Tag Archives: nba 2k12

When speed produces reality

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.

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Murphy’s Law in video games

The most destructive thing that I did as a child was play The Lion King for Sega Genesis. Well, that’s reductive. The most destructive thing I did as a child was throw a chair into a TV after getting enraged when I died playing The Lion King.

The Lion King was a wonderful game that largely went unnoticed during that generation because everyone was still fawning over the previous Disney classic Aladin. But The Lion King was of the same mold, except with a different attack function: an old-school timing platformer that forced you to hack and slash (roar and roll) through levels while collecting some largely random coin-like substance. When you factor in the magnificent 3D wildebeest scene in The Lion King, it may have actually been a better game than Aladin, but I digress.

I always struggled with one particular boss battle in The Lion King in which an unseen bag guy hurls barrels at you as you platform through a level. It was basically Donkey Kong with better graphics. But for whatever reason, I could never beat it. We went to my aunt and uncle’s house for some family get together (I think Easter) where I finally beat the boss. I was ecstatic and returned home with renewed vigor. When my one-time success couldn’t be replicated, I threw my controller to the ground and hurled a chair into the TV, doing about $300 worth of damage, which, for an 8-year-old without an allowance takes about a year to repay.

I probably have not-so-subtle anger issues, especially when it comes to things that I should be able to do. My golf clubs will occasionally find themselves on the other side of the fairway if I’m having a particularly crappy round. This is one of the main reasons that I’ve soured on single-player campaign modes in video games: they just seemed designed to frustrate you. Outside of the blockbuster first person shooters, I can’t remember the last time that I played a game deemed traditionally for “hardcore” gamers, the likes of which are making a comeback with titles like Ninja Gaiden (which, don’t get me started on the origins of that series).

Hardcore games are designed to frustrate. They’re muscle-memory exercises, essentially; memorize all of the phasing platforms in Mega Man 2, for example. They often feature the kind of obstacles whose passage is technically entirely in your hands, but which are nearly impossible to master until a certain level of timing and memorization has been achieved. Frankly, I don’t have time for this anymore, but neither do a lot of people, which is why hardcore gamers often complain that video games have gotten too easy nowadays; few people design games like this and even fewer want to actually play them.

A friend and I play and extensively discuss the online multiplayer in Battlefield 3. One of the common themes is that the game makes you feel like a truly elite player one day, only to throw you into the depths of despair the next. There’s a reasonable cause of this, however. The game’s matchmaking engine is dictated by a constantly fluctuating “skill level”. When your skill level is high, you’re placed into games against players with similarly high skill levels, ostensibly diminishing your abilities. After a while, your skill level will drop until you return to the ranks of the players that you can easily dominate.

But there’s also a very real ebb and flow to individual matches of Battlefield that require subtle changes to your play style. If you’re able to tweak your build out or class to counteract an opposing team, you may be able to dig yourself out of a rut. Regardless of whether or not you’re successful, there’s an element of human control to your success (besides the obvious: you’re the one shooting and controlling your character) that is missing from the hardcore genre that requires you to memorize environmental features.

A very weird thing happened over the weekend. A friend came over to play some games of NBA 2k12. Despite his obvious superiority to me in the game, I’ve been able to wrangle away a few victories making it something of a rivalry. Saturday was no different, with each of us taking one game a piece. In the third game of the day, my team, as teams are wont to do in NBA 2k12, went into a massive shooting slump. Not only were they missing open shots, but they were missing free throws that should’ve gone in and uncontested layups.

This isn’t totally foreign to NBA 2k12. One way that the series has tried to avoid the pitfalls of the NBA Live series–where players like Chauncy Billups become 80%-90% three-point shooters from one particular spot on the court–is to introduce a consistency metric, which dictates hot and cold streaks. In theory, this is a wonderful metric, because it punishes players for being irresponsible with the basketball and benefits those that are more composed. However, occasionally the game will decide to take over despite competitive play and essentially say, You’re Not Winning This Game.

At one point late in that third game, I had fouled one of his players, sending him to the free throw line. The in-game commentary, which I try to tune out (I should just turn it off in this mode like I have in the oft-played My Player mode), made a comment that I thought was really odd: “It’s Murphy’s Law out there for the Clippers.”

Murphy’s Law dictates that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. In a sports game, these kinds of things can happen: throw a bunch of bad interceptions or take ill-advised shots or have all of your players get injured. These are all natural occurrences in a game that can take place because of player negligence. But in NBA 2k12, that’s not the case. One of two on-court scenarios could trigger such a comment from the announcers: 1) the gamer is literally just missing everything they’re taking because of bad shot selection, unforced turnovers, playing with inferior talent, etc. or 2) the game, in an attempt to add realism to its broadcast-like environment, dictates Murphy’s Law in real time. As someone who has played NBA 2k12 extensively, and as any other player will tell you, the latter is the case.

NBA 2k12’s biggest flaw is self imposed. The game is frustrating in a way that even the hardcore games tacitly avoid. No amount of skill, muscle memory, or otherwise will save you when NBA 2k12 deems your team unworthy of victory. The only saving grace is a grand mistake on the behalf of your opponent which, if you’re playing a human-controlled team is unlikely to occur because of the massive benefits granted to that team, and a computer-controlled team will always avoid. When Murphy’s Law is applied to video games, you’re no longer playing anything. Instead, you’re being frustrated into submission, at least until you throw a chair through your TV.

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In response to cheap shots

I’ve been playing a lot of NBA 2k12 recently, working my way through the game’s masterful My Player mode. Before every game, there’s a broadcasting feature in which the game shows your player’s season averages, highlighting the things that you’re good at (my point guard led the league in steals this past season, for example). Occasionally, the game’s processing circuits will go a little wonky and a variety of strange animations will distort the view, basically a modern-day killscreen.

The idea of killscreens makes sense to me, and logically, they should still exist: you should be able to exhaust almost any game to its breaking point or at least run into odd oversights/glitches, even in the current high-powered gaming generation. Games like NBA 2k12 and it’s My Player mode seems particularly susceptible to these issues.

I have played a little over 150 games with my current character, in addition to various drills and shoot around sessions. That’s a lot of gameplay, but more importantly, that’s a lot of processing. In essence, the animations, voice overs, and on-court action in NBA 2k12 are the result of a random number generator. There are only so many public announcer voice overs for the on-court play and scenario specific events that eventually, you’ll run into repeats and redundancies, especially when you play the game to its extremes (ie, logging hundreds of hours).

You run into similar situations with the actual on-court play: once you’ve played the game long enough, you start to see inconsistencies in the action. After playing ostensibly the same game hundreds of times, you approach almost every iteration of animation that the programmers designed, and logically glitches and inaccuracies occur. In NBA 2k12, for example, you see coaches walking onto the court during play or a foul being called with no physical contact between players. Though not proper killscreens–those have likely been, if not completely eliminated, mitigated to only extreme cases–these incongruities serve as reminder of the physics and logic system governing the game you’re playing.

(The most infamous of these, picture above, was the literal death of EA’s NBA Live series. During the beta test for NBA Elite–EA’s rebranded NBA series name–Andrew Bynum’s character was frozen at center court with his arms extended. The programming issues were so pronounced and expansive that EA killed off the series, which is supposed to finally return next year.)

Yesterday, Killscreen Magazine published an article titled “In Defense of Cheap Shots“, which addressed these glitches in a competitive online setting. To wit:

I play a lot of SCEA’s baseball simulation MLB: The Show–a lot–and I’m the cheapest, most exasperating opponent you’ll ever meet. What I mean is that when I play The Show, I don’t play by the rules of baseball any more than Mayweather abides by polite conventions when he boxes. Just as a sport is a game version of some other Real Thing, a sports simulation is doubly a game: we aren’t playing the real sport, but a videogame about the sport. The rules of the videogame are not the rules of the sport.

The author explains the various ways in which he cheats the game’s logic system: exploiting a glitch that gets opposing players thrown out of games and relieving pitchers with random players, chiefly among his habits.

Anyone who has played a sports game online knows these gamers. In Madden and NCAA football, they’re the player that has found the nigh unguardable passing pattern. In the NBA games, they’re the guy who knows how to force back court violations or exploit a bug in the ability to steal the ball. In old NHL games, it was holding a slapshot as you crossed the face of the goalie, only to score an easy goal. Much like in NBA 2k12, once you’ve played the game exhaustively, these glitches become not only apparent, but exploitable, almost at will. It doesn’t make them any less cheap or frustrating when someone utilizes them.

The author’s justification for his play style makes sense initially, but falters on closer inspection:

The sim fans may be annoyed to play against someone like me, but the alternative is positively exasperating: If you play a simulation “realistically,” every little clipped texture, every moronic AI move, threatens to ruin the source of your enjoyment. Those mistakes should be the reason you enjoy the game to begin with.

This reasoning is sound to an extent. I’ve become increasingly frustrated with my digital teammates in NBA 2k12 as they continuously make boneheaded plays and glitch themselves into turnovers. That kind of AI malfunction really removes you from the game and frustrates what is otherwise a smooth experience. As such, exploiting the few glitches that the game affords offsets the various negative incongruities that are souring your gaming experience.

But in online play, the biggest problem afflicting modern sports games–inconsistent AI–is removed or at least significantly reduced (minor issues typically prevail, but nothing game-breaking). No longer are you playing as a single character, relying on the autonomous random number generator to make plays. Instead, all success and failures falls on your shoulders. It’s the perfection of what the single player experience is supposed to be.

The real issue with players who exploit those cheats–and make no mistake, everyone who plays online understands the glitches and can utilize them, but most choose not to–is the reintroduction of game-breaking glitches into a system that, if played honestly, removes the logical inconsistencies of the single-player digital landscape. The author argues that randomly generated events, such as one of your players arguing a close call and being tossed from the game, ruins the playing experience, but it only does so when the problem is exacerbated. Players really do get thrown out of games for arguing with umpires, so when it does happen (which the author postures happens on 10% of close calls, the likes of which probably only occur 4-5 times a game), it forces the player to react and manage the game in a different way.

Ultimately, it boils down to where you draw your enjoyment: the journey or the result. For most gamers, simply playing the game truthfully and managing the subtle quirks that make it interesting is the real joy. But what you come to understand from In Defense of Cheap Shots is that the author culls most of his enjoyment out of winning, and perhaps more annoyingly, from trolling fellow gamers.

I’ve never understood hackers or people who endlessly exploit a game’s glitches. At that point, you’re no longer playing a game, the likes of which include setbacks and “random” occurrences. Instead, you’re manipulating a number generator to always come up Milhouse.

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Playing with faults

Since playing Skyrim, I’ve become invested in the idea of role playing games, but not necessarily traditional RPGs. For example, I’ve gone a long way toward explaining why Battlefield 3 is an RPG–a game that requires you to pick a class/role and stick to it if you’re going to be successful. And in the last few weeks, I’ve re-dedicated myself to the My Player career mode in NBA 2k12, relishing in the ability to be a 6’1″ point guard with serious limitations.

In my Skyrim conquest, I chose to be a high elf, a class well suited for magic and relatively agile. I had heard that hand-to-hand combat in the game was less than ideal, and I thought that this was probably the “optimal” class. In the past, anytime I had encountered an RPG, the goal was always to become a demigod, the kind of character that can do all and conquer anything in its way. But Skyrim specifically forces you out of this mold, at least if you’re trying to be even remotely successful.

My high elf couldn’t wield a sword if his life depended on it (it has in the past, to predictably poor results). In spite of that, I’ve never cared to upgrade my hand-to-hand fighting abilities. Less inherently, I’ve decided that my character will live his entire life (or at least the part of his life that I control) as a nomad, dealing with whatever struggles might come from that decision. In Skyrim, after helping to save a town early in the game, you’re given the right to purchase property in the centralized city. The primary function of owning a house, presumably anyway, is the ability to store items permanently. The inventory in the game is such that you can only carry 300 units of equipment/potions/weapons/etc. With certain weapons weighing up to as much as 25 units, managing your inventory becomes a priority, and without the ability to store items permanently, I’m often forced to drop or destroy weapons and equipment that I would otherwise keep for a more pressing situation.

In my previous game-playing experience, I never would have shunned the ability to buy a house and ostensibly, make the game easier. Gold in Skyrim is not difficult to come across, so splurging on a piece of property is only a minor, short-term setback that will eventually return significant dividends. I don’t know why I made the decision to be a nomad. At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do, or maybe I didn’t feel like scrounging up a bunch of money just to put up a white picket fence somewhere while I spent most of my time gallivanting in the wilderness. But that decision has had its consequences; in terms of video games, a world in which there is an objective goal, that was a conscious decision to play as an imperfect character.

The first NBA 2k game that I played was last year’s iteration (2k11). At the behest of my friend who claimed it to be the greatest basketball game ever made, I bought it and, per usual with sports games, went immediately to the career mode, rather than online or dynasty modes. My character was a 6’5″ small forward; his size chosen because the game penalized positions for being taller than is commonly accepted and gave significant benefits to those that were undersized. As a 6’5″ small forward, the only thing that I wasn’t great at was dunking, which was fine. I shot three pointers at a 50%-60% clip, had a stepback jumper that was nearly unstoppable, and was fast enough to be an all-star defender, despite my height disadvantage. I was Lebron James, except a few inches shorter and a much better shooter.

Eventually, this got tiresome. Most games were won as I leaked out from the defensive end on a missed shot and took a three pointer from the corner. I was the league’s best player and I sought vindication in the NBA’s regular season MVP award. That was the ultimate goal of the game. When I bought NBA 2k12, however, I had a different goal in mind. I wanted to be an athletic point guard, the likes of which Derek Rose makes so appealing: 6’1″, athletic build, mediocre shot, and an incredible ability to get to the rim. In that regard, I succeeded, but it has been a struggle for the alternate reality New York Knicks, which has little-to-no outside shooting presence*.

Despite those challenges, playing as a character with obvious flaws and limitations has made the game remarkably more engaging. Not only does it force you to play within the game’s strictures, it allows you to hone your play style (I’ve never before been this adept at the various dribbling intricacies in the game).

Games have gotten to the point of sophistication where playing above them (speed runs, Game Genie, etc) are no longer the point or even very entertaining. I’ve never been one to try and break games–find the exploitable glitch that allows you to be infallible–but I have always tried to create the perfect player. Unfortunately, the perfect player is never very much fun. Give me a nomad or a guy who can’t hold onto the ball and I’ll hurl my controller into the forgiving couch cushion next to me. But I’ll also love every minute of it.

*The NBA lockout was the best thing to happen to NBA 2k12’s My Player mode because free agents were never picked up by new teams, the draft never happened, and as a result, there was a ridiculous shuffle of players around the league. Our current starting lineup includes my character, Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Maxiell, and Marcus Camby. You can see why the loss of outside shooting would be such an issue.

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