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'NBA Jam' Producer Q&A

EA Sports

LeBron James shoves Kobe Bryant to the ground (the bigger the shove, the bigger the love), steals the ball, spins his way through Pau Gasol, then hits a forward flip dunk where if he were any higher, King James' head would've spiked through the arena roof.

"Is it the shoes?"

"Boom-shackalacka!"

As a guy who grew up stacking quarters on top of the old "NBA Jam" arcade machine, all I can say after playing a full game of the upcoming Wii version is this: The magic is back.

Unfortunately for the poor guy playing as Shaq to my LeBron, I think I passed the ball only about five times in four quarters. What can I say -- he wasn't very good -- and I didn't want to miss out on the chance to get in as many "He's on fire!" moments as I could in the limited time EA actually gave me with the game.

"I like that you admit to that," laughs Trey Smith, creative director of "NBA Jam," talking about my inability to press pass during the four-player game. "You got a good sense of the shooting controls is what you're really saying."

And shoot the ball I did, lighting the net on fire from beyond the arc with LeBron as I brought myself back to another era of gaming, remembering with every block, shove and slam the days of playing the classic series as everyone from John Starks to Bill Clinton.

And while one game is never enough to judge a product, it was one game that left me not only drooling to dribble, but begging for one thing and one thing only ... more.


Jon Robinson: Why did EA Sports decide after all this time to make a new version of "NBA Jam"?

Trey Smith: Me personally, I would've brought it back a long time ago. [laughs] I think it was just a case of the stars aligning. We as a studio were looking for a new game to bring to the Wii that really captured what we think the Wii does best, and that's bring people together and have a lot of fun. In addition to that, we were looking to create another basketball game. We have "NBA Live" to capture the simulation side of basketball, but we wanted something to dive into the arcade basketball space, and "NBA Jam" was and always will be the quintessential arcade basketball experience. It just so happened that we got to talk to our friends at the NBA and locked down the license, and ever since then we've been trucking full throttle trying to make the best "NBA Jam" revival game we can.

Jon Robinson: The license was owned by both Midway and Acclaim in the past, but both companies have since filed for bankruptcy. How did EA Sports acquire the license from the NBA? Did the NBA take the license back after the bankruptcies?

Trey Smith: That's a really good question and I'd love to know myself how everything came to play, but all I know is we were making a basketball game at the time using the code name "Bounce," and we had this little freak-out in front of the suits. We told them we were always going to be compared to "NBA Jam" because "Bounce" was also a two-on-two NBA basketball game, so we said, "Why don't we just make 'NBA Jam'?" It was at that point when we started sniffing around to find out exactly who owned the license. We were pleasantly surprised to find out it was the NBA, and when we asked them if we could use it, they said, "Absolutely." The night we found out, we partied pretty hard. We were like, "Woo-hoo, we're making 'NBA Jam'!" But the next morning we woke up and were like, "Uh oh, what did we just get ourselves into?" We're remaking one of the most storied franchises of all time. What a daunting thing to have in front of us, but we're a great team, a super passionate team, and we're all gamers who loved the original "Jam." We couldn't be more psyched than at the challenge we have in front of us, and we're dedicated to meeting and exceeding all of the expectations that are out there.

Jon Robinson: What do you think it is about the gameplay that makes people continue to come back after all these years?

Trey Smith: As a fan of the original, it was just elegantly simple, but there was so much depth to it the more you got to play. Anyone can hop in and shoot the ball, pass the ball, and even dunk, but then it's kind of like an onion, and as you start to go through the layers, then you figure out stuff like the shove and how a really well-placed shove can stop a fast break or interrupt a jump shot. And then, where it goes even further, and this is something we've really been dipping our toes into, and that's the player differentiation. This was a big deal in the original "Jam" not just on the character screen where you could actually see who each guy was ... remember, this was the first game where players weren't just blobs on the screen, you could actually tell who they were just by their faces. In our game, just like the old game, every single player plays differently.

You played your game as LeBron, but if you played as Shaq, it's like you're playing a different game. All of a sudden you're playing the big man role underneath, you're blocking shots like crazy, you're not shooting 3s, and your locomotion is a little slower.

So to go full circle on your question, "Jam's" gameplay is twitch, it's elegant, and I think the player differentiation really keeps you coming back hour after hour and day after day."

Jon Robinson: What game modes can people expect with the new "NBA Jam"?

Trey Smith: We've got your Play Now, which is just for that quick session if you've got 10 minutes and want to play a quick game before you go out with your friends. We've got Classic Campaign, which is that pure "NBA Jam" experience you remember. Just that pure "Jam" that takes you back to your happy place. Then we have Remix Tour, and for us, that's our chance to add some new stuff and spice things up a bit. Maybe play with the camera a little bit, change some game rules, maybe change some win conditions. This is where we really build a campaign mode based on six or seven game modes that are all still based on those core gameplay mechanics that you play in "Jam" but you tweak them a little bit to offer a "Jam" experience that you've never had before. This is something we've been working on and have already tested with some focus groups and the response has really been spectacular. They love this new way to play "Jam." They still love Classic, and that's what we want, but for those people who want more, that's what Remix Tour is all about.

Jon Robinson: What are some of these new mechanics?

Trey Smith: I'd love to tell you that, but I can't discuss this until a later date. There's still some stuff in flux, so I don't want to let you know about something that we end up cutting, but I'll be happy to fill you in on this as soon as I can.

Jon Robinson: Fans have been voting on who they want to see in the game, but if "NBA Jam" doesn't come out until next season, how are you going to handle all of the changes to the roster due to free agents and the incoming rookies. Will they be hidden characters? If my team drafts John Wall and he's not in the game, I'm going to be really mad.

Trey Smith: That's a really good point, and it's a tricky thing with all of these rosters. But the rookies and all this stuff, yes we'll have secret characters, and yeah we'll have some slots for them. We're not committing to anything right now, but obviously we know how important the rookies are and how important it is to get the rosters right. At the same time, we need to ship the game, so we're going to do our best to cram as many people as we can into the game and have them all on the right teams. We're going to do as much as we physically can before this game goes out the door.

Jon Robinson: Back in the old days, Bill Clinton was a hidden character in "NBA Jam." Now that we actually have a president who plays basketball, will we see an Obama character in the game?

Trey Smith: [laughs] You know, I can't talk about anything in particular right now, but what I can tell you is that we are as absolutely dedicated to being as true to the original "NBA Jam" as we possibly can. Chances are, if you have an idea of somebody who needs to be in "Jam," we've had the same idea and we're going to do our best to make it happen.

Jon Robinson: Back then, they didn't even worry about licenses, they just threw whoever they wanted in the game.

Trey Smith: Back then, it was like the Wild Wild West. They didn't worry about lawyers, they just threw whoever they wanted in "Jam." It's a whole new ballgame now. You have no idea how many different forms and signoffs it takes to get somebody into the game, and because of that, you have to start really early. And a lot of times it's sad, because you don't get to pull off some of those characters, but we're pushing hard. We have a list of people we want to get and we're pushing hard to get them in the game.

Jon Robinson: EA hired Mark Turmell, the original mastermind behind the classic "NBA Jam" and "NFL Blitz" franchises. How big of a help has he been on this "Jam" revival?

Trey Smith: He's been awesome. We were actually working on the game for about six months before we found out he was working at EA Tiburon. It was one of those things where as soon as we heard he was hired, we got ahold of him right away and told him, "Hey, I don't know if you've heard, but we're making 'Jam' and we'd love to run some stuff by you." He was like, "Oh yeah, I was waiting for you guys to call." So we did a videoconference meeting, pitched him what we wanted to do with the game, and over videoconference, it's almost like meeting George Lucas and telling him what you have in mind for the revival of "Star Wars." [laughs] It was pretty scary. This guy could hate me. This guy could ruin me. But it actually went really, really well, and I think what brought us all together is how we were all in love with the original "NBA Jam." We were so passionate about bringing it back and bringing it back to its roots, and we want to bring it back, not only for the hard core, but to this brand-new audience of gamers. I think that really brought us together.

A few weeks after that conference call, he flew up here [EA Canada], and hung out with the team for three days. He was sitting with our programmers for hours on end, and the thing is, Mark Turmell wasn't just the designer, he was also the lead programmer of the original "NBA Jam," so he still knows all the code. He was spitting out tables from memory on shot percentage and steal percentage. He had all the tables still in his head and dropped them right on our laps. We were like, "Wow!" That's information that we never, never, never would've had no matter how much we dissected the original ROM. Since then, he's been playing builds and constantly giving us feedback. He's due to make another trip up here pretty soon to see what we're up to, and he's been here for us all along the way and really challenging us.

One thing he was really adamant about was getting us to 60 frames per second on the Wii. We knew it was going to be tough, but our team took the challenge and went and did it. The build you were playing was 30 frames, but we're going to be at 60 when we ship, and it's so silky-smooth. That's one point where Turmell just said, "I cannot tell you how important it is for this game to ship at 60 frames per second." We thought he was insane for bringing it up because of how good the game already looked, but now it looks even better. That's just a clear example of Turmell. He's more than just a consultant. He's an advocate and he's been here to guide us and influence us through development. The game is absolutely so much better because of his involvement.

Jon Robinson: One thing that sticks out about the new game is the look. You have 3-D bodies, but 2-D heads with different facial expressions. How did this look come about?

Trey Smith: One of the things that really stood out about the original "Jam" was the art style. At the time, all the other sports games were just a bunch of blobs running around the screen. "Jam" was the first game where I remember running my character along the bottom of the screen so I could see a guy like Karl Malone and what he looked like in the game. That player recognition was so huge, and using those digitized faces was a huge part of the original "NBA Jam" that we wanted to use that, but utilize the 17 years of experience and technology that we have available to us to capture that vibe. That's when the idea came up to use 3-D bodies, where we can still get the cool animations, but using 2-D, high-resolution images for the player heads. Originally, it was just one head, but then we got the idea where what if, when LeBron went in to dunk, instead of looking at the basket, he mugged it up for the camera and did a dunk face. And that made us all laugh. So then we thought, what if when you got shoved, you made a pain face when you hit the floor. From there we wanted to add a confident clutch shot face if you're taking that last-second buzzer-beater.

It was actually really funny when we were pitching all of this to the executives. They were like, "What are you guys doing? This will never work." [laughs] But then we had a couple of key members of the team put some videos together and really proved the idea out by putting it in motion. We've had a lot of comments on our screen shots where people doubt our game can look this good, but the screen shots don't even do the game justice. You need to see it in motion. When you see it move and you see that real-time player emotion happen in the middle of a dunk ... and these are actual faces from each player that we're bringing into the game. It's really exciting. We wanted to see if we could create a real-time highlight. Yes, it's risky, but we think it's something that's going to pay off. And we're really proud that people see this as us standing on the shoulders of the giants who made the original "Jam" and using that game to influence where we took the art style for the new game.

Jon Robinson: Is there one face in particular that always makes you laugh?

Trey Smith: The one that stands out for me is this one face they put in for Shaq. He's crossing his eyes and sticking his tongue out. I don't know if Shaq even realizes this, but from the photo reference we saw, Shaq likes to go all cross-eyed and stick his tongue out when he dunks. That face in particular always makes me laugh, and where the faces really shine are in big-head mode. We're going to have big-head mode, and in it, you can see the expressions that much better. Once you put the big heads on there, that's when the faces really become funny.

Jon Robinson: When people hear that the game is coming to the Wii, it makes a lot of the hard-core fans worry about silly waggle controls. Will the original control scheme be offered as well as playing the game with the gestures?

Trey Smith: Yeah, you can do both. If you want to play with the gestures, we didn't go crazy, and we feel we have the gestures in there that have the responsiveness, but at the same time enhance the experience. But that being said, we took some really big lessons from "Punch Out." I played "Punch Out" with the gestures at first, but it just didn't feel right. So I just grabbed the Wii-mote and flipped it sideways, and to play with the old-school controls, that's what brought me back to my happy place. We want to do the same thing with "Jam." You can play with gestures if you want to, but you can also flip the controller sideways and play the game just like you did on the Super Nintendo.