So, here we are.
After rumor after rumor was shot down by EA Sports concerning the possibility that NBA Live ’13 would not make a full retail release this year, the game was mercifully cancelled earlier today, yet another setback for what used to be a premier sports title.
It’s a terrible thing for the hard-working people at EA Tiburon, and I hope it doesn’t cause the series to be cancelled outright.
That being said, responsibility for this debacle lies at the feet of EA Sports. It is the product of 3 years of bad planning that has culminated now with yet another embarrassment.
NBA Live ’10 was, to many critics and gamers alike (myself included), a welcome return to form for the series. After disastrous iterations of the series in its first few years on the next-generation systems, Live ’10 dazzled with its tremendous on the court gameplay. The flow of the game was right, and it felt like basketball. Heading into the 2011 season, there was a thought amongst the sports-gaming faithful that EA would build on the success of Live ’10, correct the mistakes that game made, and deliver a shining product to go up against the market leader, NBA 2K. Instead, the lead of Live ’10, Mike Wang, left the team at EA Canada and retuned to Visual Concepts to helm NBA 2K11, which left the planners at EA Canada in a bind.
The details on this are sketchy, but there has been some speculation that the reason Mr. Wang left EA Sports was due to the direction the company wanted the NBA Live series to go, which was the route of the NHL series and its dual-analog setup. New design lead David Littman and his crew decided to completely revamp the design of NBA Live, scrapping the code almost completely and starting over. This was their first mistake. I have learned from talking to designers of yearly sports games that they more or less need to confirm gameplay mechanics and feature scope at the tail end of the previous year’s release. The undertaking the new team at EA Canada was taking on was a 2 year project at least, but they rushed to make a deadline.
NBA Elite ’11 was, by all accounts, a disaster. Sure, there was the infamous Andrew Bynum video that brought a lot of bad press to the title, but had that not happened the game would have released in its horrible state. The control system was a disaster. It was twitchy, unfocused, and messy. The game was delayed the weekend before release and eventually cancelled.
EA then shifted the production of the renamed NBA Live to EA Tiburon in Orlando, FL, the development house that creates Madden NFL and NCAA Football.
There were rumblings that NBA Live would come back for the 2012-2013 season, and the game was shown behind closed doors at EA-hosted media events. The story coming out of those events, though, was that NBA Live ’13 was on a typical one-year development cycle. It was a baffling decision, to be sure. Why would anyone think that the game could be ready in time? This was mistake #2.
As it turned out, there was much more work to be done on the game than anybody at EA realized before starting the project. They basically had to rebuild the game (again), and they faced the same time crunch as NBA Elite did. All the while, EA fended off rumors that the game was not coming out, that it was fine, and that they would hit the usual October NBA release schedule. There was a leaked video let loose on the web in late August, and the game again looked like a disaster. EA released a trailer about 2 weeks ago with the assurance that the game would still come out sometime in the future, which as it turns out is not going to be the case.
Who did they think they were fooling? It was obvious to anyone who played or saw the game that it would not be ready this year. EA jumped the gun by announcing the game for a fall 2012 release, possibly before realizing what the task was in front of them. This was mistake #3.
So now what?
The smartest thing for EA now is to scrap the current-gen version of the game altogether. It’s a lost cause. The wise move is to rebrand the series on a new system and take an extra year or two to build a basketball game that is going to blow away its competition. Instead, we’ll probably see a patched-together NBA Live ’14 next year, and that might be the end of the series, full stop.
It’s a shame what was happened to one of my favorite game series, but all of this could have been prevented with better planning. Had EA taken the time to properly evaluate where their game was at each of these junctures (first after Live ’10 released, then as Elite was being planned, then after Elite was cancelled, and now again with Live ’13), this could have possibly been avoided. Instead, here we are again, another cancellation, another embarrassment for EA Sports.
I just hope they learn from their mistakes this time.