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NBA Jam, Sonic 1, Ultima Online remembered with rare stories, concept art

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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.

  • L-R: NBA Jam co-creator Mark Turmell, series announcer Tim Kitzrow, series co-creator Sal Davita Sam Machkovech
  • Famed NBA Jam and NFL Blitz announcer Tim Kitzrow Sam Machkovech
  • Kitzrow started the panel with an announcer-voice spiel about a massive arcade hit, then displayed this image as a fake-out.
  • And then, in his booming Kitzrow voice, he boom-shaka-laka'ed us into the Jam panel.
  • This busy infographic was presented to show just how hugely NBA Jam kicked the arcade competition's butt on a weekly basis during its heyday. That $1 billion figure at the bottom is a measure of the game's first 12 months of operating revenue; the domestic gross for Jurassic Park during the same time period wasn't even half that amount.
  • Classic haircuts.
  • The panel included brief footage of the original real-life actors captured for the game's graphics. Turmell says he hired players after hanging around public parks and YMCAs and asked the best players to come to Midway's motion-capture studio.
  • The original pitch video sent to the NBA included a rotating 3D court…
  • …onto which some text appeared…
  • …and then turned into a basketball with a big assertion written on it. Mark Turmell
  • This is possibly the earliest NBA Jam footage ever revealed. This was part of Midway's pitch to the NBA, but without real players' faces attached just yet.
  • These four identical-looking players were tagged as Jordan and Barkley in the same demonstration video.
  • Original design documentation for the development team's desired roster.
  • More original documentation, made up of internal hopes for how an NBA deal might play out. Interesting stuff there about Midway wanting to connect the name NBA Jam with Michael Jackson's early '90s pop song "Jam" (whose music video featured Michael Jordan).
  • Funny thing about NBA Jam's mo-cap sessions: the team thought it'd help in post-production to have actors' jerseys match the wall's colors. That didn't work out, thanks in part to blur added by the video tape process used. The fine-tuned pixel cleanup required to get the game out the door lasted "four months," Turmell says.
  • As per the prior caption, that VHS capture process added quite a bit of edge blur to each isolated capture.
  • Internal guidelines used to have heads that matched every pose in the game.
  • Possibly the only undiscovered thing about NBA Jam is the toggle that can be entered to make an arcade cabinet spit out reams of player data. Midway used this to gauge how each of its machines was played and used—and to even tweak things for future EPROM updates to the game.
  • Turns out the original NBA Jam arcade version had a 3D tank game hidden inside—which accidentally popped up for free play during its "attract" mode. This was eventually removed. During the Q&A portion of the panel, a fan asked about this version of the game. Stunningly, Turmell said he would send that version's ROM data to fans if they wanted it. We called Turmell's bluff via email and will post an update with any code we receive.
  • The NBA eventually asked Midway to remove the game's secret Mortal Kombat characters.
  • Shown for the very first time publicly: the photos baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. sent to the NBA Jam development team so that he could be added to a special, private version of the game. After Griffey sent the team a single photo of his face from a beach, Midway responded with the head-perspective rubric from earlier. "He looked at that and said, 'okay,' so he sent us back every picture," Davita says.
  • During NBA Jam's heyday, an arcade operator forwarded a game "cheat sheet" to Midway and wrote a stern complaint about kids who were making and selling these sheets. The entire dev team laughed at this man's letter, they said.
  • Turmell hired two Playboy models to act as the game's cheerleaders. The developers blurted about how the cheerleaders were hidden players in the game, which wasn't true at the time, thus driving avid players into a tizzy. The team went in and added them as secret characters after the fact via an EPROM update.
  • Kitzrow's original, paltry contract for voice recording work on NBA Jam.

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

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