Gameplay improvements for NBA 2K18

Posted August 17th, 2017 at 6:15 am

Given the number of core gameplay-related problems that plagued NBA 2K17 it’s notable that 2K Sports has come out much earlier than normal with details on what’s been done to gameplay for NBA 2K18. Gameplay director Mike Wang has written an extensive developer blog that goes through improvements that include a new motion engine that shifts away from the animation-driven one of the past and a new shooting system, while the effort that’s gone into fixing issues related to and enhancing AI will apparently be detailed at a later date. 


The first thing we looked at after we wrapped NBA 2K17 was movement. From the original NBA 2K until NBA 2K17, we’ve always had an “animation-driven” motion system. So the feel of the game was largely dictated by the types of animations we captured and which animations fired off for a given input or context. This approach has served us well over the years but has also presented some significant challenges as well. Player differential, precise & consistent movement, general responsiveness, and an “animation-heavy” feel were some of those challenges in past games. Sometimes you’d want to take a step to the side but end up taking two. Sometimes your player would explode on a first step, sometimes he’d slowly ramp up depending on which animation triggered. Sometimes a slower player could gain an advantage against a faster player just because he had a favorable animation. These were the kinds of problems we knew we wanted to address this year.

Some of our top engineers spent the entire dev cycle working on a new motion engine and it turned out to be a huge game changer. To put it simply, movement is no longer driven by animations in NBA 2K18. Now, the stick input and a player’s attributes are the sole components driving how your character moves around the court. This gave us the ability to control exactly how quickly a given player can accelerate, decelerate, cut, and turn, as well as his speeds for different states (walking, running, shuffling, sprinting, etc.) simply based on his attributes. The new motion engine then takes this data and dynamically finds and stitches together the animations it needs, in real time, to animate the character. Nothing is canned, nothing pre-determined, everything is done on the fly. The results are night and day and something you’ll notice as soon as you pick up the sticks this year. Movement with and without the ball is way more consistent and predictable, which impacts the play on the court in just about every facet on both offense and defense. We’ve even implemented new movement sliders, so you guys can customize acceleration and speed of the ball handler or offball players if you prefer a quicker or slower paced game.

In fact, if I had to pick one word to describe what we wanted to achieve from a high-level with gameplay this year, it would be: FEEL. It started with movement but we also took a hard look at every aspect of the on-court play and did our best to fix any issues we could find in which the gamer felt out of control or that his player was doing something he didn’t ask for. For the most part, it was cleaning up legacy issues, plugging holes in some of our features, and adding polish. But I think 2K vets will notice the difference this year and appreciate how far we’ve come in one short year to put the control back in your hands.


Last year I mentioned how much we focused on the skill of the gamer being king in deciding who wins and who loses. With NBA 2K18, that focus remained but definitely evolved from last year. I think the main course of the evolution was defining what “skill” meant. Last year, NBA 2K17 put a very large focus on stick skills. And while that focus was good, it also took away from some of the aspects that traditionally make 2K gameplay so great.

With shooting for example, last year we introduced shot aiming and put a heavy emphasis on shot timing deciding makes and misses. The unfortunate side effects to some of these changes were that it became very difficult for us to balance the “stick skill gap” between new users and pro gamers, as well as across the various archetypes. So in many ways, it ended up de-valuing player attributes, defensive impact, and all of the other factors that go into shot success.

So we took a step back and looked at the pros and cons of NBA 2K17’s shooting system compared to how we’ve done things in past games and married the best ideas together to create a new system for 2K18. This year I think we’ve struck a great balance between the importance of stick skills and basketball IQ. Now more than ever, it’s important to take high percentage shots with the right types of players, while also mastering your player’s release.

We removed shot aiming, implemented a new shot meter positioned vertically near your player’s upper body to improve visibility, and added improved Shot Feedback information that shows your release timing and the coverage of your shot (Smothered, Heavily Contested, Lightly Contested, Open, Wide Open.) Green releases are still in the game but aren’t solely based on release timing. Without going into detail on how everything works under the hood, I’ll just say that the design for Excellent Releases is much smarter than before and can say with confidence that “Green hunting” won’t be a problem this year… something our focus groups and playtests have confirmed. And yes, as you may have heard, you can customize the fill color of your shot meter (White, Team Color, Black, Gray, Red, Yellow, Cyan, Blue, or Magenta.) And as some of you requested, you can also access the Jump Shot Creator for NBA players this year for more customization over the league.

Staying on the topic, let’s talk about some of the other new tools at your disposal on offense.

A few more really nice additions to shooting. We got feedback from the community gameplay dev session that “load ups” were too heavy when trying to get up quickly for jump shots. It took us a bit to figure out exactly what they were talking about, but right after the dev session, we labbed a bit and made some significant changes to how we do pull-up jumpers. Pulling up off the dribble or shooting off the catch now feels WAY more responsive. So big shout out and thanks to DmanUnt2014, MarioHTXX, and DatBoyDimez for bringing that to our attention.

We also augmented the pull-up jumper game with some new shot types. This year when you hold Sprint and move the Pro Stick in the same direction of your movement when driving laterally, you’ll get these really nice (and explosive) hop jumpers. Holding in the opposite direction of your drive will trigger these cool snatchback jumpers. You can also do both of these shots by tapping the Shot Button and holding your Left Stick in the proper direction. And one of my favorite additions to the layup system is control over driving cradle layups. I don’t know why I like them so much. Maybe because it was one of Jimmy Butler’s go to moves (yes, I’m crying inside.) Anyway, to do cradle layups, drive to the basket and hold the Pro Stick back and away toward your ball hand (or double tap the Shot Button while holding the Left Stick back and away toward your ball hand.) They’re great for knifing through traffic and protecting yourself from getting stripped. One last note about layups, the layup packages were reworked a bit as well. Now you can equip the following packages:

-Circus: Kyrie Irving type “jelly” layups.
-Crafty: Steph Curry scoop layups, around the back finish, etc.
-Euro Specialist: The perfect package for Dwyane Wade.
-Explosive: Designed for long jumpers who explode off of a Launchpad like Russell Westbrook.
-Floater Specialist: Lots of nice quick teardrops a la Tony Parker or D-Rose.
-Long Athlete: Great for long swings like the Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo.
-Tank: Modeled after strong athletic finishers like LeBron.
-Unathletic Small: Don’t want to name names, but we all know the kinds of guys that deserve this.
-Then of course the traditional default smalls, swings, and bigs packages.

The triple threat jabs and fakes are all new this year. You can chain jabs together for those Carmelo Anthony drive setups and the first steps out of triple threat are especially deadly with elite ball handlers. Bigs get their own set of moves that are great for blowing by defenders at the high post or for setting up those power drives. We focused a lot on making weight and strength matter in the post as well. When you have Demarcus Cousins mismatched with a small, you’ll see him clearly push his way through on the backdown for an easy dunk.

You can also flick the Left Stick in the post to pivot into different “hubs,” each with its own unique set of branching drives and fakes. Shot fakes have been re-worked and are cooler than ever. You can chain multiple fakes together to pull off Hakeem Olajuwon’s patented up-and-unders, Kobe’s legendary step thru shots, and much more. It’s never been more fun to be a post scorer in a basketball game and I’m excited to see the highlights that you guys pull off as you learn the ins and outs of the new systems. There’s so much you can do, it’s crazy.

On the ball handling front, we added the ability to do triple threat, dribble, and post moves by tapping or double tapping the Post Up button. I know the Pro Stick can be a little daunting for newcomers, so I think this feature will help them pull off some nice moves without worrying about getting accidental shots. But for you “dribble gawds” out there, read on.

The signature size-up combos that you know and love make their return. But we’ve also brought back the more explosive rhythm dribble sequences (including a number of street ones) that we had a couple years back, including dozens of new animations for many of the top ball handlers in the league. Simply tap the Right Stick toward the hoop and you’ll see some really sick dribble combos and tons of new content. It’s extremely gratifying being able to chain together the rhythm dribbles with the Pro Stick flick combo moves to create Kyrie Irving-style mixtapes.

We’ve also added the ability to do walking size-ups and combos. It may sound like a small addition but it’s one of my favorite things to do as a ball handler this year. We were in Mocap watching guys play 1-on-1 and nearly every possession they were pulling off these creep-up dribble size-ups before attacking the rim or pulling up for jumpers. Frankly, it baffled me that we’d never supported them as it’s such an integral part of the game. But I’m happy to say that you can now do double crosses, cross to wraps, cross to tweens, hesi crosses, and much more while creeping up in NBA 2K18. This is easily the deepest ball handling has ever been in any game. But the best thing about it is seeing the community invent all sorts of combos I didn’t even know were possible when designing the system. Seeing this creativity is one of the things I look forward to most every year so get those 2KTV Top Plays ready.

There are a couple of new passing features I want to highlight as well. Receiver Control lets you take full control over one of your receivers with a single button press, letting you manually work to get them open before passing them the rock. Just point to a teammate with the Left Stick and press and hold the Bounce Pass button. While the button is held, you can use the Left Stick to move him around, then release the Bounce Pass button to pass. If you prefer to use last year’s handoff/pitch pass option instead, that’s available as an option too. You can also quickly choose a short pass vs. a long skip pass with a simple tap or hold of the Pass Button. This has proven to be extremely handy, especially to capitalize on those moments when the defense falls asleep and leaves someone open in the far corner or downcourt. For icon pass users, you can also enable options for Receiver Control and Pass Type Control. The former allows you to control the receiver like I mentioned above but by icon selecting, and the latter gives you the ability to manually control bounce, overhead or chest pass by double tapping, holding, or normal pressing the player icon button respectively.

On the defensive end of the floor there were a ton of improvements as well. The biggest thing for a lot of our users was the dribble drive game. This is something we spent a lot of time on and it’s come a long way since last year. Many people complained about “stonewalling” defenders that were able to clamp down ball handlers regardless of their ratings and, somewhat unrealistically, stifle the dribble drive game. The interactions and logic for ball handler/on-ball defender collisions were reworked and it feels MUCH better. In NBA 2K18, if the ball handler can get a step on his man or is a Westbrook or LeBron coming downhill prepare to see a blow-by for a clear drive to the hoop. It feels really good now to get your defender leaning one way, attacking his drag foot, and seeing your ball handler quickly swim by the defender without getting snatched into a heavy bump animation. Sure the Kawhi Leonards of the league can still clamp down slower ball handlers, but for the most part, you’ll see a lot of “hip riding” this year compared to the knockbacks and dribbler stuns from the past. If you find yourself matched up with an extra pesky hard-nosed defender, I recommend pulling off stepback moves from the rides. They’re extremely deadly this year. The whole revamp of the 1-on-1 chess match really opens up the floor game and makes going to the basket with a playmaker much more realistic than before.

Steals and blocks also saw significant improvements. For steals, we heard the complaints about steal spamming last year and are happy to say that will no longer be the case for NBA 2K18. The logic for ball vulnerability is much better this year, rewarding you for reaching at the right times while punishing you with reaching fouls when you don’t. For blocks, we have a new limb collision system. Now a dunker going up with one hand is much more vulnerable to getting blocked than a stronger dunker going up with two.

You’ll also notice that we significantly reduced the number of multi-actor layups in NBA 2K18 and that was intentional. It felt a bit in past games that you could get really good shot defense just by being there and getting pulled into a contact shot. This year, we wanted to make playing defense as a rim protector much more engaging so the onus is now on the gamer to recognize guys attacking the rim and timing their shot blocks accordingly. We made significant changes to how we call fouls too, so if you’re in good position when attempting a shot block and you have a good shot blocker, you’ll have a much lower chance at being called for a shooting foul. But on the other hand, if you’re in bad position (trailing the play) or have a bad shot blocking rating, expect to see a lot of fouls.

Shot contests against jumpers are also more skill based this year. While in NBA 2K17, just holding down the Intense-D trigger would give you auto closeouts and jumping contests (which could be OP from time to time), it will now just register a lazy contest or no contest at all. So you’ll have to be proactive on defense and use the Right Stick if you want to actively contest shots. You’ll also have to be mindful on closeouts though because if you ram your defender into the shooter, be prepared to be called for a shooting foul. This is today’s NBA after all, not the 90’s.

When you do knock the ball loose, prepare to see some very cool hustle plays in NBA 2K18. We captured an insane number of animations to support a wide variety of outcomes based on the ratings of the players involved. Those outcomes consist of contested pickups (some that result in the ball getting knocked free again), loose ball dives, tie ups, and loose ball fouls. They’re definitely some of the coolest sequences that can happen in this year’s game, especially when they chain together. Speaking of loose balls, contested rebounds can also result in unsecured catches this year. These 50/50 balls help make the game feel a little “messy” just like real basketball and puts a greater emphasis on the importance of the hustle and hands ratings.


You’ll notice I didn’t say a word about AI improvements in this write up. The AI team has been hard at work this year cooking up some goodies for you hoops heads. So stay tuned, Da Czar and OG will have a blog breaking down all the X’s and O’s for Simnation soon.

And as with every year, there are a bunch of other upgrades, enhancements, and bug fixes across the board when it comes to gameplay that I didn’t even mention. The gameplay team really went the extra mile for NBA 2K18 and I’m extremely thankful for the dedication of all of our gameplay engineers and producers. When I take a step back and look at what the team accomplished this cycle, I think the thing that I’m happiest about is that we stayed true to the game. By that, I mean that everything that we worked on, from the big bullet point items to the tiniest details, was with the goal of representing NBA basketball as faithfully as we could. In many ways, NBA 2K18 is one of those titles that you have to experience on the sticks for yourself to truly appreciate. The improvements to feel, the authenticity, and the refinements both big and small, make for a truly great playing game of basketball. And with the countless hours poured into all of the features, modes, and art by the 2K Team as a whole, I have no reservation in proclaiming NBA 2K18 to be the most feature-rich, best looking, and best playing NBA game ever made. I can’t wait for you guys to get your hands on it!