NBA 2K15 won’t repeat NBA 2K14’s embarrassing shutdown, but NBA 2K16 must do better

On its face, this was a good week for gamers. Perhaps you missed the news because you don’t follow sports, but a swift, unified and indignant reaction forced a major publisher to reverse course on a patently anticonsumer decision.

The question is if that publisher, 2K Sports, will continue to undo the even larger anticonsumer choice it made two years ago, or if at this stage in NBA 2K’s development, it even can.

To recap: 2K Sports announced back in March it was shutting off servers for NBA 2K14, which launched in October (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) and November (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) of 2013. That’s 16 to 17 months of support, which is eyebrow-raising on its own, even if NBA 2K13‘s services shut down after just 13 months.

What’s worse is, on the PS4 and Xbox One, file save data for two of NBA 2K14‘s bedrock offline career modes, MyGM and MyCareer, need to check in with an online server. No online server, no check-in, no resuming that career save — unless it was specifically created as an offline save. Few were, as this option was hard to find in NBA 2K14 and not offered as a default. The check-in is because of the presence of the Virtual Currency economy, which buys up virtual cosmetics, improves created players’ abilities and, of course, can be bought for real money.

When March 31 passed and the servers were turned off, PS4 and Xbox One gamers were faced with starting their NBA 2K14 careers all over or just shelving their $60 purchase. Their anger resonated so loudly that 2K Sports flipped the servers back on and promised that, going forward, they would stay on, for at least 18 to 27 months past launch. (Correction: 2K Sports has committed to 27 months of support across the board for its titles.)

NBA 2K14 was an otherwise great game bookended by needless embarrassments tied to 2K Sports’ famously unreliable online support. That edition went through hell for more than two months after its launch, including the 2013 holiday season, when players were unable to reach the series’ balky servers and discovered they were locked out of advancing the supposedly offline franchises or players they had created. The only reason that scandal was not bigger than the troubles facing Battlefield 4 or SimCity that year is because sports, for all the revenue it generates, still is an outlier to the mainstream gaming conversation.

NBA 2K14 was a great game bookended by needless embarrassments

It’s one thing, however disappointing, for servers to fail a game whose main attraction is online multiplayer, while it still has an offline campaign fully available. Or for server problems to crash a game whose entire experience has been marketed as an online game. It is quite another to be locked out of offline modes for no reason other than a publisher’s microtransaction prerogatives.

2K Sports realized how bad it looked after NBA 2K14‘s launch and made changes to NBA 2K15 to reduce the online check-in’s presence. MyGM, in which a player controls the decisions facing an entire franchise while playing all of its games as a team, was freed from it altogether. That’s a positive step, especially for a mode that had decisions as sundry as setting starting rotations tied to a Virtual Currency purchase.

The check-in still is there for NBA 2K15‘s MyCareer, where “dunk packages,” shoes and outfits, and even in-game improvements are all for sale. MyCareer still has distinct online and offline save files in NBA 2K15, but the good news is, should the servers not be available, a player can now convert an existing online save to an offline file. The two saves still will progress separately, but at least players don’t have to start over, especially if they’re faced with an extinction-level event like a server shutdown.

Maybe this is what the 2K rep was thinking of when he emailed me in March with assurances that NBA 2K14 files could or would be converted for offline use. But this conversion is not available in that game, only NBA 2K15. A better option would be to have a single file that accrues Virtual Currency if the game is connected to the server, and doesn’t if not, and can be played and advanced in either phase.

The bottom line is this: These check-ins are required because of the virtual economy NBA 2K chose to introduce and expand over the past three editions, and it chose to do that because Take-Two Interactive, its parent company, saw a big opportunity to make more money than just the $60 purchase price of the game.

2K Sports couldn’t pay to keep NBA 2K14’s lights on for more than 16 months?

They’ve raked in gobs, and touted it to investors in quarterly calls like a proud papa. Yet we’re supposed to believe that, until last week, 2K Sports couldn’t pay to keep NBA 2K14‘s lights on for more than 16 months?

Furthermore, 2K Sports appeared content to shut things down and see if they could get away with it until a barrel wave of bad PR came crashing down on them. The company backtracked only when the outcry came to light last week in the games press, thanks in part to a blithering, tone-deaf email 2K Support was sending out to users. Players who asked why they couldn’t access their save files were effectively served a casualty notice — their loved one was gone forever — with a saccharine reassurance that “they went out while on top!” and a reminder they could always buy NBA 2K15 to get the same experience. Whoever wrote that should be reassigned.

2K Sports may have backtracked and promised that its games, from now on, will have full online support for at least 18 to 27 months following launch. That still won’t erase NBA 2K14‘s reputation — on PS4 and Xbox One — as one of the worst values in sports gaming, a black mark on an otherwise excellent series and one worse than any bad Metacritic score.

2K Sports would do well to avoid painting its glamor franchise into this kind of a corner again, no matter how much extra money it can make. Its competitors have surely noticed, and are taking the same steps.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.