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NBA meets Pokémon Go: Inside the augmented-reality game NBA All-World

NBA meets Pokémon Go: Inside the augmented-reality game NBA All-World

In January, the NBA and NBPA launched NBA All-World – an officially licensed geolocation augmented-reality basketball game with Niantic, the creators of Pokémon Go. 

Just like with Pokémon Go, users are encouraged to explore neighborhoods around the world and encounter today’s NBA stars. Users can challenge the NBA players one-on-one, add them to their team, level them up and compete to become the ruler of real-world courts, while also collecting gear from well-known brands (such as adidas, Puma and Todd Snyder).

BasketballNews recently caught up with Marcus Matthews, the senior producer of NBA All-World. Prior to joining Niantic, Matthews spent the last few decades working on various sports video games including the original NBA 2K, NFL 2K, NHL 2K and NBA Action 98.

In this Q&A, Matthews opened up about the inspiration for the game, lessons that Niantic learned from Pokémon Go, the future of video games, advice for anyone who wants to work on video games and more.

How did this idea come about and what was the inspiration behind NBA All-World?

Marcus Matthews: “I’ve been at Niantic for about two years now and the inspiration for the game came from our CEO, John Hanke, who is an avid basketball fan. He played high-school basketball in Texas and he’d play pick-up regularly in college at Berkeley, and even now since he joined Google and Niantic. At NBA All-Star Weekend, we had a couple of pick-up games with Hanke and other employees. Overall, he’s a huge basketball fan. And with Hanke’s experience with Google Earth and map-based, location-based gaming, he was always just trying to find a way to bring his love and passion for basketball to this new platform. My background in sports games goes back more than 20 years including being the senior producer on the original NBA 2K and NFL 2K on the Sega Dreamcast. I’ve always tried to look at the cutting edge with sports games and not just copy what’s already here, but try to move the industry forward. 

“So when I heard about this opportunity, I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Here we are with this new way of gaming, of turning the real world into a gaming board, literally, and that’s the future: connecting the real world with digital bits and integrating them and having all of these novel experiences. And I was like, ‘Nobody has done that in sports. This is an opportunity to once again create a ground-breaking sports gaming experience.’ And those kinds of opportunities only come around every blue moon, with the right technology, funding, resources and team. And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s jump in. Let’s see what we can figure out.’ So I came in and it was in gestation for probably about a year or two before I got there. My role was just to bring that sports-gaming, basketball experience and merge that with what was already existing, so we could create a novel experience.”

When Niantic created Pokémon Go, it was a huge success and introduced AR games to a lot of people. Since this game is similar, were there any lessons that you all learned from Pokémon Go that helped you while working on NBA All-World?

Matthews: “Absolutely. Pokémon Go was an absolute overnight success, but there were still some challenges that they ran into. We wanted to make sure that we took the good learnings (from Pokémon Go) and try to avoid upfront the negative learnings that come with building something outdoors. Probably the biggest challenge of building any kind of outdoor experience is trying to break that obvious habit of just playing games where you’re at. It’s not a console, it’s mobile, so you have access to the whole world and environment right there on your screen. And our game isn’t really a screen-only experience, so we were just trying to get users out of the habit of just doing everything on the screen. We’re really trying to connect real-world places with authentic experiences for your player. If there’s a bank or ATM in your area, you can go get money for your player in our game. If there’s a shoe store near you, you can go get shoes for your character. If there’s a clothing store or department store near you, you can go get apparel, shirts and pants for your player. If you’re out and about, you want to remember to open up this game because there may be some unique things out in the world that may not be available at your home or your job. There are different things you may discover. That’s the main thing: (helping users understand that) it’s a whole new way of interacting with the world. We really want to enhance and improve users’ experience by tying real-world locations to virtual-world locations. We just think that’s so novel, so different and so new. I think that’s going to be the foundation of a lot of games moving forward.

“And the other biggest challenge that we had was probably just the randomness of the real world. With traditional games, when you lay out a world or environment, you have total control over where every object goes and how users are going to interact in it. We had to kind of abstract that out, like, ‘Okay, well we’ve got this city that has a lot of real-world game objects that we can use. But when you’re in the suburbs or rural areas, there are fewer items for us to tag and for you to interact with – whether it’s a court or a shoe drop or a boost or an energy or an arena pass. Now, we’ve got to get a little more creative. How do we balance out the experience for people who live in different kinds of environments in terms of density? We’ve been learning a lot and pulled a lot from Pokémon Go on those items like real-world game boarding, how to (get) our players out into the world and how to balance that all out. There was definitely a lot that we learned from our other games.”

NBA All-World hosted some real-world events at All-Star Weekend like a pick-up game and meet-up, where attendees were able to access special content and drops in the game. In the future, I could see this becoming a cool way to reward users who attend NBA games and events. Are you planning to do more stuff like that in the future?

Matthews: “Absolutely! That’s an automatic in the playbook that we’re going to use because that’s what makes our game different – the fact that you can play our game in the world and you can get unique experiences. We can control the drops, and we can allow the user to do all kinds of cool things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do in other locations. We want people to go outside and explore and game, so the more live events we can host and get people to engage in, the more powerful it’ll be for our game and our audience.”

Do you think these augmented-reality games are the future of video games? What do you see as the future of gaming?

Matthews: “That’s an awesome question. I think it is by far the most realistic, tangible new area of gaming. I think Pokémon Go is a perfect example of what can be done because it can be well-monetized and create a great experience that literally hundreds of millions or even a billion people can enjoy. I really feel like AR is proving to be the next wave. But just like there were only console games before mobile games came out, console games are not going away (even though) mobile gaming is growing into its own thing. I think this will be like the third big wave or area of gaming, so we’ll have console gaming, more mobile gaming and then this area that’s going to expand over the next decade around exploration and connecting digital to the real world, and gaming is going to lead that charge. There will be other apps and experiences that will fall out of that, but the big, main utility that makes business sense is going to be gaming and it’s going to become its own vertical. I don’t see (AR) replacing anything or eliminating the other categories, I just think it’s going to be its own thing alongside the other existing categories.”

I know the game is still relatively new, but what’s been the reception from the audience?

Matthews: “I’ve been actually pleasantly surprised with the initial media response and consumer response. We've been in the top five on the app stores for free-to-play sports games and we have a 4.8 rating in the app stores. There are numerous things and features that are coming in the future, and we’re going to make a big push for next NBA season to really round out the experience, but we’re very, very pleased with the initial response. For me, I think the biggest thing is that people realize that the sports-gaming world is different from the Pokémon world. We’ve made a game that was organically built from the ground up around basketball fans and basketball players, and we’ve made that world work. It’s not just a straight copy of another game; we’ve built this game organically and from the ground up around that.

"And the beauty of basketball is that A) it’s played outside and B) it’s naturally played in groups of friends. Our game does both very well. When I was growing up in Jacksonville, FL, as a kid, me and my friends would walk to the neighborhood park and go play basketball for a few hours in the summer and hang out. Now, my son does that with his friends. But now, not only is there an opportunity to play real basketball, you can also play this game while you happen to be at the court and see what’s around and maybe gain some new players. What we’re hoping to do is get people, especially kids, back out to real-world courts to play not just our game but also real basketball. That would be the ultimate impact that I hope this game could have.”

You mentioned that some new features will be rolled out next season. Can you share any new features that are coming or things that you hope to add to the game?

Matthews: “We have a lot of things on the list, but it’s too early to say (when they’ll be added) in the second half of the year, so I don’t want to get into any specifics. We’re working through all of the feedback and different ideas that didn’t make it at launch. But one feature that we’re going to ramp up before next season that’s going to be a major push is camera-based AR experiences in the game. We’re going to have some things coming down the pike later on this year that are going to expand what I like to call our ‘basketball theme park.’ This is a platform that can be built on top of, so just like Disney World, we’re always going to be expanding the experiences in our park. This game is really a virtual-world game at its core, so we’re going to be adding on more pieces and just building on the experience as we go.”

This is Niantic’s first officially licensed sports game. Are there any plans to launch similar games with other sports leagues?

Matthews: “I mean, I wouldn’t rule out any expansion of this sports-gaming experience that we developed. To your point, expansion could include other sports. Right now, we’re totally focused on making the basketball experience as great as possible, but we’re definitely open to future opportunities and expansion.”

I saw that Karl-Anthony Towns, Jordan Poole and other players were part of the game’s launch. What has been the response or reception from NBA players? 

Matthews: “I think they’re interested. Games like 2K and Madden have been around for 20+ years and the players who grew up on those are always looking for the next thing, and everyone was aware of Pokémon Go and its success. So, yeah, Jordan Poole, Karl-Anthony Towns and those guys have been really interested in how their player looks, what their player’s moves are, when we’re going to update it to add more moves, so they’re really interested in the world and how they’re represented. Today, not only do people care about their real-world representation, they really care about their virtual representation. They want to make sure that the player looks and moves like they move. We’ve gotten really good buy-in (from players) and I’m very confident that as we add onto this game, we’re going to get more and more players engaging and wanting their likenesses and movements to be part of the experience. And that’s the beauty of this, it’s a system that’s set up to scale and be built upon, and we’re going to relish that.”

You’ve had a very successful career and worked on some incredible games. What advice would you give to someone who wants to work on video games?

Matthews: “I give talks at high schools and colleges about breaking into the video-game industry and I went to Georgia Tech, even though Atlanta isn’t known as a video-game hub. But ever since middle school, I was coding with friends and trying to make games on my own. When I got to college in the early ‘90s, there wasn’t any kind of video-game major or anything like that. This was actually before the internet really kicked in. But I was really passionate about making games, it was just something innate in me. So whenever I had a class project or assignment that was flexible, I would try to do it around video games. In my spare time, I would start designing sports video games because I love sports, I love games and technology. I would just play around with my own gaming ideas. Luckily, in Atlanta, there was an education games company there, so after I graduated, I figured, ‘That’s close enough. I’d rather do that than be a consultant or an engineer at a plant or something.’ So I went with my passion; I didn’t know where it was going to take me. Then, after work, I’d just work on my own sports-game designs and I started working on a prototype with some friends.

"This is an entertainment business, so it’s kind of like movies and music where you kinda have to do short films or demos to showcase your talent. And when people see that, they see that you can help them. So I was working on my designs and saw that there were some weaknesses with the current sports games. They didn’t feel like the folks who actually played sports were programming and designing them. So, I did a lot of work and then got lucky. A friend of mine went from IBM to Sega and a couple years later, they needed a sports producer and he reached out: ‘Hey Marcus, I know you’ve been working on these sports-game designs and doing all of this stuff on the side.’ I sent my resume to the head of sports and got flown out for an interview. We talked for two-and-a-half hours and I told him everything that was wrong with the games and how I would improve them, and two weeks later, they hired me.

"But it took five or six years or more of working on designs on my own time and just diving into the space and waiting for the right opportunity. I was going to all of the conferences back then like GDC (when it had just started) and E3 and just networking to try and get that big break. It’s a tough business to break into – especially being in Atlanta – but you have to do the extra work. Don’t think you can just go to school, get your degree and then work on sports games. It’s going to take more than that – whether you’re an artist, a programmer, a producer or a designer.”

NBA All-World is available now in the app store and it's free to play.

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