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'NCAA Basketball 09 March Madness Edition' - Developer Interview

by Adam Pavlacka on March 15, 2009 @ 12:23 p.m. PDT

Electronic Arts' official downloadable NCAA Tournament edition of its college basketball video game NCAA Basketball 09 will be available to download exclusively on Xbox Live, just in time for the start of the NCAA tournament.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!

I'm Connor Dougan, and I'm a producer on NCAA Basketball '09: March Madness Edition.

WP: We were looking at the game a little earlier, and from what we saw and what you were telling us, the download is essentially identical to the tournament edition of the retail product. Why take a component of the retail game and package it up for Xbox Live for download? What was the thought process behind that?

CD: It's an NCAA title, so you're only going to have X amount of people who are hardcore enough to buy the title in November, when it launches at the start of the season. When you look at college basketball as a whole, come March Madness time, everybody becomes a fan of college basketball. So that was sort of the impetus for this game, and because it's downloadable and at a lower price point — it's $15 or 1,200 Microsoft points — I feel that it's a pretty good value and it's going to attract people who don't necessarily have a college basketball game or a basketball game at all, but they get caught up in the excitement, enthusiasm and drama that surrounds March Madness.

WP: From a technical perspective, you say that it's the same game, but is anything being scaled down for Live? Have the graphics been reduced? Has the engine been tweaked? Or if I put my disc in my Xbox and I have the download on the one next to it, am I going to be able to tell the difference?

CD: Yeah, you will be able to tell the difference in terms of menus. Obviously we stripped out the menus to remove the dynasty modes and all of the other modes, but fundamentally, it is the same game, minus a bunch of art assets and game modes. We're shipping with 65 teams, and in our packaged good, it's 360 teams and all of the stadiums, whereas we just do the tournament stadiums, which is about 12 to 15 specific venues. From a core gameplay engine and graphic standpoint, the game is the same verbatim.

WP: So if my favorite college game is in the tournament, they're in the game?

CD: That's right. The game was out on March 11 with last year's tournament teams, and just after Selection Sunday on March 18, prior to the first game of the tournament, we're going to give you an update, what we call our Bracket Pack update. It'll contain the updated teams in the tournament as well as some team updates because when we shipped the game, teams like Wake Forest and Clemson weren't really on the national radar, but you know, they've had a great year, and we've got to update their team ratings to reflect the momentum that they're going to carry into the tournament.

WP: Nice. What about gameplay? Is this going to be strictly a single-player affair? Am I going to be able to play against other players? How are you going to handle that matching, if I've got my favorite team and my buddy wants to play? Is it just whoever that team is matched up against in the tournament, or can I play any other tournament team?

CD: You're restricted to the bracket, but with that being said, you can play with any teams within the bracket. As long as they're all user-controlled, you can play head-to-head against any teams that have specific match-ups.

WP: And that includes match-ups over Xbox Live?

CD: No, there's no online capability for this year. If it turns out that this is something that's really successful, we'll look into it, but we felt that it's a great value at $15, and then having the online component makes it a little bit tougher for us to develop.

WP: What's the thinking behind the business model? What makes this a success? What are you looking at internally to determine if this is worth doing against next year?

CD: For us as a team, it wasn't solely based on the number of units that we wanted to sell. We just wanted to try something different, be bold, and go direct to the consumer and give them something that no other game has really done from a sports standpoint, which is a standalone, chunkable game that you can buy at a lower price point. Maybe you have an interest in college basketball but you don't want to spend $50 or $60 for a packaged good. I think for me, what'll be a success is — obviously, we want to sell some units — but the whole learning experience is really going to help shape things in the future because I think the way of the packaged good is going to go somewhat the way that iTunes went.

WP: Just a quick size question. Obviously Valve had a few issues with Microsoft getting to approve Portal, which came in at 600 MB, and this is more than twice the size. What was Microsoft's reaction when you first went to them and said you wanted to ship a 1.5 GB download?

CD: Microsoft said, "No way. We don't have the infrastructure to support it," so they killed it. We figured, well, it was a good idea, but there's nobody who can handle it for us, and then they came back and they said, "You know what? This is cool. This is something that has never been done before, and we want to try this to set us up for the future." Microsoft's a great partner. They're giving us the opportunity to give the consumers high-quality games at lower price points and direct to the consumer.

WP: By the same token, given that it's a Live Arcade title, how are you handling the demo functionality, given that all Arcade games have a free trial of some sort?

CD: We went back and forth with Microsoft a lot on this because we weren't sure if we were going to be in the "Arcade" branded titles section. We're not. We're actually just a new, fully sized, 1.5 GB game so we got some exceptions, such as we don't have the trial version and we have fewer than 12 Achievements. Microsoft was a great partner in giving us some leeway to try something different.

WP: If it's not a Live Arcade title, where do you find it? How is it going to show up in the dashboard? You've got the game marketplace for all the add-ons, you've got your demos, you've got your film downloads, your game trailers, and you've got the Live Arcade games, but there isn't really a full game that's not in the Arcade space.

CD: You're right, and I think that's definitely coming soon, but for NCAA Basketball, we're going to be in the Spotlight section, so as soon as you log into Xbox Live, it's going to be right there, staring at you, and hopefully, you'll pick it up.

WP: What happens after this tournament season is over? Is this game just good for this year? If I buy it, will I always be able to play the same tournament bracket over and over? How's that handled?

CD: That's a great question. A lot of people have been wondering if it's a time-based thing. No, as long as it's on your hard drive, you can play it until you're done with it.

WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

CD: Not really. It was out on March 11. We pulled out the NCAA tournament mode to really capture a new consumer and not to gouge the packaged good guy. The person who bought the packaged good? This game is not for them because they already have it. One thing I wanted to mention for the people who do have the packaged good is that they will get a Bracket Pack update on Xbox 360 and PSN, coming out just after March 18 as well. It's not like we're leaving them in the dust. We still care about them as well.

WP: So everyone who bought the retail game already has everything that's in this March Madness edition?

CD: That's correct. They'll get the updated teams coming just after Selection Sunday. For the first time ever, it's going to be free, too. We've charged in the past for the Bracket Pack update, but now, for people who own the packaged good, the Bracket Pack update is free on PSN and Xbox Live.

NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Edition, rated E for Everyone, is currently available on Xbox Live Marketplace for 1,200 Microsoft points ($15).

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