Mortal Kombat has been around for nearly 20 years, and it continues to impress. This year alone provided us with a brand-new game, a miniseries, and the announcement that a new movie is on the way. This pillar of the fighting game genre has had some strange missteps, like Mortal Kombat Special Forces and Mortal Kombat Mythologies, but the latest game has proven that there is still a lot of life in the series.
We spoken to franchise creator Ed Boon at NetherRealm to get the story behind the development of the game, and to find out why the development team made certain choices. Check out the full interview where Boon talks about his desire to have the series cross over with Street Fighter or Tekken, and why the X-Ray hits was one of the hardest parts of the game to design.
G4: Mortal Kombat was intended to appeal a casual audience as well as eSports-level players for the first time. How did you strike that balance? How did it end up being received?
Ed Boon: That was part of our agenda when we started the game. To appeal to both calibers of players. The way that we did it was our designers are really into hardcore fighting and all of the mechanics that some of the more casual players don’t get into. I was kind of like the guardian of the casual players. I kept insisting that we don’t have features that are too complicated or that we retain the accessibility that Mortal Kombat has always had. There were certain guys on the team who would push one direction and others would push another direction. We had plenty of conversations with disagreeing that would end in trying our best to satisfy both camps.
You introduced several new characters over the course of the Mortal Kombat series, but in MK9 there were only two new Kombatants, Cyber Sub-Zero and Freddy Krueger. Has your team reached a limit on developing new fights and more focused on remaking old characters for the new generation?
No, not at all. You’re right, though. We have over 64 characters in our roster and with every game we would always introduce one. Skarlet was actually a new character as well, so we do want to introduce some new characters to the cast. We place our story in the Mortal Kombat 1, 2 and 3 era with the time-traveling thing we did. There wasn’t a lot of room to introduce new characters because it was in that timeline where the characters already existed. Plus, thematically we really wanted to go back to the whole nostalgic approach with characters that people knew and a different take on it. That was the whole direction we were going with.
Mortal Kombat 9 has the most in-depth story in the series to date. How do you feel this differentiates the franchise from other games in the fighting genre that try to incorporate stories?
I think the main reason is the amount of effort that we put into telling the story. We have this completely cinematic story mode that no other fighting game has even attempted. I do feel that we set a bar with that. We’ve heard a number of our competitors acknowledge what we did with it and say that it’s a great thing for the fighting genre. I think the main way we were able to do it is to devote so much time and effort to create that story mode. It was millions of dollars. It wasn’t a minor side mission, it was one of our starring features of the game. I think it was the effort that we put into it.
The X-Ray move is still painfully awesome looking all these months later. What inspired this special move?
One of our tech guys, while we were working on our previous game, we asked me 'Hey, Ed, are there any specific graphic techniques that you’d like to see in the next game' because he was all done with the graphics. I said ‘Yeah, I’ve always wanted to detect internal damage. To show inside an arm breaking or something like that. It would be a cool thing to have in the game.' We’ve always done external damage, but the whole goal was to detect internal damage. So he went off and started creating some tech and showed us where you can see the inside of the character. Then we iterated. I can’t tell you how many times we iterated on that. That whole feature was probably the most difficult thing we had to implement into the game. Thankfully, it ended up being one of the most standout features in the game. But it was a long time in the works.
Kratos from God of War fame also appeared in the new Mortal Kombat as a PS3-exclusive character. How hard was it to work in an outside character? Who’s your dream non-MK character to work into the series?
Kratos was certainly one of them before we managed to get him in there. The guys at Sony Santa Monica were as protective of Kratos as we are with our characters. So we were certainly understanding and respectful of that. And we also knew that we’re all in the industry. A few of us have actually worked together. it was a very collaborative and very good experience working with them. At first, they were a little adverse to seeing fatalities performed on Kratos. But once they opened up to that idea, all of our characters certainly have that done on them, they were cool with it.
As far other characters in Mortal Kombat games, Freddy Krueger was one of them and we managed to get that. To me, it’d be cool to see other characters from other fighting games, Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter or someone from Tekken would be fun ones as well.
Right. Crossovers seem like all the rage right now. Would you ever think about doing a full crossover with another fighting series?
We absolutely have thought about it. One of the obstacles is that we’re an M-rated game and all of the other ones, for the most part, are T-rated games. So it’s the same challenge with had with pairing up with the DC characters. It’s harder to match up with which style are you going to go with. But we’ve all dreamt with crossing over with Street Fighter or Tekken. Killer Instinct was also one that was coming up since they were an M-rated game as well. But I’ll tell you that we’ve had many, many conversations along those lines.
Speaking about the PS3 before, the PlayStation Network went down the day after your game launched and was offline for 24 days. How did you feel about that considering the game’s online component was such a focus this time?
I don’t remember it being down for the first 24 days. I know know there were problems with that. It certainly was a challenge. Obviously online is such a huge component in these types of games, trying to set up a competition and what not. It definitely put an asterisk next to it, but the game had so much other content: single-player, the 600-mission challenge tower, like you were talking about a very elaborate story mode that takes many hours to go through, the arcade ladder and Test Your Luck. We had plenty of things to do that were offline, but still we were very eager to get that online component up-and-running.
How did Shao Kahn get his awesome powers like god-like strength, extreme brutality and the knowledge of black magic?
Shao Kahn has always been the Emperor and and the top-of-the-food-chain bad guy. We’ve told the story in a number of different ways, like he was affiliated with Raiden and the elder gods, and then there’s also been ones where he’s been with Shang Tsung and what not. But it depends on the different lore that you read, whether it’s the comic book, our games or the movies.
Before Mortal Kombat came out, you said that, to paraphrase, “If you have a favorite character from the old games, he or she is probably in this game.” Knowing you can’t please everyone, were you missing any fighters that people still complained about?
There were some really obscure characters from Special Forces or Mythologies that weren’t included in the game. But for the most part I think that we delivered on that. If you were to take Mortal Kombat 1, 2 and 3, any character that had any presence was represented in the game as well as additional ones, Cyber Sub-Zero and Quan Chi from Mortal Kombat 4.
How did you feel about the unofficial movie pitch Mortal Kombat: Rebirth and subsequent 10-episode web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy that released alongside the game’s development.
I thought it was great. It was funny, the timing was kind of interesting because we were literally one day away from releasing our announcement video for our game. And the day before that this Mortal Kombat: Rebirth video got onto YouTube and everybody assumed that it was part of our campaign to introduce our new Mortal Kombat game. But it wasn’t the case. I was in front of my monitor with my jaw dropped just like everybody else was, getting phone calls from people saying “Why didn’t you tell me about this” and “This awesome.” It took a while for the word to get out that this was a completely independent, separate effort that had nothing to do with the game. When all was said and done, it was great because it generated Mortal Kombat hype in general and we followed it quickly with our game announcement and it really got the snowball rolling.
You always try to keep Mortal Kombat unlockabkle characters and hidden features a secret. How hard has that been for your studio in the modern day of social media?
Absolutely impossible. The unfortunate reality is that the process of making a game, you have many, many testers, analysts, people from Microsoft and Sony, who all have to look at the game and we have to disclose every single hidden feature to them. And as much as everybody signs NDAs, somehow that information always leaks out. I think we put Babalities into the game, we never talked about it officially and the second day after the game came out every single Babality was already on YouTube. So it shows you how well that worked.
How to you feel about that trend of YouTube video teaching other people how to play the game instead of experiencing it through the game?
I think it’s great. There’s nothing like a visual example to communicate it. It also helps with the whole hardcore people. They really like to dissect the game and identify every little nuance that’s in there. They pick up on things that people don’t know about, so it helps us with balancing the game as well.
You used the Unreal Engine 3 for Mortal Kombat. How long as the series been using it? Why that engine? Was that a Midway-inspired decision?
We started using Unreal with Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. At the time, yes, it was a studio-wide effort in Chicago and in the course of doing that we developed this good relationship with Epic and Unreal and became very familiar with it. We continued with that because it’s so second-nature to us at that point.
Were there any other engines in the running that Midway was going to go with, like RenderWare?
We used RenderWare for the previous three games, but my understanding that there was not a RenderWare solution to the 360 and the PS3 because EA purchased them and it was no longer an option for us. But Unreal turned out really beneficial.
Have you ever thought about a PC version of this Mortal Kombat or is that market not much of a draw anymore?
Usually the decision to do a PC version of Mortal Kombat is more of sales or marketing thing. Obviously we’re the one who would work on it. We haven’t had many discussions about it. There have been some discussions, but it’s never been a very high priority. I suppose if somebody came to us and said there’s a huge market, we’d consider it.
Can you take me through what goes goes into creating a new fatality? Have any fatalities been rejected or banned because they’re too brutal?
Usually for fatalities, we have meetings where everybody will sit in a room and come up with ideas. Some people will draw some stuff out, some people will act it out in front of everybody. The ones that people get the most response to in terms of positive response is where we end up going. And absolutely, people have brought up stuff that’s too far even for us and we just move on to the next idea.
You mentioned Street Fighter before. Was Mortal Kombat always intended to be a more mature Street Fighter?
No, it hasn’t been trying to be a Street Fighter as much as we just wanted it to be an alternative fighting game. From the very beginning, I always wanted Mortal Kombat to be a game in which more people would be able to play it. I would witness some people having trouble doing some of the controls with Street Fighter and I said “Okay, let’s get more people to enjoy this kind of a game.”
Mortal Kombat tried to offer non-fighting spin-offs games, but they never really took off. Do you have any thoughts on why? Is fighting always the best option or would you go back and try that again?
I wasn’t involved in Mortal Kombat Mythologies or Special Forces. I was involved with the Shaolin Monks game, and that actually did well. I would absolutely love to try that again, especially with everything that we learned. I definitely leave the door open for that.
What went into choosing the new studio name NetherRealm Studios in 2009. Were there any alternate names in the running that you were almost called?
Yes, when Warner Bros. acquired us, they wanted to give us an identity. We were only known as Midway before that, and that was part of a bigger studio. We decided that we wanted to come up with something that is related to Mortal Kombat, but not specifically Mortal Kombat. We didn’t want to be called “The Mortal Kombat Team,” so we messed around with all of the different worlds in Mortal Kombat: OutWorld, NetherRealm, Edenia, EarthRealm. We ran a whole bunch of those by our legal and NetherRealm was one of the ones that was okay and we went with that one.
Matt Swider has been writing about video games for 12 years. Now based in Los Angeles, he is actively expanding GamingTarget.com and his freelance opportunities.