The lights are on
NBA Live executive producer Sean O’Brien is a realist. While he and the rest of the team at EA Tiburon’s are determined to put EA’s basketball sim back on the map as a destination experience for hoops fans, he knew going into to the project that it would take several years before the game would have a chance to stand alongside NBA 2K, which has been going strong uninterrupted for more than a decade. While NBA Live 14 was hammered pretty hard by game reviewers, that didn’t stop the developers from marching steadily ahead with their vision for the future of basketball games. In a candid conversation at GI headquarters, O’Brien opened up about the problems the developers faced last year, the strategies the team is putting into place to improve the basketball series with Live 15, and how the leadership change at EA is affecting game development.
As we spoke about when I visited you in Orlando last year, your team was fully aware that Live wasn't going to reach parity with NBA 2K in just one year. But did it meet your expectations for where you wanted to be after a year?Good question. I would say, oddly enough, that I think we did everything we could do in those 11 months. Mid-to-end of October was when I first came back to EA. That gave us almost 12 months from the day I started until Gen 4 hardware shipped. In that time we had to build a team because we had a fractured team that didn't ship NBA Live 13. Some talent was there, and some upgrades and different skill sets were needed.
So we had to do that, we had to figure out what we were going to build for 14, and obviously just wrap our heads around what the hardware was going to look like, what we could do, and what we needed to do as a basketball game. It was a challenging year for us. We're not making any excuses, but that was kind of our startup; that was where we began.
Given the mountain we're trying to climb, I'm proud of the effort that we put forth. I'm proud of where we got to, even though where we got to wasn't good enough. I feel odd saying it, but I know what went into that year and what the guys and girls did to put us in a position to actually ship software even though the software wasn't very good.
I don't think it was as bad as it was reviewed. I think we actually had a lot of better momentum post launch – our commitment to being really transparent with the journey that we're on allowed a lot of players, fans, and media to see that we're serious about this, that we too admit this isn't where we wanted to be. It was a first small step for our journey back. Long story short I'm extremely proud of the effort, I'm proud of where we got to, but we're nowhere near being done.
This is different for every team because I know that with a huge team like Assassin's Creed, which has multiple studios working in concert, it can be really hard to see how it all comes together until right up until the end, but when did you guys have an idea of what that final product was going to be like for Live 14?Honestly, I think from the start. We had to make decisions on things like technology and art assets, so I would say by early calendar year – January or February – we knew where we were going to net out.
It's also looking at it across multiple products. I'm trying to look at our basketball business as just releases. Gone are the days that we're shipping a game every calendar – we're going to ship multiple releases throughout the year that will get us where we need to get to. Release one, which was going to be at the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, wasn't going to be what the game is in my head, but the vision I have, I see it, and I know how it's going to come together.
By early in the year we had to make those decisions on what we had to keep from Live 13 whether we wanted to or had to, what we were going to fix, and how long it would take. I'll give you one good example...scanning different assets, from heads to uniforms to accessories to footwear, we had this different approach. When we basically wrapped our head around what this approach would be it was February or March, and the NBA season lasts until April. We had to build the technology to allow us to do it as well, so that wasn't something that you were going to see in Live 14, but it was a part of our strategy and a part of our approach that we were going to execute against for 15. So did it make sense to re-do every single asset in the game to make it look as good as we needed to do knowing that we're going to change that approach and strategy in the following year when we built our rig and then actually have the time to go out and work with the teams and the players to get the assets done? That's one of the things where we had to sacrifice short term, knowing that the long-term plan will get us to an enormous upgrade over last year. And I don't even say that lightly. It's enormous.
Did you ever have discussions internally about NBA Live not reaching your quality bar right out of the gate, and therefore maybe scaling the price back for the consumers?I'm not going to lie – we had discussions about that. I think one of the things about price point is…I know why you're asking that, the basis being the quality of Live 14?
Not only that, but also because it was three years since someone had played a Live game and you were trying to get people invested again. Offering it at a lower cost can bring more people in to see what you are doing with maybe a different set of expectations.There's definitely that approach and there's that discussion. There are different schools of thought as to how you do that and how you win back market share. One of the ideas that we're going to go forward with is hands-on trial. You can do that by lowering your price point, or you can do that by offering free trials. We'll have a free trial for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 this year. There are not many trials on PlayStation 4; I think we're the first EA game to do it. It's something that we're committed to.
We are also – if you look at our approach – just taking some of the communications group, taking a concierge service with anyone who posts something on our social channels whether it's Facebook, Twitter, our website, or message boards. Having that direct dialogue with them, and then sometimes sending games out to guys who are nonbelievers or don't want to spend the $60. We're engaging them whether it's a demo, a trial, or a game copy. We're trying to encourage play and do everything that we can to listen to what our fans are saying to help create the vision and end product of what we're doing.
Would Microsoft or Sony even allow you to ship a launch game for less than full retail at the launch of their new consoles?I don't know that answer. I would imagine between EA, the NBA, Microsoft, and Sony it would be a very challenging discussion, but I don't know that for sure. So yeah, there was discussion around that, and there is discussion around that moving forward. We saw what 2K did back with selling NFL 2K5 for $20, and it's an interesting strategy, but we feel like whatever we end up doing, the software will speak for itself and that's what's important. We know it's a journey to gain back just the faith of the players in what we are trying to do. I don't expect people to read what you write and say, "Wow, I'm going to buy Live now. It sounds amazing." I would expect that it's going to take multiple years for us to convince people. Once they try it, they may start liking it, and it will get better along the way and they'll like it more. As a company we know that it's going to take time.
Read on to learn about NBA Live 15 visuals, game modes, and the leadership change at EA.
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