Breakdown of gameplay improvements for NBA 2K17

Posted September 1st, 2016 at 8:45 am


One week from tomorrow consumers will be playing The Prelude, a collegiate-portion of the MyCareer story mode, and two weeks out is the full release of NBA 2K17. 2K Sports has finally started to reveal the actual improvements made for the game, and today Mike Wang (gameplay director for the NBA 2K series) posted an incredibly extensive blog detailing everything that’s been done to gameplay in 2K17 and the logic behind it all.

The key themes found in the the work that has gone into gameplay are that skill should determine outcomes, everything should flow and look natural, physicality should play a bigger role, and AI should continue to evolve and become smarter.

Skills Matter

Each dev cycle we have a million things we want to accomplish on the gameplay front, but if I had to sum up the main goal for NBA 2K17 it would be this: MAKE THE SKILL OF THE GAMER MATTER.

One of the most noticeable applications of this idea is in the area of shooting. In NBA 2K17, ALL shots (with the exception of dunks) have a timing mechanism to them. Jump shots, layups, hooks, buzzerbeater pullups, even full court heaves. Our goal here was to engage the user in every shot attempt from beginning to end, rather than just have you guys kicking off animations and hoping for the best. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Layups? I have trouble hitting layups already, isn’t this just going to make it even harder for me.

The way layup timing has been implemented, the timing modifier acts primarily as a bonus to reward users who can master it but won’t punish you if you can’t do it or ignore the shot meter completely. So if you beat your defender and have a wide open lane or are finishing off a fastbreak layup with no one around, you’re not going to brick the shot even if you completely ignore the timing feature. The cool thing about layup timing, is it makes you feel like you actually have a chance to impact those tough and-1 contact shots in heavy traffic. So the more you practice, the more you can look like Kyrie finishing those ridiculous circus shots that he makes look so easy. And don’t worry, on the flipside the system is also tuned in such a way that prevents bad shot selection or chucking from half court from being a viable offensive strategy. You still have to take good shots with the right guys to be successful.

Another feature we’re introducing to make shooting more of a skill is the idea of shot aiming. For perimeter jump shots, if you use the Pro Stick, you now need to pull straight down or push straight up (the latter if you want a bank shot.) Again, we didn’t want to make this addition overbearing for the average gamer, so you won’t be airballing shots left or right if you ignore the feature. But if you do pay attention to how close to 12 or 6 o’clock you move the Pro Stick, you will give yourself an extra boost to making those shots. So for those competitive gamers who want to maximize their shooting percentages, my advice is to migrate to the Pro Stick for those long range bombs. That doesn’t mean that Pro Stick jump shooters automatically have an advantage over Shot Button users however. It’s a risk/reward mechanic in that you actually might be hurting your shooting percentages if you’re inconsistent with how you move the Pro Stick, especially on the higher difficulty levels. So for a lot of guys, at least here in the office, they’ve been perfectly content shooting with the Shot Button. Personally, I only shoot with the Pro Stick and love the advantage I can gain when I do nail my aim.

Let’s talk about the shot meter as it’s been re-designed for NBA 2K17. This year, you want to fill the meter all the way up for ideal timing rather than stopping the meter half way. This makes it easier to get a sense of when to release the shot without having to stare at your player’s feet while he’s shooting. Also, the size of the meter will grow or shrink depending on the player’s shooting range. So if you have a large horseshoe shaped meter, the shot will be much easier to hit versus a short sliver of a meter. You’ll also notice a thin red circle around the meter when you’re standing in a player’s real life hotspot or a blue circle if you’re standing in a cold spot. Lastly, if you shoot with the Pro Stick, you’ll see a small white tick and colored arrow underneath the shot meter after you release the jumper. This arrow represents how far left or right you were off center when aiming your shot as I discussed above. If the arrow is way off to the left and you miss the shot, you’ll miss to the left. If it’s off to the right and you miss, you’ll miss right. You can also turn on Shot Feedback and we’ll tell you (to the degree) how far off your aim was. If the arrow is green, you know you’re really close to perfect aim and you’re getting a boost to your shot chance. And one more thing I know a lot of you will be happy about, no more missed Green Lights!

One last thing I want to mention regarding shooting is the idea of evasive layups vs. strong layups. In the past, when you attempted layups, pretty much every shot went hard to the cup and there was a chance you’d draw a foul, finish through contact or get stopped. For NBA 2K17, we wanted to give you more control over how those outcomes play out. Moving the Pro Stick toward the basket will attempt a strong finish at the rim (similar to last year), but if you move the Pro Stick left or right for your attempt, you’ll perform a more evasive layup that’s really useful for avoiding contact with defenders and finishing with a much more conservative scoop shot or floater. Because these types of shots require a bit more touch, it’s really important to nail your timing when using the evade layups.

Ball handling is re-tooled for NBA 2K17 as well. Last year we introduced Signature Size-ups that included dozens of Iso animations for the top ball handlers in the league. This feature was well received as it let our fans create some great mixtape highlight plays off the dribble and raised the bar for signature style. One thing that bothered us though was that the Signature Size-ups didn’t have that 1-to-1 feel of chaining together moves that our past games had. You would input a single command and the ball handler would play out a long mocapped sequence all by himself. This year, we broke all of the Signature Size-ups into shorter combo moves that can be strung together based on user input. So for example, Steph Curry’s signature “between the legs to behind back combo” from last year is now performed by manually doing a between the legs cross directly into a behind the back move. The end result is a system that’s very robust, basically allowing the gamer to string together whatever sequence of moves he/she wants while still maintaining the beautiful motion captured sequences that our fans enjoyed in NBA 2K16. These combos can also be mixed and matched so you can equip your MyPLAYER with Steph’s Between the Legs combos, Jamal Crawford’s double behind the back, and Kyrie’s double cross if you want. The new system is much more engaging for the user, creates a wider skill gap in ball handling and really makes you feel like you’re breaking defenders down as you would in real life. We’ve also completely refreshed all of the driving Iso moves so you’ll be seeing a lot of fresh content there too.

The theme of gamer skill being a driver for our design doesn’t only affect offense, but extends to the defensive end of the floor as well.

First off, the steal system has been completely re-worked for NBA 2K17. The new system takes into account many more factors than before, including: the type of move the ball handler is in, how exposed or protected the ball is in relation to the defender, whether the ball handler is in open space vs. in a crowd, and of course, each players’ attributes. Skilled defenders can use real basketball principles to read the situation and time the steal attempt to get much more predictable results. The content for steals has also been completely refreshed so you’ll be seeing lots of nice knockaways, forced pickups, strips, etc. You can also use the Pro Stick on defense to steal the ball this year. So pressing toward the ball handler will attempt a dig steal (great for popping the ball out from a player in triple threat), away from the ball handler for a strip, or left/right for a left or right-handed swipe.

Blocks also received a nice makeover with tons of new content, better hand to ball collision detection and ball targeting recognition. If you’re controlling a rim protector, it feels better than ever to read the play and send those weak layup attempts into the stands. Weak blockers vs. great blockers are more accurately differentiated in the game now too. Low vertical blocks were added to better represent the low-tier players with regards to vertical and athleticism. There are also several subtle additions such as “give up” contests, those half-hearted close out blocks that players do in real life when severely out of position but don’t want the coach to bench them for lack of effort. You can even control those by half-pressing L2 or LT.

The Beauty of Basketball

Usually when you spend a lot of time working on things like responsive controls and respecting the user’s input 100% of the time, it comes at the cost of visuals taking a hit. NBA 2K has always been known for its beautiful animation and lifelike movement. That’s something we never want to sacrifice. So it was very important to us that, even with the advancements in responsiveness and control, that NBA 2K17 animated even more smoothly than any past NBA game before it.

This is where our animation tech team stepped up to the plate. They spent a greater portion of the year analyzing our animation system, motion capture pipeline, and blending techniques and made some huge improvements in all areas. The first thing you’ll notice when you sit back and watch gameplay footage of NBA 2K17 is just how smooth everything looks. Our team worked heavily on a process we call pose match editing. They created a system that identifies and works to repair problematic animation transitions for thousands of animations in our game. We’re also now using a dynamic blending system that calculates the most ideal blend times for different parts of the body when transitioning from one animation to another in an effort to smooth out things like posture and back angle changes, facing pops, etc. while still maintaining the responsiveness that gameplay animations require. One of our engineers also created a new limb collision system that combines animation and a physical simulation to allow limbs to collide with other objects/players and react in a more natural and dynamic way. Sometimes you have to pause the game and watch a replay up close to appreciate just how amazing the tech is. We’ve seen players get wrapped up during rebounds, react to glancing collisions as players brush past each other and everything in between. It really brings the game to life and most of the time we can’t tell if the new limb collision system is at work or if we’re watching pure motion capture.

Last year we introduced the concept of situational motion. Instead of playing “normal movement,” we started to play contextual animations on offball players that made them look more appropriate to what was happening on the court. In year two, you’ll really see an explosion of content in our situational motion engine with tons of new get open animations, offball cuts, settle outs while spacing, etc. These special motion captured sequences are now fully integrated into all of our plays and freelance sets so that players are constantly moving around with intent. I think we’ve really raised the bar in terms of authenticity and lifelike movement in this area of the game, and coupled with the dramatic improvements to the animation system and the new blending tech, NBA 2K17 moves just as smooth as real life.

The Physicality of Basketball

NBA Basketball is a slugfest at times and that’s something we wanted to incorporate better into our game.

The post game received a huge makeover this year, and while back to basket post players might be a dying breed in today’s league, we’re happy how strong post play is in NBA 2K17. Post movement was completely redone and looks more organic than ever, while also improving in responsiveness. We now have much more lifelike backdowns, moves and cutoffs while banging down in the paint. We’re also introducing the shimmy hook this year along with the rest of the arsenal of post shots that you had before. So get ready to get your Dream Shake on.

One of my favorite upgrades in this year’s title has to be the play around the rim. We’ve added hundreds of new animations including ground and mid-air collision rebounds, tipped balls, new boxouts, swims, pulling the chair, putbacks, and the list goes on. Gone are the days when every rebound was caught clean off the rim. This year you’ll see guys knocking the ball out of each other’s hands, players coming down and wrestling the ball away, back taps, uncontrolled catch attempts and much more. NBA play around the rim is messy and that’s the feeling we wanted to bring with this year’s game.

The logic for putbacks and the new dunk and layup tip ins that we’ve added make rebounding exciting as well. There’s nothing cooler than seeing a player jump up, attempt a putback layup, and then immediately pogo jump back up again to tip in his own putback miss. It makes for some of the coolest, and most natural, looking sequences our game has ever had and it feels really good to be able to tip the ball back in from just about any angle.

Another new feature we’re bringing to the table this year is our new offball collision system. In real life, making a cross court cut, walking your check down to the low block and flaring out to get open is not something that comes easy. There’s a lot of pushing and grabbing that makes moving around the court a lot of work. Whether you’re on offense or defense, high post or perimeter, you can now dictate offball play with our new offball collsions. Bigs walking their defender down into the low block will feel the struggle as they fight for position. Shooters working to get open as they run their baseline cuts can get bumped and chucked off course making it that much tougher to get a clean look on the perimeter. Offball post was overhauled with over 500 new animations to show the physicality that you see in the paint as bigs fight for position on the block. We think the new offball collisions will add a new dimension to MyCAREER as well as other player locked modes like MyPARK and Pro AM. Get ready to work for those buckets, guys.

We also spent a great deal of time working on collisions between the ball handler and the onball defender. Body ups and rides have much more natural interactions and do a better job at respecting the momentum and skills of the players involved. We really wanted to avoid “snatching” players into multi-actor animations that didn’t make sense and let the natural physics of the collisions play out as they would in real life. In fact, most of the time you see a ball handler reacting to contact in NBA 2K17, he’s not in a 2 player animation at all. And defensively, it was paramount that onball defensive movement was tight in order to not give the offense an unfair advantage in 1-on-1 situations. We’re very happy with where the meta game netted out this year as it feels really good to be able to read the ball handler and lock him up properly when you anticipate well. We’ve also provided a Body-Up Sensitivity slider for those who want to tweak how sticky or slippery the onball defender is when collisions occur. And one word of advice about the new body ups, don’t try barreling toward the basket in a straight line through the defense. It’s almost guaranteed to be a charge, lost ball, or picked up dribble. You have to take proper driving angles when going 1-on-1 in NBA 2K17.

Making the Game Smarter

Artificial Intelligence is continually getting smarter with each new iteration of our game. Last year was the first year of the new Adaptive Coaching Engine (ACE) which we know all of you guys at #Simnation drooled over. In year two, ACE is smarter, stronger and sexier. On the offensive side, ACE now measures what is successful and uses that information to form its plan of attack. And with our industry leading freelance offensive system and authentic team-specific plays, the AI’s offensive attack is deadlier than ever. NBA 2K17 ships with over 30 unique freelance offenses so you’ll see each team running their real life sets and playbooks. ACE also features more game to game adjustments, specific to whether you’re within a season or in the midst of a playoff run.

The transition game has been rebuilt from scratch and now features players properly running their lanes, better spacing logic and intelligent transition 3’s. Speaking of 3’s, another aspect of the AI attack that’s greatly improved is the AI’s ability to hunt for the 3 ball. In past games, the AI would only fire long balls when they were given obvious opportunities, but now, you’ll have virtual Steph and Durant picking your defense apart as they probe the perimeter and attack with a shoot first mentality. It’s definitely something you’ll need to gameplan for when you play against the AI.

And speaking of game planning, the defensive side of the Adaptive Coaching Engine saw many improvements as well. Brand new team schemes, scoring patterns and formation recognition bring a new level of authenticity to NBA 2K17. And as the offensive transition AI has improved, so has the defense. AI defenders now intelligently identify the most dangerous threats and move to their assignments accordingly.

The playcalling mechanics have been upgraded for this year too. All plays now live on L1 or LB to make strategizing more consistent. When you initially press the button, you’ll immediately be presented with our new Smart Play wheel. From here you can select Quick Iso, Quick Post, 2K Smart Play (which chooses an appropriate play from the team’s playbook for the given lineup/context), and two new dynamic smart plays chosen by ACE. Quickly flicking the right stick will fire off one of those actions. If you want to drill deeper into the Simnation playbooks, you can press the action button of the player you want to run something for and select a quick play for that particular player or tab over to his normal play options. Playcalling is deeper than ever and is sure to satisfy even the stingiest X’s and O’s gurus out there.

During timeouts, ACE now features a new clipboard-esque interactive flow, the ability to construct your own gameplans and an enhanced coaching analysis that will drive much more intelligent decision making from your coaching staff. We’ve also recorded hundreds of audio lines for your assistant coach as he dynamically evaluates what’s working and what’s not working throughout the course of the game and rallies the troops in the timeout huddles.

On the defensive side, one more thing I want to call out is the ability to switch matchups on the fly. If you’re not happy with the matchups that the game automatically generates for you, you can quickly swap them around without going into the pause menu to make sure you have your best defenders checking the biggest threats. This is available in both Play Now against the AI as well as the online modes. Pro AM crowd, this one’s for you! Gotta keep that Teammate Grade up!

Other Miscellaneous Goodies

Here I’m going to just drop some little random nuggets of info about gameplay that you may find interesting:

There are a number of passing/catching improvements which could fill up a whole new blog, but I’ll just list my faves…
♦Jump passes can now be triggered on demand (PS4 = SQUARE+CROSS, XB1 = X+A)
♦New fumbled catches that account for passing in traffic, receiver’s Hands rating, colliding with defenders in heavy traffic and other factors
♦You can perform alley-oops to players who are much further away from the rim and they’ll catch it and put up a shot (great for sideline inbound buzzerbeaters.) Also, you can alley-oop pass out of jump shots, layups and even other alley-oops. I’m expecting to see some hot Plays of the Week from you Park guys this year.
♦During a Give & Go, you can call for an alley-oop by pressing the Shot Button while holding the Pass Button
♦New Overhead Skip Pass mechanic lets you quickly target farther away teammates when multiple are in a line
♦Improved catch on point logic ensures that receivers catch passes on their desired spots rather than veering off in a bad direction
♦Customizable pass targeting sliders for Distance/Stick direction/Openness lets you configure directional passing exactly how you want it to behave

– Pump fake auto-fouls in the paint are gone. If you “do nothing” on the sticks as a defender, you won’t incur a shooting foul.
– MyCAREER player creation now features a new playing style feature

♦Choose from seven specific playing styles: Slasher (all positions), Shot Creator (PG/SG/SF), Sharpshooter (all positions), Playmaker (PG/SG/SF), Lockdown Defender (all positions), Glass Cleaner (SF/PF/C), Post Scorer (SF/PF/C)
♦Each archetype has its own unique badges (including an exclusive Hall of Fame badge), skill sets and specializations.
♦The goal behind the new archetypes was to force gamers to make a choice when creating their characters. We’re really trying to individualize players in our online modes so not everyone ends up being the same 2 or 3 types of guys. So a lot of effort went into balancing and tuning all of the various archetype/position/height/weight/wingspan combinations (not an easy task). At the end of the day, though, we feel like each of the archetypes (and the multitude of iterations you can dream up) make for very compelling gameplay experiences, with totally different pros and cons, and each can add a unique value to the makeup of a team.
♦The Hall of Fame badge is really cool too. Now, when a player performs well within his specialty (a Playmaker gets a lot of assists, a Post Scorer hits a few post fades, Glass Cleaner pulls down some boards, etc.) he gets “Grand Badge Hot.” That means that they unlock even stronger special abilities within their archetypes, as a red icon appears in the player indicator. I often play as a Sharpshooter and there’s no better feeling than getting a few open 3’s to drop, getting hot, and then being able to rattle off several more makes just like one of the Splash Brothers.
♦A new user-controlled emote system allows you to customize your on-court celebrations and trigger them after big plays.
♦The new Jump Shot Creator allows you to create an infinite variation of jump shot styles to ensure that your MyPLAYER’s jumper looks and feels exactly the way you want. The tool allows you to pick multiple release animations and a base and lets you control how those animations blend together. So it’s like the composited custom jump shots we had in the game a couple years ago but MUCH more customizable.
♦We’ve added a cool free throw follow through branching system that you’ve probably seen in a few videos already. Basically, if a player puts up a low percentage free throw, you’ll see him lean back or step into the key trying to will the ball in. If it’s a high percentage shot, you’ll see him head back on defense early or hold his follow through. It’s a nice touch and adds more life to free throw shooting.
♦We spent a lot of time converting our “under the hood tunables” into sliders, which now form the basis of our difficulty levels. What that means to the end user is that you now have much more control over how to customize the game through your own personal slider sets. You can see exactly what bumps we give the CPU and USER as you move through the different preset difficulty levels and then cater the sliders into your own Custom set to perfectly fit your preference for the game. As part of this exercise, we also greatly flattened out the boosts that the CPU was getting on Hall of Fame difficulty and have put more of a focus on making the game tougher through making the AI more intelligent in its decision making.
♦Tapping the Pro Stick toward the hoop while in a stand dribble will play our new signature rhythm dribbles. Think of them as the slower in-place dribble sequences players use to, well, get in a rhythm before attacking off the bounce. They’re perfect for integrating into the new 1-to-1 Signature Size-Up combo system I mentioned above as well as lulling defenders to sleep before pulling up for a “J” or attacking with a hard first step.

Closing Remarks

If you’re like me and too lazy to read long blogs, let me just summarize real quick.

NBA 2K17 is a game of skill. Our goal was to make the gameplay experience compelling in every aspect of on-court play and I’m proud of what the team was able to accomplish. I’ve had multiple people come up to me throughout development praising gameplay and telling me just how fun it is to play defense, how cool it feels to be able to master the game and show off their stick skills, and how accurate to real life the basketball looks. The game is much smarter, feels better in just about every way and moves/animates silky smooth in the process thanks to some very cool new tech. My hat’s off to each and every one of our gameplay engineers (the real rock stars of the show) and to the hardest working group of producers I could ask for.

And one last thing I wanted to mention before closing this thing up. I know we have a huge fanbase and everyone is looking for a different experience when they pickup NBA 2K. Even though skill and competitive gaming was a huge pillar for us this year, so was accessibility. We’ve re-tooled our difficulty levels so that ANYBODY can pick up the game and have fun right at the jump. Whether you’re looking for a game for your 8 year old to be able to just run around, shoot 3’s and dunk using 2 buttons or if you’re looking for a hardcore basketball sim, we have you covered. Also, if you’re relatively new to the series or even if you’re a 2K vet who wants to know everything there is to know about gameplay, make sure you check out 2KU. It’s been completely revamped with a comprehensive 2KU Tips Glossary showing all of the moves in the game with videos explaining how everything works and a brand new 2KU Game. The 2KU Game is awesome! You play an intra-squad scrimmage game with Team USA and tips get pushed to you through overlays/videos walking you through the ins and outs of 2K basketball. It even analyzes how you’re playing and pushes appropriate content to you based on your performance and what features you’re currently (or currently not) using. Coach K also chimes in with tons of basketball strategy level tips to help you understand the game from that perspective as well. So it’s a great way to both learn how to play 2K as well as to expand your understanding of the game of basketball.

I think that about covers the main gameplay stuff. I know you guys are going to love the game this year, and as always, we’ll all be glued to social media, Twitch, the forums, and just about everywhere else to gather your feedback and continue to refine the experience! See you on the virtual courts!