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While some make games, the ‘NBA Live 14’ team is building a franchise

There’s something refreshing about sitting in a room with a bunch of game developers who readily admit to having an imperfect product and a long road ahead. NBA Live 14 shows a lot of promise (check out our preview), but it’s not the polished, feature-filled professional sports sim that typifies the rest of EA Sports’ catalog. It’s a newcomer, a revived brand that’s returning for the first time in four years, as a next-gen-only launch title on top of that, following two nearly-completed-yet-canceled efforts in 2010 (as NBA Elite) and 2012. 

Series veteran Sean O’Brien is back as executive producer, and he knows very well the legacy that he and his team are butting up against. “When I worked on NBA Live 10, I feel like we made a pretty good game but our technology was shit,” he tells Digital Trends. “So we were in a position where we were trying to re-write stuff and then stuff happened [that led to the subsequent game's cancellation], but right now I feel really good knowing how much we’ve accomplished in the last 2-3 months.”

“I feel like we have a really strong technology base.”

“When I worked on NBA Live 10, I feel like we made a pretty good game but our technology was shit.”

The proof is right there on the screen. NBA Live 14 doesn’t pack the visual punch of its principal competitor NBA 2K14, but it presents some fresh ideas. Not just in terms of the play mechanics either; the new consoles’ beefed up online and storage capabilities allow for the game to be treated as a service, rather than as a self-contained experience. Throughout the season, EA Sports’ partnership with Synergy Sports Technology will allow for a constant stream of updates to everything from player stats to likenesses, shoes, and discrete challenges built out of highlight-worthy moments from the real world. In short: the game is going to grow and evolve with add-on content over the course of the NBA season, in the form of free add-ons rather than more traditional paid DLC. 

“The big focus for us this year is the real power these boxes have in them with that connectivity. We really can’t overstate how powerful it is to know that we have a hard drive in every single box and that we’re… always connected in most cases,” producer Ryan Ferwerda says. “Part of that is evolving the game from something that is put in a box and shipped away to becoming a service. We feel like the world has evolved from a pull, [meaning] I have to go find stuff, download these massive patches, to more of a push: I want everything that’s happening in the NBA being pushed to me every single day. So when I turn my box on I have a new experience, I have new stuff to do.”

Ferwerda, too, admits that it’s going to be a process, that NBA Live 14 is a valuable first step rather than an endgame goal. “I think for us as game makers, we know moreso than the consumer what we can do. Now that we’ve built this platform, [we] can get excited about next year,” he says. “We’re not building the ground floor anymore. We can just polish. We know in our heads what’s possible, and that’s what  gets us confident and rolling every day.”

This isn’t exactly unheard of in games development, but it’s rarely stated so explicitly. Unlike many other developers, those that exist in the EA Sports family are building and solving problems on a franchise level. There’s an assumption going in each year that a particular project is simply the next in a long line. In this case, it’s more of a reinvention, but that’s a rare opportunity. The EA Tiburon team gets to build the foundational blocks for what amounts to a rebooted franchise specifically for next-gen hardware.

O’Brien echoes Ferwarda’s point. NBA Live 14 is a foundation to grow on, a shout to fans everywhere that EA Sports can still make a basketball game. “I feel like this year we’re proving that we’re credible, that we know what we’re doing and our direction is sound, and that we’re doing some things differently. Through a fully featured demo that we’ll have available at launch, people will be able to experience that without purchasing the game. We hope to get them bought into what we’re doing,” he says.

“It’s a similar path that FIFA took in 08/09/10 when they really took on [Konami's PES series], where they had a strong focus and a journey where they [set out] to go at this differently. That’s when FIFA really took off. So we’ve learned a lot from them, and from that strategy. I feel really good, not only about where we’re at as a launch title but the foundation we have and where we’re going to go moving forward.”

“I feel like this year we’re proving that we’re credible, that we know what we’re doing and our direction is sound, and that we’re doing some things differently.”

What is the plan moving forward? What will NBA Live 15 bring that its predecessor didn’t? Nothing for the current-gen consoles, that much is assured. O’Brien has little to say on the matter, simply confirming that yes, NBA Live will live on as a next-gen-only series into the future. This narrowed platform offering is meant to help keep the team focused on continuing to polish the groundwork they’ve laid in NBA Live 14.

“You’ll see more effort on connected features,” O’Brien says. “So online play, cooperative online play, head-to-head play, what that looks like. Within gameplay, I think we’re still scratching the surface on player differentiation [and] on what the AI, both your teammates and your opponent, looks like. From an animation standpoint, we can get a lot better. Overall polish you’ll see a lot of improvements graphically with animation. I think this year being such an enormous year for us content-wise – we’ve built a lot of stuff – [means] you’ll see a lot more polish moving forward.”

It’s a simple strategy because it needs to be. Establish a baseline level of “fun” gameplay – that’s the foundational work done on building NBA Live 14 – and then expand on that as players interests and other needs demand. The big stumbling block is an intangible, the specter of failures from years past. The hope for O’Brien and his fellow devs is NBA Live 14‘s top-down renovation takes the first important step toward re-earning the trust of a dispersed audience.

“We’ve achieved more than I thought we would achieve this year. [We brought] a bunch of people together, the majority of whom haven’t worked together before, and we didn’t have a strong enough foundation to work from when [NBA Live 13] wasn’t good enough to ship. You can put two and two together, I don’t have to spell it out for anybody,” O’Brien says.

“We had to break a lot of things down and we had to redo systems and fundamental stuff that you typically won’t be doing and we won’t have to do moving forward. The technology is there, I think some of the systems and features are there, I really like our direction, I like our positioning, I like how that relates to the live services, and then it’s up to us throughout the course of the season to prove that maintaining that relevancy, maintaining those updates, and giving our consumer a fresh and new experience on a daily-to-weekly basis is important and does change the way that you interact with the game. We have to prove that we’re going to do that and honor our commitment… and then just continue down that same path.”