How NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 revamps the old-school arcade basketball formula
While the game is published by 2K Games, who also published the more simulation-focused NBA 2K19, Heussner explains that Saber Interactive set out to deliver a more accessible title, "NBA 2K19 is an impressive simulation of the sport. The whole franchise is brilliant and improves year over year, but sometimes players just want to have fun, ballin’ around. Or perhaps play with someone that isn’t a very technical gamer," the lead producer remarks, adding "This is where NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 comes into the picture." While Heussner noted that "Playgrounds doesn’t want to simulate the sport," the studio still wanted to infuse plenty of depth to the title, "It’s about bringing a deep, challenging arcade experience to the players."
As the title denotes, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is the second game in the series from Saber Interactive. For the sequel, the developer took numerous feedback from their initial installment. "After the release of the original NBA Playgrounds, we browsed the forums, looked closely at the comments from our fans on social media and read every user review. We then talked about things we’d like to improve and what we want to bring to our players, but hadn’t had the time to implement before release. Almost immediately after the launch, we started working on patches that brought more players and playgrounds to the game, along with improving the gameplay, such as the shot meter and an improved rebound system. We never wanted to rest, but continued to improve on what we built," stated Heussner. Saber Interactive also implemented input from the community into the game, "The fans of the original, which included some very prominent sports gaming YouTubers, were very vocal. It was no secret what refinements and additions they were looking for. It greatly influenced the design of NBA 2K Playgrounds 2, and throughout development, we checked and listened to feedback. We let these fans into our closed beta, which was crucial in terms of reality checking things as we finalized the game."
As a result of their research and modifications, Playgrounds 2 is better than its predecessor in numerous ways. "We added dedicated servers for the online modes, the season mode to play with your favorite team, the championships, a new way to compete or play together online, vanity items to personalize your players, and improved all core mechanics to create an even deeper and more enjoyable gameplay experience," Heussner exclaimed, adding "There are more playgrounds, more players, more moves, and it looks better."
To improve the visuals, Saber Interactive literally went back to the drawing board. "We started the development of each character and playground by creating concepts that captured an exaggerated, yet realistic look. These concepts captured the atmosphere and defined the desired aesthetic. Afterward, our artists worked with these concepts as guidelines and quality checks to ensure that the final results look similar and, most importantly, capture the same over-the-top magic and atmosphere," the producer stated.
One aspect that makes the visuals pop are Playgrounds 2's top-notch VFX. Players will be showered with impressive displays of fire from slam dunks, snow particles from icy regions like Russia, and lens-flares. The studio poured in a considerable amount of time getting these details right. "We started by making a basic list of the effects we needed for the interface environment and for the 3D gameplay of the game," Heussner stated, continuing, "We went on a search for references (similar video games, Artstation, cinema, etc...). This part of the VFX development, along with the final refining of the effect, usually takes most of the development time." He added, "Once we had enough references, the prototyping of the effect began… something basic, functional and without worrying too much about optimization.” This provided the developer with some direction. “Needless to say, several prototypes usually had to be developed for a single effect before the final style for this particular effect was found and could be defined. Once the prototype was defined, we started to iterate on it, making versions that were visually more appealing and optimized for performance," the producer stated. On a technical level, Heussner noted that the studio "used deformations of simple geometries, displacements of UVs, particle systems, shaders, and similar techniques."
Saber Interactive also spent a lot of time producing the 10 new colorful, animated playground courts. For instance, balling on Santa Monica beach, players will see a large spinning ferris wheel in the background. Shooting hoops in San Francisco, you'll see the city's iconic trolley moving along the street. Not only do all of these levels offer a nice change of scenery, but they're all based on real-world locations, which Heussner asserts are "an integral part of the experience." The producer elaborated, "These elements help the world come alive and feel real," adding, "While being an arcade game, we still wanted it to feel like something real to create a unique connection between the game and the sport."
Playground 2's new animation system bolsters its graphics with ludicrous dunks that involve aerial backflips and robust character interactions on the court. On these additions, Heussner explained, "The two biggest changes were the implementation of a system that allowed the players to move their heads and look at their team partners and a system to mirror animations so that left and right-handed players could be supported as well as actions that allowed the ball to be played back and forth between different hands. This created more realism and was one of the big requests from players of the first game." To achieve this, Saber Interactive leaned on the Unreal Engine Marketplace, "For mirroring the animations, we started our implementation with a plugin from the Unreal Marketplace, which proved very useful. Overall in our animation system, we used a system to predict the position of a bone, so that related animations could be scaled correctly to the circumstances." Regarding UE4’s helpfulness here, he elaborated, "Our animation system makes extensive use of Unreal's native animation tools and uses montages and anim notifiers to create the animation sets for all the different actions that can be performed by players."
Revamping the AI was another big focus for Saber Interactive. In their initial installment, savvy players could exploit certain moves, but the developer was adamant to fix these issues while creating a better all-around play experience. "We wanted the AI to feel more tactical. In the first game, some techniques allowed the player to easily score and avoid the AI. We addressed these scenarios and checked for further improvements by watching people play our game. Our goal was to make the game feel more natural, but still honoring the arcade style."
The studio achieved its numerous goals with the help of Unreal Engine 4, which eased their job according to Heussner. "Many tools have been very helpful in the development process of our game: the build automation system, the whole animation system (we have extensively used the animation montage system, the animation debugger, re-targeting, etc.), the memory profiler, and the gameplay profiler," he exclaimed.
Considering NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is available across PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, the producer also praised Unreal Engine 4 for easing the porting process, "In general, UE4 makes the development of multi-platform games easy." In terms of specifics, he added, "The most valuable aspects regarding the multi-platform support of UE4 is the almost perfect TRC/XR/Lotcheck fulfillment and the UDN support. Besides those aspects, the settings-driven content adaptation for each platform saved us a lot of production time, helping us minimize the production of specific assets for each platform."
Fans of NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 can expect much more content in the future with Heussner stating, "we’re planning to add some existing features to the game as well as more playgrounds as we did with the Halloween DLC. Also, more NBA players will be made available to our community. A lot more DLC is coming!"
NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is full of fun, satisfying gameplay and is available now. For more information on the game, visit https://nba.2k.com/playgrounds/.
If you'd like to experiment making your own UE4-powered project, download Unreal Engine for free now.