Though I had long suspected it, yesterday I realized that I have been playing NBA 2k12′s My Player mode on the easiest level setting. Having played the game long enough, I understood what increasing the difficulty setting would entail. The ability to make shots, defend well, and improve in the clutch are all a series of real-time algorithms. Your success in any area of the game depends on your ability to manipulate a handful of actions to achieve the optimal opportunity. (For example, when you’re running the fast break, forcing a pass to a corner three-point shooter–you can direct players to positions on the court by throwing certain passes–is often unsuccessful unless the player intends to go to that spot organically. It is too easy to throw those passes and you’re penalized for making the easy–read: wrong–decision.) Increasing the difficulty in the game, therefore, makes it harder to manipulate those algorithms in order to create the best outcome.
On lower level settings, you can begin to predict what the AI is going to do. There’s a limited number of animations that it processes and after playing for several hours, gaming the system becomes a habit. But it’s not until you up the difficulty that you realize why: speed.
I often noted when leveling up my character’s attributes that there’s a significant leap at every 0 and 5 (75, 80, 85, 90, etc). As you improve your passing ability, the accuracy of your passes does not necessarily increase, but you will notice more opportunities to make passes, the logic being that great passers will see things that other players don’t. Your ability to make those passes relies on how quickly you recognize the actions/animations and can execute the proper pass. Though you see more opportunities, you’re likely going to miss them the first several times that they appear. It’s not until you’re conditioned to seeing these openings that you’re ready to make the proper play at the proper time.
NBA 2k12, regardless of your player’s abilities, is rendered to look like real basketball. So how does the game begin to unveil these new opportunities without looking unrealistic and more importantly, make them look organic? The answer is speed, more precisely, the speed of animations. This revelation doesn’t really come to light until you increase the difficulty setting, where animations begin firing significantly quicker, offering both less room for error and more opportunities for new animations.
Pretend, for a moment, that the following cosine wave is the time it takes to perform any given animation in NBA 2k12 (we’ll use, for example, a player driving to the basket) on the easiest level setting:
The only way to make the game easier (other than allowing someone to hit an inordinate amount of shots) is to increase leniency. If NBA 2k12 played at the actual speed of an NBA game, 90% of all people who play it wouldn’t be fast enough to keep up with the pace and movement of the game. That’s why professional athletes can do what they do. So the game slows down individual animations and allows players to react to them at their own speed. If, on the lowest difficulty setting, it takes three seconds for the animation of someone driving to the basket to completely run, that doesn’t allow for much more time for other, subsequent animations to also appear.
One of the complaints I’ve always had about the game is that players do unnatural things. They take shots at inopportune times, take extra dribbles allowing defenders to recover, and various other illogical actions that wouldn’t occur in the real world. But it’s clear that those wonky animations arise because the speed of the game restricts itself from processing more realistic behavior. If Carmelo Anthony performs his “drive to the basket” animation in three seconds, given the time constraints of basketball (the shot clock, offensive and defensive three second rules, etc) he may have to force a shot in an unnatural position because he doesn’t have time to perform another animation–the first took too long to perform.
Now imagine that the speed of the animations has been increased (ie, more difficult level setting). Assume the first wavelength below represents the same drive to the basket animation as the graph above. However, now the game possesses the processing time to including a second wavelength/subsequent animation:
Not only can Carmelo Anthony now drive to the basket, but the game can process another animation. In this scenario, Melo can get himself out of a hairy situation if he, say, drives into traffic and needs to perform a double clutch reverse layup.
But this dynamic goes both ways. Now, forcing opponents into unsuitable defensive positions is much more difficult. On lower level settings, performing a few dribble moves might trigger a specific defensive animation from your opponent that frees you for a shot for, let’s say 1.5 seconds. But when the defensive player corrects himself more quickly, your window for opportunity decreases significantly. Where a stepback jumper move may have produced a 1.5-second maximum probability of making the shot (ie, you can press the shoot button at any time in that period), with increased difficulty, the defender will more quickly recover from your stepback move and defend your shot more closely, giving you only a half-a-second window to take your shot at the optimal level.
The reason I bring this up is because this is how real sports work. As great players work their way through progressively more difficult competition, the game becomes faster. They dominate at lower levels of competition because they can anticipate and read what their opponents will do–in addition to overpowering the competition and hitting an inordinate amount of shots. (I have always felt that NBA 2k12 approximated college basketball much better than professional basketball because of the reliance on set plays, picks, and unathletic, unnatural shots. It’s clear now that it was simply the speed of the game that was a hindrance to a professional hoops simulation.) But when they get to the pro level, windows of maximum performance narrow, more opportunities arise to make plays, and teams/players are more severely penalized for reading a play incorrectly.
Think for a moment about David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay about Roger Federer and the physics of tennis, “Federer as Religious Experience“:
After a July 7 semifinal in which Federer destroyed Jonas Bjorkman — not just beat him, destroyed him — and just before a requisite post-match news conference in which Bjorkman, who’s friendly with Federer, says he was pleased to “have the best seat in the house” to watch the Swiss “play the nearest to perfection you can play tennis,” Federer and Bjorkman are chatting and joking around, and Bjorkman asks him just how unnaturally big the ball was looking to him out there, and Federer confirms that it was “like a bowling ball or basketball.” He means it just as a bantery, modest way to make Bjorkman feel better, to confirm that he’s surprised by how unusually well he played today; but he’s also revealing something about what tennis is like for him. Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.
This is how NBA 2k12 is structured because of its emphasis on speed. At a lower level setting, everything seems slow. Your player isn’t actually any more talented than any of the computer-controlled teammates/opponents. There’s an objective scale that places your character in a spectrum of everyone else in the league. However, the game opens up slowly for you, making passing lanes appear to hover for inordinate amounts of time and defenders to sag off of you for just long enough to get a good shot away. As you increase the difficulty, those windows close and the game feels more frantic but I would suspect, with more time playing these difficult level settings, those openings will appear more frequent and substantial as well.
It’s a testament to the development team that they’ve been able to produce such a dynamic. NBA 2k12 was already one of the best sports games on the market but it’s also the only one to get better (and more realistic) when the difficulty is increased. In other sports games, increasing the difficulty usually means your opposition will have insider information about the plays you’ve called or have superhuman powers. But NBA 2k12 bases its entire structure around speed, allowing it to increase the difficulty and realism without making the game artificially harder.