This interview is the second part of a two-part retrospective on Mortal Kombat. Be sure to check out the interview with Boon’s co-creator, John Tobias.
Midway Games released Mortal Kombat in arcades 20 years ago this month, breaking new ground in the gaming industry with its campy ultra-violence, realistic digitized characters, and arcane mythology. When Acclaim Entertainment ported the game to home consoles in the fall of 1993, it featured so much blood and gore—most famously in the gruesome, fight-ending “Fatality” animations—that the resulting controversy led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Not coincidentally, Mortal Kombat’s popularity skyrocketed. After two decades, multiple sequels, a handful of films and television shows, a plethora of merchandise, and even a live touring show, Mortal Kombat is still reinventing itself. We invited the game’s co-creators to take a look back on the game’s origins and legacy.
Ed Boon was originally hired as a pinball machine programmer, but with time, he found his way to Midway’s video game department, where he created Mortal Kombat with John Tobias. Unlike Tobias, Boon remains involved in Kombat—he oversees the series as creative director of the Warner Bros. subsidiary NetherRealm Studios, and until recently he even provided the voice of the undead ninja character Scorpion. Tobias talked to The Gameological Society about his 20 years working on Kombat, the series’ evolution and future, and his upcoming fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us.
The Gameological Society: I understand you had programmed pinball machines at Williams prior to moving up to some football games and then to Mortal Kombat. I was wondering what the transition from programming pinball machines to video games was like, as well as how you met John Tobias and got involved in getting the Mortal Kombat ball rolling.
Ed Boon: I guess the way I got programming pinball machines was kind of like an accident. I had just graduated with a degree in computer science, and I sent out a bunch of résumés to banks and other financial institutions, just assuming I was going to get a job doing something, you know, a little bit more “grown up.” I think I put in this asterisk on the bottom of the résumé, “personal interest in video games,” just as a hobby reference. At some point, a headhunter saw that and sent it to Williams Electronics. I don’t know how that qualified me as someone they would call and inquire about, but they did.
I went there thinking that it was an interview for a video game programmer, and then they told me at the interview, “No, this is for pinball machines.” I remember asking them, “Do people program pinball machines? How does that work?” And then I met a bunch of people who had done video games, because they also had a video game department. I met the guy who did Joust, which was a big game that I loved to play when I was a kid, and the guy who made Defender, which was another game I played. So my enthusiasm for working there was very high just because I knew that they had a video game department, and I knew that they also had a lot of people that I admired a lot growing up.
I got that job, and then I programmed pinball machines for about three years. Like I said, I knew that there was a video game department, and I knew that they were working on new hardware and this game called NARC, so I just started hanging out with the guys who were downstairs doing the video games. I started working with this guy named Eugene Jarvis, who had done this game called Defender, and Stargate and Robotron. He wanted to do a football game, so I kind of moved down there and started programming that football game. That game did well, and then we did a sequel to it. It was called High Impact and the sequel was Super High Impact. In the process of those football games, John Tobias was working with a guy named Mark Turmell on Smash TV, and then Total Carnage, so I got to know John. We weren’t working together, but I knew him.
One day, I remember Street Fighter had come out—and Williams was doing digitized graphics, which was our big technology thing—and John and I had a conversation where we were both kind of thinking, “How cool would it be to have a fighting game like Street Fighter, but with realistic looking graphics and blood and a real storyline?” And all that stuff. It was really just one conversation, because I remember when he was working late, we came back, and John and I were just talking. Literally, I was playing a game at the time during our conversation, and we had just kind of agreed, “Yeah, that would be really cool.” An opportunity came up where the company had, you know, an assembly line of games that they had to sell, and they said, “We foresee a gap next August,” or whenever it was. “Can you guys make a game really fast?” John and I were very much gung-ho for it—we were a lot younger back then—and that kind of started the whole Mortal Kombat thing.
Gameological: And the game was originally going to have a license tied to it with Jean-Claude Van Damme, right?
Boon: Yeah. The whole idea was to really do something that was inspired by movies. So, Enter The Dragon—and then Jean-Claude Van Damme was in a movie called Bloodsport at the time. He was kind of like the up-and-coming action star, and so we thought that it would’ve been cool to have a game basically called Van Damme: The Video Game. Jean-Claude Van Damme would be the star of it, and we would have other characters and stuff just like Mortal Kombat did, but Jean-Claude Van Damme would be the focus of it. That eventually just never panned out. Our licensing guy contacted his people, and I think he already had a deal going with Sega or something. At least that’s what we were told. So we kind of sat there over the years waiting for his Sega game to come out, and it never did, but it turns out that was probably a good thing, you know?
Gameological: That also makes it somewhat ironic that he ended up in the Street Fighter movie after that, as well.
Boon: Exactly, and [Capcom] did a Street Fighter: The Movie game, which had digitized graphics like we did in Mortal Kombat. It was all kind of like a big “full circle” thing for us.
Gameological: Were you surprised by the controversy that spun out of the game once Acclaim ported it over to home consoles?
It just added fuel to the fire.
Boon: I was only surprised from the standpoint that the game had already been out for almost a year at the time. What people didn’t realize was it came out in arcades originally as an arcade coin-operated machine. It did really well in arcades, so, for the better part of a year, people were playing it and knew what it was. As a matter of fact, we were already working on the sequel to Mortal Kombat when Acclaim started promoting it and started really kind of bringing it to the mass market. I never hesitate to credit Acclaim for having the faith in the game that it was something that could be pushed to investing $10 million for marketing it and all that. So they brought it to the mass market, and when that happened, it became a home product. Home video games is more of where you think of the younger people playing it, and all of a sudden when it was that, that’s when the objection was there. I definitely understood and appreciated and agreed with the need for some kind of ratings to let people know what kind of content was in the game.
Gameological: My first experience with the game was in first grade, and I remember my dad never being particularly upset about the violence because he actually played it with me. When I talked to John Tobias, I know he said that a lot of the uproar came from people who were viewing the game out of context.
Boon: Yeah, and a lot of people were just viewing it based on the news stories that they saw, and the news stories would basically just show Fatality after Fatality after Fatality. If you watched that, you just got the impression that the game was all about, you know, you tear this guy’s heart out, you rip this guy’s spine out, you light this guy on fire—as if it’s a big bloodbath type of thing.
Gameological: Do you think the controversy contributed to the game’s success in the long run?
Boon: Absolutely. It was a snowball thing. It was a game that a lot of players really loved to play, and then it became a game that people said, “Don’t play this.” Anybody who is young who is told not to do something, their initial thing is, “I need to go find out what it is that they’re telling me not to play,” and then they got hooked, too. To me, it just added fuel to the fire. But again, the original objection was legitimate. Once Mortal Kombat II came out, and that had an “M” [Mature] rating, the hoopla just really kind of died down.
Gameological: With all of the movies and television series, and the touring shows and comic books and merchandise that spun out of the game, which of those was your favorite?
Boon: I guess I’d have to say the first movie. Really, it’s kind of like the home versions of the first arcade game because those were the ones that really launched it. The home games doing so well—the first one, I think, sold like six million copies or something like that—kind of brought it into the mass market. But outside of the games, I think the first movie was the one that was the most exciting to see because we went to the set in L.A. We met the actors and the director, and were involved in the interpretation of the characters and the signature moves, and incorporating that into the movie. So, that was a lot of fun.
Gameological: Were you ever surprised by how much of a pop culture phenomenon the franchise became? Like, I don’t even think Mario’s ever had a live touring show, you know?
It’s so violent that you almost can’t take it seriously.
Boon: I absolutely was surprised by it. I was a lot more surprised years afterwards, because, you know, at the time, the team’s heads were just down just working on the next one. When Mortal Kombat was being sold as a home game, we were working on the arcade game of part two. When part two was being sold as a home game, we were working on the arcade game of part three. We were always kind of working on the next iteration, kind of setting the stage for the next year’s game, so all of this was happening when the movie and the TV show and the live tour and the animated show was going on. We were working 12-hour days [laughs] just working on the next game. I certainly don’t remember sitting back and basking in any kind of, like, “Wow, this is awesome!” But after the fact, it was kind of like, “Wow, that was really big.”
Gameological: You’ve kind of developed a reputation with fans over the years for teasing everyone with supposed secrets in the games—whether they be rumors or actually true—so I was wondering which of those was your favorite?
Boon: I guess I would have to say the first one was my favorite. Reptile was really a fun thing to do. Street Fighter always had a little bit of a, “Oh, is this feature in the game,” and people would speculate on “You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance.” People would interpret that as this character in the game called “Sheng Long,” but there wasn’t. I remember thinking, “Wow, that would be really cool if there really was a totally rare occurrence of a character that people would say they saw, but it was so rare that you couldn’t duplicate it anytime you wanted.”
We were out of memory in terms of the ROMs that were put into the game, but we were still able to change the color of the characters. I don’t even think I told John about it at the time. I went into the art program and tinted Scorpion green and made him Reptile, and then made these crazy circumstances of how to make him come out so you fight him. It was very rare instances, so people would start talking about it. I really wanted to make sure nobody was talking about it within the company, because that would legitimize it and it would no longer be a mystery. That one really kind of set the stage for all of the other hidden stuff that we put in the game. After a while with Mortal Kombat, it became expected, but with the first one, there’s something magic about people talking about it and not being 100 percent sure if it was true.
Gameological: There are also characters like Ermac that began as hoaxes because of glitches or lines people noticed in the coding, and there have been a number of conceptual design hoaxes released over the years—my favorite being Zebron. Is there any chance we might see something like Zebron in a future installment?
Boon: Zebron was 100 percent a joke. One of the artists on our team, his name is Mike Taran, drew it as literally a parody on the entire concept of the hidden character. He was trying to think of the most silly thing in the world, like a zebra with a top hat and all this kind of stuff. That was really just kind of mocking that whole thing. By the time we did that, we were up to Mortal Kombat 5 [Deadly Alliance] at the time. But with Ermac, there were certain parts of the game [Mortal Kombat] that were not supposed to happen. Like, if I couldn’t find a certain player object or if I couldn’t find a projectile object that should be in the air or something like that, and I wanted to audit those things just to debug the game. So I put it in the diagnostics when you go into the game. It would count, how many times was Kano picked, how many times was Liu Kang, and Johnny Cage—and at the end, I put “Ermac,” and it wasn’t referring to a character. It was referring to how many times this error macro, or “ermac,” would execute. People just interpreted that as, “Oh, it’s in this list of things. That must be another character.” That became this urban legend thing, and, a few games later, we just decided to make it real.
Gameological: When you did Mortal Kombat 4, you shifted from the digitized graphics over to 3D models, so what was that shift like?
Boon: It was kind of a challenge because, at the time, Street Fighter was starting to wane down and other games were emerging. Tekken, in particular, was really kind of hitting its stride. I don’t know if they were on Tekken 2 or 3 yet. That was certainly the direction that fighting games were going. We wanted to maintain some amount of familiarity—which is, basically, we kept the high punch/low punch, high kick/low kick—but visually, we went to 3D. MK4, to me, is like the bridge between the 2D games and the 3D ones, which started with Deadly Alliance. MK4 is kind of like a hybrid, a 2D-playing game with some 3D elements to it.
Gameological: In the first games following John’s departure on PS2 and the first Xbox, the character models became more complex and the characters all got their own individual fighting styles. What was it like fleshing the experience out that much more?
Boon: Certainly, I think Deadly Alliance was what I call one of our reboots. With a franchise that’s 20 years old, I don’t think that you can successfully continue to offer the same experience again and again and still sell in the millions like we still are. Deadly Alliance was kind of like a complete reboot. We got rid of the high punch/low punch, high kick/low kick similarity thing, we got rid of the 2D-restricted movement, and we introduced the whole notion of fighting styles and weapons. We just really rebooted the whole thing. The visuals were a lot more sophisticated and there was motion capture animation. That really paid off. I mean, that game sold huge. I think that was necessary for the whole thing, and it really started what I would call the “trilogy” of Deadly Alliance, Deception, and Armageddon. Those were kind of like the PlayStation 2-era games of the 3D games. It wasn’t until we introduced the game that we did in 2011, which we just called Mortal Kombat, that we did another reboot, so to speak, where we went back to 2D and really kind of just rewrote the whole basic fighting game.
Gameological: Out of all of the MK characters and finishing moves, which are your favorites?
Boon: Of the characters, I would say Scorpion is my favorite for a number of reasons. That whole throwing the spear out and pulling the character in, that was really my baby. I really loved trying it out, and when people saw it and got excited about it, that was a great moment for me. From the first Mortal Kombat game, to me, it’s really what started identifying what was going to be different about Mortal Kombat, where we really started going with the outrageousness of characters teleporting and freezing and throwing spears. There have been, literally, probably hundreds of Fatalities that we’ve made over the years. It’s hard to pick out any that I would call my favorite, but just because of the controversy of it all, that first one where Sub-Zero pulled the guy’s head off and the spine was still attached. [Laughs] As ridiculous as that is—that was kind of based on the movie “Predator”—I would say that was my favorite because that was so iconic for the game.
Gameological: What was the shift like to doing a Teen-rated game with MK Vs. DC? I imagine having Superman or Batman behead anyone or vice-versa was out of the question.
Boon: That wasn’t an option. Never in the course of our discussion of DC did we even mention the idea of an M-rated version of it. We pretty much assumed that was off the table. I think, to this day, it would still be off the table. When we finished the trilogy of Deadly Alliance, Deception, and Armageddon, I felt like there was a need to do something dramatically different, and introducing these new characters and overlapping the two universes was our approach to really mixing things up for the eighth iteration of a fighting series that was, at the time, 17 or 18 years old.
Gameological: Did you ever feel during the fall of Midway that it might be the end of Mortal Kombat?
Boon: No, no. Never. I knew it was going to continue in some capacity. When Midway was going through their problems, there were plenty of publishers and developers who were looking to pick up the Mortal Kombat license and rights to it. I spoke with many people. I think Warner Bros. picking it up, for however much they did, was a great move on their part. That was a great call, and now Mortal Kombat is one of the big selling WB Games titles along with Batman: Arkham City. It’s a very strong pillar in the Warner Bros. game line.
Gameological: Is there a lot of difference being creative director of NetherRealm Studios now under WB, as opposed to when you worked for Midway?
Boon: It’s not very different. Our team has grown quite a bit. My position as creative director is really focusing in on the game that we’re making and the content we’re making. I don’t do studio management stuff. We have a studio head here—his name is Shaun Himmerick—and he does the whole running of the studio while I lead the creation of content. It works out well with me being able to focus solely on the game that we’re creating.
Gameological: What’s the next step for the series following the success of Mortal Kombat 2011?
Boon: Right now, we’re focusing on our game called Injustice, which actually doesn’t have any Mortal Kombat characters in it. We need to finish that game for 2013, and that’s gonna be our main focus. We’ve never actually announced a future Mortal Kombat game, and I certainly don’t feel like it’s my place to make an announcement, but I would be surprised if NetherRealm or Warner Bros. chose to never release a Mortal Kombat game again. When it would be time to work on it, I’m sure we would want to add something dramatic and not just make a typical sequel—more characters with the same stuff. Certainly, there are opportunities, if we have this new generation of consoles coming in the pipe, there’s always going to be more power and stuff to do something even cooler.
Gameological: And that actually brings me to my next question regarding the DC Comics fighter, Injustice: Gods Among Us. How are the last 20 years of experience on Mortal Kombat are shaping your work on Injustice?
Boon: I think our team, in general—having the experience of doing so many of these games always helps us in making the next one. There are certain fundamental principles in making a fighting game that we have in our DNA at this point. That really helps, because Injustice is not like our first fighting game. If we were to make a driving game or something like that, there would be a big learning curve, but the fact that Injustice is fundamentally a fighting game really lets us draw on the experience that we have—some of us 20 years—making fighting games.
Gameological: What do you think the legacy of Mortal Kombat is?
Boon: Wow. That’s a good question. [Pauses.] It’s a fighting game that really got a lot of attention from how bold and how violent and brash it was, and has endured for 20 years. To me, the fact that 20 years later, we can sell a version that sells in the multiple millions of units is really a testament to its staying power. There aren’t many franchises, fighting or any other style of video games, that can really say that—that can sell that many games in its latest incarnation. It just shows how much this series is willing to change and evolve over time and stay interesting. I think endurance is a big part of its legacy. It has great personality. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s so over-the-top violent and crazy that you almost can’t take it seriously. It’s not supposed to be a horror movie. There’s an element of campiness in there.