Courtesy of the WB Games
Twenty-five years ago, Ed Boon forever changed the video game industry with the release of Mortal Kombat, a game whose controversial violence sent politicians and parents into a tizzy. Today, as the head of NetherRealm Studios, he’s changing the industry again with a cinematic narrative structure never before seen in fighting games. In advance of the release of the hotly-anticipated Injustice 2 on May 16, Boon sat down with M&F to talk about what players can expect in the new game, and to look back at his legacy and the crazy days surrounding the first Mortal Kombat. As humble as he is creative, Boon says neither he nor anyone on his team expected Mortal Kombat to have the kind of staying power that it did.
M&F: The first Injustice game played so well, but as a developer you have to deliver something that is both more of what people love, but also different. As you approached Injustice 2, besides the story, where did you find room for improvement with gameplay? Was there anything about the first one where, once it shipped, it didn’t sit well with you and you wanted to change it?
Ed Boon: There wasn’t anything that I thought was inherently broken or anything, but with every game we always feel like there is something we can do better. We gave the players a little bigger palate of options, of standard modes they can do. For the people who are really into fighting games, there’s different ways of escaping when you’re in the middle of a combo, and you can start rolling when you dash, and whatnot. The players walk faster; there are a lot of knobs that we’ve turned based on what we’ve learned.
But the biggest feature in Injustice 2 is what we’re calling our gear system. Imagine thousands and thousands of costume pieces in the game that you can unlock, acquire, and equip to your character.
Batman might get a special cowl, or a special chest symbol. And those pieces actually enhance your fighting ability. They might give you a little more strength, a little more defense. It might unlock a mode. The constant collection of new gear, and leveling up, upgrading your character, is like making your own custom version of Superman, Batman, Flash, that is really the most significant new game feature that we’ve added.
M&F: That kind of customization is always a big draw for gamers, but in terms of keeping things balanced for online play, is anything that enhances a character’s strength or speed—things that actually affect game play—is all of that unlocked through play, or is any of it available as DLC?
Ed Boon: No. It is absolutely something that you earn by playing the game. By playing through our story mode. By playing through our new multi-verse mode. By playing online against other opponents, you’re constantly getting drops of characters. Keep in mind that we’re launching with like 29 characters. So there’s hundreds of pieces of gear for each one of those 29 characters. So there’s thousands, and thousands, and thousands of pieces of gear in the game to earn. You can’t basically buy your way through it. You basically have to level up and get more and more experience, and continue to modify your character.
Courtesy of the WB Games
M&F: Looking back at the first Mortal Kombat, it was vilified in the press. Does it ever strike you how improbable it is that the franchise not only survived but is still so popular a quarter-century later?
Ed Boon: I certainly don’t think that any of us expected it to be. When we made the first game we were weren’t thinking “In 25 years we’re still gonna be big.” Everything was a surprise to us, and it just kind of snowballed from there. We continued to make games, and with every game we really wanted to introduce something new that nobody was expecting us to do. I think that’s what keeps the game fresh. The last Mortal Kombat we did, Mortal Kombat X, was nothing like Mortal Kombat 1, or Mortal Kombat 2, and that’s why I think people keep coming back. They know that we’re going to do something new with every game.
M&F: You will be remembered as a pioneer for getting games the same kind of respect and freedom as movies enjoy, with that original fight to keep Mortal Kombat in the hands of the players. Back then, when politicians were grandstanding on your creation to score political points, did you think that it was fight you could win?
Ed Boon: Well, we didn’t think it was a fight that we wanted to have, to be honest. The objection at the time was that there was no such thing as a rating system. All medium—movies, TV shows, music, and games—they need some kind of indicator of the content that’s in there. I think that because games did not have one at the time, and Mortal Kombat was really pushing that envelope, that was the objection. So we were all on board with the idea of making a rating system, and letting people know what they’re buying.
M&F: After Mortal Kombat 3, the series had a couple of entries that, you wouldn’t say they were bad, but they’re not remembered as fondly by fans. To be fair, most of the games in the polygon era didn’t necessarily age too well. Do you look back on anything in between MK 3 and the modern era, and do you consider anything in that time frame a misstep?
Ed Boon: Well, in full disclosure, a couple of those games I was not involved with, so I certainly don’t want to speak ill of something that somebody else worked on, even if it had the name Mortal Kombat. I agree that after MK 3 and before Deadly Alliance, as far as impact on the industry and sales [the series fell behind]. I don’t think that Special Forces did as well as some of the other games that we did. But Deadly Alliance was a great return to forum that we followed up Special Forces with.
M&F: Is there a valuable lesson you learned from watching how Special Forces did, where you realized, “OK maybe this is a place where the the series cannot go. This is not something that the players want to see.”
Ed Boon: Well, I did not work on Special Forces, but I think it was really just a matter of execution. I just don’t think that that game had the same level of polish and attention that maybe Mortal Kombat 3 had, or Deadly Alliance that followed it.
M&F: NetherRealm has developed a great narrative formula for fighting games that has really proved its staying power. Because it works so well with DC Comics and has worked so well with Mortal Kombat, is there an existing IP out there now that you would like a crack at with this formula? If you are now contractually limited to Warner Bros. properties, you have opportunities maybe with Mad Max, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix…Do you think down the road about anything like that?
Ed Boon: Right now we have our hands pretty full with Mortal Kombat and Injustice. I suspect it might work well with some of them, but that narrative formula you were talking about was built around a fighting game. It was all about the narrative of why these two people have a conflict, and the player would kind of resolve the conflict by defeating the other opponent, and then it would continue with the story. I think you would have to find an IP or a license that had combat or conflict central to its nature so you can kind of script it into it. But we really are excited by the fact that our narrative sets us apart from other fighting games, so much. It really makes it a lot more like a cinematic experience.
M&F: Is there anything else you want to add about Injustice 2?
Ed Boon: Well, it comes out May 16, and after the game is released, we are going to do a steady drop of DLC characters—nine of them. That’s going to go all through the summer and into the fall. So we’re excited about the constant new characters that are going to be dropped into the game.