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ImMortal Mystique: Mortal Kombat's John Tobias on the Creation and Evolution of a Franchise

John "Saibot" Tobias talks to Arcade Perfect author David L. Craddock about creating the lore and visual style that defined early entries in the Mortal Kombat franchise.

David Craddock, Blogger

August 13, 2020

24 Min Read

Author's Note: The following interview comes from GameDev Stories: Volume 6, one of 11 game industry-focused eBooks featured in StoryBundle's Exclusive Retro Game Bundle. Available for the next three weeks, the Exclusive Retro Game Bundle offers three books for $5 or all 11 for only $15; a portion of the proceeds will go toward the World Health Organization (WHO) as it provides relief to those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Mortal Kombat remains one of my favorite franchises, and not only for its hard-hitting combos (er, kombos) and the spectacle of its finishing moves. Even though 11-year-old David thought Street Fighter II the better game, Capcom and its World Warriors had nothing on Midway and MK's mythology.

There's a difference between a game's story and its lore. Naughty Dog tells stories. Dark Souls rides on its lore. So did the early Mortal Kombat titles. In the days before flashy 3D graphics and photorealistic cutscenes, the endings of MK games rewarded players with two or three still images and as many paragraphs of text describing what happened to the player's chosen "kombatant" after he or she won the tournament. But there was a catch: Those endings weren't "kanon." (Okay, enough with substituting Cs for K.) Each ending was a what-if scenario that detailed what might happen if Reptile, or Sub-Zero, or Tanya, or Mileena, or whoever won the tournament. Players had to wait until the next Mortal Kombat to see which of those endings Midway formalized as part of the mythology, if any.

While interviewing MK co-creator John Tobias--one half of the "Noob Saibot" character that debuted in MKII--for Arcade Perfect, my 2019 book about arcade-to-home-system conversions, we talked about the genesis of MK, concepts for characters, the emphasis on lore over storytelling, and more.

David L. Craddock: I'm interested in the many ways games tell stories: some through traditional narratives, others through game systems. To start at the beginning, how did you get your start in the games industry?

John Tobias: I was hired at 19 right out of art school. I joined Williams Bally/Midway in 1989 and started working on what became SmashTV. I got to work with Mark Turmell (NBA JAM) and Eugene Jarvis (Robotron, Defender, Stargate, etc.).

Craddock: What led to you teaming up with Ed Boon, Dan Forden, and John Vogel to create the inaugural Mortal Kombat title?

Tobias: Ed was already there programming pinball machines and joined the video game department to work on the High Impact football game around the same time. He and I were both working on follow-up games when we had the idea to do a one-on-one fighting game. Dan Forden, who did our audio, worked with Ed on High Impact and joined us on MK shortly after we started as did John Vogel who put together many of our backgrounds.

Craddock: Was the idea of doing a 1-on-1 fighter a direct response within Midway to the success of Street Fighter II?

Tobias: I remember thinking of Karate Champ at the inception of our idea to do a one-on-one fighting game. But, there was a good stretch of time between that idea and when we actually started production on MK because Ed and I had to finish our prior projects. I think it was during that time that I remember Street Fighter II being released and doing well in arcades, which helped us convince our management to let us do MK.

So, while the original concept wasn’t a direct response to Street Fighter II, I think the eventual green light for us to move forward was in part based on that game’s success in the arcades.

Craddock: What was the driving idea, or motivation behind, MK1's setting? It had a very Chinese/martial arts movie vibe to it.

Tobias: I had been a huge fan of martial arts films since I was a kid and so the opportunity to use those influences was something I couldn’t pass up when we started working on MK. I’ve heard MK described as Enter the Dragon meets Star Wars and I think both of those were also part of our DNA. What made Mortal Kombat unique was that it was really a bundle of never before bundled together concepts.

Craddock: How far along did the concept of a game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme progress before it was reworked into the MK1 we know today?

Tobias: We pivoted away from JCVD pretty early in the process. I believe we had already developed the core of our game’s premise while we were in those talks, but the idea was that JCVD would either play as himself or as one of the characters in our story. Johnny Cage being a Hollywood movie star was directly influenced by the possibility of JCVD’s involvement.

Craddock: I read that you'd been wanting to do more with story prior to MK. Did you see this game as your opportunity to flex more of your storytelling muscle? Or did that come later?

Tobias: I think I learned on SmashTV how powerful a familiar premise and theme can be in conveying story to the player without much, if any, actual exposition. But, I remember feeling frustrated while working on the sort of sequel to SmashTV called Total Carnage. Because we were working on an arcade product, story was certainly secondary to gameplay and so I felt it wasn’t being taken as seriously. Ed and I were given free reign to do what we wanted with MK. I saw that as an opportunity to try some things out with how we presented our story.

Craddock: Do you remember roughly where the ideas for the seven fighters came from?

Tobias: The initial roster evolved from a set of character archetypes. Because there were so few characters at the time, we were able to lean on that concept as a way of informing the player on who the characters were and how they related to each other within the context of the larger setting. Liu Kang was the hero, Johnny Cage was a sidekick, Raiden being a god implied wisdom as a mentor character. Every character fell some place on a basic spectrum of archetypes. In the first two games we were dealing with a relatively small list of characters and so we were able to manage that effectively. That became more difficult to manage as the roster grew in later games.

"I think MK is a forever franchise. I felt that way when I left Midway and I feel that way today." -John Tobias

Another part of character creation was what they looked like, which also played a role in conveying story. Very simple visual choices led to questions by the player that helped layer story. Kano has one eye; how did he lose the other? This guy puts on a pair of sunglasses at the end of a match; why? Liu Kang’s intro says he’s a Shaolin Monk but he doesn’t dress like one; why? Goro is a monster and clearly not like the other characters; where is he from? This woman is in the US military; how does she relate to the mystical nature of some of the other characters?

Also, if there were influences from other media, we typically used it because we felt it would help the player identify with a character. If making a character resemble ‘that guy from that movie’ helped establish the character in the mind of the player, we saw that as an opportunity. Being an arcade game, we didn’t have a place to unfold story exposition so we had to take advantage of telling story any way that we could.

Craddock: As a kid, I was drawn to MK1 in large part because of the mythology. The game intrigued me in a way SF2 didn't. Was the emphasis on characters and setting a conscious response to distinguish MK1 from SF2?

Tobias: We did everything we could to differentiate from SF2, but I don’t remember our fiction being in response to anything they did or didn’t do. I think MK had its very own vibe. Yes, it was a one-on-one fighting game, but it offered a very different experience than Street Fighter both in mechanics of play and visual space.

Right out of the gate it was a good thing that we had made the choices we made because it offered a somewhat familiar and yet very unique experience. I think that combination of novelty and familiarity is present in almost every successful game even today. I also think that the time we spent developing the characters and story, which was an odd thing to do in an arcade product, helped build a larger world in the minds of our players. That impact lives with MK even in its most recent iterations.

Of course, our brand of violence is in large part what gave us a seat at pop culture’s table. But, the attention we gave to developing those early games and the incredible work being done at NetherRealm today is what has assured that MK was no passing fad.

Craddock: How much of MK's mythology did you envision during development of the first game? Or was that first development cycle so tight that you primarily focused on material needed for the game?

Tobias: We had the base of our fiction pretty well thought out in the first game and what didn’t actually make it into the game through the methods we had available, I had scribbled in a notebook or sitting in my head. What was important for us was to establish; here is this world where there exists a mystical martial arts tournament and here are these fighters and why they compete.

Basic stuff but the groundwork for everything that would follow in subsequent games. Our development cycle was tight, but not so tight that we would pass on an opportunity to embed story into the game.

Craddock: What influenced the decision to create Shang Tsung as an older character?

Tobias: We wanted to imply that the host of the tournament had a long history. Making Shang Tsung an old sorcerer created instant implications for us in terms of how he fit into the larger fiction and making him a shapeshifter played directly to a villainous character archetype. I also thought about a character from an old Shaw Bros. film called Clan of the White Lotus. He was an aged fighter with flowing white hair and beard who had mastered mystical techniques.

That sorcerer-like character type was prevalent in many of the kung-fu films I had seen as a kid and I think was the basis for Lo-Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, which had a superficial influence on Shang Tsung.

Craddock: MK seemed to explode right away, with comic books and other products available at or near the game's launch. I loved the comics. Did you push for those, or did Midway come to you with the opportunity to write and illustrate them?

Tobias: I wrote and drew the comics that were sold through the first two arcade games. That was entirely our idea and a way for us to get actual story exposition out into the players hands. All of the ancillary stuff came a few years after the first games.

Craddock: How did you want the comics to tie into, and/or expand upon, the mythology detailed in the first game?

Tobias: The comics that we sold through the arcade game were meant to work as setups for the game fiction. They told a story that led up to the game leaving the rest up to the players to sort out in their heads. So much of the fiction in our games was implied and it was amazing how well that worked for the player. They were willing and able to fill in the blanks based on the tidbits we shared.

The Malibu licensed comics came a few years later and were not canon to the actual games.

Craddock: Was Boon interested in contributing to the game's mythology/lore, or did he need to concentrate more on coding?

Tobias: Ed and I had our expertise, but efforts were always very collaborative and so ideas flowed between us and really anyone involved with the game. Although I focused on the actual fiction I would say that MK’s reputation for being mysterious with mythology and lore came just as much from Ed’s penchant for hiding things in the game itself as it did from anything we did with the story.

Craddock: Liu Kang's Fatality in MK1 stood out from the rest. The screen didn't darken, and it was quite tame--a cartwheel into an uppercut--compared to others. Why was Kang's Fatality designed differently?

Tobias: That was a conscious choice to differentiate him as an enlightened, former Shaolin monk.

Craddock: Meaning no disrespect, but Goro was an even more memorable boss character than Shang Tsung, even though the Goro fight preceded the final battle against Tsung. Not only was Goro's mythology enthralling--a half-human, half-dragon badass--but the audiovisual touches you and the team added to the match before Goro were fantastic, specifically the screen shaking and heavy footsteps. You knew something bad was somewhere above you, and you almost hoped you'd lose so you wouldn't have to find out who or what it was. But even more fascinating, to me, is that Goro was sculpted from clay and animated via stop-motion animation. What was the process of bringing Goro to life?

Tobias: The only experience I had with stop-motion animation prior to Goro was on a film short that I did with my brother as kids using our Star Wars action figures and a super-8. Any difficulties I had with Goro were due to inexperience. The mini-stage setup for Goro was incredibly crude, but I suppose it got the job done. I think the concept of incorporating a stop-motion puppet with digitized actors in a video game was novel enough to give us a pass on quality. No one had done it before as far as I know.

The Goro puppet itself was amazing. The sculptor, Curt Chiarrelli, did a great job of interpreting my drawings. The one thing that made it somewhat difficult to animate was that Goro’s armature was built with wires. It worked okay, but would’ve worked better had we done it with ball and socket joints as I believe Curt had suggested. I think we were looking to save time and money so we cheaped-out. We should’ve listened to Curt because on our later puppets for MK3, Motaro and Sheeva, we went with full skeletal armatures which made it so much easier to pose the figures.

Craddock: In 1992 and '93, MK was infamous for its gritty atmosphere and violence. How did the team decide to go in that visual direction?

Tobias: I think the gritty came from the digitized technique we used to create the graphics. The violence kind of grew out of the inherent nature of two fighters beating the heck out of each other. MK’s fatalities were entirely about getting a positive reaction from the players by creating something that was hidden from the average player and a spectacle when pulled off. We wanted them to be events that put an exclamation point at the end of a match.

Craddock: Did you expect the amount of blowback MK received, going all the way to the government's attempt to censor the game?

Tobias: We didn’t expect any of that. We were buried in wanting our players to have a good time.

Craddock: Were you aware the Genesis and Game Gear versions would include a blood code?

Tobias: I only vaguely remember being aware of a blood code and I don’t remember whether that was during the course of conversion development or after the release. Ed was much closer to the code side portion of the ports and if I learned of the codes it would’ve been through him.

Craddock: Mortal Kombat was largely responsible for the creation of the ESRB rating systems for games. I understand the need for that system, but I disagree with any form of censorship. Nintendo effectively censored an artistic creation when they forced Sculptured Software to sanitize their ports of MK1. What were your thoughts on that?

Tobias: I have a mixed reaction to the issue. We developed coin-op games for the arcade crowd, which in our experience skewed older than console players at the time. But, in hindsight the industry itself was maturing and it took a while for us to see that happening. I was 21 when we started development on the first MK and I hadn’t stopped playing games. My friends hadn’t stopped playing games. Certainly the older players we saw in the arcades hadn’t stopped playing games. So this idea that video games were only for kids was a misread by the industry and the public at large.

There was an assumption that people stopped playing video games just like they stopped playing with toys. The reality was that video games had become a form of entertainment that reached beyond our childhoods and so the idea of games themed toward adults was a reality that took some time for people to grasp. Nintendo had a very specific demographic that they thought they were catering to and when MK showed up on their system it acted as a disruptor, so I understand their reaction.

Unfortunately, I think Nintendo tried to take advantage of opportunistic politicians looking for headlines to gain an advantage over their competition with Sega and it backfired. Thankfully, when the dust settled the ESRB was the result and I think that it was a reasonable reaction to the whole dilemma. It was pretty much an acknowledgement of video games as a legitimate form of entertainment that caters to all ages.

"It was just us. No one told us what to do or how to do it. We had absolute creative freedom." -John Tobias

Craddock: How did MK1's success influence the team's development process within Midway leading into MKII?

Tobias: MK changed my professional life forever. Our MKII team only grew by one additional artist. The core group of Ed and me, Dan Forden, and John Vogel remained although I believe John may have been busy with other projects as well. The new artist who joined was Tony Goskie and he was a significant addition. Our fiction in MKII introduced the realm of Outworld and Tony was a huge part of visualizing what it would look like.

Craddock: Was Kintaro easier to create, move, and animate, since you had the experience of working with Goro under your belt? 

Tobias: John Vogel animated Kintaro in MKII. In fact, I remember John buying action figures and cutting up and gluing parts of armor onto the new puppet that Curt had created. The puppet was created the same way as the original Goro. I think John did a better job of animating Kintaro than I had done with Goro.

Craddock: In evaluating MK1 and working on II, where did you see room for improvement?

Tobias: We knew that we were going to have more time on MKII and that there were improvements to the process that we could make. The compressed schedule of the first game was cause for a lot of happy accidents in design, but now we could take those learnings and create something bigger and better.

On the art side of development, there were things like color palette management and moving from an analog to digital camera capture with the characters that gave them a much cleaner look on MKII.

Craddock: MKII’s backgrounds and characters are gorgeous--in a bloody yet colorful sort of way. Its art direction still holds up today. What visual direction were you aiming for? And, how did you want the game to differ from MK1’s visual style?

Tobias: The first MK had a very raw, digitized look. That choice was made in part because of time constraints, but it was also an aesthetic choice we felt would give MK a unique visual style amongst its competitors. On MKII, with the introduction of the Outworld, we saw an opportunity to create more richly colored visuals.

We did coordinate the colors of our characters in contrast to the backgrounds so that they wouldn’t get lost. Characters were typically composed of flesh tones and a primary color or two, which let us cut loose on the environment visuals. I think that in combination with improvements in how we captured footage of the actors added up to what gave MKII its unique visual approach.

Craddock: As if you and Ed hadn't attained immortality already with the first MK, Noob Saibot made his debut in MKII. Who came up with the Noob Saibot character?

Tobias: That was Ed! I gave Ed a bunch of random color palettes for the ninjas and he snuck Noob Saibot into the game entirely on his own. I added fiction and history to the character later, but Ed was responsible for the inception.

Craddock: MKII’s home release came 18 months after its debut in arcades. That seems like an exceptionally long time between arcade and console releases. Do you know if there as any particular reason for that?

Tobias: I don’t remember why that would’ve been other than maybe having to do with the release of the arcade game. I think the coin-op was officially released in the spring time and so it’s possible that the port would not have been ready in time for that holiday season.

Also, that would’ve only been several months from the arcade release, which would’ve upset arcade operators who were dependent on coin-drop. There was a feeling that the home release could affect their earnings and our relationship with the distributors and operators was very important.

Craddock: How soon after MKII released in arcades did you and the team break ground on MK3?

Tobias: I don’t recall exactly. I know after we locked down software and began manufacturing the coin-ops I turned to creating the MKII comic book that we advertised in the arcade game. That was great fun for me and a good break from pushing pixels. Also, the team probably spent some time decompressing before we rolled on to MK3. But, we didn’t float too long. It was business as usually for us. We had that blue collar Chicago work ethic engrained in our souls.


Craddock: Of all the MK games you worked on, which is your favorite?

Tobias: For nostalgic purposes I’d say MK1 was my favorite only because we were so innocent and had no idea of the success that was ahead of us. That’s a very rare experience for anyone who embarks on a creative endeavor. It was just us. No one told us what to do or how to do it. We had absolute creative freedom.

Craddock: Ed Boon says Scorpion is his favorite character. Who’s your favorite?

Tobias: I love all my children!

Craddock: I love the speed and gameplay of MK3, but I’ve always been curious why its violence was even more over-the-top. For instance, a single character would explode and shower the screen with multiple skulls, rib cages, and more than four limbs. Fatalities were more over-the-top, too, such as Jax growing into a giant and stepping on his opponent. Why was this more comical style chosen?

Tobias:  Because bigger is better! Honestly, I don’t know that we were comical on purpose as much as just wanted to be more over the top with the violent aspect.

Craddock: Arcade and console hardware seemed to exist in a symbiotic relationship: Conversions of coin-op games gave consumers reason to spend money on a game once and play it at home, but arcade games were graphically superior to consoles, and boasted unique apparatuses such as cockpits and huge screens. Was this relationship as symbiotic as it seemed, or did the home console supplanting arcades seem inevitable, then or in retrospect?

Tobias: Actually, in my experience it was quite the opposite. For me it was the unique peripherals that made arcade games special. It was the seat and steering wheel of a driving game or the actual molded gun of a shooting game. For fighting games the pads of home consoles were inferior to the feel of an actual joystick and mounted buttons.

I think that’s true to this day. But, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the graphic quality of the consoles caught up with what we could do in the arcade, that’s when players began to stay home. Today the arcade experience has kind of had a resurgence. Not so much with the [arcade bar] retro scene as much as the new location-based event games you find in places like Dave & Busters.

Craddock: I’ve learned a lot about the obstacles console and PC programmers faced in bringing arcade experiences into the living room. Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, for example, was incapable of rendering circular dots—at least at the time Tod Frye worked on the conversion—and TV screens were wider than they were long, forcing Frye to rejigger Pac-Man’s maze. Frye’s conversion was judged harshly, and was considered partially responsible for the North American video game market’s crash in the ‘80s. Do you feel conversions like Pac-Man and programmers like Frye were judged too harshly then or now, given that consumers—and most critics—couldn’t understand the restraints that developers charged with home conversions had to work within? Or should that not matter?

Tobias: It’s funny you mention the 2600 Pac Man game because I remember being bent as a kid that it differed so wildly from the arcade version. I remember flipping through the manual and reading the dots described as wafers to kind of explain away the square shape. My view on that changed when I began actually working on games and understanding how hardware limitations can put a pretty low ceiling over your head.

For what it’s worth, I loved every game I played on our 2600… even the bad ones! That was a magic time for me. Even the crash was magical for me because the games were discounted to $2 or $3 bucks!

Craddock: Do you keep up with MK? What are your thoughts on the franchise?

Tobias: Yes I keep up when I can. I visit NetherRealm on occasion and the guys will share works-in-progress. They’re kind enough to send games to me when they’re released and I’ll typically play through the single player modes. I really only started playing again at MK9 and I think the new versions are amazing. I’m always excited to see what they’ll do next and the graphic capabilities are incredible. Honestly, I’m in heaven when I see how cool the original characters are interpreted in the new games.

I think MK is a forever franchise. I felt that way when I left Midway and I feel that way today especially with Warner Brothers’ acquisition of the property. Like any franchise it may have ups and downs, but it is engrained in popular culture because of its birth in the 90’s and will remain a staple as longs as it’s dusted off and kept polished. Its relevance today is entirely due to the great work being done at NetherRealm.

Author's Note: This interview comes from GameDev Stories: Volume 6, one of 11 game industry-focused eBooks featured in StoryBundle's Exclusive Retro Game Bundle. Available for the next three weeks, the Exclusive Retro Game Bundle offers three books for $5 or all 11 for only $15; a portion of the proceeds will go toward the World Health Organization (WHO) as it provides relief to those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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