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Interview: EA's Turmell On  NBA Jam  Rebirth, Sports Game Accessibility
Interview: EA's Turmell On NBA Jam Rebirth, Sports Game Accessibility
January 21, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

January 21, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
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Longtime designer Mark Turmell has joined Electronic Arts' Tiburon studio as chief creative officer just as EA announces a reboot of the classic sports game he created, NBA Jam.

"I couldn't be more excited to have this all kind of coincide with my arrival," Turmell -- who also co-created Smash TV and NFL Blitz -- tells Gamasutra in a new interview. "[The game's] fundamentals are great, but of course, it's 15 years later. There's certainly a lot of additional effort and enhancement that has to happen."

At Tiburon, Turmell will primarily work on the Madden and NCAA franchises, but he's consulting on the new Wii-exclusive NBA Jam (pictured), which is in development at EA Vancouver: "I'm looking at that product every week," he says. "I've sat with the team extensively, and I'm close to the product."

The original NBA Jam team was just ten people. At the time, Turmell coined the title's signature over-the-top basketball gameplay just by experimenting.

"For the first dunk that I put into the game, I had to do the calculation on jumping into the air and having the hand meet the rim," he explains, "and based on that calculation, I could change the different parameters. I changed the height of the animation, and I kept increasing speed... and people continued to be more and more excited."

"That's what led to the over-the-top kind of action in NBA Jam and in subsequent games like Blitz -- just trying to get reactions out of people," continues Turmell. "It's cool to see a dunk, but it's cooler to see a 7-foot spinning dunk."

Reacting To How Players React

Player reaction is one of the most important cues from which to learn, and it's formed a key current in Turmell's design philosophy. "One of the highlights for me in the arcade was we would test these games in local Chicago arcades. When people would get one of the more spectacular dunks, kids would spin around and run around the arcade a little bit... that feedback is what we fed off," he says.

And he hopes his learnings in the world of sports titles will help him in his new mission: Help make EA Sports games like Madden more accessible. "When you try to pick up a game like Madden, some people are immediately uneasy because it's so complex and so deep, and they're perhaps not sure they want to make that investment," Turmell explains.

"As successful as Madden is, I think that there's an even larger untapped market of potential buyers that we can tap into," he says. "My mission really is to make those players feel welcomed, to make them feel successful when they pick it up."

How do you do that? According to Turmell, it begins with the mechanics. Just as with the arcade titles on which Turmell's work began, "People get into the game as quickly as they can, so that's what you need to address first."

Turmell says the elusive trait of "responsiveness" has to do with giving the player as much of a sense of control as possible. "A lot of games nowadays are not very responsive," he says. "Sometimes you hit a button and a long animation plays out... with a game like the WWE, Wrestlemania games, you hit a button and it might take seven, eight seconds before you regain control of the character on screen. That happens too much in most sports games."

Watch Your Communication?

Player-empowering, rapid-response mechanics dovetail with another area of focus for Turmell, which is entertaining on-screen action that make players "feel like they did something, and it was cool," he says. "And when you give them that first 'cool moment', that's great -- but then you have to get onto the next one."

A third factor is communication with the player, he says. Turmell recalls watching a kid play an early installation of the four-player NBA Jam arcade cabinet; the young player inserted his money into the coin slot, but then took hold of the joystick for one of the stations currently being controlled by the AI.

Turmell watched the player moving the joystick around for an AI-controlled avatar while his own simply stood there -- and the player didn't notice. "He didn't realize that he was on the wrong control," Turmell says. He stepped in to correct the player -- only to see the suspicious kid elect to abandon the right joystick for a different one again.

"He couldn't feel the difference, and thought maybe I was bullshitting him," Turmell recalls. "That was horrifying for me, that the game was playing itself and he didn't realize that he wasn't in control."

"That night, I went back to work and created what we finally called 'bozo boxes,' where we pause the game [and tell people they aren't controlling the right character]. If you think about the Jam or Blitz-type products, we do a lot of communication to the player," he says. "We literally pause the game and say YOU ARE PIPPEN, or YOU ARE PLAYER THREE."

That kind of direct communication is essential to sports games, says Turmell, which often feature many players on screen participating in fast-paced action. He firmly believes it's necessary to grab the player's attention with those types of messages, despite design philosophies that would argue this interrupts immersion. "Our games are authentic to the sports, but that doesn't mean that we can't pause and communicate the controls or other user issues," he says.

The very authenticity that appeals to some users can be intimidating to others, who might avoid trying a sports game because they aren't knowledgeable about the sport itself. "Even non-sports fans can be compelled and intrigued by a good interactive experience with the rules of professional sports, and those cool moments happening," says Turmell.

Keeping The Depth But Attracting The Novice?

With products like Madden Arcade on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, EA is trying to diversify its offering, providing intros to the brand for sports fans and non-fans alike. "[Madden Arcade] attracts a different audience," says Turmell. "It doesn't have the complex football knowledge required that perhaps a simulation football game requires."

"Certainly, the sim nature of the EA Sports products has been very successful, and is the hallmark... we certainly can't ignore that fact, but there are ways to attract the novice user and make him realize, 'I can get into this without all of the knowledge,'" he adds.

Is it a major challenge to balance accessibility with pleasing users who want a very rich, lifelike sports experience? "I'm kind of the rookie here," says Turmell, "but I don't think it's as challenging or as difficult as you might think -- because I go back to that moment-to-moment gameplay."

"I'm confident that we can create an easier to pick-up-and-play experience where [players] get a cool moment right away, feel they have control over that moment, and then they begin to get hooked," he states. "That's almost an arcade philosophy that I grew up with; I was in the arcade business for twenty years."

Finally, Turmell says, never underestimate the importance of frame rate to immersion and engagement, something he hopes to make a priority at EA. "A lot of gameplay that feels not-responsive or sluggish is simply because they are not updating the game engine at 60 frames per second," he says. "That's really critical in my eyes," he adds. "Some people can't really quantify why a game feels better than another game, but you'll find games that run at higher frame rates do end up scoring higher or feeling better to consumers."

Turmell is excited to tackle all these initiatives at Tiburon, and says his new colleagues inspire him: "Coming into EA, it's been amazing and a breath of fresh air because there's so much development talent here in the building I feel like I can accomplish anything."

"I feel unleashed because there's so much horsepower here -- and I am excited about the new tech, whether it be Natal or the new motion controller from Sony," he adds. "I think that we're getting into an area where games can become even more accessible and easier to play by the mass market."


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Comments


Adam Flutie
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@Derek - I also agree. I loved Tecmo bowl (well, until I found all the unstoppable plays) simply because it was easy to play and quick to play. NBA Jam is the same way simple with the core of basketball in place (shooting, rebounding, and fake defense).

John Van Ryzin
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Hi Mark!



Glad to see you are still in the game business after all these years.

Best of luck with your new projects.



John Van Ryzin

Chuan Lim
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Didn't they try 'rebooting' NBA Jam a few times on the N64 et al? Game was *played* *out* and gamers got sick of it quite some time ago. FIFA10 seems like an accessible enough game, and non-gamers that I've handed the controller to seem to be able to have fun with it. I suppose alot has to be said for the design of the control and giving the player responsive and comprehensible feedback ..



AFAIK people are not really after these simplified versions of Madden or PES on Wii, they actually want something comparable to what's out there on X360 / PS3 just that from a developer perspective we're always trying to "differentiate" for a perceived market that [1] doesn't care about these games, or [2] want to be able to play sports w/ their family that's not gimped ..





-- Chuan

Amir Sharar
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I think Mark Turmell's perspective is gold for anyone looking at learning about game design.



Before changing Madden too much I would play EA's latest NHL games if I were him. They subscribe to some of the principles he's mentioned in this article and it's easy to see why reviewers and gamers alike love the game, even if they are not into hockey.



Having bought NBA Jam on multiple consoles (Genesis, SNES, 32X, Saturn) I look forward to this latest incarnation.


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