"NBA 2K13" producer Rob Jones has the smile of a man who knows something the rest of the room doesn't.
Standing behind closed doors at the E3 video game conference, he is about to hit the power to showcase 2K's latest basketball game. But before we're able to see the virtual Heat take the court, he pauses to address what we're about to witness.
"Everyone wondered how we were going to top 'NBA 2K11,' but we did it with '12,'" he says, "and we're about to top ourselves again with 'NBA 2K13.' The way we look at it is the sky is the limit in terms of basketball. We're focusing so hard on delivering the best basketball experience out there. We're here to deliver the finest gameplay while staying true to the sport."
As he flips on the game, the first thing I notice is the quicker pace in "NBA 2K13." Not only are all of the players moving faster on screen, but they also seem to be running the fast break more fluidly, even dribbling with the ball out in front of their bodies a bit more. When LeBron James swoops in for a dunk and is met body to body at the rim, you can tell that a lot of work went into improving the collisions in the game by the way LeBron tried to brace himself for the crash landing.
"That's one of the things we really wanted to improve," said Jones. "To the naked eye, the visuals will be very familiar to what people have seen, but the experience as a user of playing the game is wildly different. Mostly, we've achieved a much better balance when you’re playing defense.
"The biggest thing for us this year is giving you way more control while at the same time not losing anything, and that's tough considering there are only so many buttons and sticks. But I think we've achieved this, and we've achieved it in spades. We really feel like the gameplay experience has jumped significantly from '2K12' to '2K13,' and that's what we’re most excited about."
The 2K engineers were able to deliver the "NBA" engine far ahead of schedule this year, so the production team started gameplay sessions earlier than normal, enabling them to tune and tweak.
"Why do we tweak stuff so much?" Jones asked to the room. "Because this allows us to get things into the game that weren't possible the year before, whether it's the controls or the experience on the court. You'll see more physicality on defense. We've really worked on the way players collide and fall, and we've done a lot of work on the way players react on court during the game.
"We want to make people alive this year. We always talk about it, but we scheduled out the whole team for a certain amount of time just to bring more emotion into the experience. Last year if you hit a buzzer-beater, there would be a pause as everyone stood around, then they reacted. Fixing little things like that will help elevate the emotional level throughout the game. We want to keep the emotions high at all times. We're always so obsessed with how many new shots we could add or how many new dribble moves we could add, but this emotional aspect is a huge component to individuals jumping into our game."
Jones said the controls this year will be simpler for first-time users, as 2K Sports tries to attract a wider audience to its award-winning franchise while not sacrificing what has made the game so lauded by hoop-heads worldwide.
"I think we're going to deliver a game that's more casual, but deeper all at the same time," said Jones. "A casual guy will be able to do everything in our game and enjoy it and think that's he's cool, but then he'll get his butt kicked by someone who really understands how the mechanics work."
Adding to the game's buzz is the addition of All-Star Weekend events via preorder. This allows gamers to bust out the ultimate dunk contest between current stars such as LeBron and Blake Griffin as they take on legends like Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Showing off the new mode, the screen turned to a "Rock Band"-like interface, where gamers were forced to hit a sequence of buttons as they scrolled down the screen in order to deliver the intensity slams from self-alley-oops to leapfrogging a teammate while throwing down the jam.
Gamers who create their own baller in My Player mode will also have the opportunity to see that rising star take part in all events, showing the world what a kid with a green Mohawk or red mullet can do when shooting 3s against the likes of Larry Bird or in a dunk-off against M.J.
"My Player is the most-played and most-loved mode in all of 'NBA 2K,'" said Jones. "The 3-point contest and the dunk contest are only available to you in My Player if you get this pre-sell, and it's really great to see this integration. We strive to deliver experiences that really fit together, and when you get invited to participate in All-Star Weekend, it really just adds to the excitement of what you're doing in the game.
"For those gamers who have been there every year, we wanted to reward them with something cool, and that's All-Star Weekend. For us, this just adds to our mission for 'NBA 2K13.' We're here to deliver top-notch gameplay and compelling features, and while we can't reveal too much so early in development, we know when we do make our big reveals, we’re going to deliver something special."