NBA Jam: On Fire Interview with Trey Smith

Download to dunk

Earlier this month I got take out NBA JAM: On Fire for a whirl and the new edition of the venerable basketball classic is looking suitably hot to boot. Afterwards I spoke with producer Trey Smith about the surprising complexity under the bonnet of the new downloadable outing.

Given the re-release of the game last year, what was the thinking behind coming back to NBA JAM with the On Fire edition?

There were a lot of things that we left on the table, and a lot of feedback from the fans that was pretty low hanging fruit. Not long after we ended up shipping we had a couple of weeks where we just tinkering with some stuff. The big one for me was Tag Mode. There was a decision I made early on with the last version where if there was a fork in the road with the design I always defaulted to what the original did, and in the original JAM if you picked a player you stuck with that player for the whole game. In every other sports game now for years you could switch on the fly to whoever you wanted to play, but I said no, we were dedicated to being the original, we're going to do this. And what came back was that it was quite an expensive feature: it wasn't something you could turn it on and within two hours you could play it. So during those two weeks or so the guys worked really hard on it and they plugged in Tag Mode so that you could switch up players. The first game after we played it, we all looked at each other and said that it's so much better, it's so much better. So that was the major breakthrough. We looked at some of the art things we could do too.

With the AI, we went with old-school rubber band AI [in last year's NBA JAM] and I think it did what it did in the original but it was really punishing for the new user, it was really hard, even on the Wii. We have a new piece of technology called R.E.A.L. AI, it's in NHL and Fight Night. We brought it over to JAM and we have this really strong programmer called Fraser Lott who's really pushing for this adaptive AI with this new technology. He joined the JAM team and wanted to try it out on JAM, and we said sure. It's really fun. It's really... the word organic is way overused, but with JAM I feel comfortable using it because when you're playing the game it's recording sequences of how you're playing it and then throwing that into the decision-making. In most sports games you know what the AI's going to do before they do it, but in JAM it's actually real players playing and it's spinning those sequences back at them. It's constantly rating them; if the sequence is successful then it plays it more often, and if it's not then it starts to drop off the list. It's constantly updating sequences. So the AI is kind of brewing and bubbling in the background.

I think the main reason we're bringing out the On Fire edition, we're really excited about Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, we're really excited about giving people a 10 experience because it allows us to make a different kind of game and take some risks. For us, if JAM can't thrive in that space then we don't know what can, so we're rooting for it. I'm such a console gamer, I love playing on my couch and my platforms of choice are Xbox 360 and PS3. So I'm rooting for it with all the social stuff, all the handheld stuff, all the smart-phone stuff, I'm hoping PSN and XBLA keeps consoles alive. I think that price point is a sweet spot and JAM... it's not a triple A quality game - but in this space I think there's more polish to it then the vast majority of the games that are there, and I think there's more replayability than a lot of the games that are there, and the multiplayer focus of being able to play with up to four friends. That's not there on XBLA and PSN right now. So it's this thing for us at EA Sports: if JAM can't thrive in that space, what are we going to do?

That's the thing with the AI, it's surprisingly complicated underneath these kind of relatively lo-fi visuals. Do you think players are going to get that with the kitsch presentation of the game?

I think that's part of the charm and it was there in the original. I love the 2D heads. For me personally, on the last game I worked we had 200 bones in every player's head. The amount of processing power you had to push to make those bones move, you're talking about a significant chunk of your processing power just to make a face that still doesn't look quite right. We came up with the idea of just chopping the head off and using the 2D image and re-investing the processing power into AI, like gameplay, like 60 frames per second, like responsive movement. And for an arcade sports title... gameplay is always important, but for an arcade sports title it's paramount. It has to be fun. So I was fine with dropping that. In truth, I've had people come up and say that JAM has the best player recognition they've ever seen in a sports title. So the fact that we got to do that and get away with what we did, it was a well thought out visual style that we had to balance about. Like with the real facial expressions in-game in real-time, you can't break away and do what the other sports titles do with the highlight reels between every basket, like a broadcast thing. You can't do that in JAM because it's breakneck speed: first quarter - breakneck speed - switch players, third quarter, fourth quarter, game! You do the replay thing and that breaks. So it was such a big win with the art style to replay in real-time and show real-time emotion like Kobe Bryant's dunk face. His dunk face is his actual face dunking in a game. We got to put that in there. There were a lot of bonus wins we got with that art style. But I think it's also our stamp and you know what we're going to expect. Like you said, it's is kind of kitschy, but if it gets people to check it out when they normally wouldn't and think "Oh, look at this game, check it out" and discover that in fact there is a lot of depth and polish in the gameplay experience below the art style. That's kind of special.

It feels almost symbolic of the game itself; rather than trying to work around how the game did it before, it sounds like this is how you'd go about it if you were making JAM for the first time now.

Totally, and I think that's another reason why we wanted to try and bring JAM back one more time. We were so dedicated to being true to the original last time, and things like Tag Mode, it was time to bring it into the modern day. I think, you know, there wasn't an animation in the game that we didn't touch, massage, soothe and change, but the bar has been raised.

I love arcade sports titles, it's a genre that I've loved forever, and it's kind of gone away for a while. I hope that JAM opens the door again and that people start to see that it's a niche genre that at one time thrived in the street days then kind of went away. And I hope JAM brings it back. I think gamers' tendencies are starting to lean more towards the 15-20 minute sessions and further away from the six hour marathon sessions because there are so many things that take up our time. If you're pulling back on those session lengths and able to pull back on the price at the same time, I think that's a win-win scenario and I hope we prove that with NBA JAM.

So apart from the AI and the visuals, what can players expect to see in On Fire in terms of modes, player options, the overall experience?

So we've got JAM as an EA Sports title, and that means we've got play for up to four friends, mix-and-match at home, on the couch, or online. The demo you played today with the Big Head mode and the one shot on fire, that would be an unranked match. We've got online co-op campaign mode called Road Trip. You can play it solo, you can play co-operatively with your friend on the couch, or you can play it co-operatively online. You zip around and take a road trip - I can't go too deep into it but I will say you both get credit for every step along the way and it does feel like a journey with progression in terms of strategy, difficulty, matching up against different teams and different players. It does feel different when you're playing different teams. Their behaviours and tendencies are much more aligned and more realistic than they've ever before. We've all played sports games where you play different teams but it feels like the same brain is running them, but that's not the case with On Fire. I don't want to use words like revolutionary but in terms of JAM and arcade sports titles, what we have with our AI... I don't want to over-talk it, I just want to throw it out there and have people play it and then become the advocates for it.

On the sillier side, there's the Big Head Mode, there's the Mini Men mode...

That was stuff we had in the last version. With the Mini Men mode, your players end up being a foot tall. The big surprise there, I still look for it, but the gameplay holds up! It's a sign of this JAM team being a veteran team and it's not just a bunch of us out of school. I've been making games for twelve years, for a lot of my engineers it's their seventh game or their tenth game. We make games because we love games and we are gamers ourselves. My guys, they work so hard and they're so proud of their work. And so many times, time and time again, they'll work on a feature and they'll take it two steps further than I ever thought it could go. I think Mini Men is a great example of that where one of our SEs, Tony Humphries, was playing with it and he said it was pretty cool, and then after a couple of late nights later he asked me to come over. Anytime anyone tells me to come over and hands me a controller at their desk I know I'm about to see something cool. He showed these little guys just running around the court and it held up, they still dunked, they still alley-ooped, they still blocked, and it looks fine and it's not broken. That was surprising, and the more little surprises that happen the better your game will be. It's the treats that we find along the way and try to share with you guys, and Mini Men is one of them.

And of course with NBA JAM you guys have got the presidents in amongst other characters to play as. I know you had a bit of trouble with that last time around...

I guess it's that double-edged sword when you enter politics. The good news was that we got a lot of people that didn't even know what NBA JAM hearing about the game. The other side is that every time you enter politics as a publicly traded company like EA Sports people are going to try to look at you and create some controversy whether it's relevant or not. So I made some comment about President Obama having special innovations [in the game] because he actually plays basketball and stats should be relative to real-life and out of all the politicians we have in the game Obama is probably the best actual basketball player. I don't know, I've never seen [Dick] Cheney on the court or given Sarah Palin a basketball to see what she's got, but I have seen footage of President Obama playing basketball and he has skills. So he has a couple of special dunks in the game. Somebody took that out and trotted it out as if we have a left-wing agenda or something behind NBA JAM. You know, it's just one of those things. The great thing about it was that [EA Sports CEO] Peter Moore got to go on and talk about our game to an audience that really probably didn't even know about our game at that point. So it's one of those things - I think it's JAM, right. There's this magic behind the game. The people who play it, whether it's 20 years ago, 18 years ago, last year, or anywhere in between, it just makes people smile. It tugs at that nostalgia and takes you back to your happy place. It's an honour to work with this franchise, we take great pride in what we do, very careful not to muck with the formula to much, to exploit it, to use that name for bad purposes. I think On Fire is our love letter to the franchise. We feel it's the best JAM that has ever been put out and the fact that it's at such a value. And hopefully gamers next year will be saying that the best 10 or so they spent on gaming last year was on JAM, and that's what we're going for with this one.

Finally, when does the game come out?

Early October, and it'll be 10 on PSN and 1200 Microsoft Points on XBLA.

Fantastic - thanks so much for your time.

Thanks, it was fun

E3 Trailer