With Ingress celebrating its 10-year milestone and Pokemon Go gearing up for another year of catching ’em all, Niantic developer Niantic has another game in store.
NBA All World assigns those who log in a random current NBA star from a roster of 80 players across the league, then sets them out into the real world to recruit other players, challenge online leaderboards, and build their own dream team. The playable roster includes the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who currently sits as the highest-ranked player in the game.
To find out more about the game, we spoke to Andrew Macintosh, senior product marketing manager at Niantic, about how NBA All World brings the Niantic style of gameplay to the NBA. We spoke about the over 100,000 basketball courts added as in-game locations, the ability to earn specific items from specific locations–in-game money from a bank, for example–and how to use those items to improve your team.
We also spoke about the different ways to compete with other players, from skill-based minigames to unique 1v1 gameplay, at what the game calls Rule The Court locations. Finally, we touch on Niantic’s plans for the first year of NBA All World and beyond, from players being added to special events that might be featured in-game.
NBA All-World is available now for both iOS and Android devices. This interview was conducted via Zoom and edited for clarity.
GameSpot: Tell us about NBA All-World at the basic level. What will players be doing, what are the players’ goals, etc?
Andrew Macintosh: NBA All World is our take on basketball with a real-world mobile game. While in the past we’ve created our own worlds using real-world location date–Ingress and Pokemon Go for example–NBA All World is about finding real-world NBA players in your area, challenging them, recruiting them to be on your team, and then leveling up to ultimately become the ruler of your local neighborhood court.
More so than other Niantic games, the goal here is to tie real-world items and locations to the digital game. When you need cash for your character, you can go to the bank. When you need apparel–shoes, clothes, etc.–you can go to a retail store. Need an energy drink? Go to a convenience store. With this we’re trying to make the specific locations matter more and that’s one of the most exciting things to see, especially considering the early days of Ingress. We’ve had sponsored locations previously, and we’ve tried to correlate and have a connection between brand and game, but this time we’ve really stepped it up.
What’s most exciting for me is having real basketball courts as locations in the game. We’ve got over 100,000 real-world basketball courts in the game, and wherever you see a court in the real world, the goal is there’s going to be a competitive game mode to find and play there.
When you say “playing basketball in the game,” how are we doing that? Are we talking about a full simulation, or something smaller like basketball-based minigames?
So the brilliance of Pokemon Go back in 2016 was bringing the world of Pokemon to everyone. Whether you were a super-fan, casual fan, or just thought the creatures were cute, everyone came on board for this incredible moment when the game launched.
For NBA All World, we are trying to do something similar; we’re giving enough for that core basketball fan to be happy, but we’re making the overall experience a lot simpler. It’s a much more casual version of basketball, it’s not a full competitive sim; we’ll leave that to 2K who creates an incredible product. We’re trying to do something different.
The core of our game is 1v1 challenge mechanics. It uses asynchronous PvE, where you’ll be able to access leaderboards at what we call Rule The Court locations–which in most cases are real-world basketball courts–and you can challenge someone on the leaderboard. You’ll play a 1v1 battle against a computer-controlled version of a player that was left there by another player, with the goal to get onto the leaderboard.
To recruit new players to your team, however, you’re going to be playing minigames, with examples including Around The World, 3-Point Contest, or First To Five. They’re quicker matches, and they’re definitely differentiated from the actual 1v1 gameplay.
How will you incorporate actual NBA games into your game? Will there be any sort of special experience?
When there’s something major planned on the NBA schedule, be it the Finals or another type of really cool moment, or even sometimes when something unexpected happens like LeBron breaking a scoring record, that’s when you can expect the most gameplay changes in NBA All World.
We’re still at the beginning of this–we just talked about Ingress being a 10-year game–so we’re hoping that as NBA All World grows and evolves, we’ll find more ways to change and challenge ourselves, but we’re definitely thinking about responding to the real-world game and replicating what we can.
Earlier you mentioned that specific real-world places will have specific in-game functions. How do they differ from or expand on the real-world mechanics of Pokemon Go or Ingress?
It’s similar to the mechanics of Pokemon Go and Ingress in that as long as you are in a certain radius of that location–which will be identified on the map as a bank, a convenience store, etc.–you’ll get the item shown on-screen just as you would in previous games.
Is NBA All-World using an upgraded version of data pulled from previous games? If so, how are you identifying what the specific locations actually are? Also, By making locations hold specific items, are you concerned about a repeat of Pokemon Go’s launch where players were caught trespassing or other similar situations?
The data we receive from Ingress and Pokemon Go is all user-submitted and user-edited, but we’ve been able to add not only more basketball courts but also more retail locations that weren’t specifically noted in those previous games that make more sense for this game.
As for the trespassing situation, all of our data is validated by a specific partner we use to do so, and it’s mostly publicly accessible data that we’re using, but there are some pieces that we’re worried about. We have a huge Trust and Safety team that already knows the areas and businesses that don’t want that type of gathering and meeting around them. However, if it’s a bank or restaurant on a common street, it’s going to be safe. Any new locations we’ve added, like the basketball courts, are places where people are already meeting commonly, so I don’t think that is a concern.
Let’s move to game day activations: say we have a ticket to a home Sixers game in Philadelphia. When we go down to the Wells Fargo Center, what in-game activities are happening to commemorate it? Will the game know I’m actually at an NBA game, and how will the gameplay change as a result?
There’s an interesting stat I heard from a representative of one of the NBA teams: 99% of our fans will never come to the arena. For us, there’s definitely a balance between what we do specifically at an arena versus what we do broadly.
First off, every arena that hosts an official NBA team is built in-game, and you can’t miss them while traveling to or past them, they’re massive and have a cool transparent hue. All of those arenas are also Rule The Court arenas, so when you’re there, you can enjoy normal gameplay no matter what. As for anything special or specific that might happen at the arena during a game, we’re still figuring that out, but it’s something we’re really excited about. We’ve always been super interested in the idea of an arena filled with people all playing our game at the same time, it seems like a great way to take over halftime for example. It’s definitely something that’s going to take time, and we’ll work with multiple partners first before doing anything huge. I can say you will start to see the spawns near an arena change, you’ll have the Rule The Court gameplay anyhow, and it’s only going to get bigger.
Will any team-specific anthems or other media be included? The idea of playing while listening to “Here Come The Sixers” would be pretty cool.
While we can’t confirm team-specific songs, NBA All World is one of the first games where we’ve really focused on licensing music. We have multiple tracks in-game from acts like T-Pain, Tyga, and more, but there’s definitely room for team-based songs in the future.
How does the player character work? Are we creating an original character based on ourselves, or are we playing as the real-world NBA players?
This is the first Niantic game where the player will not be playing as themselves; they’ll be playing as a real NBA player. You will get to pick your team, but you’re going to start as a random real NBA player and walking around trying to find other real-world players to recruit. We’ll have around 80 players currently in the NBA across all 30 teams in our game. In the beginning you’ll be able to challenge and recruit common-level players–if you run to Joel Embiid early, for example, you won’t be recruiting him because he’ll crush you. You’ll have to put in the work.
One of the most fun things about NBA All World is the sense of progression; when you find a low level player, you can build them up through the system, or you can choose one player you wish to have more than anyone else and work your way up to him. You can’t just start with top players right off the bat. To earn LeBron James, who is the best player in the game and the hardest to recruit, it’s going to take months of gameplay to not only have the skills to beat him, but also the appropriate rank to beat him. You can challenge or practice with anyone you see on the map, you just won’t be able to recruit them until you get to the appropriate level.
How much time will the progression system require? Pokemon Go, for example, takes a very long time to advance levels even with regular play. Will leveling up be as time-consuming in NBA All World as it is in Pokemon Go?
The maximum level in NBA All World right now is 20. There’s always going to be time to expand that, but when I refer to “months and months” of earning LeBron that’s just one part of the system. The other players will be much easier to find and recruit. What I do really like about NBA All World is, while progression is still challenging, it is not as intimidating as Pokemon Go. It’s not centered purely around things like experience points, it’s also revolving around other tasks you’ll need to complete, which adds a bit of RPG elements to the experience in some ways.
There’s two main types of progression: player level-ups and team rankings. Team ranks are going to be impacted by things like walking distance, recruiting a certain number of players, and collecting rings through winning in-game Arena Tournaments. For the players, they will level up through experience points, items found on the map called Star Tokens, and specific tasks revolving around finding other players to challenge and defeat. For example, you might have to take your Draymond Green and have him defeat Derrick White three times. Trying to find other players on the map keeps the game fresh all the time, and we’ll be adding more players all the time. Not only will the Finals be a good time for us, but when the NBA Draft hits, we’ll have a whole new pool of players to add and hopefully make their mark.
How do the Arena Tournaments work? Are these special events found in certain locations, do you have to play with local players in the same area as you, or is it something else?
Arena Tournaments are our “at home” feature, a la Remote Raids in Pokemon Go. These are worldwide remote tournaments you can play that are based at real-world NBA arenas. You’ll find Arena Passes in your travels, each one specific to an existing NBA team, and there will be different Arena Tournaments throughout the week. If there’s one happening at Chase Center, you’ll most likely have to have a Warriors pass in your inventory to enter. There are great rewards for playing in these tournaments, from new gear to the aforementioned rings that help players level up. There will be tournaments at all skill levels as well, sort of how the Battle League works in Pokemon Go, and there will be leaderboards for each tournament at the end of the week. We’ve had a blast playing them in the office; when you’re having a great time playing something, to the point where you forgot you’re playing the game you’re working on, that’s the sign of a great time.
Last question: We’ve talked about 80 players included in the game, all of which are currently on NBA rosters. Would there be consideration for Hall of Famers, local legends in certain areas, or other non-current NBA additions?
Absolutely! It’s the big elephant in the room right now: Would we add legends or WNBA players or things like that into the game? We have nothing to announce yet, but we’re definitely thinking a lot about it. This is just the first year of the game, after all, and we’ve been focusing all of our time on finding the right “special sauce.”
When we started working with the NBA, we didn’t pitch it as another sim game like everyone else is doing, we thought “what is this game actually going to be?” I think we have that, and I think we’ll spend that first year making sure our idea is implemented how we wanted to be, but I’m super keen on exploring the legends. I know that’s what inspired our CEO John [Hanke] to make this game; he wants to go get Dr. J and Larry Bird and more in there. Along with being really cool, it could serve as a good educational moment for the younger players.
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