We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with some reflections on a Reddit post that tried to warn us about some looming issues with the direction of the NBA 2K series.
There’s a Reddit post that I’ve mentioned and linked to in quite a few articles since it was made in the official NBA 2K subreddit back in 2018. That post was titled “The ‘MMO-ification’ of NBA2K and the perils of ignoring player retention: Thoughts from a former MMO developer“, and it was very well-received. After all, this wasn’t just a random gamer speaking out in frustration, or even a prominent content creator or pundit. This was someone who worked in video game development, and saw first-hand how certain approaches affected both gamer enjoyment, and a game’s success.
The criticisms this former EVE Online developer made were astute, and they were on the money about it only being the beginning. Their post touched on matters that many reviewers, and even content creators and community leaders, tend to ignore. It spoke about design philosophies – matters beyond tech and specific game features – that were responsible for problems in the games, and painted a worrying picture for the future. Today, I’m revisiting that Reddit post, and picking out some relevant quotes that identify problems that were troubling in NBA 2K18, and have remained so in its successors. As you’ll see, the insights of that Reddit post were almost prophetic.
Let’s begin with this quote.
It’s important to realize that this game is moving towards the MMO model right now. The neighbourhood feature, the placement of parks inside the game world – these design decisions are an intentional move towards a model that EA and Take Two are recognizing is far more lucrative. For a long time now, many studios including those behind NBA2K are pushing away from the single-player game model where a one-time purchase is all the player needs to fully enjoy a game.
At this point, a lot of people have seen The Neighborhood and now The City for what they are: a means of padding user engagement by adding a hub world that must be navigated to access content and modes, encouraging users to spend VC (and to buy it when they don’t have enough for what they want), and displaying advertising. There are aspects of this approach that are fun for basketball gamers too, and it represents an evolution of the MyCAREER experience. Of course, it also means that the mode must always be online, even if you just stick to NBA gameplay. This all ties in with what NickBloodAU said about the overall direction, and focus on recurrent spending.
It’s quite possible that future versions of NBA2K will be subscription-based, or alternatively, have financial models that draw most of their money from “recurrent customer spending”. Arguably, we are already arriving at this model right now with NBA2K18, which I suspect has made more money from VC sales than it has from unit sales.
NBA 2K18 was indeed a turning point for the series, especially when it came to their approach to recurrent revenue mechanics. That’s the year we had to pay for haircuts, some of which were very expensive. This is something I like to bring up whenever someone suggests that paying for haircuts makes the mode more “realistic”, because the cost was unrealistically disproportionate. 2K did back off that idea a bit, but we’re seeing it creep back in, such as paying to rent private courts in NBA 2K21 Next Gen. Garage Hoops also requires having a ball in our inventory. We got one free this year, but that’s how it begins, and it usually ends with paying a premium in the next release.
Visual Concepts, 2K, and Take Two have done little in this latest release to demonstrate that they understand the importance of player retention. Their approach is, if anything, downright contemptuous of players and hostile towards newer players. It is, if anything, anti-retention. Their latest title, NBA2k18, is a naked and brazen grab for short-term financial gain without consideration of the potential long-term downsides.
Although NBA 2K and 2K Sports are in no danger of failing – and frankly, we should not want to see that happen – we may be seeing the fallout of such a myopic “brazen grab for short-term financial gain”. NBA 2K20 saw a dip in recurrent revenue, failing to meet the projected target. Now, this could be due to the suits being too ambitious in their projections, but given that many gamers are committing to a No Money Spent philosophy, and the grind is turning others off the game completely, we may be seeing the long-term effects of 2K’s greed. At the very least, while some shills continue to defend or downplay issues with microtransactions, 2K has squandered its goodwill.
These games once featured in-depth tutorials and practice modes that encouraged players to engage and invest time in the game to improve. These games once made it far easier for players to create new builds and try different things to freshen things up and promote long-term engagement. These and other considerations are clearly not the priority for the studios and publishers going forward, and this can only hurt them in the long run.
Take something as simple as trying to practice your jump shot. On your MyCourt this isn’t anywhere near as easy as it should be. You must chase around your balls on the court, slowing the process down, and generally making something as simple and vital as practicing a shot an arduous process. I was shocked to learn that at 92 OVR (or something like that) I will finally get access to a ball machine on my court that makes it easy to practice something as fundamental as a jump shot. This kind of stuff is bafflingly self-destructive.
The points that NickBloodAU makes about tutorials and onboarding remain major issues. Compare the tutorials and meta game in NBA 2K to that of Mortal Kombat 11. MK11 explains techniques, concepts, and even the tech, in great detail; NBA 2K does not. There are broken and OP builds, and it may not be clear which you have until you’ve poured hours and VC into your MyPLAYER. Starting over with a new player is painful, whether you’re doing it every year, or because you need a better build in the current game. Funnily enough, a ball machine is now readily available in your MyCOURT, but it took two years. Also, MyCOURT was removed in Next Gen.
Instead of creating a better experience for new players, the game creators seem to be pushing hard in the exact opposite direction, by focusing on the game’s elite: cosying up to YouTubers who play at an elite level (as opposed to YouTubers who create game tutorials). Another example of this is their promotion and allocation of significant resources towards things like the new E-League, as opposed to putting those same resources and energy into refining the gameplay, and broadening its appeal by making it more friendly and accessible to new players.
Once again, this remains an accurate criticism of MyCAREER. The build system has been tweaked a couple of times, but balance is still an issue. It’s all about finding that OP build, the ones often suggested by the big YouTubers. Focusing on the NBA 2K League, elite players, recurrent revenue mechanics, and aspects like the MyCAREER story, has failed to benefit the average gamer, and the gameplay experience overall. So many NBA 2K gamers happily parrot the “get good” rhetoric, while the game itself is – as Nick said – “downright contemptuous of players and hostile towards newer players”. In short, gamers are told to get good, but not given the opportunity.
The entire process is intentionally discouraging and intended to psychologically manipulate players into shelling out real money to progress a second character, and a third, and so on. The thing is, most players are simply going to be discouraged by this and stick it out with their main character until things become so stale they simply move on to other games. This kind of mechanic, and the mentalities it encourages in the player…they would be considered kryptonite to an MMO studio that relies heavily on player retention. The game creators are inviting disaster by cultivating this kind of thing. It may not hurt them now, in the short term, while people persist despite the designs, but there is a limit to gamer’s patience, and their loyalty to a brand can be shaken over a long enough timeline.
I don’t usually do this in my articles, but can I just pause for a moment to use a Reaction GIF?
There we go. Anyway, this is why I’m so against the “buying VC is optional” excuse, because the games are doing their best to encourage it. You don’t have to buy VC, but you’re in for some hard work if you don’t, and it’s very easy to waste your time and money because of the way the game is designed. And you know what? I think people are starting to get tired of the grind and all of the other issues, giving up on the game when their main doesn’t pan out. We’re definitely seeing loyalty and affection for the 2K brand dry up, too. Also, I can only speak for the Australasian servers, but it feels like less people are playing the connected modes these days. That brings us to…
I’ll give one more example to close though: the lack of matchmaking in online gameplay modes. This is yet another glaring oversight from a studio that wants to both push the online element harder, and also make an entry into the e-sports domain. There will be large numbers of players who want to participate in the online experience, but who are immediately discouraged from it after facing opponents well above their skill level. There is a reason why the most successful online competitive games have these kinds of mechanisms – because constant loss, because a lack of access to ways to improve…all that hurts player retention.
I’ve written a handful of articles about the need for proper matchmaking in NBA 2K. It’s in large part due to my own experiences with the online scene, but in all honesty, this part of Nick’s post on Reddit is what drew my attention to the issue. I believe this is a huge factor in the drop-off in online play, not to mention the nosedive in quality. That quote sums up the issue, and again, I think we’re absolutely seeing what Nick talked about come to fruition. The elitism is only getting worse. Take Rookieville in Next Gen’s MyCAREER. Now you have to earn your way into the mode’s hub world. You have to prove that you deserve to play the mode; too bad if you can’t get a game!
If the creators and publishers behind this title don’t address these problems, then 2k19 could be a colossal failure that will completely blindside them. They have doubtless already alienated a significant number of loyal customers due to their highly-aggressive and at times blatantly cynical profit-centric design decisions in this latest iteration, but that loss of retention will pale in comparison to the overall long-term loss of players they face if they let the issues in 2k18 compound further into the next iteration of the title.
Obviously, NBA 2K is in no danger of going under at this point. Nothing is too big to fail, but they’ve got a long way to go before they’re on the brink. Nevertheless, 2K has lost face with a lot of gamers, squandering goodwill and loyalty. There have been quite a few people on Reddit and elsewhere who have commented that they buy the games out of habit or the desire to have a new basketball game, rather than enjoyment and enthusiasm as before. It’s because of the issues that Nick identified in that Reddit post. There are other reasons, too – recurring bugs and gameplay quirks, the absence of certain features – but it ultimately comes back to a problematic design philosophy.
I’m obviously bothered by 2K’s approach, but what also bugs me is how these issues are ignored and downplayed by several content creators. Once again, Nick made that post on Reddit over three years ago in 2018, when NBA 2K18 was still current. The post was well-received and for good reason, yet these issues are constantly swept under the rug by people with influence. They’d rather sneer at criticism and dismiss it as whining by losers who need to “get good”, or call gamers “spoiled” for daring to want value for money and fair treatment from 2K. These issues have been brought to light, and resolving them would improve the games. Why stand in the way of that?
We know why, of course: fear. Fear that 2K will withdraw their access and perks. They’re the only game in town right now, and if you don’t play nice, you won’t be in the club. I know it’s a lot to ask content creators – some of whom have made it their fulltime jobs – to take a stand and risk losing their benefits. It’s difficult to organise boycotts in general, let alone ask people who are making money off playing video games to jeopardise their livelihood. At the same time, there are ways to broach these issues without burning bridges. Nick’s post on Reddit was well-put, and respectful. If we all stand together like that, 2K can’t exclude everyone for not toeing the line.
What we can’t ignore is that several major issues that became very apparent in NBA 2K18 were called out at the time, and they remain issues as of NBA 2K21. Indeed, in some cases, the situation is actually worse. Nick’s Reddit post tried to warn us, and although it was 98% upvoted and received many positive responses agreeing with the points it made, too many people are shrugging it off and continuing to make excuses for 2K. You can still enjoy NBA 2K, but also acknowledge the issues, and want to see it improve; not just for you, but your fellow gamers who may play modes you don’t. Even when an issue doesn’t affect us, we can acknowledge it, and support each other.
At the same time, maybe 2K needed to heed that warning, too. It’ll be interesting to see if their recurrent revenue projections for NBA 2K21 are met, especially since their CEO promised shareholders they had ways to accomplish it. If it’s below projections again, it suggests that gamers are slowly starting to rebel against buying VC. It’ll also be interesting to see the engagement numbers, and whether there’s a noticeable drop in online play as the months go by. Again, I’ve been seeing emptier parks and quieter nights in The Rec than ever before. The game is still selling and 2K is no doubt safe financially, but its reputation has suffered. Hey, they were warned…and so were we.