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John Vignocchi talks NBA Ballers

Stepping up to the caliber of EA’s NBA Street franchise was no easy feat. However, the success of NBA Ballers, one of several successful titles released this year, proved Midway had ultimately got their A-game back in gear. Impressed by their achievement, we took the opportunity to get in touch with our friends at Midway to arrange an interview with one of the Ballers’ development team members. Unfortunately, extenuating circumstances prevented us from bringing the article into the limelight, mostly attributed to a certain snafu of a popular e-mail application. To our surprise, Tim Darosa, Midway Product Relations Manager (who unquestionably knows about being a true team player) saved our asses with the ultimate play of the year by keeping the document on ice while we kicked our PC across the court.

Without further ado, we present our interview session with NBA Ballers’ designer, John Vignocchi, who shares his insight about Midway’s sensational b-ball release.

We know that NBA Ballers gained much of its direction from such classics as NBA Jam and EA’s NBA Street. But what do you feel were significant innovations introduced by Midway?

John Vignocchi: Let me preface my answer with this: Midway wanted a new basketball video game but demanded that it stand out from the crowd. Not only in terms of the graphics and style, but the actual theme and overall feel of the game play. We all jumped into conference room; put our heads together and emerged days later with this killer concept: A 1 on 1 basketball video game. Sounds pretty cool, right?

Fast forward six months and our talented team of artists, animators and programmers have managed to put in all of the fundamental moves of basketball. When we put our hands on the controller for the first time to play it though, we all came to the startling realization that the game wasn’t FUN at all. In concept a 1 on 1 game sounds cool but you’ve got to introduce all of these little innovative game play mechanics to make the game actually fun and interesting to play. So in essence the fact that we managed to pull off making a 1 on 1 basketball game fun and compelling is innovative in-and-of itself! WHAT!

Out of all of the game play mechanics that we introduced to help make Ballers a fun game to play, by far my favorite was the "Act-A-Fool" set of moves. We had seen the other games include these "street" type juke moves but none of them actually had that jaw dropping, laugh-out-loud- "Ohhh DAMN!" reaction that you get when you see a professional street ball athlete performing them on the court. The problem was that our competitors never actually captured the opponent’s reaction to the move – All you got was this generic flail move then you resumed control of your character. What fun is that?

We set out to try and capture this whole "punked" reaction, thus the "Act-A-Fool" move was born. The "Act-A-Fool" move is a marriage of those crazy b-ball juke moves with a control mechanic similar to that of a throw in one of the fighting games – Except in Ballers you can break out of it!

Besides the Act-A-Fool moves, Stunt Dunks, Jukes, Bringing Down The House moves and more, the other real innovation came from our total departure of the stereo typical Midway "arcade" basketball game. Gone are the days of those 50 foot high back-flip cartwheel dunks with completely unrealistic physics, being able to beat the game in 3 days and totally non-culturally relevant themes. NBA Ballers represents the new school days of totally raw dunks using realistic physics, hip and culturally relevant themes, 30+ hours of game play, story lines in a sports game and more. A lot of what brought on the change was the team that created NBA Ballers itself – The team mostly consists of young developers that are HUGE gamers and none of us wanted to see any of the old Midway creep into the product with the exception of that good, clean, fun game play that made the company’s sports franchises famous in the first place. Throw into the mix a few guys that have their finger on the pulse of basketball and urban culture and you’ve got a nice formula for a great team that will bring together an awesome title.

If you have played any previous Midway games, don’t walk into your gaming session with NBA Ballers expecting to see the same old ‘ish - This is Midway’s totally new and fresh take on basketball and please believe our future sports titles will bring the same level of depth and fun as seen in NBA Ballers to their products.

I am sure you’ve followed the level of feedback since NBA Ballers has been available. NFL Street has basically scooped up a significant niche in the arcade b-ball gaming scene. Were you surprised by the amount of positive feedback NBA Ballers has received?

John Vignocchi: The entire team has been pleasantly surprised with the amount of positive feedback that NBA Ballers has received since its stateside release back in April. Nice reviews and positive comments are cool, but what makes all of us really happy is to see the posts from the fans on the message boards. It is totally wild how into the game everyone is and amazing to see how in-tune the true gamers are with the level of depth and complexity that the team put into NBA Ballers. We all actively participate on the boards as much as we can by posting answers to questions and dropping cookies to the Ballers community. It is a totally, totally awesome thing to see so many people into our game.

Tell us a bit about the motion-capture process and working with the NBA athletes. What was that like?

John Vignocchi: Difficult, to say the least. To be an honest game developer I’ve got to tell you that our best motion capture data did not come from NBA athletes but rather from people whom were willing to work, and work hard. The NBA athletes put themselves at risk when they come in to do a motion capture session, so a lot of the time you don’t get great data from them because they don’t want to hurt themselves. Could you imagine Kobe coming in and having to explain to Phil Jackson that the reason why he is out for the rest of the season is because he broke his wrist at attempting to re-create VC’s honey dip dunk during a motion capture shoot at Midway? Exactly...

Every game developer knows (And they are straight face lying to you if you deny it) that they would rather get "Willy Streetballer" up off the courts and bring him in to do motion capture rather than use a professional NBA athlete. While it is a cool little marketing bullet point to say "With motion captured moves by Kobe Bryant!" every real gamer knows that is a line of B.S.

Case and point - If "Willy Streetballer" has a nice looking J, decent ball handling skills and a professional dribble, why pay an NBA superstar booku bucks when you can get the same thing from ‘ole Willy? I can tell you from experience that Willy is going to work a lot harder and take much better direction than your professional NBA athlete as Willy doesn’t pull in 20 million a year and doesn’t mind breaking an ankle to become part of a video game. It’s a dream to be a part of a video game, especially if it ends up being huge!

I was looking forward to NBA Ballers offering online play on Xbox. Over the past year, Xbox Live has garnered a lot of attention and it’s been booming with success. Why was the online component left out of the Xbox edition?

John Vignocchi: Every game developer feeds you the line about not having enough "time" and I’ll tell you that while time was certainly one of the major issues, it is much more than that. When a game team sits down and evaluates the amount of man hours, time to pay those people, the "x" factor of everything that can go wrong Vs. the total install base of Xbox Live and how many more copies of the game you are actually going to sell by supporting Xbox Live, the numbers just don’t add up. We went through the same reasoning and eventually decided that we would rather have included a couple of really cool features that made the game better Vs. Xbox Live.

Word has it that Midway didn’t have a massive budget to license an all-star cast of music talents and the company put out a call for underground talent. This led to bringing aboard MC Supernatural, who also provides the color commentary and his own original soundtrack. Tell us what it was like working with him.

John Vignocchi: Supernat was a total blast to work with - Extremely professional at all times, totally courteous and a brilliant MC. Even after each recording session here at Midway, Supernat and I would go out to dinner and hit a few clubs. He is really down to earth and a great friend.

I was introduced to him back in November of 2000 during his stop here in Chicago on the Word Of Mouth tour. We had asked the rap group Jurassic 5 to create an exclusive track for NBA Ballers and after the show Charlie 2na (Of J5) gave me the intro to ‘Nat. After seeing and hearing Supernatural freestyle on stage I knew he was the guy we had to get as our on-court announcer for NBA Ballers. He brought so much to the game and we couldn’t have done it without him.

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