A Closer Look: NBA Elite and the Dangers of the Pre-release Demo

Its now official: there will be no new NBA Elite, what was NBA Live, this year. In an almost unprecedented move, EA have turned a self imposed delay into a full-blown cancellation, removing an annual staple from their release schedule and a guaranteed earner. Their failure to churn out a competent reboot for their flagging basketball sim has already proved a disaster, causing significant damage to the once proud Live series, conceding further ground to the rival NBA2K franchise, damaging EA's reputation, and contributing to some of the recent "seasonal" lay-offs which hit the Elite development team at EA Canada the hardest. All of this heartache may be traced back to one lousy 10 minute demo. It was the penultimate stage of a series rethink that, with the benefit of hindsight, was thoroughly ill-conceived and poorly executed.

I have been a fan of the NBA Live series since 1997, hopelessly addicted for 18 solid months to its impressive re-creation of the game I loved and its glorious statistics. To this day, I still consider it one of my all-time favourite games, as there are scant few others that have provided so much enjoyment over such a prolonged period. I have tended to buy a new NBA Live game every two or three instalments, only straying to a competing series (NBA2K) once in the space of 13 years. With the inclusion of NBA Jam as a downloadable incentive for PS3 and 360 owners, I had already convinced myself that I would be picking up NBA Elite. Craving my basketball-sim fix, I only required that the demo be passable to justify filling Amazon's coffers with another thirty five quid.  Unfortunately, it was anything but.

By all accounts a disaster, a series rethink plagued by bugs, unintuitive controls and shit-for-brains AI, the demo was released to the Live and PSN services at the tail end of September and was lambasted and ridiculed by critics and gamers alike. The skill based shot control and new dribbling techniques, along with a complete re-think of the core-mechanics and an abandonment of a 15 year heritage, left fans new and old scratching their heads. There was one moment above all that defined its shoddiness: Andrew Bynum, the LA Lakers seven foot centre static at mid-court, arms stretched wide doing his best impression of an airplane as the rest of the game passed him by. Much like Bynum, NBA Elite would never quite get off the ground, as in response to the terrible feedback EA would postpone the release citing "concerns about gameplay polish". Quickly realising that you can't polish a turd, it was aborted on November 2nd 2010.

The immediate effects of this cancellation can be seen in EA's recent layoffs as well as an ensuing rethink of the structure of the EA Sports team. But outside of the in-house fallout, it has the potential to affect the industry-wide approach to annual sports titles, or any other multi installment franchise for that matter. These games present a catch twenty-two; don't include enough upgrades and come under fire for standing pat year after year, or make changes and risk alienating your fan base, many of whom are satisfied with team and player updates and a new lick of paint. The Live series wasn't operating from a position of strength, being met with increasing apathy from the press and losing fans in droves to the NBA2K series, despite some recent improvements, but was such a drastic overhaul really necessary? EA only needed look to their FIFA series for an excellent example of how to upgrade without overhauling, as the last two or three years have seen incremental improvements, without sacrificing the essence of the series. 

It doesn't seem unreasonable to presume that other sports franchises are now going to think longer and harder before changing core mechanics, even when they are clearly broken. After all, you are better off pleasing the existing fan base than risk sinking the game with a makeover, even if that means innovation takes a permanent backseat to maintaining the status quo.

Outside the realms of annual sports titles, the implications of the NBA Elite travesty may yet fall heaviest on the pre-launch demo. Like most gamers on a budget, I love pre-release demos, affording me the opportunity to weed out the weak links in my crowded gaming wish list. What started as a disc mounted on the front of your favourite magazine has evolved into a vital part of the video game life-cycle. A demo, be it pre or post launch, can be accessed by millions of potential customers and has the power to make or break any game. Through a successful pre-launch demo, the public's early perception can be carefully molded, as due to their short and linear nature, they need only show the most exciting and polished segments and hide the rough and mundane. An unimpressive showing is capable of crippling a franchise as well established as NBA Live and troubling an industry heavyweight. With so much on the line, studios must consider whether it is fiscally responsible to make available a pre-release demo, especially with the NBA Elite blueprint for disaster now in place.

It would be naive to presume that developers and publishers aren't more than aware when their product is sub-par. In this age of the almighty metacritc, where anything under an 80 average leads to blood-shed, you often hear of review copies for disappointing games being held back until the eve of release, in an attempt to reduce the damage done to the all important opening week sales. The pre-launch demo should be no different. This then begs the question; did EA really think that NBA Elite was going to be a winner? If not, and they had prepared themselves for the prospect of it being panned, then why release the demo in the first place? We will probably discover whether Lee Harvey Oswald really acted alone before we get to the bottom of that particular mystery.

Amid all this despair, EA are due some kudos for sending Elite to the knacker's yard, opting not to release a sub-par title that was likely to still turn a substantial profit. In the last nine months we have seen a number of big titles released of unacceptable quality, including APB, which subsequently sunk Realtime Worlds, and Final Fantasy XIV, where Square-Enix, relying on brand loyalty and their vast resources, are continuing to weather the storm. Only last month we finally got Fallout: New Vegas along with its debilitating glitches, which didn't stop it from reaching the upper echelons of the game charts. EA fessed-up, took it on the chin and attempted to tackle the problems head-on, realized the project was unsalvageable, then pulled the plug. What they didn't do was release a fundamentally broken product and relied on the "we'll fix it later" approach. Of course, however unsavoury the prospect may have been, EA have the luxury of being able to take the financial hit of abandoning such a large project, a setback that would scupper a lesser studio.

When EA dragged NBA Elite 11 out to be shot, they did more than just deprive gamers of a worthwhile alternative to NBA2K11. They elevated the status of the pre-launch demo to potential project-killer, giving publishers something else to agonize over apart from how best to avoid the Call of Duty release window, whilst giving developers worldwide more reason to pause when considering a series overhaul.

Although it will be of little consolation to EA, it's not all doom and gloom, at least for the consumer. PS3 and 360 owners may now look forward to a stand-alone NBA Jam by the end of the month, replete with all the trimmings. Boom shakalaka indeed.

Odds & Ends

1. Assassin's Creed Brotherhood is released here in the UK today, and if reviews are anything to go by, it looks to be another great entry in the series. What isn't great is the TV commercial that has been doing the rounds accompanied by the most ill-fitting song in the history of TV advertising: Pass Out by Tinie Tempah. For those not familiar with our Tinie, he is a UK rapper/popstar who rhymes over a mishmash of hip hop and dance tracks. Not really my cup of tea, but he isn't all that bad. However, in no way does this track fit-in with the style of Assassin's Creed, nor the setting of 15th Century Rome. Perhaps it's just me? Its probably on youtube somehwere if you have a look.

2. Playing and enjoying COD: Black Ops, while sizing up the platinum and gradually remembering how not to suck at multiplayer. I can't really agree with all the talk surrounding the single player being the best of the series, as it seemed very disjointed and not nearly as entertaining as either of the Modern Warfares, nor World at War. I'm still having fun with it though.


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