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Back To Basics With Mortal Kombat

Original Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon takes us behind the scenes of the classic franchise's deceptively complex resurrection, from 'fatality meetings' and story focus to the state of the genre.

The Mortal Kombat series is, like last year's successful launch of Street Fighter IV, taking the series closer to its roots, with a new game in the franchise titled simply Mortal Kombat. Rooted in contemporary technology, it's most deeply influenced by classic gameplay taken from the first three iterations of the franchise -- which were released to arcades between 1992 and 1995.

Here, Ed Boon, who's been at the center of the fighting franchise since it got its start, talks about the current state of the genre, and both why and how his team has chosen to tackle the concept of rebooting the series into something retro -- while keeping both casual players and hardcore franchise fans in mind.

He also touches on how the transition from the bankrupt Midway to Warner Bros. went for a studio forced to develop a game in "the eye of a storm" of a company going off the rails.

You guys seem to be angling this new Mortal Kombat as a revival, or reinvention, of the franchise. It's been around for so long; at this point, what's the essence of Mortal Kombat? What are you telling your team, and what are you all trying to recapture with this new one?

Ed Boon: You know, I think it hasn't really been that long since the last MK game came out. It's only been like two years, so from that respect, it's not like a reboot like we've seen... like when Tomb Raider went away for a long time, or Street Fighter, Twisted Metal, and all that. Those games had a long absence.

But from our perspective, the last game we did [Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe] was probably the biggest departure for MK. It was the first T-rated MK game, and we added characters that had never been in a MK game, with DC -- you know, Batman, and Superman, and all that.

So from that standpoint, we just heard a lot of feedback asking, "Is the next game going to be back to an M-rated presentation," and, you know, "traditional" MK? So we really felt that now is just a really great time to explore a reboot of sorts.

You know, we've actually kind of rebooted the presentation and the fighting and all that a couple of times in the past. With Deadly Alliance, in 2002, we did. And so we just really felt like, along with the post-MK vs. DC T-rated thing, and the fact that we haven't rebooted our whole presentation and fighting mechanic in awhile, it was just the perfect time for all that to happen.

I played [MK vs. DC] and it was fun, but there was always the question of whether the series would return to its M-rated roots.

EB: Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially coming from a game that was almost instrumental in defining what an M-rated game was -- just sparking the whole argument that ratings are necessary, which they are. So it's ironic, it's like making a G-rated Halloween movie...

So from that standpoint, yeah, it did really well, but at the same time, it created a great opportunity for us, because it gave us a break in terms of a period of time which there hasn't been an M-rated Mortal Kombat, and created this hunger for a return.

So I guess that I really feel like the planets are aligned, and in so many ways; it's the first M-rated MK on this generation of consoles, our last game was a T-rated game... You know, there certainly is a resurgence of games returning to their classic form; Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, now the more recent Twisted Metal, and there's just a good amount of this trend that's happening.

Are developers recognizing -- about the gamers that grew up in the early '90s playing Mortal Kombat -- "Hey, these people are in their 20s or 30s now, and let's capitalize on that"?

EB: Well, that's certainly one of the elements that's being tapped, I guess. Because we just had the E3 show and, you know, I can't tell you how many people that I spoke with volunteered their own stories of, you know, "Oh, this reminds me so much of when I used to go to the Pizza Hut down the street to play Mortal Kombat" or "I used to go to the bowling alley and did this" or "I used to go to the arcade".

You know, everybody has their memory of first seeing the game and their reaction and all that stuff, and I think it's striking that nostalgic nerve in a lot of people. But, at the same time, it's still state of the art presentation -- our presentation is 3D and our graphics engine is the best that we've had. But it's presenting a more classic game mechanic -- that 2D fighting plane, and all that. And that's what I think is triggering those memories.

In the early '90s, when it came out, MK was it was so graphic and shocking to some people just because they were used to Mario and Sonic and all that. But now, the biggest games are M-rated, and they're violent. Is violence in the new MK there simply to satisfy the violence aspect of the franchise? If you could, would you want to recreate the kind of controversy that you did back in the '90s, with the original?

EB: No, that certainly isn't a goal of ours. It's funny, if you look at Mortal Kombat 1 -- if you were to look at it again now, it's almost funny how archaic the graphics are, but at the time it was state of the art.

So we don't think it's realistic to expect to shock anybody these days. I mean, anybody who's played Gears of War, or any of the survival horror games, or God of War, or something like that -- they're not going to be shocked by something that we do.

So our goal with our violence and all that stuff is way more to just surprise, maybe entertain, just from the outrageousness of it all. You know, the fatalities are just so crazy over-the-top that they're more inventive than inherently violent. I mean, they're violent -- don't get me wrong -- but it's just funny, just such over the top ways of killing people, that you just can't take it seriously.


How did the team go about coming up with all these new fatalities?

EB: We had fatality meetings, actually, and somebody will throw something out. I usually communicate mine with, like, these stick figure drawings, and those are actually used in our motion capture shoot as a guide, and given to the animators to use them to see what the intention is.

But some of the other guys, the designers on the team, they'll describe something or they'll stand up in front of the meeting and say, "Okay, then this guy does this, and then he does that..."

You can always tell by everybody's reaction in the meeting which ones are going to go. If everybody's like "ehh", then it's probably not going to go, but if somebody has a big reaction to it, and they're seeing it in their head, then we'll usually pursue something like that. The meetings are a lot of fun, and obviously we can't let everything come through, because if it's really, really disturbing stuff, then...

Why do you think that in America, one-on-one fighting game development is so rare? Why is there so little of this going on in the U.S.?

EB: I think that fighting games have become too complex. And while there certainly is an audience for that, it's not a very huge audience, for the really complex games. And unfortunately, the sales numbers demonstrate that. And so from that standpoint, when we make MK games, we've always tried to keep them accessible.

We really don't want to put something in the game that 80 percent of the public won't ever experience, or never be able to execute. And I think that's a recurring theme, that we really try to keep in mind -- is the average person going to be able to enjoy, experience, or execute this move?

So, unfortunately, I think that some people associate fighting games with this kind of complexity they don't want to learn, and so I think that that makes some developers shy away from it, because it's really such a niche market.

There have been some -- like when you think about it, EA was doing the Fight Night games, and it's a boxing game, but it's a lot of the same theories and mechanics involved in it. But for the most part, I think that it's the complexity of the games that's kept some of them to shy away.

So what do you think of the fighting scene right now? With the new Street Fighter, and Namco's still making Tekken. Do you look to those for inspiration? Does your team look to those for any design cues?

EB: Well we pretty actively play all the fighting games that come out, and in terms of what we feel was done well, and maybe could be done better, we really try to look at them. As far as Street Fighter's concerned, you know, I'm a huge fan of SF. I have been since it came out.

So, with SFIV and SSFIV, I have a lot of respect and admiration for them. They have a different kind of pace and tone and stuff than from us, and it's very similar to comparing MK2 to SFII or something. We're just focusing in on different aspects of the whole fighting thing, and the whole presentation.

As far as Tekken is concerned, I've always felt that with 3D fighting games... I always leaned a little bit more towards Tekken than Virtua Fighter or Dead or Alive or something like that. But even Virtua Fighter or Dead or Alive, I think, do certain things really well, and we took notice of those as well.

Mortal Kombat's been around for so long, and not every installment was a great piece of work, so it's had some ups and downs, like any long-running franchise. But even through the tough times, it pushes through, and then a new one comes out. Now what do you think is so enduring about Mortal Kombat?

EB: That's a good question. It's really high on personality, you know? I really believe that it's very in-your-face, very bold. I don't care what anybody says -- it has, by far, the deepest story of any fighting game. We've always put way more into our story and progression of the storyline, and all that. We've had full-fledged story modes and stuff in the game, as opposed to just little blurbs that are said before a fight.

I think that people will relate to the characters a little bit more, and also, like I mentioned before, I believe that it's accessible to more people than some of the other fighting games are. I believe that more people can sit down and enjoy it, and some of the more casual players can just have a lot of fun playing the game.

Unfortunately, we've had some spin-offs that have not been the strongest titles -- you know, the Special Forces, and the Mythologies, and all that stuff. But you know, you're right. I mean, I think any series that goes through 10, 15 years of iterations, there's going to be stronger and weaker titles, that's for sure.


Back to accessibility, what's more important to you personally, as a designer, when you're setting goals for stuff? Is it more important to please the casual gamer, to make it fun and pick up and play, or the really hardcore guy that plays fighting games very seriously?

EB: Oh, like in tournaments and all that stuff? You know, oddly enough, this game is the first one in awhile that we really made a conscious effort that we are going to focus hard on the hardcore player. And, at the same time, we want to stay accessible.

But the numbers, the simple numbers of it, is just that there are far, far more of the casual players than there are of the hardcore players. The hardcore player is the most vocal -- if you just went online and you just kinda looked at forums and all that stuff, you'd think that everybody was a hardcore player.

But the reality is just those are the ones who care to the point of getting online, and they're passionate, they're very opinionated, and all that. And I think they're very important, certainly from the standpoint of the ones who communicate the most. But the reality is that there are more casual players out there.

Now, for this game, we are really going after that hardcore player; we have some features in the game that are just very layered into the game, and I think that the casual people will still have a good time, but they won't they're not going to dig as deep in terms of fighting mechanics, and features, and strategy, and all that.

How has the sale from Midway to Warner affected your studio?

EB: It's been nothing but positive. Warner Bros. has demonstrated nothing but the utmost respect and courtesy for us.

We've been working on our games in the middle of the eye of a storm. There was a bankruptcy; there was a whole process of talking with other companies, and I was very, very involved with that. So that consumed a lot of my time -- just talking with other companies, and flying all over the world, and kind of trying to find what the best match was.

Warner Bros. came in and the first thing was, "We want you to focus on quality. We want to give you the time to finish your game, to the point where it's where you want it to be." So they really want to let us make a game that's going to be, certainly, a great first impression -- in terms of our brand new studio and WB.

And I think people are seeing the results of that; I really believe that E3, and people playing the game, and the reception that we've gotten, is demonstrating the results of that strategy.

The bankruptcy happened in February 2009, and then the sale happened, and all that stuff. How did that affect morale in the studio?

EB: I can't lie to you, it was really sad to see so many familiar faces leaving the company, but we didn't lose anybody in our team. We remained very solid, that was something that I felt was really important for our team, was to know that -- because every game that we've made has performed well and has been a profit.

Some of the bad decisions of others, we really didn't feel it was fair that we should be penalized for that. So I had a number of friends working on other games in the studio that unfortunately were not picked up, because the game wasn't far enough along or it wasn't something that the companies coming in were interested in.

As a result, now I have a lot of friends who are working for other companies, the competition, that we also keep in touch with. But it's just a little weird, just because some friends are at THQ, some are at EA, some are at Activision, some are at movie shops, so it's just a different thing. So it was sad, to be honest, to see people leaving the company. But our team remained intact.

And the interesting thing with Warner is that it's a big media company, so you have all this cross-media talk going on. There was that [Mortal Kombat] movie pitch that the internet really picked up on. Did you guys have any hand in that?

EB: No. You know, the day that it came out, that everybody was kind of, "Oh my God, what is this?" We were with everybody getting that same reaction. "Where is this from? Oh my God, I can't believe it." You know, we had our theories as to who made it and who did it.

And a lot of people assumed that it was us, and it was somehow tied to the announcement of our next game, and all that. I was really impressed with it, but at the same time I was concerned that it was just going to detract from the announcement that we had, the next day, of our game, and then going into E3.

So I thought it was incredibly well done, and a great re-imagining of MK -- kind of like they do with some of these alternate universes of Batman and Superman and all that. I think it's a very legitimate alternate universe Mortal Kombat, and so I was excited about it.

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