NBA 2K13 released a few days ago to great fanfare, and while the on-court experience was top notch, there were some aspects off the court that troubled me and ultimately dampened what would have been a much more glowing review.
Although the lack of improvements to the Association mode were disappointing, by far the most egregious addition to the game was the game’s virtual currency, or VC.
Now, virtual currencies do exist in other sports games. Indeed, EA Sports has found new revenue streams by introducing Ultimate Team modes in their games, a sort of collectible card game wherein players purchase packs of cards with either earned or purchased virtual currency, slowly but surely building their team of fantasy athletes to a super team, then taking that team online against other players and competing. For fans of the mode, it’s an addicting time sink which can eat away at chunks of time and provide nearly unlimited replay value for the title. Wisely, 2K saw the success that EA Sports was having and decided to incorporate a similar mode, dubbed “MyTeam.” It too uses a virtual currency which can be purchased with real money or earned in game, and it will provide innumerable hours of entertainment for the 2K faithful.
However, 2K decided to take things a couple of steps further and have VC apply to other aspects of the game where it previously wasn’t. In “MyCareer,” the single-player mode where you build up a player from the draft and guide their entire career, is governed by VC. Players are not paid real contracts, they are paid in VC. This breaks immersion because it makes the stakes feel silly. A message board thread on OperationSports.com, a popular sports gaming website, had users comparing the experience to being paid in “Mario money.” In previous iterations of the series, a player had a real contract that counted toward his team’s cap, and a real budget was necessary. With the removal of that system and the replacement of it by VC, everything in MyCareer feels frivolous.
Additionally, players used to be able to customize the look of their player upon entering the mode. If you wanted to wear specific gear or sneakers, you were allowed to pick them when creating your player and could change them at any time. Now, these items must be purchased from a virtual store within the mode, using VC. It’s understandable that the team at Visual Concepts would want players to have to earn some of the more desirable gear, but players in the NBA can choose to wear something like a shooting sleeve. It doesn’t have to be unlocked and purchased. It may seem trivial but the entire point of the mode is to have one player and do whatever you want with his career. NBA 2K13 has closed off much of this customization and replaced it with a limited system designed to push players toward spending VC.
That would be bad enough if the economy wasn’t broken. Typically a player’s rookie contract will be from anywhere from 500-600 VC per year for the first 3 or 4 years of the deal. A simple shirt in the 2K Store costs around 500 VC. It’s silly and again breaks the immersion factor that used to make this such an interesting mode to play in.
2K decided to take this already troublesome system and limit it even further. The Blacktop Mode, an arcade-style streetball mode best meant for casual games between friends, used to allow you to use any player on the roster in a variety of game types. If you wanted to play Michael Jordan against LeBron James in a one-on-one game, you could set that up in a matter of seconds. This year, players are locked off from Blacktop until they are purchased with VC. It is unnecessarily anti-consumer.
The upshot of all of this is that the VC given is much smaller than the cost of items. Through multiple games I’ve earned about 4,000 credits, and considering the good players in Blacktop cost about 250 each, I can spend all of that quickly, even without spending anything on my player. Of course, the easy way around this is to purchase VC with real money. This is where this gets dangerous. 2K has used simple supply and demand economics to design a game around getting you to spend more money on it. If players (and reviewers) don’t push back against 2K and VC winds up a success, we can expect more of this in our future.
The thing is that there is a precedent for this type of mechanic, and it’s primarily seen in games that are ostensibly free. NBA 2K13 is not free. It’s a full retail release that comes out every year. To have a Facebook-game style mechanic in a game that customers pay $60 per year for is borderline insulting to the audience.
I hope that next year 2K reconsiders their usage of VC and limits it to just the MyTeam mode. That’s where it belongs, that’s where it should stay.