Feature Article

Mortal Kombat Vs. Injustice: Series Creator Ed Boon Talks Design Differences

A hard-knock life.

NetherRealm Studios' current facility was, at one point, a bank. The vault has been converted into a recording space, the storage area into a motion capture studio, the loading dock into a basketball court. The hallways, however, have become an elaborate shrine, a sort of painstaking tribute to 25 years of fighting game history dating back, of course, to the original Mortal Kombat. The walls are lined with memorabilia ranging from enormous E3 banners to rubber Halloween masks to the original Goro model used in the ineffable Mortal Kombat movie.

And directly adjacent the shelves of box art and movie props sits the office of the guy who started it all: Ed Boon. Boon's worked on 16 additional Mortal Kombat games since creating the original with an astonishingly small four-man team and currently serves as the director of the upcoming DC universe fighter Injustice 2. I recently had a chance to visit NetherRealms' Chicago offices and speak with Boon about not only his life's work, but the past, present, and future of fighting games as well.

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GameSpot: Just recently, NetherRealms revealed new details about Injustice 2's gear system, which seems like a pretty radical idea for a fighting game. But it seems like the reception, at least so far, has been pretty positive.

Boon: Yeah, absolutely. There's always a percentage of players that are looking for the regulation, no enhancements, "I just want a level playing field" version. We knew that there was going to be a percentage of people that would want [that]. So, for tournaments and for people who want to do ranked matches and all that stuff, we do have a way to disable the enhancements. But the fun of it, what's so cool, is being in this constant process of crafting your version of Batman or your version of Atrocitus or Supergirl, and just being in this constant state of making them a little bit better, a little bit better and playing them online and being rewarded. That iterative loop is really proving to be a lot of fun.

So is that the way forward for fighting games? Offering both a baseline version and then the full version with all of the new ideas layered on? Are you always going to be forced to separate the two?

Well, yeah. I don't think every idea necessarily does as radical of a gameplay thing as what we're doing with this gear stuff, you know? The big thing that we're doing is introducing, like, "Yes, it actually affects gameplay." I think that's the main way people will play, but, like I said, there's tournaments where you're playing for money. There are online tournaments and gatherings and all that stuff--esports and everything. So we absolutely knew we were going to have another mode that strips away the [stat boosts].

NetherRealms Studio Head Ed Boon
NetherRealms Studio Head Ed Boon

Is competitive play something you guys enjoy about the genre? Because not every genre has a competitive scene built into it. How does knowing that you have multiple audiences to cater to impact the design?

Huge.

Is it something you guys embrace, or is it frustrating?

It's part of the definition of the game. Even the first few games that we made, we knew that arcades would be having tournaments. Even like, '95 and the early '90s, we knew that there would be a competitive scene, and we knew there had to be a feeling of balance. You're always going to have some character that's perceived as being more powerful than another character, but that's just part of making a fighting game, is balancing it.

Fundamentally, how similar is the design process now compared to what it was like 20, 25 years ago?

The only similarity there is the whole aspect of, "This character can do these moves and punches and kicks this way, and this [other] character can do these moves and punch and kick this way. Make them balanced." That's where it ends. That's where everything ends because the volume of moves that you can do has grown exponentially. Like, Scorpion can do a million more things than he could do in the first game. And the modes--like the story mode, the online modes, the King of the Hills, and all of the numerous game modes that are in the game never existed back then. We weren't thinking of how to make Scorpion interact when he's talking with Subzero because they never talked! So that one aspect of balancing the characters is the only thing that still exists today for the games.

Something that you're sort of hinting at that I think is really fascinating about Injustice 2 is, it almost feels like a culmination of a lot of different ideas that NetherRealm has been pursuing for years. You guys still have a poster up for Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, which is essentially an action-adventure game.

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Yes.

You can kind of see the kernel of what Injustice is doing in a game like that--the emphasis on story and interactions between battles, things like that.

Sure, absolutely.

I'm curious if Injustice is maintaining that legacy, or if it emerged separately?

I think every game that we do has something drawn from the previous games--things that we felt, "Oh, that really worked well. Let's either put a hint of it or just plop the feature in there outright." Every game that we make is the culmination of everything that we learned in the previous games, and then at the same time trying to keep layering on something new. We always want to answer that question of, "What is new and cool about this game?" with a really simple answer. That's kind of our philosophy with designing games.

Is there a breaking point that you could reach, potentially? Is there a point at which you will have layered on too much?

Yes.

Where do you draw that line? What is that point, and how do you avoid it?

It's certainly not anything that I could say of like, "Nine features and nothing over nine." [Laughs] It's more of like a feeling. The more recent games that we've done have been very content heavy. We have this very elaborate story mode, we have all these online modes, and we have many characters, thirty-plus characters in the game. We're always piling on more stuff, but there've been a couple ideas that have been really cool that we've just gone, "You know what? Let's save that one for the next game." And also, just finishing the game on time. So there's always kind of that line, but I don't think there's a formula that we follow.

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Any hints of what those next ideas might be? I mean, where do fighting games go from here? What are fighting games going to look like five years from now?

Oh, God, I don't know. We're so laser-focused right now on finishing this game. At some point when we're playing what's close to the final version of the game, that's when we have the ideas of, "Oh, that would be cool." It's a really interesting process how those ideas start floating to the top towards the end of the previous game.

For me personally, a lot of ideas pop into my head as a feature that I was surprised one of our competition didn't do. Like if I'm playing Street Fighter, if I'm playing Tekken, sometimes I go, "God, they should've done this." And then I go, "Oh, that would be cool." And then that kind of goes into [the next game]. So a lot of when I'm playing even first-person shooters or just other games in general, that's when a lot of ideas... I don't know. It just kind of opens up a part of your mind.

I wanted to talk about how Mortal Kombat compares to Injustice since those are the two major franchises driving NetherRealm. Is there anything you find particularly enjoyable or challenging about one that you don't experience when working on the other?

They have such different histories, you know? Mortal Kombat's 25 years old, and Injustice is like four or five years old now. Flash and Green Lantern were like my favorite comic book characters, so oddly, there's actually, in some ways, more nostalgia with Injustice than I have with even Mortal Kombat. But then, Mortal Kombat there's just so much life experience over the last 25 years. God, in different ways... Mortal Kombat's like a child. Injustice, it's like, we feel a little bit more of a sense of duty.

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Like, there's this history with these characters, they've been around for so long. We want to present them in a way that people are proud of it. We've kind of carved out our own universe of the Multiverse. Oh, and in our universe, Superman is a dictator and all that stuff. So there's this sense of duty with Injustice, whereas Mortal Kombat's more like our child.

That makes sense. And it sounds like you are a DC fan going way back.

Oh, huge, huge. I just happened to be one of the people that fell into the DC thing. I was way more Justice League, whatever. I think I might have bought some Spiderman comics and stuff like that, but I was all about Justice League. It's Flash [and] Green Lantern. Even like Justice Society, I was really into the Multiverse concept and stuff like that. That struck a nerve with me.

Have you had a chance to work with any of the creators responsible for those comics?

Yeah. Jim Lee designed our Scorpion for Injustice 1, and that was really cool. He's an amazing artist. And Jeff Johns is always a wealth of knowledge with these characters. And again, we look at DC as collaborators with us. It's not so much as, "Can we do this? Can we do that?" We're all kind of like, "Well, what could we do that's really cool?" So, yeah, there are people at DC that are very influential that we have managed to draw from.

Of all of the games that you've worked on, is there one you're most proud of?

A lot of the games were released under, like, really peculiar circumstances. Like the first Mortal Kombat was a very rushed job. It was four people. We did it in eight months, and it sold six million copies. Like, it exploded. It was the first one, so there's leaning towards favoritism with that. And then Mortal Kombat IX was kind of like a return to that. We were doing the 3D games, and then we kind of went back to 2D. So there's like some nostalgia with that game too, I think. And Deadly Alliance was another one--our first foray into 3D.

So those are some of the peaks, but for a lot of people, Mortal Kombat II was their favorite one. So there's nostalgia there and everything. So I don't know if I can name any particular one that I'm the most proud of or something. That's a tough one.

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I want to close with a more broadly focused question. In the mid- to late-2000s, people seemed to lose interest in fighting games.

They did.

So now that there's been this sort of resurgence and there's an audience out there again, how do you retain that audience and prevent another exodus like we saw 10, 15 years ago?

This is just my theory: there are some games in particular that I thought contributed to it. I thought they got way too technical, and the amount of people that could access what was so fun about them just kept shrinking. I thought they were still great games, but they just demanded too much of the reflexes and timing and stuff like that from players. And so, people were just like, "I'm not having fun."

Mortal Kombat was fortunate enough that Mortal Kombat games continued to sell well, but I always thought that we were just a little bit more accessible. We were casting a wider net. We were trying to appeal to the person who doesn't spend three hours a day practicing the game and getting it perfect but just wants to have fun with his buddies drinking beers or something like that. We can have a lot of fun right off the bat while still trying to do the hardcore tournament player stuff. But always being accessible. And telling a story.

We always felt like we were enhancing the storytelling process of fighting games because when you have an array of characters, how do you not talk about how they interact with each other? So it's kind of like Enter the Dragon; there's just a little backstory of why this character is there in this tournament.

And certainly storytelling's become an increasingly important part of your day thanks to Injustice.

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Yeah, even more so, I think. As much fun as it is to play with your buddies, the reality is a lot of people who play video games play alone, and you need other things to do when your friend isn't sitting right next to you.

So that's where story comes from for you guys?

Yeah. Yeah. Really.

Based on your theory that fighting games got too technical, is it safe to assume you're a Street Fighter fan but maybe not a Street Fighter III fan?

Actually, I wasn't thinking of it when I was... It wasn't Street Fighter III. I won't pick at... Street Fighter was always the series that I enjoyed the most of our competition.

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Yes, his mother is Mrs. Butterworth.
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