Mike Wang Leaves EA Sports, Returns To NBA 2K Franchise
Producer Rob Jones, lead feature designer Erick Boenisch, Visual Concepts president Greg Thomas, and senior gameplay designer Mike Wang discuss his return to the team, cop to 2K10’s online issues, and tease changes hoops fans can expect in NBA 2K11.
Let’s go back in time a minute. How did the move to EA first come about? Did they approach you?
Mike Wang: You know, a lot of it was actually due to personal reasons when it took place. But like anything else I just tried to make the most of it and thought of it as a new challenge and a new opportunity.
Was it just a one-year contract?
MW: No, it was a salaried position. I intended to stay there long term, but after being there a couple years and seeing how things worked and really missing Visual Concepts, I made the decision to come back here.
One year is hardly enough time to leave your imprint on a sports franchise. Why the abrupt move back to 2K?
MW: Like I mentioned before, I really missed being here. I really missed the guys, and the team, and the way VC works. I think that being over at EA and seeing just how the company works – the processes and the work flow that goes on there – it was just hard for me to achieve what I wanted to do in a basketball game, and I knew how VC worked and I really missed being here. I feel kinda bad that I had to leave them high and dry like that, but at the same time I also think they wanted to go in a different route creatively, so we parted ways and I’m really happy to be back here now.
Rob Jones: One of the things I wanted to add to what Mike is saying, having been a person that worked at EA myself, is that a lot of the times you can influence, but you really can’t create. You can’t actually implement. Here at VC, we can make changes to make things work the way we want them to. We actually can mold it ourselves – you can get into it as much as you want to, whereas EA it’s much more of a structured process where there’s so many layers that things don’t get done necessarily the way you want them to because you’re not the guy doing them.
Greg Thomas: We’re really happy to have Mike back. EA used a strategy last year that was very risky on their part in putting him front and center, and they didn’t take care of their guy up there. We’re very happy to have him back; he hit the ground running. He’s been here for a while now doing great work.
Every year NBA Live seems to take a new direction, only to shift gears again the next year when it’s not lauded a complete success. Are there too many camps pulling the game in different directions?
MW: Yeah I definitely think that’s the case. When I went there I kind of went there with a three-year vision to do something. We finished NBA Live 10 and after talking over with management what they wanted to do, I think that they feel like they need to do something different all the time – I think they are trying to reinvent the wheel sometimes. Unfortunately, they haven’t had the chance to gain any traction that way and build on top of the many things that are substantial.
That’s really strange to me especially considering EA’s NHL franchise – they had a three-year plan that worked great for them. It’s interesting that there’s one developer at EA Canada that was allowed to do that and the other one is always getting told to take it in a new direction.
MW: Yeah. I don’t want to blast the guys because I made some good friends over there, but I do feel bad for them. It’s hard to be pulled by different leadership and pulled in different directions trying different things and they never really get the chance to settle into a vision and try and develop something good.
Are you returning to the same role or do you have new responsibilities?
MW: The team has actually evolved a lot since I’ve left, and they’ve added new talent to the team and it’s exciting to be back here. Basically it’s the same role – I’m still working on gameplay. It’s neat to fit into this new group of guys, some old and some new. It’s great to plug into this new dynamic and it’s working really well for us right now.
Ratings and sales-wise, NBA 2K10 this year seemed to be a success for 2K Sports. Were you pleased with the results?
GT: From a sales standpoint we were. From a reviews standpoint we weren’t. I think that we went out with some online issues, of which we’re working very diligently on trying to fix and have been for a while. That’s really a case where testing 2K10 for such a huge amount of people really wasn’t possible. Once you get out there in the real world you see what’s hitting your server and how hard it’s hitting your server you have to start making some changes. We got hit hard on reviews from that standpoint, but the sales are everything for us and we’re really pleased with the sales.
The core community found 2K10 polarizing due to the early framerate issues and online failures. A poster on one renowned forum even called it “the video game scam of the year.” You fixed a lot of the issues in patches, but public perception can be tricky. Do you feel like NBA 2K11 has to be even better than most year-to-year iterations to convince the hardcore to return?
GT: Absolutely. First of all, the online issue will be completely resolved for 2K11, but I think our main focus will be on making the best basketball game we can. Since Mike has been back, I see a swagger in the team that really hasn’t been here – there’s a really strong confidence about what we’re doing with 2K11. We started some things in 2K10 that we didn’t quite get where we wanted to. We’re going to make those changes this year as well as adding a number of new and really cool things. We feel we have a team that can deliver on that this year. We’re in a great place, and we have the confidence to do it.
We’ve eluded to the online issues a couple of times now. What exactly went wrong?
GT: What we learned in the end is that all the great, pioneering work we did on the Dreamcast – sending data over telephone lines – ended up hurting us a bit last year due to all of the users we had that first few weeks of sales. It hit our servers hard. When you pioneer something and you make it so that going through a very narrow pipe, i.e. a phone line, is what’s most important. When all of the sudden it starts getting hugely wide piped it changes your focus. With 2K10 we didn’t realize how much our focus needed to change. We’ve learned that now the hard way, and 2K11 will be that much better because of it.
Not to go into any new features for the next game because I know it’s very early, but what were some of the things you learned from last year’s game that you will take into consideration for the next game?
RJ: There’s always room to improve gameplay. When I first got here I was adamant that we weren’t close to playing the sport of basketball, and I think has always been the goal – that what you get in the game that we ship is the best representation of what you would be able to do on a real court. I think that we’re taking more steps this year toward achieving that goal than previously. Like Greg was saying, there is a particular target that we’re trying to achieve, and we think that with this team – with Mike back, and with the guys that are on board – that we’ll be able to do that. And it’s not just on the gameplay side, which has always been our bread and butter, but also expanding the successful My Player and everything else that we do here.
GT: The game keeps getting bigger for us obviously – it’s a huge production now. We continue to learn things every time we make a game, and one of the things we’ve learned recently is that technology isn’t always the answer. A lot of time it takes blood, sweat, and tears. While having great technology is important, having people who genuinely care and have the passion to do the work is the key.
What game features did you find went over well with your audience?
GT: My Player. I think career modes are something between just playing the game and franchise. Franchise gets too manager-ish for some people, and My Player really focuses in on you and lets you deal with some of the other things that you don’t just do when you’re playing the game. I think the way we did it last year where you see how good or bad you’re doing on the court is the key there, and something that we’ll look to build on in the future.
I’m a big fan of the Be a Pro and My Player type modes, but I’ve always felt the drama is missing. How do you communicate that tension and atmosphere a player experiences in those dramatic moments when the onus is on you to come up with the big shot or letting your team down without resorting to the cheesy off-court cutscenes like Sony’s NBA title had? Is that something you struggle with as well?
GT: I think you’re hitting on that – My Player this past year was our first attempt at it, and I think 2K11 is going to grow that to new levels.
It seems game reviewers spend less and less time discussing franchise modes in reviews, something I noticed in particular with The Association considering it’s one of NBA 2K’s biggest strengths. Do you think this is a reflection of gamers turning away from this sports game staple in favor of other experiences like competitive online play and the My Player mode?
GT: I think you hit on a very sore subject for Erick. [Laughs]
Erick Boenisch: With the rise of the career modes across sports games the last few years, I think a lot of the audience is finding a home. We have the franchise people, who really want to control a team and manipulate the moves and sign the players, but not everyone wants that. They want to get in there, do the grind, and play the games, and I think that’s where the career mode people kind of fit in. We definitely think there is still an audience for the franchise market, but at the same time there’s the career mode audience, so we’re trying to hit both of those evenly.
GT: And I would say the other thing too is at some point you get to be close to a Swiss army knife, and we don’t want to be that. We don’t want to be everything to everybody. We want to make the best basketball game we can, and we want to make sure we focus on the sport of basketball. I’m not interested in hot dog vendors, for example.
RJ: In the end, all these games have evolved, and every single sports game out there puts a franchise mode in. It’s one of those situations where [the gamer] expects it to be there and they expect it to be good, but if it’s good nobody’s talking about it. If it’s bad, they are right there yelling at you. If it’s missing or it’s bad they are going to have something to say, but if it’s good it’s like your front end or the music. Nobody talks about how great the front end is, but if it’s bad people will be jumping down your throat.
Rather than bicker and quibble about the 2K comments, EA Sports is taking the high road. NBA Live producer Sean O'Brien issued the following statement:
"Mike Wang has left EA Canada and the NBA Live development team and will be heading back to the United States. I wanted to take this opportunity to personally thank Mike for his contributions during the 18 months that he was working on NBA Live. His vision and leadership within gameplay on NBA Live was part of the reason why that game was critically reviewed as having taken a tremendous leap in quality and at least as good as any other basketball game on the market.
"Our goals for NBA LIVE 11 are simple. We want to be one of the best sports games on the market … on par with franchises like NHL, FIFA and Madden. In the coming months, we will show you just how we will do that.
"I wish Mike and his family the best of luck."