photos of the guys in those famous black suits with the grey dots on them. That is what we have all come to know as part of the motion capture process and it has been done right here in Canada in Vancouver. EA has the world's largest motion capture studio in the world. Even the Raptor own Andrea Bragnani was in the famous black suit. If Andrea continues to improve as he has so far this season. I ask EA to please invite him back every summer to play in the black suit. Here is a photo of some of the folks from this summer that were balling with Andrea including the cover boy Tony Parker and Raptor killer Andre Iguodala.
We all know the EA slogan if it is in the game it is in the game. Perhaps that slogan has never been more on the money as it is today. The biggest change to the NBA live game is this new feature called Dynamic DNA as part of NBA 365. I mentioned about how for me and it seems the NBA players it is all about those ratings. In the past EA would take the real NBA stats and through a formula they created it would relate those stats in the specific player rating for the players. But Dynamic DNA and NBA 365 have totally changed everything. I remember seeing a feature on T.V talking about this new feature and a few players said that the new feature was just like getting a scouting report of a player. That is actual pretty close to reality.That is because EA is getting the same data that 25 NBA teams get for the use of scouting. Synergy Sports Technology is the company and they provide all the data that make the DNA feature come to life. That data is what is driving the AI (Artificial Intelligence not Allen Iverson) in this edition of the game. Marcus tells us about a bunch of aspects about how Dynamic DNA and NBA 365 Features have changed the game. Starting with how the way the ratings for players have changed based on this new data and technology.
Marcus Stephenson " Up until this year we had a formula that people that are a lot smarter than us had put together. Based off of real life stats. Those real stats in the NBA would translate into our game and shot out a rating. We tried to keep out a lot of the manual thinking and ideas of what a player should be from the producers ideas in their heads. We basically didn't want it to be a crap shoot. Our software engineers came up a tool that would take each real life stat and apply it to an attribute for our players in the game. But now we have the data were get from Synergy Sports Technology that we have partner with this year. They track stats and tendencies for ever NBA team and player. We are able to take all that data and update are player ratings on a weekly basis."
As an example of what Marcus is saying. Jose Calderon was only a 64 rating overall but now with the updates is an 80. This DNA feature has been referenced as almost being able to be a scouting tool. So for players in the league that are playing the game they can say that they are studying up for the next game? That is how advanced this Dynamic DNA and NBA 365 can be? So what do the guys at EA sports think about that. Do they to think this can be applied to the actual NBA as a scouting tool?
Marcus Stephenson " We hope that people are thinking of it as a scouting tool. When the NBA teams that sign up with Synergy Sports Technology they are using it as a scouting tool. So that is the best thing that people can possibly say. We have this feature that we call Dynamic DNA as part of NBA 365 for the 09 game. Synergy Sports Technology tacks tendency data. So for example with the Raptors will take Chris Bosh. What is Bosh doing? What is he doing when he is the post. Is he using a drop step or is he turning around and spotting up to shoot. What is he going to be doing? Well they know what he is doing at every single point on the floor. We are able to take all of the data and have it drive the artificial intelligence of the game. So when you play as the Toronto Raptors they play like the Raptors."
Same goes for whatever NBA team you choose. This as I expressed to Marcus can be a good thing and a bad thing. Which he agreed. Basically if the Raptors are struggling it will be reflected in the game. Both as teams and individuals the data is happening in the real NBA and in about 24 hours it is in your game at home. I mean that is kind of crazy stuff. But they also have a feature called NBA Rewind that will allow you to replay a game from the day before. So if you think Sam Mitchell was not getting it done. EA is giving you a virtual example of what he had to work with on a night by night basis. Should Joey Graham have started over Moon? Well you could try that and both players would play based of their actual performance in that game. Every game played in the NBA you would be able to replay and see if you could change the reality based on what the players were doing on that night. This is pretty crazy stuff. What if a trade happens? Well you will be able to see how a players DNA has changed as soon as he suits up for his new team. compare his performance from old team to new team. From all aspects video games are getting to the point that they almost mirror reality. I asked Marcus based on all of this are we getting to a point that the game I watch on T.V and the game I play are almost getting to the point of being the same?
Marcus Stephenson " Yes, and that is where we think we are getting. With this NBA Live 365 and Dynamic DNA feature we feel like were getting to that point. You watch the Raptors vs Hawks maybe not then you can turn on your game, but by the next day we feel like you can play that game. However the Raptors played that is how they will play in the game."
There are so many aspects of video games these days. I could have got into conversations about the audio and way the game is called in play by play. Music that is on the games. For people in the music world to get on a video game is a huge break for them. Not to mention advertising. Virtual Ads on video games are now part of the mix. In the recent U.S Election Barack Obama had ads on several video games including the NBA Live 08 game. Where else would the President Elect want to advertise. Change in politics and the real world is not always easy to make happen or see. But in video games it may not be easy to make change but the results are easy to see in the games as they come out each year.
It is also a very competitive business. In the case of NBA Live they have other basketball games to go against head to head. It is not like the case with Madden in which they have an exclusive contract with the NFL to be the one and only NFL video game on the market. But for the folks at NBA Live they are aware of the competition out there. They welcome the challenge not just from other basketball video games but all games. They are as driven at what they do as the players that they put in the games. I asked Marcus about this aspect of competition.
Marcus Stephenson " I think competition drives us to succeed and be better. All of us in the office we read all the message boards, we read all the comments and we see all the commercials and we see all that is going on with the competition and it just drives us to make a better game. I think competition will drive you in anything you do. Same case here in making video games. But it is not just direct competition we are in competition with all video games. When are game was coming out Call Of Duty was coming up, Gears of War was coming up. That is heavy competition. So not just basketball related. But competition in general totally drives you. "
I am guessing those are big games Marcus referenced. I am totally a sports junkie so I would have no idea. All industries that have competition makes it better for the buying public. Just the same as sports franchises are in competition for folks entertainment dollar, folks in the gaming industry are also looking to have a product that you will want to have.
I mentioned that this is a year long process for the most part. it goes through many phases. The day you picked up NBA Live 09 in a store if you have already. The folks at EA have already started pre-production for the NBA Live 10. People in any business want to keep what they are working on kind of on the down low. I have a bit of experience in that with my recent partnership with The Score. But I asked Marcus for a little hint as to where the game would be heading for the NBA Live 10 version.
Marcus Stephenson " We have just scratched the surface on this whole Dynamic DNA and NBA 365 stuff. So you should definitely look for some innovations in that area. I can't get into to much detail about it. That is where we see ourselves going. Taking that info from Synergy Sports Technology and applying more of that to use to in the games artificial intelligence. Come up with cooler ways to get content out to users more often so that they can feel that what they are seeing in life is being reflected in the game "
How far can this go? All of this DNA stuff? Will Allen Iverson decide to skip practice? Could we see this same DNA be brought into the coaches? I think if there is anything I have learned in playing video games all of my life for the most part, is that anything is possible. This interview just gave me a brief look into what is a truly cool virtual world of the NBA. What they are doing is just as exciting in some respects. If you want to ever check out this game and are checking out the Raptors down at the ACC. They have a big display set up out front of the main gates. You can play a little NBA Live on the giant screen T.V before you check out the real thing. The way things are going the difference between one and the other is getting very small indeed.
I just want to thank the folks at EA for letting me jump into their world for a bit. They were great to work with and were happy to answer my questions and help me do my job. I hope I did a decent job at that. This was really one of the most fun things I have done in just over a year of doing this. If EA every wants to make a virtual blogger in the game I would be happy to help. That probably won't happen but truth be told the way games have become so close to reality who knows. I hope to have them come back and visit the Dino Nation Blog in the future. We have already talked about that and just like all are guests the door here is always open.