SAN FRANCISCO—With every year of the Game Developers Conference, there comes a rash of panels. This being a developer- and coder-centric event, they focus largely on niche game-design topics like rendering techniques, procedural generation, and art pipelines. That’s all informative and thorough, well and good, but one animator’s treasure can be another programmer’s trash.
For nerdy panels that have something to offer everyone, we look to GDC’s classic postmortems : the stories of long-ago games from the designers who led the projects and still remember a lot from those ’70s, ’80s, and (now) early ’90s projects.
This year’s two best GDC postmortems landed firmly in the early ’90s, with one of the games in focus, NBA Jam , celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Both postmortem’ed franchises exploded as rebellious, industry-shifting upstarts during their era, and as such, their GDC origin stories included plenty of attitude and jokes. Even better, the staffers for both of these series came with reams of data in hand—and in one case, there might be delectable, super-rare EPROMs to follow.
In NBA Jam‘s case, famed series announcer Tim Kitzrow served as both MC and court jester while series co-creator Mark Turmell led the proceedings. There were also occasional, informative interruptions from another co-creator, Sal Divita. (Kitzrow’s random exclamations leaned heavily into NBA Jam catch phrases, particularly when Turmell began talking about the series’ fall-off in quality once Acclaim acquired its license. That’s when Kitzrow shouted a perfect “nail in the coffin!”)
The above gallery includes explanatory text about much of the panel’s historical details. Turmell admitted during the Thursday panel that the game began as a generic basketball title, mostly out of his love of the sport, before a Midway executive suggested the team actually ask the NBA for a shot at the license. Parts of Midway’s first pitch video appear in the above gallery, which was ultimately turned down because they “didn’t want our NBA logo in these seedy arcade locations.” Turmell thought that was because NBA’s corporate headquarters was in Times Square, whose arcades in the ’80s and ’90s operated feet away from drug deals and prostitution. Another pitch video, showing off test NBA Jam sessions at bowling alleys and family-friendly locales, went over way better.
Astonishingly, as part of the licensing agreement, Midway only had to pay the NBA roughly $150 for every sale of a $3,500-3,900 arcade cabinet for the rights. Even crazier, the NBA didn’t provide any assets to Midway for the sake of the game’s production. Midway had to source images of its players’ heads from sports magazines and VHS recordings of TV broadcasts.
The trio also talked about a few specific programming challenges, particularly the energy spent getting ball-passing just right. In most sports games up to that point, any pass’s receivers would stop running, turn their bodies, and reach out to catch a ball. Thanks to NBA Jam ‘s lack of penalties, that kind of stop-and-wait wouldn’t fly—you’d get knocked down while waiting for a crucial pass. Thus, the team rambled on about the right mix of mathematics and character pathing to ensure passes would always land in running players’ hands while they still animated like they might in real life.
Other tidbits included an origin story for the game’s “on fire” system, which was invented and mapped out during a single Burger King lunch. When Divita heard about this idea, he rejected it soundly—”I liked exaggerated stuff, but I wanted to maintain some level of realism”—and pointed to a rejected design decision to add “bunny” shoes that would temporarily make players run faster and jump higher.
The night before the panel, Turmell appeared at a film screening and shared a story about one test location for the game. At this arcade, one character stood out as a clear fan favorite: the one who wore a bowler hat. This character, NBA Jam developer Sheridan Oursler, was one of the game’s many unlockable characters, and the kids at that location were far more interested in unlocking and sporting a hat and a mustache than in faking like a real NBA star, apparently.
Most intriguing was Turmell’s response to one fan who asked about one version of the game (which had a 3D tank game as an easter egg) being impossible to find in MAME-compatible form. Just give me your email address, he said, and I’ll send you a ROM if I can find it. Turmell also admitted that he has EPROMs of special, rare versions of NBA Jam in his archives—particularly a famed, unlicensed version made for celebrities with players like Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr.—and would do something with them if only he could test them. Minutes later, acclaimed games archivist Frank Cifaldi rushed the stage to hand Turmell his business card. Stay tuned…
Listing image by Mark Turmell