Tag Archive: EA Tiburon


Getting Drafted in NBA Live 18

I had a chance to play “The Rise”, the new prologue in EA Sports’ The One mode in NBA Live 18. NBA Live 18 will drop on September 15th for Xbox One and PS4.

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Semi-pro

As a New York Knicks fan, I am extremely familiar with the concept of rebuilding a franchise. After a three-year absence from the gaming scene, NBA Live has been furiously trying to make up lost ground and get back to a point where it could stand toe-to-toe with its most direct competition. It’s first two years back, however, barely moved the needle with all those virtual ballers out there. The hope was that, like with many annual sports franchises, the third year on new-gen consoles could be the one that would announce NBA Live’s triumphant return to glory. Looking more like my Knicks, though, NBA Live 16 continues moving the franchise in the right direction, but only in baby-steps—and not to a point where it can actually compete just yet.

The most impressive addition to this year’s game comes in the form of the new Live Pro-Am mode. Here you can get ten human players together for some classic five-on-five action in venues that channel your local gymnasium or playground blacktop. Further illustrating that pick-up game feel, the first team to 21 points wins—which, for me, triggered flashbacks to games I played after school or during recess with my friends as a kid. If you can’t find human opponents, there’s also the option to take your five-man squad up against a series of computer teams of varying difficulty.

Playing with other people is really where NBA Live 16 shines. While my time online was seamless, it does need to be mentioned this was before the game’s wide release. Communicating via headset, setting up screens, calling out plays, and learning how to work with one another made me want to lace up my favorite pair of sneakers before playing again.

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One note, though. If you plan on playing with friends, you might want to talk before you group up because in Pro-Am you play as the created player you make when you first start the game and it wouldn’t be wise to take the court with five point guards. This means that Pro-Am mode doubles as a nice way to earn experience points before you take that created player into the single player Rising Star mode—NBA Live’s version of Be a Pro.

Besides Pro-Am, the usual suite of online versus modes return, including EA Sports’ card-based Ultimate Team. Live Ultimate Team adds a new feature where you can earn some of the NBA’s elite from early on in the mode, but can only keep them on your team for a small number of games before you lose them—adding a new strategic element to when and where you play certain players. There are also 160 offline challenges in LUT this year, allowing you to earn tons of coins and players for your squad before heading online.

My only gripe with this is that each challenge I saw is a full-length game. I think LUT needs to take a page out of Madden NFL 16’s MUT playbook and focus on shorter challenges like hitting buzzer beaters or making last minute defensive stops. It’s kind of exhausting to put in an entire game’s worth of time just to get a single card, especially if you fail.

LiveUltimateTeam

There have also been some tweaks to the offline components of NBA Live 16. The aforementioned Rising Star mode is accompanied again by Dynasty mode, which allows players to be the GM of their favorite NBA franchise and try to take them to glory. Dynasty still allows you to micro-manage every decision about your team, from making trades and re-signing free agents, to setting your starting lineup each night. If you decide to start with Rising Star, you’ll try to take your personal created player and turn them into NBA royalty.

Rising Star sees a major change for that custom player this year, and it comes in the form of the new progression system. Instead of upgrading a single point at a time, NBA Live 16 now sets threshold marks, so a skill may jump as much as five attribute points if you have enough XP to spend. Also, when you pick a position for your player, you now also have to pick a specialty. Point guards, for example, can be Shooters, Passers, or Slashers, each having their own boosts in particular categories when you start out, requiring less upgrading early on in your career.

Besides the skill aspects of your character, you can also customize their look down to the slightest detail. Tattoos, shoes, warm-up gear, and more are available to be earned. There’s also the Gameface HD companion app that even lets you put your own face on your player. I personally had a fair amount of issues linking the app with my PSN ID, and my odd-shaped head seemed to make the app go haywire on my first several attempts—but it’s an interesting idea if you can get it to work. Until then, I’ll stick with one of the pre-rendered faces.

Customization

There are also some welcome changes to gameplay when you actually take the court. New additions like clearer feedback on shots fix what used to be a confusing element from previous years. Now, a very clear shot meter comes up when shooting a jumper, and depending on skill level and how open the individual is, you receive a definitive percentage letting you know your chances of that shot going in when it leaves your hand. The hope is, over time, you’ll start to learn which are high-percentage shots and which aren’t. There’s also new feedback on called plays that tell you where to go and who you should be passing to in the hopes of getting an open look at the basket.

Unfortunately, things start to fall apart beyond the feedback. When controlling your player at a normal tempo, or if you try to slow things down to eat up some clock, it feels like you’re constantly fighting the controller. There’s almost no finesse when moving your player, unless you’re on the fast break sprinting towards the basket for an easy layup or dunk. And the more complex moves to break away from players guarding you are a series of semi- and half-circles on the right stick that remind you more of a fighting game than a sports title.

The worst gameplay offender, though, is your friendly AI. Whether in Dynasty or Rising Star, your teammates are nearly worthless. When I knock a ball loose on defense, I want my teammates to react to it like in a real game and scramble after it. When I’m boxing out on one side with my power forward, I want my center doing the same thing instead of letting small forwards run by him for easy putbacks. And while it’s great that I can call plays now, when I’m seeing the actual diagram on the court of where I need to be and where my teammates are supposed to go, I want them to actually go to those spots so I can pass or shoot like the play intended. I lead my team every night in points as a passing oriented point guard in Rising Star—not because I want to, but because if I pass the ball to one of my dunderhead teammates, they’re going to turn the ball over. It happens with too much regularity.

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Of course, the friendly AI isn’t the only disappointment, as the opponent AI isn’t very good either. Playing as my New York Knicks in Dynasty last night, I gave up one three-pointer. A stellar defensive feat? No. The AI, even with several open looks, never took a three-pointer unless it absolutely positively had to, which in the case of the one three I gave up, it did because it was at the buzzer to force overtime. If it were a three-point shooter, they’d look instead to try to drive to the basket. If it were a big man, they’d look to pass the ball. I can only control one guy at a time, and as alluded to earlier, the AI defense isn’t that good.

And really, that’s the disappointing thing about NBA Live 16. New modes along with additional bells and whistles for existing ones are perfectly fine, but there is still a roughness to the core gameplay that keeps it from being great. The reason why Pro-Am mode was so good when I played it was because it was humans versus humans, reacting and playing basketball the way you’d expect people should and would. Until that level of gameplay quality translates better into the offline modes, NBA Live 16 is a D-league title at best.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.15
6.5
NBA Live 16 takes a small baby step forward with the franchise, but there are still core gameplay elements that need to be smoothed out before it can be a championship caliber game.
The Good Pro-Am mode is a welcome addition to the online suite; better feedback on shot taking.
The Bad AI on both sides of the ball is still abysmal and gameplay remains stiff.
The Ugly My odd-shaped head drives Gameface HD insane.
NBA Live 16 is available on PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

A new gridiron great

Madden has been unpredictable the past few years. Between a slow mastering of the new technology brought about by a console generation shift, and the decision to focus on singular parts of the on-field product due to their annual cycle, the product just hasn’t come together in a way the folks down at EA Tiburon probably hoped it would. But playing the proverbial long game seems to have finally paid off, with Madden NFL 16 providing an experience that football fans of all passion levels should be able to get excited for.

The biggest gameplay change is evident from the moment you start your first game or training drill. After zeroing in on the trenches the past two years, it is finally time for Madden to air the ball out. Quarterbacks can now add touch to thrown balls by double tapping a receiver’s icon for a pass that falls in between the bullet and lame duck passes of years past. This is great for when you’re trying to hit a small window between multiple defenders and one of them happens to be in front of your intended target. You can also use the left bumper and trigger to modify your passes even further, throwing them high or low and into a spot that only your receiver can make the play on them at.

Receivers also have new options when it comes to how they actually catch the ball. By holding different face buttons with the ball in mid-air, players can prepare for a RAC (run after catch), Aggressive catch, or Possession catch. The Possession catch will make your receiver focus on just securing the catch and getting their feet in bounds if near a sideline. The Aggressive catch, by contrast, allows spectacular plays to happen. New dynamic animations occur when your receiver leaps into the air to try to snag the ball at its highest point, but the gamble leaves themselves open to having the ball knocked loose, since they’re unable to defend themselves. Finally, the RAC is great for when you want to get a lot of yards after a play since your receiver starts turning up field before they even have the ball, but this can result in some unforced errors with the receivers dropping the ball outright.

It wouldn’t be fair for the offense to get all the upgrades, though. Defenders can now choose to play the ball or the receiver. Being proactive and going for the ball can lead to more interceptions, deflections, and some impressive animations as both receiver and defender fall to the ground. Playing the receiver is great when you’re just trying to prevent yards after the catch, like on a pass in the flat and you want to keep the receiver from getting a first down.

The best part of the defensive upgrades has to be the fact that defensive backs can actually catch the ball in Madden NFL 16. No longer will players drop easy interceptions on lame duck passes or tipped balls like their hands are covered in grease. They’ll still drop an easy one every now and again, but not nearly at the rate seen in previous games.

These new features re-invigorate what had become one of the more stale parts of playing Madden, because each new pass can lead to plays you’ll never have seen before from the series. The upgraded catches offer up an interesting rock-paper-scissors dynamic that tests your reflexes in the best ways possible, since you only have split-seconds to decide both what receiver to throw the ball to but also how you want to catch it. And ball hawking as a defensive back is finally satisfying, because you know when you read the receivers properly and jump the route that you’ll be coming down with the ball most of the time instead of watching it hit your hands and fall harmlessly to the ground.

The new passing mechanics have also provided welcome indirect improvements by giving Madden some much-needed balance. Working on the ground game and offensive/defensive line play so much in previous iterations threw the gameplay completely out of whack and left us with an unrealistic experience. It was common for me to have defensive linemen with 50-plus sacks each year and running backs with nearly 3,000 yards rushing. In order to make sure your QB actually has the time to throw the ball, defensive players won’t always beat an offensive lineman anymore—even when perfectly timing the snap. I still have great seasons with my defensive linemen, with guys like Damontre Moore of the Giants getting 15 sacks in my first franchise year, but those ridiculous numbers from previous games are a thing of the past.

The same goes with running the ball. Instead of averaging 175 yards a game, I found Shane Vereen averaged a much more realistic 90 yards a game this year, and the extra benefit of this is it improved my success with the play-action pass. Finally, my stat sheet looked more like an actual football game and allowed me to truly test myself against either the AI or human opponents.

Speaking of playing against other people, Madden’s suite of online modes has a new crown jewel. Draft Champions gives you a team of mediocre players (around 70 overall), and then tasks you with putting together a team of superstars through a fantasy draft. The problem is that you only have 15 rounds in the draft and 22 spots to fill, meaning every team will have some holes. Finding your opponent’s weaknesses—and minimizing your own—puts your football acumen to the test like never before, especially because no two drafts are ever the same. It’s also a fun way to just jump into the action if you’re not into the hardcore simulation of micro-managing a franchise.

Draft Champions touts a huge risk/reward factor because there are some incredibly tough decisions that you’ll have to make over the course of your draft. Since there’s no guarantee certain positions will come up, every time you pass on two other players when you make your singular choice each round, there’s a chance you’ll never see that position come up again. I truly believe that one of the games I lost while playing was because I scoffed at Matthew Stafford (81 overall) of the Lions in the sixth round in the hopes another QB would come up. One never did, and I was stuck with Austin Davis (70 overall), the pitiful backup for the St. Louis Rams.

Besides Draft Champions, the ever-popular Madden Ultimate Team returns. While not much has changed in regards to collecting cards, trying to improve your line-up, and then facing-off against people online in order to move up the virtual divisions, the special single player challenges that allow you to hone your team and relive the most exciting moments from last year’s NFL season have been tweaked. Now, these challenges are focused more on specific moments, typically towards the end of games, to offer quicker, more easily digestible gameplay snippets. You’ll progress faster with your MUT while also being thrown right into the action, providing an experience that’s easier to get into and requires far less of a time commitment.

Of course, playing online might not be your thing. Maybe this is your first time experiencing a Madden game and online is a bit intimidating. In that case, Skills Trainer returns with all new challenges and tutorials specifically focused around the new gameplay features added this year. A new 25-challenge Gauntlet has also been created to truly put your skills to the test.

You could also be a Madden veteran, but the idea of grinding against the computer might be more your speed. Connected Franchise is back and gives you the opportunity to control your favorite NFL team and turn them into a dynasty. Whether an owner, coach, or player, you’ll be directly involved with how your team hopefully becomes world-beaters. And if you choose to be an owner or coach, a brand new, more user-friendly interface makes it easier than ever to scout potential superstars in the draft, make lineup changes, or sign and trade current players on your roster. There is also a new XP system featuring season-long, game-to-game, and even drive-to-drive dynamic goals for players and coaches to help them develop into living legends (although the mid-game graphics tracking these goals are a bit of a mess). If you like being in control, Connected Franchise offers up more than ever before and makes it easier to maintain your perfect football legacy.

Even with EA Tiburon’s plans seemingly coming together in Madden NFL 16, there are still a few tiny flaws with this year’s product. Despite visuals that look better than ever, glitches remain on both the animation and AI side of things. The occasional clipping of two players trying to occupy the same space in transitional scenes between plays. Inhuman ragdoll movements after a tackle. Unnatural ball trajectories when released from the QB’s hand. Players standing perfectly still in the middle of the field before, during, and after a play—or, when they do move, it’s like they’re on an electric football field and not moving smoothly like their ten teammates. These are, admittedly, minor annoyances, but are still enough to break the immersion, especially when those players who refuse to move cost you big plays on offense or defense.

While on the subject of animation, those assigned to Aggressive catches quickly become tired. Seeing everyone on the field trying to replicate the Odell Beckham catch from last year against Dallas is nice the first time, but it’s not special if you do it every play. And you know what else is tired? Phil Simms and Jim Nantz’s commentary. I’m so sick of hearing Simms comparing football to Nantz’s golf game.

The only truly significant issue I experienced, though, came with my limited time when playing online. Usually I was able to connect with minimal issues, but every now and again, I wouldn’t be able to match with other players. Once we connected everything was fine, but it was those initial moments with the matchmaking that had me nervous. These could be just pre-launch bugs that’ll be fixed with the day one patch—and it only happened maybe one out of every five times I tried to connect—but it might be something to keep an eye out for on launch day.

Even with these quibbles, Madden NFL 16 is the best game the franchise has seen in quite some time. It provides fun pick-up and play options along with changes in gameplay mechanics that the hardcore players have been waiting literal years for. And what a concept, an EA Sports game that adds new modes instead of cutting old ones out. Draft Champions is going to change the face of Madden online and should rival MUT for where players devote most of their time. All this should make football fans everywhere rejoice that it is once again Madden Season.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.25.15
9.0
New gameplay mechanics and the new Draft Champions mode mean Madden NFL 16 finally delivers a complete football experience that both casual and hardcore fans should be able to enjoy right from the start.
The Good New passing mechanics have revolutionized the offensive side of the ball. Draft Champions mode is my new online addiction.
The Bad The occasional AI bug is still frustrating. Commentary needs an overhaul.
The Ugly I kept looking to see if they only put three fingers on one of Jason Pierre-Paul’s hands after he blew a couple off in an off-season fireworks accident. (They didn’t.)
Madden NFL 16 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. EA Sports provided travel to a review event to test out some of the online capabilities for Madden and provided a retail copy for the benefit of this review. 

Needs to repair some divots

Surprisingly, I have found an appreciation for golf as I’ve gotten older. Sure, I’m more likely to channel Jack Nicholson and swing a golf club at someone than to take it to the links. Now and again, though, I’ll tune into a major championship and see who is making a run. So, I was curious when Rory McIlroy PGA Tour arrived, the return of EA Sports’ long-running golf franchise, which skipped releasing an edition in 2014.

PGA Tour takes no time at all throwing you into a high-stakes, high-pressure situation with its new Prologue. Following cover boy Rory McIlroy down the stretch of his run for the 2014 Open championship, the game introduces you to its three control schemes as McIlroy himself explains how he handles golf’s biggest stages. Whether you choose the simulation-heavy method with no assists, the arcade style in which you can adjust your ball in mid-air, or the old-school three-click system to minimize the human element, each mode seemed as though it could cater to golf gamers of all experience levels.

The most impressive part of the control schemes probably comes from the customizable aspects, though. Since I preferred a hybrid arcade/three-click system, I crafted and saved a custom control set so I regularly landed on the greens. I loved that PGA Tour allowed me to contort its deep selection of controls to make even my ham-handed efforts more enjoyable.

Except for when it came to the short game.

Putting remains, even after all these years, my great nemesis, and additional assists would’ve been nice. While the current system remains similar to those from years past—showing the slope of the green, and the path one should hit the ball on—there’s no clear formula to figure out how to navigate each unique green and how much power to put behind a shot.

Nothing is more frustrating than sending the ball on a proper trajectory, only to have it to skip over the cup because you put too much oomph behind it, or for it to rim out because you shot it a hair to the left or right. If we can have sight lines when driving towards the green, I don’t see why we can’t have them on the greens themselves so we’re not making educated guesses all the time as to where our ball will go.

Putting woes aside, playing the optional Prologue was a great warm-up to re-introduce myself to the franchise. It also illustrated the power of Frostbite 3, since PGA Tour looks better than any golf game has a right to, with even the tiniest of details popping off the screen. The game’s improved ball physics offer more realistic bounces and ricochets, as well. Lastly, load times between holes are a thing of the past, coming now only between rounds of a tournament.

Sadly, players will find few modes after the Prologue. Most online modes have been trimmed to the bare minimum, reminding me of the difficult time the NHL series had coming to new-gen systems last year. The Country Club mode of years past, in which you could start your own online community, has been nixed and even rule modes such as Skins or Battle Golf have been scrapped. Even many of the courses and golfers of years past, including legendary golfers and those that appear on the LPGA, have been entirely removed from the game for unknown reasons. Only stroke and match play remain, online or locally. At the very least, the servers seemed quick and steady when I played.

The newly added Golf Club mode lessens the blow of these losses, but not enough to save the game as a whole. With zany golf balls that can stick to a surface or be remotely controlled through obstacles, Golf Club provides a nice change of pace from your prototypical golf experience. Its 170 or so challenges make you think outside the tee box. Each challenge offers some replayability with three high scores to aim for, and takes place on crazy courses such as the Battlefield 4-inspired Paracel Storm course, which is chock full of par-3s. But this collection of mini-games can’t hide the fact that so many other features have been sacrificed in this year’s game.

In this version, designers have even cut too much from the Career Mode. I don’t mind that the amateur tournaments were removed in favor of putting you right on the tour, but players are at a distinct disadvantage when your created golfer starts at 60 overall but must compete against 80 and 90 overall golfers such as Rory McIlroy. The tournaments’ absence means you don’t have time to build up your golfer’s XP. If you’re cutting the pre-tournaments, at least start me at a 75 or so.

Beyond this, the mode has no substance. You have to play every tournament, unlike the pros who sometimes skip an event to rest before a major championship. The game doesn’t give you a calendar, so you can’t look ahead to figure out where you can make up points, if need be, in the FedEx Cup standings. All you get is some lifeless text-filled screens congratulating you before you’re off to the next tournament. Even the Create-a-Pro feature when you start your career has been scaled back, using template golfer bodies and faces in lieu of the body and face sculpting features of years past.

Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is a step forward for the franchise in some ways, but in many others it’s also a step back. EA Sports has had a difficult time transitioning so many annual franchises to new-gen hardware, but cutting out modes and features is never the way to go. No matter how good your game looks, appearances will never make up for a lack of content.

However, this year’s PGA Tour probably plays better in most areas than it did when Tiger Woods graced the cover. If you want a golf sim that plays solidly and shuffles you from hole-to-hole, PGA Tour will suffice. But if you’re looking for a golf game with substance, you’re better off grabbing a set of clubs and heading to your own local links.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.14.15
6.5
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour plays better in many ways than when Tiger Woods graced the cover, but the removal of so many modes and continuous shortcomings with the short game make this a disappointing debut on new-gen hardware.
The Good Looks better than any golf game needs to. Multiple control schemes and great physics.
The Bad Short game comes up, well, short. Less content than when Tiger Woods was on the cover.
The Ugly The controller I broke after just missing so many par putts.
Rory McIlroy PGA Tour is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

When I play Madden, I dominate in the trenches. My defense makes sacks on every other play, and it’s not unheard of for my offense to rush for 2,500 yards and 40 TDs.

My aerial attack is another story, though. I’m lucky to throw for 2,000 yards and have a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. I’m more likely to hit the lottery than to have one of my DBs intercept a pass. It’s been this way for years,  whether I’m playing Madden 95 or Madden NFL 15.

This year, however, Madden is looking to make things easier for players like me to take advantage of superstar wide receivers and ball-hawking cornerbacks with new playmaker options. As soon as the quarterback lets go of the ball, there are more nuances than ever to how much touch or zip you can put behind the ball. Whereas in previous years, you’d either fire a bullet pass or lob a lame duck, depending on how you held the button, an in-between pass offers a chance to hit smaller windows of opportunity, as Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning do every Sunday.

Once the ball is in the air, the possibilities get really exciting. Your receivers can catch the ball differently, depending on how it’s thrown and their own attributes. A receiver like Calvin Johnson can leap up for a ball at its zenith; take a chance, turn and run before the ball reaches its target location; or use his tremendous size to jockey positions with a corner to make a sure-handed grab, all depending on which second button you press after your quarterback lets go of the ball.

Similarly, though, defensive backs offer comparable options. Shutdown corners like Richard Sherman can now more aggressively jam receivers off the line, much the same way a defensive player could try to jump the snap in last year’s game. DBs can also choose to jump routes, or leap for a ball with hopes of coming down with a momentum-swinging interception.

Admittedly, I needed some time to become comfortable with making an extra button press while the ball was in the air. After just a few blunders, I made my first interception on a flat route, and a spectacular catch in the back of the endzone on a jump ball. If I’m able to pull this off consistently, get a better feel for when to make each particular move, and learn what I can do with each receiver, this feature can be a game-changer for guys like me. I’ll need more than the one Madden NFL 16 game than I got to play in my demo, though, and a couple of possible flash-in-the-pan plays to see if Playmaker is all it’s being made out to be.

Madden NFL 16 will launch on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on August 25.

EA Sports has the reputation of an unstoppable giant when it comes to football, soccer, and hockey. With the juggernauts of Madden, FIFA, and NHL, you’d expect them to dominate every sport they touch. But as the tumultuous history of NBA Live has shown, it’s not a simple matter of EA simply showing up and expecting to be crowned champion.

After getting humbled by NBA 2K for several years, the folks behind NBA Live knew they had to go back to the drawing board in 2010. After handing development to EA Tiburon, taking a three-year hiatus from the franchise, and finally relaunching last year, the series might finally be headed for a turnaround. We had a chance to chat with executive producer Sean O’Brien and get an inside look at how EA Tiburon has gone about rebuilding the two-decade-old franchise from the ground up.

EGM: There was a three-year period there between NBA Live titles, so NBA 2K really got a monopoly on basketball video games in that time. Can you tell us about finally coming back to the market with NBA Live 14 and the difficulties you faced that first year back in trying to reclaim a piece of the market share?

Sean O’Brien: It’s definitely hard, and I think that, even outside of the brand, probably the biggest challenge was building NBA Live 14 on what we had. The game didn’t ship in those previous years for a reason, and that was because it simply wasn’t good enough. That, on its own, is challenging, but to complicate matters, our base wasn’t what Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K was, so we were trying to build up the quality while also bringing it onto the next generation of hardware at the same time.

I think part of that, too, was building the team that could actually do that. We had a bit of a broken, fractured team beforehand that I inherited, so we had to ask ourselves if we even had the right people to pull this off. Then came the decisions regarding what our direction was, what our identity was, and where we were going to go—and all that’s a work in progress.

I think, after those 11 months where we built the game and we launched with next-gen, it allowed us to come together as a team. Then we got reviewed, and it was so bad, and our scores were so low, and that could’ve been a point where the team just turtled and said, “Why are we doing this?” and given up. And, for a couple of days, there were definitely some doubters. What was really cool for me, though, was come that next Monday, almost a full week after we launched, I saw a lot of people start to rally. Asking what we could do to make this better, shouting that we weren’t done yet, wanting to prove to people that this wasn’t our best. To see the team rally, I understood then that the make-up of this team—sure, we had some holes to fill talent-wise—but the core team had the gumption to make it happen.

That’s part of it. You need the right people, the right talent to make a good product in anything—not just games—and I think we’re showing with NBA Live 15 that this is more in line with what people expect from the NBA Live brand. We’re ready to take on the fight. We have a different identity and are not creating a “me too” basketball game that copies 2K, not creating the same feature set or mechanics. We’re creating an identity around our own connected feature set that focuses more on control when you’re playing the game itself, the simplicity of the game itself so that you’re always feeling like the game is responsive when you play.

So, it’s just a question of bringing people in on a journey that’s steadily improving. Our goal is to prove that we’re constantly making the game better. And given that we’re shipping NBA Live 15 ten and a half months after we shipped Live 14, after we put out numerous updates to make 14 better, being able to put out something like 15 is going to reinforce the fact that everyone at EA is taking this very seriously. There’s a big investment around it. NBA Live 14 was not our best effort and was just a small step forward in the direction we’re going.

EGM: You mentioned how low the review scores were and that NBA Live 14 wasn’t your best effort. What advantages were there in releasing a product that might not have been your best foot forward and not nixing it like NBA Live 13 in the hopes of coming back stronger this year?

O’Brien: From a development standpoint, as you finalize a game—especially an annual title—you learn something about your team, and you also establish guidelines on what “good” looks like, how to achieve that, and then how to finish. In any game development, you have your pre-production, which is your ideas and early design. Then you have your production, which is how good are you at actually implementing those things. Then you have your finalizing process, which is how you pull it all together.

How you pull it all together and have it compliant by Microsoft and Sony standards and actually ship a game under the rigid and strict timelines in sports games is a huge learning opportunity for a team, and it can bring them together. So, for better or for worse, we set a bar for where we were, both inside and outside the company. But also, with all the stuff we did after launch, it allowed us to come together as a team and engage our fans. It helped us key players in on what we’re doing here.

We have different strategies across the board, and one of those is talking with the people managing our social channels and having them engage people 1-on-1 and making sure that, even if it was just some guy saying “this game sucks,” we made sure they got a response. Asking them about their experience with the game, having them explain their issues to us, seeing if they had any questions—and it’s really interesting to see the surprise from people when someone actually responds to them and shows that we’re paying attention to them. This helps build a bit of a transparency and an honest, listening relationship with players that I think they really want.

We see it a lot in a variety of games. You see it in the indie-game scene a lot more, where you ask people to get on this journey with you and pick their brains about what they want to see from it. And that’s what we’re trying to do, whether it’s with old Live fans and you miss things about the series, or you play 2K and you’re frustrated about some things with their series. We want to know the game players want made.

We put that out there—establish a baseline with what we did with NBA Live 14 and then show and build confidence in people based on what we do and deliver against it. As we learned this past year, we learned it in a good way, that we promised a bunch of things. We said that this wasn’t our best effort and asked people to bear with us and that we’re going to prove to them on this journey that we’ll make the game better. It easy to say that, of course, and it’s harder to do it, but I’d put up what we did post-launch with 14 against what any other sports game has ever done post-launch in the history of sports gaming.

That’s how much of an investment we put into showing players just where we’re going and then with our next release, NBA Live 15, having the game look and play as it does now is a huge transformation. And so, having people along on that journey to experience that, I think, is advantageous as well. And it gets the feeling some people might have when they contribute to a Kickstarter. You want to get in early or help shape something, or hop on board as it goes because it’s cool and you want to be a part of what’s next. It’s not about what’s there right now, and that’s sort of the philosophy we’re taking with the athletes we work with, the musicians we work with. It’s not about what’s cool right now, but if you want to be a part of something that will be cool, then that’s where we are.

EGM: You said there were some holes on the team. Can you specify where those holes were and how you’ve filled them since then?

O’Brien: Without getting into names or anything, I think we lacked a bit of creative leadership. We did fill those holes, though, as I brought down some guys that I used to work with previously, which made me feel better. I brought in some guys from EA Canada that I worked with on [the series] before. Connor Dougan runs our gameplay team, which is a very big team; he worked with me on NBA and NCAA basketball and was a line producer on SSX and was doing some work on UFC before we moved him down to [EA Tiburon]. Same with [senior designer] Ryan Santos, I worked with him on NBA Live and NBA Street. He’s a real lifestyle basketball guy, so we wanted him to insert some of the lifestyle of the sport that is so important, fusing the culture of the sport through music and footwear and apparel into the backbone of what NBA Live is, similar to what we did with NBA Live 10. We’re trying to reinvent it again on new-gen hardware. And a few other guys, too, to just really round out the experience level on making a basketball game, as well as to bolster what I felt was not enough creative leadership.

So, the designers and producers making the game, we really just needed more of them. And since then we’ve hired a number of engineers, a number of artists and animators, but what I was most happy with was the team that was there was actually a lot better than I thought. And what we produced was better than 13, because I played 13, it was better than what that looked and played like. And what we’re doing now is better than what 14 was. There are some really talented guys there, and I felt they just needed better direction, better leadership, and a better understanding of how to come together.

The coolest thing is that there’s some really strong talent there, so that’s why I feel even better about this year. For example, Paul Kashuk, our art director, who’s been at EA Tiburon for maybe eight years in a central role, worked on PGA Tour a few years back and is a former Disney guy. Giving him the opportunity to do this, he’ll be the first to tell you that his overall plan was a three-year plan. I believe we’ve achieved the vast majority of it in two years, but because of the way the art was built for 13, we couldn’t do as much as we wanted in that short timeframe for 14. But this was his plan all along. We built a scanner that was mobile and portable enough to go scan the athletes, and he had this strategy that we had to pick certain things we could in 14, knowing we could do more in 15 and even have the creative direction set already for 16, knowing where we could then take the franchise in the future as well.

EGM: Does the yearly iteration and near-constant work cycle due to the franchise’s annual nature make it easier then to implement long-term plans and follow through on them? Does the unending cycle become daunting at times, even with plans in place?

O’Brien: That’s one of the most challenging things. Knowing that we have a list of work can, at times, be overwhelming. But you got to stick to the plan, because I’d love to just snap my fingers and hand you the game I’ve got in my head. Obviously, I can’t do that, so it’s both the frustrating and challenging thing about being in sports-game development.

From the team’s standpoint, what we’re trying to figure out now is take what we proved internally with our post-launch support and expand on it. We’ve helped streamline this with new technology. Like for example, when LeBron James broke his nose last year, we have this live content update system now. Normally, when we want to update something, we’ll have to go through a submission process with Microsoft and Sony, and it becomes a patch, and they update your kit. So, we do the work, send it to them, they take about two weeks to review it, approve it, send it through the proper logistics channels of making it happen, and it finally gets to the player’s game. So, it takes a good chunk of time.

And so, when we’re living in a time when LeBron breaks his nose, you read about it, write about it, or see it on SportsCenter, and then you see him bring out that black mask/nose guard that the NBA didn’t want him to wear, and there was all this conversation about it. But when I went and played Live or 2K, he’s not wearing it. So, there’s a disconnect from reality. We could turn that around in three days now, though, with our new tech, so on the third day, LeBron in our game was wearing the black mask.

It’s a little thing, but maintaining relevancy is extremely important and one of the things that we’re going to hang our hat on. So, it’s the ability to support our games post-release and create this experience that doesn’t die. And at the same time of doing that, also executing for the next year’s game. That’s just the challenge of bringing our resources together and making sure we use them appropriately to ensure that the player who has the game now gets what they’re expecting and that we really fulfill the promise of that live service. Then, it’s making sure we have enough people and enough time to really innovate and build the new features that same player wants in next year’s game as well.

So, in regards to visuals, we made the game look better through one of our updates to 14, so if visuals were at a five out of 10 before, maybe the update bumped them up to a six. It was better, but it wasn’t what we’re doing for 15, because we took our new tech and went out and rescanned every player in the game, had to build a pipeline, and we had to actually re-author with new lighting to make the game take the step forward we needed to take.

It’s not something we could just update 14 with because we’re just getting to the point where we’re almost done now, and that’s something we were very honest about. I’ll tell you exactly what we can do; we’re not holding anything back. If we could’ve done this in 14, we would have. Sometimes, it’s just not possible, and I think that’s the challenge we’re taking on to make sure people can be a part of our journey and the trajectory to where we’ll be good—and, at the same time, understand why, have a stake in it, and give their feedback and have an opinion on where we’re going and then use our abilities to course correct as best we can along the way while supporting the live service of the current game and building toward the next one.

So, it’s challenging, but it’s also kind of fun, because sports games don’t traditionally do a good job of that. We’ll do roster updates and the little things, and Ultimate Team helps keep games a lot more relevant from a fantasy perspective, but in terms of giving you content and new things that you can engage with, it’s cool, but our challenge now is primarily to do everything we did with 14 for 15, and then with 16 and moving forward, people really buy into it and get what’s happening. That’s a differentiator to me.

EGM: When you guys invite the NBA players to have them scanned into the game, what’s their response? Are they excited just because it’s a videogame, or are they disappointed it’s not NBA 2K? What’s the feeling from the players around the league about NBA Live?

O’Brien: It’s interesting because, just to use a hypothetical here, a guy like [No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft] Andrew Wiggins, who’s only 19, doesn’t really remember Live unless he had an older brother or someone who played Live. But the older guys all know Live and grew up with it and love it and want to see it make a comeback. Most of the guys who play, though, now say they play 2K, or there’s a small minority of guys who played both last year. But they’re all very interested. I’ll exaggerate slightly and say they’re all interested, but most of the guys are more interested in what we’re doing. How we’re doing it, where Live is in its development, how we’re going to make it as good as 2K, and they talk about this as they sit down and scan with us.

Most of the environments we do in the scans in are a hotel ballroom or meeting room, and we’ll have the scanner set up, the game on the screen, and then the PR departments bring the players through, the coaches through, and most of the guys just sit around and play. They talk and make fun of each other because we get them to do screams and stuff to get different emotional performances from them. So, they talk and make fun of each other, and then they ask questions. And there’s usually three or four guys who are really interested in software development and what we’re doing, and they’ll ask these questions, and the other guys start listening.

It’s pretty cool, because it’s a different generation. Fifteen years ago, guys wouldn’t care about this, and now they all want to know what their ratings are, if their hair is right—like, we’ve had guys not want to get scanned and ask us if we could come back the next day because they’re getting a haircut. It’s all really important to them. So, the engagement on the players is extremely high, and then what we did throughout the course of the year, when we actually did some scans and ran them through the pipeline and showed them the graphical differences between last year and this year, we were getting the “Holy s***!” reactions to how good it looked, which is pretty rewarding. Anytime you can show players how good they look in a game, it’s kind of cool.

EGM: Have you made enough advancements between NBA Live 14 and 15 to completely narrow the gap with NBA 2K?

O’Brien: It’s hard to know for sure without knowing what 2K has done this year. Taking that into consideration, at the very least, visually, I can say yes. I think when we put our two games up side by side, we’ll absolutely be in the ballpark. I think there’s a different style between the two—like, if you look at a 2K game, I think there’s only two different body types. 2K tends to go for more of a heroic look, big feet and big shoes. They use their shaders a bit differently, so it’s a little more of a different artistic style, whereas we go for more of a photorealistic EA Sports style. So, that’ll be a plus or minus depending on your own personal preference.

I think that, from the gameplay side of things, we’re going to offer something different. Their animation is so strong and looks so good. That’s the one area where I’m curious to see how we stack up this year, but I do think that unless they’ve completely changed their approach, I think our game will be more responsive. What I mean by that is, I think you’ll feel more in control of what’s happening. The action, the input on your controller, what your expectation is, we feel that’s a point of differentiation that we can take advantage of.

What we’re trying to do is really give you the control that you expect. So, I think that’ll be an opportunity for us, and we’re going to hang our hat on responsiveness and control, so I’m curious to see if 2K has done anything to address that. That’s an unknown for me. They took a different approach last year with their virtual currency and how they’re doing online teamplay and online play in general. They had some server problems that everyone either experienced or read about, so I’m curious to see how much they’ve cleaned up there. It’s something we do extremely well at EA in general. Except for Battlefield. [Laughs]

But speaking for sports, the Ignite engine and our online experience is really buttoned up and really solid, and we rarely have server issues or challenges—if ever. The connected experience and what we provide, our relationship with [real-time stats company] Synergy Sports, it provides new data and tendencies on an ongoing basis based on what’s happening in the real world and changing your experience.

Maintaining the relevancy is something else we’ll hang our hat on and continuing to invest in. I think that’s where we’re best in class in sports games. And I think once our game looks better and plays better, that’ll get a little more recognition—because now, who cares? If it doesn’t play good or look good, then the rest of the stuff doesn’t matter and isn’t really meaningful. And then, looking forward, seeing how we invest in online teamplay, what that experience looks like, as well as how Ultimate Team ends up looking like as well and evolving that, I think that’s where we’ll continue to form our identity and differentiate.

So, I’d say we’ve definitely caught up in a lot of areas. I think the gap last year was quite significant. I think we’ve done an incredible job within 10 and a half months of closing that gap significantly in a lot of different areas. Overall, they’re an 85-plus-rated game, so it’s still going to take us some time to actually really catch up, but I think we do offer something different, and I think that’s important.

EGM: It really seems there’s been a culture shift within EA’s halls. I don’t think a few years ago you guys would’ve been talking about three-year plans. Do you think this could’ve been done a few years ago, or have things changed?

O’Brien: Things are changing. A lot of it is around [EA CEO] Andrew Wilson and [executive vice president of EA Studios] Patrick Soderland’s approach to quality and the emphasis on quality, not around headcount or your business plan. It’s about having the right people to make a great game. We’ll figure out the logistics, but that’s the most important thing now, and it’s what Andrew wants to hang his hat on and all of our hats on as a company.

So, it’s a really cool thing for me, just as a side note, how Andrew is giving me build feedback. The CEO of our company is talking about animation blending and AI states, and it’s cool and empowering in a way, because I can go back to my team and be like, “This is what Andrew thinks of our game.” Patrick is the same exact way, where they’re honed in on making a great game, making sure we’re focused on quality.

And then, even the tough decisions—which Andrew says are tough but aren’t really tough, like [pushing the release date back for] games like Hardline out and Dragon Age: Inquisition. EA, as a company, would’ve never made those decisions before. We were so quarter-by-quarter focused, and he pushed Battlefield: Hardline out of a quarter, which is enormous revenue, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. The game’s not ready, and they want to make 9s. We’re done with making 7s and 8s, and sometimes, that’s what it takes. So, it’s pretty cool to have the support of all these guys who believe in what we’re trying to do, understand the challenge, are giving us the resources to make leaps and bounds, recognizing those leaps and bounds, and then continuing to push us to be even better. It’s a pretty cool—and I’d say new—take on what EA’s all about, and it’s a lot of fun.

EGM: From an outsider’s perspective, the announcement of NBA Live 15 signified a change to me, becausesorry to bring up the bad review scores againthe EA of old, I think, would’ve never moved forward with NBA Live 15 after how poorly 14 was received.

O’Brien: I agree with you completely. When I came back to EA—and Andrew’s the guy who actually wanted me to come back before he got promoted to his big-boy job—I was just grilling Andrew on what the expectations were, what the support would be like, and I told him if he expected us to turn this around instantly, it wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure there was the support internally, as a company, that they believed in this category, and they did.

It’s a huge opportunity, globally, on a number of different platforms. The NBA is an amazing partner with us, and they support us still, even with all the crap we’ve gone through over the past five years. It’s really important to me to feel like a part of something that the company sees a value in. If you think about it, in terms of games, what other genre can you say there’s an established $350 million category annually that EA’s had a huge presence in before? We’re really good at all the other sports, so if we came back and can take half of that, we’re in a good place—aiming for more, of course.

When we talk about creating new IPs and opening up new markets and new genres, yeah, this is an established market with an established genre and an established competitor, which makes it admittedly really challenging, but it gives you a court to play on. And I think that’s where Andrew’s vision is. For us, for the studio team, it’s just about making sure we can show the progress that he’s expecting and the company’s expecting to honor that commitment and keep that commitment alive. If we were a complete bust and had no plan and no idea what we were doing, it’d probably be a different conversation right now, but I think that’s part of the story we’re trying to tell. There’s more to what you saw in the package that was NBA Live 14. There are reasons why it was what it was. And it’s not a question of making excuses or being defensive; it’s just that there’s reality, and we just want to share some reality for those who are interested. And when you look at last year versus this year, you can see the differences. There’s a lot of good things happening, and it’s just a matter that some of them take time, and we’ll share as much as we can along the way. But believe in us, because we’re going to do it.