AltChar met Rob Jones, senior producer of NBA 2K19, at a 2K Sports event in London. We touched on many topics fans have been clamouring to know more about, including changes in store for MyTeam, MyCareer, and the ever controversial VC.
2K Sports have been kings of virtual basketball for the last decade. Every year, they release a new edition that ups the ante in capturing the actual feel of a real life NBA game. Developed by Visual Concepts, NBA 2K games are touted as "perfect basketball simulators", with NBA 2K17 winning the award for Best Sports Game at The Game Awards in Los Angeles in 2016. With NBA 2K18 shifting more than 10m units, the 20th anniversary edition 2K19 is a big deal.
Just over a week away from its worldwide release, the AltChar team was invited to a 2K conference event in London. There we had the opportunity to speak to the game's executive producer, Rob Jones, who talked us through the changes coming to the new game.
Responding to criticism
The topic that can't be avoided when talking about NBA 2K18 is the micro-transactions route 2K decided to go down with the last year's game. The game's usage of Virtual Currency for microtransactions prompted a huge backlash in fans who rated the game as low as 1.6 on Metacritic and have been waiting to know how VC works in 2K19. Jones didn't dodge the question.
He explained: "VC is always going to be an issue. As much as I hate to say it, I think free-to-play mobile changed the way everything got approached and - as much as I can hate it - it's here to stay. We allow your grind there, but you have two problems - one, pacing the grind is really hard. And secondly, you have people who want everything and they want it now. So it's easy to cater and say 'Here, buy your VC and be great!' instead of 'Why don't you work to be great?'"
So, we put it straight to Jones: is 2K19 going to be any different?
"Our job at the office is to value your hours worth of work and give you a commensurate amount of reward for the amount of time that you're putting in and equate that to actual currency and try to figure out where that balances.
"The problem there is: 10 millions units [of NBA 2K18] were sold. We don't have 10 million testers, so on a testing cycle, even if you have 100 testers at an office, they won't just be testing the pace - they have to test other things as well. So, I wish I could say that it's an easy to problem to solve. Obviously, we struggle, which is one of the reasons why you heard a lot about giving you more for the time spent this year."
No more pay-to-win
One of the reasons microtransactions caused so much ire in 2K18 was that it turned on its head the long-time franchise strength that a player who did the grind to reach an Overall Rating (OVR) would easily be able to outplay through skill alone a newcomer who just bought their way to the same OVR.
In 2K18, pay-to-win became the way to go, and investing in Steph Curry skills or Jordan animations gave the proverbial benchwarming bum the route to the All Star squad: those who did the grind were now up against a stacked deck - hard work counted for nothing it seemed.
Additionally, 2K seemed to be rubbing the hardcore fans' faces in it by charging VC just to preview some of the in-game perks, like haircuts. Streamers went mad, and as we all know that rarely ends well: Metacritic meltdown.
For 2K19, it looks like lesson learned: skill counts more than ever, Jones says, with the Rep score indicating experience regardless of OVR.
He explains: "There used to be an easy way to differentiate a guy that was good from a guy who bought his way to the top. [This year] we are actually grading you based on your time played so we have tiers and the user will be able to look and go 'Oh, that guy has been playing!'. Because if you have a 90-rated amateur who just opened his wallet and can't play well at all, then I don't want that guy on my team. I want the experienced player who's going to play the way I expect him to. So that's going to be one of the things that's going to be different.
"We took the focus away from 99 overall because in the end, whether you're an 85 - I mean, yes, if you're a 99 you're better than an 85 - but once you get to an 85-90, at that point your skills start differentiating you, and that's what we wanted to bring back out."
Impatient? Good news...
From what we've seen the story mode in 2K19 features much-improved narrative and voicework than 2K18, even though many fans will barely touch it. Nevertheless Jones says the focus here will be keeping the pace of the game high.
Asked about whether we can skip cutscenes in MyCareer this year - when you're on a roll it can just kill the buzz - Jones had some good news for the impatient: "Yes. I don't know that it was fully announced but... I'm here to tell you that the pace won't bother you this year."
This fortifies Jones' argument that 2K19 ups the pace of the game and lets players spend their time playing basketball, rather than watching all the things that happen in-between the games.
Focus stays on US giants
NBA 2K16 and 2K17 had an impressive number of fully-licensed European teams, but not for 2K18 - can we expect a widening of the net again for 2K19?
Jones says: "No, [European teams] are not in there. They weren't in there last year and they're not in there this year. I don't want to make excuses but, ultimately, it's a choice of where you're going to put your manpower. Nowadays, the MyCareer stuff is taking so much of our cycles in terms of the art. When I'm counting the fact that you would have to rate all those teams again - it's a lot of work."
"We telemetry everything so we know what percentage of users are actually fully involved in playing it, so we have to decide whether the invested work is enough. And then, to top it off, we put the [Euro] teams in the first year, we added a few teams the second year and then people started asking us 'When are these teams going to get fully incorporated? We're an NBA product and we're going to always base everything around the NBA", Jones explained.
Fanning the flames of fun
NBA 2K19 will bring a lot of new changes and old fan-favourite game modes to the table, such as the 3-on-3 MyTeam mode, MyLeague Online, private Pro-Am matchmaking and so on. Being the main producer of NBA 2K, but also a good basketball player in his own right and longtime series fan, what new gameplay feature of 2K19 does Jones find the most exciting?
"For me, probably the takeover stuff is the most exciting because I think it's going to differentiate players more and it will cause people to have to adjust their strategy based on where that particular player is in the takeover. Now, having a lock-down defender means something. Before it was like 'I got this lock-down defender, he can't do anything on offense'. It kinda sucked. But now at least I know you're going to neutralize that guy and guess what? That was who I was when I played. I mean, literally, I'd walk in, and it didn't matter, as long as the guy was less than 6'7", [the team] would be like 'Rob, you take the guy'. I took pride in neutralizing that guy. It was my job", he said.
We can't help feel a bit feel proud about surmising who the cover athlete of the standard edition of NBA 2K19 was going to be. It's always interesting to us to carefully examine all the promo material 2K put our prior to releasing any actual info so that we can make our guess as to who is going to grace the cover of their latest game. It raises the question: how do they choose the cover athlete?
"Well first of all, we have a tendency not to repeat anybody. We've used pretty much everyone, it's been 20 years. I think Shaq was the last multi-year player that we used. But then, the story is always 'Okay, who has a broad appeal? Who has a fresh face? Who has real star potential?'. We had Steph before Steph became Steph. And then after that, we couldn't afford Steph anymore!
"We often look at our competitors and we know that there's players on that side that we don't want to use, [at least] not in the same fashion that they did, especially in a particular window."
Be the star
The option to scan your face and put yourself in the game is one of the biggest contributors to the immersion 2K is renowned for. This feature works very well on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One which are the main platforms for 2K games - will the feature be available for PC and Nintendo Switch this year as well?
Jones explains: "I believe it is on Switch for sure because I worked on the companion app. What I found out about the app, is that it really doesn't like people whose faces are a little bit on the narrow side. I'm not sure about PC, but I think it is going to [be available] on everything."
Earplugs or not?
At Team AltChar we have a full spectrum of machinery being used, but for the most part our basketball junkies happen to be predominantly on PlayStation 4 Pro - and NBA 2K18 made us downright worried our console was going to blow up or get wings and fly away from sheer fan noise. Do we expect the same?
Jones said: "That I don't know, but I'm going to find out. We test [the game] on dev kits and only a couple guys have the Pro and they're optimising the performance for it. But that doesn't tell me anything because I'm not testing on a retail kit so I have no idea what happens to your retail kit or mine, because I have one too."
Whatever controversies NBA 2K18 saw, Jones is clearly a man with a passion for basketball and considerable knowledge - and personal experience - about the sport.
He tacitly accepted some of the criticism about 18 and seemed to us determined to make 19 give the players what they wanted and put fan feedback at the core of the changes for this 20th anniversary year. We agree so far on what we've seen that this is "the most complete" version of the game to come to market, and Jones is understandably proud of his part in such a complex and inarguably attractive new instalment. If every promise is fulfilled, basketball fans will have a fantastic time.
Thanks to Rob Jones for his time and to 2K Sports for allowing us unfettered access. Altchar will be reviewing the game soon ahead of its launch. So keep an eye on our YouTube channel for more on NBA 2K19.