NBA 2K19 gameplay director Mike Wang doesn't think sports games have capped out the current generation. But we are getting close. "It's advances in technology that breed new features," he says. "We're at the tail end of the generation, we've learned a lot, and we've taken these consoles to the limit. Well, maybe not to the limit, but pretty far."
Wang is speaking in response to a question that's been much on my mind lately: What will the PS5 and the Xbox Two (or whatever Microsoft ends up calling its next console) mean for games? What sorts of problems can they solve? These are questions that are especially pertinent for sports sims, which typically utilize every last ounce of power a console has to offer.
With the current generation of consoles clearly on the downward slope, it's a question that will increasingly concern developers going forward. Without hard specs, it's difficult for them to make specific predictions about the future of gaming. But they can talk a bit about the bottlenecks that heftier hardware will help alleviate.
According to Wang, NBA 2K's current tech can outstrip the capabilities of the PS4 and Xbox One. "For me, the nut that needs to be cracked is things like improved physics, faster hardware that can run some heavy computations that we're trying to do. That's gonna affect a lot of things: improved physics models, improved foot planting. Some of the tech we run is pretty expensive, and to run it, sometimes we have to dial it back," he says. "For example, how often we change animations or things like that. So I'm excited to see what more powerful hardware can do in speeding those things up so we can push more content and do it faster."
New consoles could also mean big things for artificial intelligence. Case in point: Madden NFL's offensive line play, a major sore point for the series on the Xbox 360 and PS3, is now arguably a strength. With the help of more powerful CPUs, players are far more adept at working together to block rushers, and more importantly, getting to the second level and springing runners.
In NBA 2K, improvements to A.I. have made it easier to accurately reflect the playstyles of different teams, Wang says. "Our AI producers spend a lot of time talking to scouts and coaches to understand the systems they're running. The hardware is able to process those decisions for every frame of every game for 10 players at a time, which was something we couldn't do before," he explains. "We're in our third year of the adaptive coaching engine, and while there have been some growing pains, It's grown leaps and bounds. It's gotten to the point where just understanding some of the sets that are being run is a big advantage because you know what they run in real life."
It's in that area that Wang feels NBA 2K has made the biggest strides over the past generation. He notes that if you rewind time five years to NBA 2K14, you'll see the difference clearly. "Things like getting better motion capture. Being able to add to the library of moves over the years. Improving facial animation," Wang says. "Those little details that aren't a reason to improve your console, but as a total package make it obvious that the game has come a long way."
Over at EA, the NHL team is thinking somewhat more broadly. While creative director William Ho isn't able to get into specifics about what the next-generation of consoles will offer, he dwells at length on social features and sharing. "For me personally, I love customization. I've spent a large amount of my career making games that enable lots of customization, so I think we'll see a lot more on that front. We'll see a lot more community around those creations. We'll see a lot more sharing of those creations. And we'll also see creations not just visually, but modes. Experiences. Different rulesets. Rosters. How can we get people who are super passionate about hockey to share their hockey fantasies? So that's the direction we're going to push in the future."
Sharing has definitely become a big part of the sports game experience over the course of the generation. Madden lets you share playbooks, and this year, custom draft classes. NBA 2K lets you download logos to customize expansion teams. Oddly, sports sims are still somewhat behind on the sharing front. Consider the difference between, say, Madden, and a game like Forza Horizon, which is built on everything from custom race rules to unique paint jobs.
As it stands, sports sims still have plenty of areas in which to improve both on and off the field, the court, and the pitch. Games like MLB The Show and NBA 2K look more realistic, but there are improvements to be made in the presentation, strategy, and tiny details like how players interact with one another. Just this year, EA introduced the new "real player motion" engine, which is meant to overhaul the animation, and so far it's paid off. Madden 19 has its share of bugs, but hardcore players have praised the balance of the gameplay. NHL 19 is winning praise for similar improvements. And thus far, FIFA 19 feels better, too.
Looking ahead to next generation, FIFA creative director Matthew Prior speaks broadly about the need to keep pushing for that most elusive goal: absolute realism. "Obviously, we try to push technology to it's furthest. The more memory, the more processing power, the more we can replicate the real world of football. Ultimately, we have a bar to aim at, and that is what football looks and plays and feels like in the real world. Until we're at a point where you can't differentiate between watching a real game and watching FIFA, we'll always be trying to hit that mark," he says. "Whether the next generation of consoles take the graphical abilities to that kind of level, who knows. Obviously if you look at each iteration of past hardware, the step up from FIFA has been huge. We would hope for a similar leap forward in any future consoles."
Will the Next Generation Spell the End of Annualized Versions of NBA 2K and FIFA?
We may begin hearing about the next generation of consoles as soon as next year. When that happens, the excitement within the sports game community will be palpable as fans dream of the enhancements that will make their favorite sims that much more realistic. But there is a potential downside: A rough transition can set a series back years. Madden 06 is an infamous example. NHL is only just now recovering from its disastrous move to the PS4 and Xbox One.
The next generation will also force sports sims developers to answer certain questions about the genre's long-term future. Can the annual sports sim model last much longer? If not, how will sports sims be distributed? Through subscriptions? One developer I spoke with casually suggested that modes in games like Madden could be broken up and sold separately in the future. Is that the future?
And if the forthcoming generational transition is anything like the last one, some sims are bound to get lost along the way. MLB 2K and NCAA Football both failed to make the leap last generation, succumbing to entropy and legal issues respectively. One wonders whether Pro Evolution Soccer or NBA Live will be able to navigate the potentially rocky road to the PS5 and Xbox Two.
Whatever happens, the next generation will represent an inflection point for sports sims. Games like NBA 2K will be more realistic, but the way we consume them may also be totally different. And how it all ends up shaking out will say a lot about not just sports sims, but the future of gaming as a whole.