To an extent, sports game development operates notably in a notably different manner to most game development: their designers have a fixed real-world goal and point of comparison, and their development cycles tend to be both constrained and constant.
Visual Concepts has been developing sports games for over a decade, primarily under the 2K banner that kicked off under Sega in the Dreamcast era, and eventually lent its name to current owner Take-Two's entire 2K Games brand.
Gamasutra caught up with 2K's VP of sports development Jeffrey Thomas -- also an executive producer on NHL 2K9 -- to discuss Visual Concepts' heritage, its approach to game development, its attitude towards the Wii, and the market's future potential.
The State Of 2K Sports
Where do you see the sports market right now, and what you guys can really do with it?
Jeffrey Thomas: I think the sports market is opening up, in a lot of ways. One of our goals, even with NHL this year, is that we want to expand that audience. Everyone was set in a mold for a lot of years, and with NHL this year, we said, "We want to open this up and make it easier to play." Pick-up-and-play controls, more fun, that kind of a game.
I think that a lot more online is coming; there's a lot more happening there.
Do your Wii versions differ greatly in terms of design?
JT: There's the graphics side of things, and there is a difference there. From a design standpoint, we have all our features on the Wii, so NHL this year is on the Wii and it's got all the features that the 360 and PS3 have. But it's all about the control. It's about making the Wii remote be your hockey stick, that kind of stuff -- without going too crazy.
We have some good meetings with Nintendo and some of their key designers, and one of the things they really drove home was that it's not just a kids' machine, it's not just a family machine, and their age demographic is the same as the other systems. And there are a lot of units out there, and a lot of people that want to play full games. That's what we're delivering in NHL this year: It's a full game. It's the same game that you'll see on the 360 or the PS3.
Visual Concepts has been known for technology, all the way back to the Dreamcast era. I think it would probably be a leap to have people who are used to making these games move straight over and try and emulate Wii Sports.
JT: Yeah, I think that that is a challenge, no doubt. This is our first Wii title at Visual Concepts, and I think the way that we approached this was that we were going to bring the same game this year. Now, what we do in years to come? We may adjust that, based on how it's received, and what everyone thinks about.
I still don't want to believe, though, that the Wii is targeted at only family, [with] really, really simple games. They have a lot of units out there, and it's a huge market. How do you tap into that? I can't say that I have that answer for sure, right now, today. We're testing the waters this way; we may shift gears. I think there's also other kinds of sports games that could still be simulation but don't have to be at that same 360 or PS3 level.
Sports is an interesting space to be in, because you're trying to fundamentally deliver a fun simulation of something that fans are already very familiar with, so you need to bring a certain degree of realism -- and not just realism from a visual perspective, but also in feel.
JT: Since day one -- you mentioned the Dreamcast -- with NFL 2K, NBA 2K, we've had one rule: Games run 60 frames a second, and we read the controller data every one of those 60 frames, because we want to give you that responsive feeling to the game. And that's something that we stick true to, and I think that shows in our games. That it feels right is very important to us.
Exclusive Sports Licensing
With the licensing situation being what it is -- NFL exclusive to EA, MLB third-party exclusive to you, NHL and NBA fair game -- what are your thoughts on that?
I like what the NBA's doing. I think it's best for the consumer, at the end of the day. That relationship, it makes us compete against the competition; it makes us excel at our game; it makes us have that rivalry, which is the best for, I think, the consumer. At the end of the day, they're going to get, I believe, a better NBA game than a football game, perhaps, when there's not as much competition. I think that is healthy for the market, in a lot of ways.
I think that's the general consensus of gamers, certainly. Have you been tracking it? Has Madden started selling better now that there's no competition?
JT: I look a little, but I don't pay really huge attention to it. But I think, you know, they're around where they were. I don't think it's grown a whole lot. I think they saw a lot of people challenging them, over the last couple years. And I think they, perhaps, delivered more recently, in the last version of the games, but I think they had a lot of challengers early on. I think they aren't pushing as hard as they had to.
Technical Development Issues
Do you have internal engine technology, or do you use licensed engines or middleware?
JT: It's all internal engine. We have our own libraries. We've investigated [middleware]; we've tried looking at different things. There's some interesting stuff going on out there, but at the end of the day, the results we've gotten have been a lot more successful -- just the old school way of getting down and working hard at something.
Does one engine drive all your sports games, or is there an engine for each sport?
JT: The base graphics engine, and a lot of the functionality kinds of things -- memory cards, hard drive access -- those things are common, and shared throughout all the titles. But then each game and each team has got a dedicated AI set that drives all the specific sports.
I did an interview with someone from EA Tiburon a while ago, and I wonder if there are, perhaps, differences in the way these projects are developed between the two companies. Do you have a twelve-month cycle? Is the same team doing the same game?
JT: We try to. I mean, people also like to move around. We like to keep people active; some of the people might move from this team to this team, but the dedicated, core AI guys have been there for a lot of years. I mean, my guys have been there since the 2K days. Most of all the team is intact from those days, and it's because they know that engine, they know what that code is capable of, and they know how they want to improve it every year. And I think that's how you continue to build better products; it's to have that core team in place.
So is it an evolving codebase with elements that stretch all the way back to when you started on the Dreamcast?
JT: It definitely is. It's really funny you mentioned that; we actually fixed a twelve-year-old bug two days ago.
JT: Yep! A twelve-year-old bug. I could not believe it, but it came out when we were doing something on the Wii, and it exposed something, and we actually traced it back, and it had been in our library for twelve years.
Is it more of a strength, or more of a limitation to be using that codebase?
JT: I think it's a strength. There's no doubt about it. If you look at our NBA title, it shows what we're capable of doing with this engine on the hardware. And I'm not saying that we don't work on that engine; we constantly work on it. But there are things that are fundamental, like the way we work for our networking code -- the way that we access memory, and things that are real low-level things that were written from day one, that were done really, really efficiently.
You need to remember, back in the days of the Dreamcast, those games were no slouches either; they were always pushing the hardware. That's something that we're really proud of, and have always been -- that we really like to get down to the metal, and really make the difference on that hardware.
To the extent you have that kind of long-term ongoing engine development, that's probably pretty different to what most developers are used to.
JT: Yeah, it's totally different than doing other original titles, or doing something you do every two or three years; you have a lot longer time to do design work, to lay things out. You know, we start working on it before we've even completed the current year -- looking at next year, laying together features, trying to get started on it. It is that twelve month cycle: We know we're going to ship it again this day next year, and that's what we have to work towards.
Do you concentrate on any platform internally?
JT: Internally, we develop on the 360, because the toolset that Microsoft provides is a better toolset, but we also concurrently work on the PS3; so the development is going on at the same time, and there are people specializing on both. But a lot of the development that can be across the board is done on a 360, and Microsoft's toolset is a lot better of a toolset than Sony's.
The Potential World Market
One of the things that's really going on right now is the explosion of different places to put games. It's moved beyond just these self-contained platforms.
JT: I think digital download is the future; I think there's a lot of stuff that's going to evolve that way. If you see what Microsoft's announcing with their new HUD system that they're putting in the 360, and all that stuff that's going on, they're gearing that direction. They're cutting deals with television networks, Netflix, things like that, to make a difference in digital download, and I think this is where we're going. It's going to be something where you're going to be able to episodically keep adding content, and continually growing.
Sports is one of the most mainstream subject matters you can have. Often, games are criticized for being very focused to a specific audience, but sports carries a very broad audience -- some of which you may not be reaching with just the consoles. Is that something you've given thought to?
JT: We've definitely looked at PC stuff, but another big part of this equation is: We're starting to look at it as a world thing, not as a US thing. That's another whole aspect of our business that continues to grow, is that limiting ourselves to North America, and limiting ourselves to only North American sports is short sighted. The world continues to grow.
Markets like China, all over Asia, are just huge markets, and the opportunity to tap into that business model -- it would be different, and I won't necessarily say that it works the same as here, but basketball is hugely popular in China, and there's a big opportunity there. So there are things that we're exploring with that as well. There is, like I said, a big opportunity to tap into something.
Some sports are popular internationally -- baseball is very popular in Japan; as you said, basketball in China; soccer, obviously, is globally huge -- moreso than in North America. But even the same sport can be played in a different way.
JT: It's not a free ride. I think that's what I'm saying as well. It's not a free ride. It's not like you can go make the same game that you make here, with the same focus. It's just culture; there's a lot of things that they look at differently; there's a lot of things that they expect to be different in their game version versus ours.
Even to the point of hardware -- there are a lot of problems when you get into some of these emerging markets, with piracy and things like that. You have to do things differently. But the opportunity is still there; there's an opportunity to grow, and I think that now is a time when you're gonna put your mark down, and establish yourself as a world brand, and that's something that 2K Sports is really interested in.