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Why NetherRealm went with a "Kameo" mechanic for Mortal Kombat 1

Mortal Kombat series co-creator Ed Boon explains the origins of Mortal Kombat 1's new "Kameo" system.

George Yang, Contributor

June 12, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot from Mortal Kombat 1. A player uses the Kameo system to call in an ally.

Mortal Kombat 1’s defining new feature is the “Kameo” system, which is an assist mechanic where a character briefly comes into battle to help players turn the tide. They can support players by extending combos or breaking combo chains from opponents. Kameos can even knock opponents out of midair when timed right.

Kameo characters consist of iconic Mortal Kombat characters that have shown up throughout the franchise over the past three decades.

However, the Kameo system looked incredibly different during early development compared to what was put in the final product. Mortal Kombat series co-creator Ed Boon explained to Game Developer how the mechanic took a long journey from drone warfare to a tag team-themed, fanservice-ready feature.

Mortal Kombat 1’s Kameos began as “sidekicks”

Initially, NetherRealm’s design team approached Boon with the idea that each character would have their own little sidekick—it wasn’t even a person. For example, the military officer Sonya Blade would have a small drone to assist her in fighting.

Boon said that if the game was going to include some sort of assist mechanic, he really wanted to make them interchangeable. In Mortal Kombat 1, every single playable character can team up with every Kameo character. The emphasis was on player choice and variety. He also wanted to do something more with the characters themselves, so the development blended both ideas into what became the Kameo fighters.

Additionally, if the initial concept proceeded as it was, some pairings wouldn’t thematically make any sense. “Why would Kung Lao have a drone with him?” he asked rhetorically. “We really wanted to make the assists a lot more [thematic],” Boon asked. “The main feature I was pushing was that any assist mechanic that we make can be used by any character.”

2011’s Mortal Kombat, the franchise’s ninth main entry and soft franchise reboot, had a full tag team option. Boon noted that many players enjoyed the mechanic, but it wasn’t the most popular feature in the game. When the NetherRealm development team researched why, it boiled down to the fact that players didn’t want to memorize full movesets of two characters. It was already hard enough for more casual players to learn one character.

Ed Boon and Geoff Keighley stand in front of a display of Mortal Kombat 1's Kameo Selection screen.

As a result, the studio wanted to make Kameos easy to use. “It's just the push of a button and you get this free move,” said Boon. “While I do like tag-team features, we really wanted a more simple, straightforward approach with it.”

One of the most common questions Boon kept getting asked was which characters could be played as a main fighter or is only a Kameo, or both? For example, Sonya is only a Kameo character, while the most popular and iconic characters in the Mortal Kombat franchise, such as Sub-Zero, can be both.

When deciding which characters to add to the main roster and the Kameo roster, there were several factors considered. One factor was Mortal Kombat 1’s story. Since Mortal Kombat 11 concluded with a universe-wide “reset,” the new timeline is in its origin phase. So events like the mini-saga of Mortal Kombat Special Forces involving Sonya Blade, Jax, and Kano haven’t happened yet. That led those characters to be included as Kameos.

Additional factors included how many times characters appeared in the last few games. The team wanted to give some characters a rest and others time to shine. Some characters might come back as future DLC too. Boon explained, “We’re just kind of spinning 100 plates, right? What we’re really trying to do is give other characters a chance to be in the forefront because we're bringing back a lot of characters that players haven't seen in a long time.”

When it came to changing existing characters and giving them new backstories because of the timeline reset, there were some that the development team wanted to drastically reinvent, whereas with others, they only wanted subtle differences.

The examples that Boon mentioned were Raiden and Liu Kang. In the original timeline, Raiden was the thunder god, and Liu Kang was just a Shaolin monk. Now it’s the other way around, with Liu Kang being the fire god. Bitter rivals Sub-Zero and Scorpion are now brothers in arms. Kitana and Mileena have a different relationship with each other as well, but not as radically different as Sub-Zero and Scorpion.

Why is the game called “Mortal Kombat 1?”

Moral Kombat 11’s timeline reset incentivized NetherRealm Studios to rethink how it would title the next game. Internally, Mortal Kombat 1 was unsurprisingly referred to as “Mortal Kombat 12.” The point of calling the game Mortal Kombat 1 was to indicate a whole new universe.

Some other names considered were “Mortal Kombat 0” and even just “Mortal Kombat” again, like the 2011 game. Boon said he always thought the “zero” moniker was odd, and also that just using “Mortal Kombat” a second time was too soon. After the official name was decided, someone suggested Boon should follow in the footsteps of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us franchise.

“We could have said, ‘Mortal Kombat Part 1.’ The next one, we could have said, ‘Mortal Kombat Part 2’,” Boon notes. “It would have been a whole new line of games, right?” But as far as Mortal Kombat 1 goes, Boon adds that the name is simpler, and the number synergizes well with the game’s logo.

Three Mortal Kombat characters strike a pose.

Mortal Kombat 1 is ditching the dungeon-crawling Krypt feature this time around, so the game’s long-term monetization will look different. Boon hinted that NetherRealm will announce a replacement game mode in about a month or so. He did, however, confirm that there would be some sort of store with purchasable in-app currency.

2023 is a titanic year for fighting games. Street Fighter 6 was released earlier this June to critical and commercial acclaim. Mortal Kombat 1 is gearing up for a September launch, and Tekken 8 is presumably on track to arrive later this year. Boon is confident that the bloody fighter will have its time in the limelight.

“Having the three big, heavy hitters, all within a period of time is going to be exciting. I think Mortal Kombat is going to absolutely have its own [success]. It's going to stand out with our Kameo fighters,” said Boon. He continued, “When you see our new game mode, and of course, our story mode, I think it’s head and shoulders above any fighting game out there.”

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