This interview is the first part of a two-part retrospective on Mortal Kombat. Be sure to check out the interview with Tobias’ co-creator, Ed Boon.
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.
John Tobias was barely into his twenties when he and Ed Boon created the fighting game that would become one of the last landmark game of coin-op arcades’ heyday. After working on Kombat for the better part of a decade, Tobias left Midway in 1999 to found Studio Gigante, the developer of the Xbox titles Tao Feng: Fist Of The Lotus and WWE Wrestlemania 21. He was recently named the creative director for the San Diego branch of social-game developer Zynga. Tobias talked to Gameological about the series’ creation and inspiration, the ensuing pop culture phenomenon, and its legacy.
The Gameological Society: Tell me about how the idea for Mortal Kombat came about, how old you were, and how you met Ed Boon and the other original team members?
John Tobias: That’s a long story. [Laughs.] Let me think. Well, I was hired at Williams Electronics, which eventually became Williams-Bally-Midway. Williams, prior to me being hired, had, I guess, purchased Bally-Midway. But I was hired at Williams straight out of college, and it was in 1989. What I knew of computer graphics at the time was mostly self-taught. My education was mainly in illustration. You couldn’t find much back then in the way of a curriculum—even in colleges—that would teach computer graphics. I was actually 19 when I was hired, and my first game at Williams was a game called Smash TV.
I was working on its sequel, which was called Total Carnage—and this was in 1990, ’91—when the inception of the idea for Mortal Kombat first came about. I met Ed Boon prior to that. He actually had an office next door to an office I shared with a guy by the name of John Vogel, who is a Mortal Kombat veteran. Ed was in the office next door to us, and I met him after he had come down to our video game department from the pinball game department. He was programming pinball machines, and then he joined the video game department and worked on a couple of football games.
The two games I had done prior to Mortal Kombat featured tiny character sprites, and everything I had done on those games was all hand-drawn and animated. I was looking to do something with larger graphics. I wanted to have characters larger on the screen, as large as possible, and Williams kind of had been known for utilizing a digitizing technique where you would videotape live actors and use the digitized animations in the game. In the two prior games I had done, the characters were so small that digitizing really didn’t make sense. The first thing I thought of was that, in order for us to be able to do that, we would need to have as few characters on screen as possible. So I immediately thought of an old game I played in high school called Karate Champ—which just featured two characters, and, I think, sort of a referee in the background—and a one-on-one fighting game came to mind. I brought the idea up to Ed, and he wanted to do a fighting game, as well, and thought it was a great idea. At that point, we began pursuing the idea. That was the start of it.
Gameological: I’ve read before that the story of the first game was somewhat influenced by Enter The Dragon. Is that right?
A western world meets this eastern supernatural world.
Tobias: Yeah. The thing about Mortal Kombat, especially with the first game, was that it was kind of a big mash-up of all of my influences growing up with martial arts movies. I was a huge martial arts movie junkie. In high school, there were a few theaters in downtown Chicago that a few friends and I would go to on occasion after school, and they would play the triple feature Hong Kong martial arts flicks. The idea, maybe, of an island kind of originated with Enter The Dragon.
I remember when I started with the story in the first game, a lot of it was sort of me paying homage to all of these influences that I had from martial arts films growing up. There were these bootleg videotapes I would get from Chinatown in Chicago of these martial arts movies that I think were done in the early-to-mid-’80s. There was a director, his name was Tsui Hark, and he sort of combined—and maybe some other directors in Hong Kong had done it—martial arts with a little bit of a supernatural flavor. With Mortal Kombat, I was trying to achieve that. I know everybody points to Big Trouble In Little China—and I think that movie had some real obvious influences on Mortal Kombat—but for me, even Big Trouble In Little China was doing kind of an Americanized version of that stuff. I wanted to kind of touch on that, and I love the combination of a western world meets this eastern supernatural world. That played a part in Mortal Kombat’s story, and it all came together. I think that’s when Mortal Kombat worked its best. It was this realistic western world with this supernatural eastern world, and it was that combination, I think, that worked real well for us.
Gameological: How did that evolve over time to include concepts like the Outworld realm in Mortal Kombat II and a lot of the more monstrous characters that came along?
Tobias: I think, especially when you’re working with expanding an existing story, it’s all about kind of expanding the world bigger and better. That was a little bit of the mentality that I had. I know with the first game, what was important to me was just sort of establishing this world. I wanted it to feel, especially when we got into the second one, as if the first game was just sort of your gateway into this larger world. When we did go into the second game, it was about another realm [Outworld] and the immediacy, I think, of this other world trying to take over our world came more to the forefront of the story. It was about growing and expanding what was introduced in the first game.
Gameological: At the time, there were also Japanese fighting games like Street Fighter starting to become popular. What were you all going for in comparison to that? Street Fighter had more cartoonish animations compared to the digitized actors, for instance.
Tobias: When we came up with the idea for the first Mortal Kombat, it was actually prior to Street Fighter II being released in the arcades. Our instruction was sort of just get the characters as big on the screen as possible. When we first thought of the idea, we thought that we needed to tie a license to the product, so we were looking at tying, at the time, Jean-Claude Van Damme as a licensed actor in the game. We thought we needed that to justify the existence of the game because a lot of the games that were coming out of our department—or the successful ones, at least—had a license tied to them. We tried to pursue that, and it didn’t work out.
Fortunately for us, maybe a month or two later, Street Fighter II was being tested here in the United States and was performing extremely well. So, Street Fighter II and the fact that it did well kind of enabled us to move forward with Mortal Kombat because it showed to our management at the time that a one-on-one fighting game could work well in the arcades. Outside of that, Street Fighter didn’t really have too much of an influence on us. The idea for creating a game with the digitized graphics came prior to us even seeing Street Fighter II, but I think, fortunately for us, it helped differentiate us from the Japanese fighters that were out there. I think at the time, it really was just Street Fighter II.
Gameological: There was a lot of controversy surrounding the game early on with the Fatalities and the blood, and the game is, as you know, credited as the reason the ESRB rating system was created. Were you surprised by any of that? How much do you feel the controversy contributed to the franchise’s success?
Tobias: When we designed the original Mortal Kombat, the audience we were designing for was a little bit older than the home game players. The arcade market was the typical college-age player. It had kind of changed from the early ’80s, where you had this really wide general audience, to where you had just sort of the hardcore players. We designed our game for that audience. I think that when Mortal Kombat was translated to the home consoles by Acclaim, the violence really became an issue because the players tended to skew a bit younger. That’s what probably attracted the attention of the politicians who were, you know, up for reelection or whatever and looking for a vote. Because the players skewed a little bit younger, I think the controversy didn’t surprise me, and the resulting rating system the industry came up with seemed appropriate to me. I thought it was a good response to the issue.
The inception of Mortal Kombat wasn’t about the violence.
In terms of how the violence contributed to the popularity of Mortal Kombat, of course it did, just because of the media attention that the game got. I also believe that Mortal Kombat in and of itself, without the fatalities, was a good game, and I think that’s what gave it legs in the long run. Some of the copycat products back then kind of came and went because, on the surface level, the violence will attract some attention, but if there’s not much to the product behind it, you’re not going to last very long.
The inception of Mortal Kombat wasn’t about the violence. That just came as development went on. It started at the game, and we were concerned with the core of the product as opposed to the surface-level violence. As you developed the game, you know, you added a little more of the blood here, you added the crunching punching sounds there. The Fatalities came about sort of as an exclamation point to the end of the match, and it worked well. It got a great reaction from the players, and, really, when you were designing an arcade product, you wanted the player to replay the game and to have fun. You wanted to get reactions out of them, and the Fatalities certainly got that.
Gameological: Even when I saw the Scorpion fatality for the first time on Mortal Kombat back in first grade, it was just kind of funny to me at the time because it was so over-the-top that, even at that age, it just seemed ridiculous.
Tobias: That was one thing that we were also conscious of—that Mortal Kombat takes place in this fantastical world. Most of the Fatalities were so over-the-top that it was cartoonish in a way. I think a lot of the attention the game got in regards to its violence came from people who never played the game and weren’t really aware of the subject matter. All they understood was that it was violent because they were being told it was violent, and they were looking at the game out of context. They weren’t looking at it as a player. They were looking at it as an outside observer who doesn’t play the product. Even with games today, if someone who doesn’t play a game is shown snippets of a game, their reaction is going to be different than actually sitting down and experiencing the game. If you look at it out of context, it’s worse than it actually is.
Gameological: Do you think that your pushing the boundaries with Mortal Kombat paved the way for what exists now in gaming?
Tobias: In terms of violence?
Gameological: In terms of violence and realism.
Tobias: With regards to the graphics, the digitized stuff had a short life because, obviously, as technology improved, the processing power enabled realistic 3D graphics to take over. The problem you have with digitized graphics is the limitations of the storage. It is what it is, and you need massive amounts of storage to be able to do digitizing justice, so I don’t know that it really influenced graphics so much. In terms of violence, I think that Mortal Kombat was one of the first, but if we hadn’t done it, someone else would have inevitably come along and done it. [Laughs.]
Gameological: One of the things the series is known for is the gimmick of replacing hard Cs with Ks. How did that come into play?
Tobias: The “K” in “Kombat” came about during the trademark process in naming the game. We really liked “Mortal Combat” as a name, but it couldn’t get past legal. So we changed the “C” to a “K,” and the rest is history.
Gameological: What was your favorite thing to spin out of the game, out of the whole pop-culture phenomenon that followed it? There were the movies, the cartoon, a live action series, action figures, a touring show…
Tobias: The problem, I think, with Mortal Kombat back then was that it was very hit-and-miss in terms of the licensed properties that came from it. I think my favorite was probably the first film, and that’s because it surprised us in terms of how well it had performed in the theaters. And it was a decent translation of the story and the characters from the game.
Gameological: Were you ever surprised by how much of a pop-culture phenomenon the series became?
Tobias: I think a large part of Mortal Kombat’s success came partially because it was the right game at the right time, and it had such a large impact that it kind of cemented itself into being iconic within the larger popular culture. Because of that, I think that’s where all the ancillary stuff came from. After the Acclaim release of the home game, everything that snowballed after that didn’t surprise me so much. Obviously, at first it did. I had no idea the game would become ultimately what it became. After the snowball started rolling down the hill, and the one thing after the other with the film and all of the other stuff, that was cool to see. I had no expectation of any of that stuff, but after a while, we were so busy working on the next iteration of the game that… It was exciting to watch, but it was almost comical, all of the stuff that was happening because of it.
Gameological: Once Mortal Kombat 4 came along, what was the shift like moving from the digitized actors to the fully 3D character models?
Tobias: On Mortal Kombat 3, we had [initially] considered 3D graphics primarily because we knew that, at some point, we were gonna have to make that transition. I think our issue was, back then, that 3D graphics were in their infancy. If we wanted to do it, our characters would have become sort of these blocky versions of our existing characters.
By the time MK4 had come about, we were able to do a little bit more with the 3D graphics. I think that’s what ultimately sparked the transition for us. On that game, I actually didn’t do any of the specific modeling on the characters. There was another artist we had working on the game, but I was tasked with designing those characters. So for me, not much really changed. With the design, there was a symmetry that we kind of had to adhere to, so what was on the left side of the character had to be on the right side of the character. We were kind of restricted to those sorts of things.
Gameological: After Mortal Kombat 4, you left the team. I was wondering if you want to comment on your reasons for that. I know you moved on and started Studio Gigante shortly after that, and you had the Tao Feng: Fist Of The Lotus game.
Tobias: Right. When I left, the timing that was involved had to do with the fact that we knew that there were new platforms that were going to be introduced. We knew that Sony would be doing a follow-up [to the PlayStation], and we knew that getting in at the beginning would make it easier for us to find a development deal. For me, that’s what controlled the timeframe. At the time, I was working on the original version of a game called Special Forces, and there was a bit of a struggle on that game in terms of its development. There was a delay that pushed that project out long enough that, had I stayed, we’d miss sort of the sweet spot in terms of publishers looking for developers and their willingness to do next-gen development deals. The tough decision that we had to make at the time was either stay and complete this game that, I think, was troubled, or if we were gonna move on and not miss that window of opportunity. For me, it was kind of a no-brainer. It was kind of a different environment back then than it is today, and we knew it was important to be there at the ground floor. So that’s what sparked the decision to leave at that time.
Gameological: If you had to choose a favorite character and Fatality from your time working on the game, who and what would it be?
Tobias: I’ve never really had a single favorite character, although I guess, aesthetically, Goro would be tops on my list. My favorite Fatality was Sub-Zero’s spine rip.
Gameological: You had some involvement in the series again a few years ago in the Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe game, right?
Tobias: For MK vs. DC, Ed had asked me to illustrate a little pack-in comic book for the collector’s edition, so I illustrated that 12- or 15-page comic book. I think in Europe, it may have been released as a pre-sell thing. But that’s the only participation I had on that project, and that was a lot of fun.
Gameological: Do you have any thoughts on the games that came along after you left?
Everybody will always know Mortal Kombat as being the ultra-violent game.
Tobias: The games that followed my departure, I thought that they were all great games. They were a lot of fun. I’m not too familiar with the early ones. I was familiar with the MK Vs. DC project, especially because of my involvement with the comic book. I do think that, with regards to the look of the characters, Mortal Kombat Vs. DC visually turned a corner. I thought that the characters looked great, and I enjoyed the redesign of the old characters. It was done in a way that was respectful to the original versions of the characters and stayed true to the original intentions. And I thought the 2011 release was amazing. Both of those projects were fantastic, but I’m not too familiar with the ones that came out in the early part of the decade.
Gameological: Have you ever been invited to participate in any of the more recent MK games?
Tobias: Invited to? No. [Laughs.] I’m friendly with all of the guys still, but no. I’m kind of doing my thing and they’re doing their thing, so…
Gameological: What are you working on right now, and how has your experience with co-creating Mortal Kombat influenced that?
Tobias: I can’t speak much about exactly what I’m working on, but I can say that looking back on creating the characters and stories of the MK universe has led me to a deeper understanding of how story really should be told in games and what made the original characters work so well.
Gameological: In the long run, what do you think the legacy of Mortal Kombat is?
Tobias: Obviously, because of the controversy with the violent aspect of the game back in the early ’90s, I think that, within pop culture, it will always be known as that, and it will never escape that part of the product. Everybody will always know Mortal Kombat as being the ultra-violent game, and I think, especially with the last release, that no one is shying away from that. So I think that will always be its legacy within the larger popular culture.
In regards to the game, I think it will always be a fighting game. It will always kind of be there with the whole one-on-one aspect, especially now with the competitive players out there. Especially because of its place in pop culture, it will always be around. It’s one of these things that, it might have its highs and lows, and it might go away for a while, but all it needs is a quality iteration for it to come back. It’ll always be here. If you look at any other pop culture phenomenon—like if you look at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for instance—it became popular at the time right around when Mortal Kombat became popular, and it had its highs and lows, and here they are once again talking about a major motion picture. That’s because of its place in pop culture. It’s always there for someone to pick up, polish off, blow the dust off of it, and re-release it. And Mortal Kombat will always be that way. It’ll be around 50 years from now.
Now continue to part two with Tobias’ creative partner, Ed Boon.