Ed Boon is among few creators who dedicate the bulk of their careers to a single video game series. When Mortal Kombat was released in arcades in 1992, it popularized digitized characters derived from video footage, and incorporated exceptional displays of violence, something that the series continues to thrive on today, 23 years later. It was unlike anything players had seen before, and it was a runaway success.
Once it hit the console market, a new demographic began to take notice. People (read: politicians and parents) recognized the realistic-looking graphics and took exception to the violent acts on screen. It was a milestone; video games were finally mature, so to speak. TIME magazine put it best: "...it broke an implicit taboo about what was okay to put in a game."
I recently sat down with Boon to chat about Mortal Kombat's violent roots and what it means for the game today. We also talked about how fans, of which many are loyal to the series, can influence what goes into every new Mortal Kombat if they speak up often enough.
GameSpot: If you think back, what was the first day like when you started work on the original Mortal Kombat?
Boon: "The first one? The first day was us mocking up a bit of a demo using Jean-Claude Van Damme images from Bloodsport. We hadn't had anybody come into the studio to record, so we were trying to convince Van Damme to let us do a licensed Van Damme game. We went into the movie and found an image of him getting into a stance and stripped out the background and put it into the game and mocked things up. We were kind of getting used to the new digitized technology, too, so that's what I remember, trying to setup a demo to try to convince Jean Claude Van Damme to let us do a game based on him."
What was the biggest technical challenge at the time?
"The biggest technical challenge was trying to get a look that was really realistic. This was the first time that we had a video camera pointed at somebody in front of a grey screen, or blue screen, or green screen, and just messing with the lighting, messing with the focus, and all of the variables that we had to mess with to get a look that we really saw in our heads."
In some respects, things are a lot easier today, but I imagine there are still plenty of challenges that stand in the way of accomplishing your vision. What is the biggest technological hurdle that your team faces today?
"A lot of it is, again, is the look, the rendering, it's lighting, but in the game as opposed to a studio set where we're physically moving lights around the camera, or a character, to make him stand out. It's a much bigger team--130 people versus 4 people--that's getting a much more of a sophisticated look. Ironically, visuals are still the biggest technical hurdle."
Back when the controversy arose around Mortal Kombat, did you see that coming at the time?
"No, ironically. The game had been out already for over a year when the controversy came out. We had made an arcade game, it was in the arcade, and nobody said anything. Acclaim, to their credit, they took Mortal Kombat and raised it to a real mass-market thing. They spent ten million dollars on advertising the game. They put a TV commercial on, they put it in the theaters, big time stuff, and once they did that, that's when I think people saw the game. It might not have crossed their radar [before]."
It was a pivotal time in the industry for mature content in mainstream games, so now we are in a position where people are used to this sort of content. Are there any concerns these days, about taking things too far?
"Oh yea, yea. Every game, we have these brainstorming meetings, and...somebody will suggest something and it's more of a gut feeling that, you know, that's a little too far. I think every single game, [there are] those discussions where, you know, everyone's trying to push the envelope, but there's always a line that you never want to cross."
How do you feel, personally, about the violence in the game?
"I think it's really a sign of an industry that's maturing. At the point when the first Mortal Kombat came out, you know, there weren't other games that had digitized graphics, in terms of that stuff. All of a sudden, video games were getting sophisticated enough to present something in a much more realistic way. While other games have had blood in them, it was very pixelated, and all of a sudden, it jumped up and people were like "whoa, whoa." That's when it became an issue, and that's when a rating system was put in place, that we agreed with. We agreed that this content is not intended for all players. It was more for the older player who's now 29 or 30 years, that's the one that we're targeting now."
I assume you like making Mortal Kombat for many reasons. It's obviously a great business, the games always do well, but what keeps you motivated to keep working on the series?
"Introducing new things. I think with each Mortal Kombat game, we've introduced something that's never been done before. With this game, it's the character variations. Something that would answer the question: "what is different about this one?" It's more than putting prettier graphics on a game, we've seen that not work out well.
In addition, we've done other projects. We did an Injustice game that did really well for us, and it had an amazing mobile game. We've all had other games to work on, which lets you come back to Mortal Kombat with a fresh mind and new ideas."
Do you ever have a desire to work on something other than fighting games?
"Oh, yea, yea. Me personally, I've always wanted to try action adventure games, and driving games, sports games. All of that is a big thing, but you know, Mortal Kombat keeps my hand pretty full, and Injustice now, and all that stuff, so it's a very big business."
How important are the fans to you and what you do as a studio?
"They're the ones that keep coming back and buying our games, so they obviously have a huge voice. A lot of us are on social media and there's some amount of communication, but some people forget that they are one of hundreds of thousands of people that are expressing their opinion, and clearly when you have a big sample of people expressing opinions, there's going to be dramatically conflicting opinions. We can't literally listen and address every single person's point. One guy says "Liu Kang should never be in the game," and one guys says "it's not Mortal Kombat without Liu Kang." We can't satisfy everybody."
Is there any one demand from fans that was most prevalent, that is present in Mortal Kombat X?
"Character roster stuff has been a big one. There's a really big push for the obscure character we have, Tremor, which I got so many tweets from players wanting that character. It actually stood out to me as odd, but there was this swell of people pushing for it with petitions online and all of this crazy stuff, so we included him, and a big reason was because of fans yelling loud enough."
I've heard that the new generation of characters is very important to the vision for Mortal Kombat X. What unique qualities do they have that will make them interesting down the road, beyond just being relatives of classic characters?
"In a few ways. One is that we give them moves that remind you of their parents or elders, so to speak, so you'll see little nods. And then there's also, just the new blood that we feel is needed. They are their own character, they play unique to the other ones, but there's that little thread in between, the little nuances, that we kind of keep nodding to the originals."
Will there be a lot of battles between families?
"Yea, there's all this soap opera drama going on. If you go through the story mode, it details all of the drama that's happening in the families."
Is this the biggest story mode that your team's ever made?
"Oh yea, easily."