NBA All-World “is not your typical basketball game”

In our NBA All-World interview, we catch up with senior producer Marcus Matthews to dive into the challenges of creating the basketball mobile game

NBA All World interview key art

There’s something special about sports games. Like many videogames, they provide a great escape from the stresses of everyday life. However, there’s one other thing that NBA, WWE, Madden, FIFA, and other sports titles give, and that’s the ability to live out your dreams, so to speak. Many people worldwide dream of taking to the court to shoot some hoops in the big leagues, and it’s titles such as NBA All-World that make this possible, even if it’s in a virtual sense.

Don’t worry, we know what you’re thinking, ‘I can just play NBA 2K Mobile for that,’ and you’re right, you can, but NBA All-World throws you into the action in an entirely different way. The fact it’s a collaboration effort between the National Basketball Association and Niantic, the studio behind games such as Pokemon Go, should tell you what might be different about it.

Still, we couldn’t help but catch up with Marcus Matthews, the senior producer for NBA All-World. He not only explains the challenges developers face when creating sports games for the small screen but also what helps the new augmented reality mobile game to stand on its own.

In fact, that seems like the perfect place to start, and, as Matthews explains, “players will experience a new layer on top of the real world that’s all about the lifestyle of basketball.” We imagine this is bound to be an enticing thought to basketball fans, as NBA All-World doesn’t just want you to play it, but to live it. “As you walk your neighbourhood, you can interact with real NBA star players, wherever you are in the world. Your local shops, banks, cafes and restaurants or basketball court become an equivalent destination in-game to pick up some gear, grab an energy drink or hop into a basketball challenge.”

NBA All World interview - three in-game screenshots

You might notice that those are similar features to that of Pokemon Go, and if you’re a fan of that AR title, you know just how well that system works to provide players with freebies and items. Better yet, as Matthews tells us, “from day one, the game features over 100,000 real-world courts and gyms and millions of virtual courts based on our database of global points of interest.” This is possible thanks to user-generated data from the Pokémon Go and Ingress communities over the past ten years. As a result, “there will be a game leaderboard to enter on almost every street corner and neighbourhood globally.” It’s great to hear that players aren’t going to struggle to come across courts and venues.

Though knowing that all this content is ready day one must come with its challenges. When you combine that with bringing a sports game to mobile, we can’t help but ask Matthews how the development team manages it. “Anytime you take sports like the NBA to a small screen is very challenging,” he says, but when you consider that “this type of sports game has never been done before,” it’s hardly a surprise that the team has to “be very creative and innovative.”

However, there’s one advantage that Matthews has that’s an asset in the creation of NBA All-World, as he has a strong background in the realm of sports games. Matthews claims that his “20 years of experience bringing basketball games to life have been very helpful. Primarily from being in the first design meetings and overseeing the development of what became the initial version of NBA 2K and NFL 2K.” However, that’s not the only thing that makes Matthews a force to be reckoned with in the world of mobile sports games.

NBA All World interview - three in-game screenshots

He continues, “I took that experience and same design principles, and became one of the first sports-focused mobile game developers during the flip phone days, in the early 2000s, designing and developing licensed sports games for publishers like Jamdat and THQ wireless.” But things are different in this day and age, especially at Niantic, a company renowned for its encouragement of social interaction and real-world exploration. As such, Matthews explains that the team “leveraged the technology and expertise of playing games outdoors, while bringing a strong understanding of how to create a basketball experience that resonates.”

This is uncharted territory, not just for the team at Niantic but for this type of sports title in general, a sentiment that Matthews shares. “We’re on the forefront of a new sports game and experience. And we’re learning and growing as a team.” It’s certainly exciting to think about where this game might go, though if you’re a fan of NBA 2K Mobile, you might wonder why Niantic decided to throw its hat in the ring when there’s already a hugely popular basketball mobile game on the small screen.

Well, besides the aforementioned real-world applications of the augmented reality title and the general factors of basketball culture, “NBA All-World is a basketball game that takes you outside to recruit players, build your team, and compete on the court. It’s designed to be a lightweight play experience that fits into the flow of your life.” In fact, Matthews tells us, “We started out by asking ourselves what it would look like if we were to bring all of what makes basketball culture special – affinity with players, 1-on-1 play, gear, music, collection and customisation – to our real-world game board.”

NBA All World intereview - a look at the in-game map

Though perhaps that pales in comparison to the social benefits of a game such as NBA All-World. “Community and social connection are critical to what makes Niantic games special. We believe the game always becomes secondary to the friendships and relationships you form – it’s one of the most powerful things games can do,” Matthews says.

It seems as though fans appreciate the efforts of Niantic, as the reception to the game so far is overwhelmingly positive. While the game continues to take the top spot in various app stores across the globe, according to Matthews, “Players are really enjoying our mini-games, finding game items like cash at banks, the music, and customising their players in the latest shoes and apparel from our partners, like Puma and Adidas.” It’s great to hear that fans appreciate both the new concept NBA All-World introduces, as well as the classic features you find in a basketball game.

With all this success, and the fact that this is a collaborative effort between one of the largest mobile game developers on the planet, and the most famous basketball league in the world, we had to ask how this idea came about. Well, it turns out that Niantic CEO John Hanke has a strong love for the sport, so “some of the inspiration for the game comes from his youth, his love for the game, and playing Dr. J vs Larry Bird which was one of the first sports games ever.” As Matthews explains, “NBA All-World is designed to be very accessible with simple 1-on-1 gameplay. We have a terrific partnership with the NBA and NBPA, and we’re excited about where we can take the game next.”

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Speaking of which, what exactly can players expect from NBA All-World updates? Matthews tells us that “in the short term, players will see integration of compelling AR experiences that further connect the digital and real-world gameplay.” It certainly sounds like the launch of the game is only the beginning, as not only are there great short-term additions on the way, but the development team have long-term plans too. “Looking further ahead, we’re keen to explore other gameplay modes, play at NBA arenas during games, and deeper social integration with our Campfire feature.” It’s great to hear that another title is set to get some good use out of Niantic’s campfire app, something that only strengthens the social interactions people can have with its library of games.

Basketball is just one of many sports out there, and with how good the reception to NBA All-World is, there could be a market for more games of this nature, and Matthews is keen for this to be the case. “We’d love to see other developers building other games on our Lightship platform and making use of the technology we continue to test and refine in our own games.” The team at Pocket Tactics would certainly like to see an NFL or MLB take on this experience.

All of this is so enlightening, we’re pleased to see the NBA All-World do so well, and we can’t thank Matthews enough for giving us an insight into what goes into a game like this. However, there’s one more pivotal thing we have to know, and that’s which Basketball team does he support?

“Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, the Atlanta Hawks appeared on local TV regularly. I also went to college in Atlanta at Georgia Tech. So I became a big fan of the Hawks and their best player Dominique Wilkins. My wife is also from Atlanta and is a big NBA fan too. Our current favourite player is Trae Young.” Okay, we admit that we’re more of a Lakers kind of site, but we love to see people support any team and love the sport.

If this has you itching to shoot some hoops, just check out our Basketball games guide for suggestions on both mobile and Switch.