As a little kid, Erick Boenisch loved video games and he loved sports - basketball in particular. He's now the envy of fans around the world as he combines his two great loves into one tidy package at Visual Concepts, where this year he is Lead Developer on NBA 2K13. We suspect his mother might have preferred him to take the other path, but after a quick chat, and having seen what this guy's brought to basketball gaming, the world is all-the-richer for his choice to stick with the virtual side of things.
I ended up exactly where I want to be - and honestly, I don't want to be anywhere else.
It's easy to mistake our game for real life TV - if you kinda glance at it out of the corner of your eye and kinda look over at it... it looks just like real TV. That's something people tell me year after year, and that's the greatest compliment that anyone can give us! We're art trying to imitate life.
One of the earliest video games I can remember playing was International Soccer on the Commodore 64, first released back in 1983. The game featured blocky men on a featureless field, and customisation came down to choosing your team's colours (your options? Red, yellow, blue, grey, white and orange).
Fast-forward nearly 10 years, and you have Tecmo NBA Basketball for the NES - the first game to feature every NBA team in the league. Still somewhat bland, but the soundtrack was pretty amazing.
Another decade after that, and Erick Boenisch enters the game.
Looking back at NBA 2K2, which was the first game I worked on when I got to Visual Concepts - that game was very simplistic for what we have today. Players all have the same player models, player faces were just a white head, a light-skinned head, a dark-skinned head, with very little likeness qualities to them. Player ratings were very simple, online play was limited to you and me playing each other and nothing else. The game modes were not very well developed. The commentary was poor, it was limited to a player's name and very simple lines that weren't stitched together very well.
I mean - it's like the infancy of video games, looking back, and that was just ten years ago! Being able to see this all grow from that, to what it is today - which is this incredibly complex game, with hundreds of moving parts, and people working on the game, it's truly amazing to see that, and it makes curious where I'm going to be ten years from now, where the games are going to be, y'know?
While the video games have changed, the real-world games have been changing, too. Over the same timeframe as we upgraded from Commodore computers and Nintendo Entertainment Systems, the "interesting sport" of NBA was also evolving. Boenisch reminisces about the Showtime Lakers, playing "fast-paced, running up and down the court, solid fundamentals," back 25 years ago - before Allen Iverson came along, the man credited with revolutionising the sport we now see today.
...we ended up with flashy basketball, and a very young culture, and hip hop, very urban attitude - and that's something that just wasn't there, ten years prior to that.
These differences are reflected in the game in a number of ways. Firstly, while there's all of the modern teams you'd expect, bringing the flash, there's also an assortment of classic teams thrown in, including the "very old-school Celtics", old-school Lakers, and teams featuring Tim Duncan and a rookie Kobe Bryant.
It's a deliberate choice, says Erick, who is trying to attract fans and gamers who may "not be as enchanted with today's NBA", by providing them with a more classic option.
But it doesn't stop there. In International Soccer, I played two 200-second halves, chose different coloured teams, and rage-quit when even the rudimentary AI was able to defeat me. Erick acknowledges that, while basketball as a sport is great, sometimes a video game needs a little bit extra.
Back in 2K10, I went to management, and I said "Hey, I've kinda got this idea for this mode that incorporates basketball and rpg levelling-up elements." There was a lot of trepidation on their part, because they were "Well, this seems a little risky... sports games don't do this, why do you want to do it?"
Erick's answer was simple: Because that's the sort of game he likes to play. He's a self-confessed Dragon Quest nerd, a massive Diablo fan, and loves a bit of Baldur's Gate. He grew up with those games, he loved the core concepts behind them, and wanted to see if it could work with a different set of rules.
The idea Erick pitched was simple: Create your own player, just like in an RPG. Play through games, rather than battles, and gain experience points that can be allocated to your skills. It didn't take long before the similarities started emerging - this was just what the real NBA players were doing!
They come in as rookies, they're not very skilled, and they learn by watching older players play, by getting experience by playing. It seems to go hand in hand.
So with that getting approval, we put our foot in the water with this "sports rpg", and people just ate it up! From there, we put together a design team, who works together to brainstorm ideas, and since then, the feature set has just grown astronomically in this mode.
That mode is My Career (formerly called My Player), and it's quickly become the most popular mode in the NBA 2K series. Erick flexes his RPG muscles, and gamers are given the opportunity not only to help their player level-up, but also to purchase skills, upgrade the player with new animations, and even to make choices that affect his in-game career. Signing endorsement deals is a choice, and being the good guy is no longer something that's expected of you. Say what you really think at that post-game press conference, chat to the GM and ask them to fire the coach, and get a 'real' feeling for what an NBA career is actually like.
Originally added to keep things fresh, people are now asking Erick as soon as they meet him: "What have you done with My Career mode this time around?". The My Career mode has nearly pushed the basketball to the back-seat, and Erick's inner RPG nerd raises its head:
For me personally, that's really, really exciting.
That said, he warns us not to expect a truly fantasy/RPG basketball game any time soon:
I think there's a line in the sand, and I've got to be careful not to cross it. As much as I would love [that sort of game], for my own personal gain, I've got to keep it real.
I do have to temper myself, because I can't make it too nerdy, I can't overwhelm people with reading text on the screen - they just want to play the game, and that's the basketball culture. I do have to hold it back a little bit, but at the same time, I do like to push the boundaries of what even my own management are comfortable with. and it's worked very well at every turn so far, so I'll continue to do so!
NBA 2K13 is out now for PS3, Xbox 360 (with some awesome Kinect functionality), PC and Wii, with companion Apps available for iOS, Kindle and Android as well as a Facebook application. Check out the Player Attack preview but if you don't mind waiting, it's also confirmed as a launch date title for the Wii U!
I like video games and music and cups of tea and noodles and beagles and colour-cycling LEDs.
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Jimmy the Geek