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Mortal Kombat: Ed Boon Interview
[06/07/2007 17:30]
Massive interview with the creator of Mortal Kombat

We recently went behind the scenes at the offices of Midway and you can read all about it in Issue 19 of Official Nintendo Magazine. The feature includes an interview with Ed Boon, the creator of the Mortal Kombat series. He had so much to say about the groundbreaking beat-'em up series that we couldn't possibly fit it all in the magazine so here is the full, undedited interview...

ONM: It's been 15 years since the first Mortal Kombat game appeared and, as far as we can tell, the series is all you've worked on since you created it (aside from a stint on The Grid, we believe). What do you think it is about the series that made it last so long, and haven't you ever wanted to work on something else?

Ed Boon: I think the main reason this series has lasted 15 years is that it remained different from our competition. Each sequel was also different enough from the previous game and offered something new that we had not done before with Mortal Kombat. When Mortal Kombat first came out it, there was no fighting game out there like it and that remains the case today. Over the years as we've introduced numerous sequels, each one added something new to the series hadn't been seen before. It's this newness that has kept the game fresh and kept players interested in seeing each new version. While I love working on Mortal Kombat and am very proud of the fact that we've sold over 26 million copies over the years, I would definitely like to try other game genres as well.

To be fair, we did take an MK break between MK4 and Deadly Alliance and during this time, we developed an incredibly fun arcade game called The Grid. It was a futuristic game show similar to The Running Man. The premise was very simple; several players were put in an arena that had various insane guns and weapons scattered about. Then it was just a free for all frag-fest and the one with the most kills after two minutes was the winner - it was fast paced, the weapons were insane and it was a blast to play. Unfortunately, this was strictly an arcade game and at the time, the arcade market was dying. In retrospect, I wish we had done The Grid about three years earlier. It was probably the most fun our team had making a game together.

ONM: It seems weird that much is known about the MK series, but very little is known about the people who make it. Even though it's technically an internal Midway team, do you see yourselves as working for Midway or as an offshoot of the company that works solely on MK games? How much freedom from the powers above do you have when it comes to creating a new MK game?

EB: Mortal Kombat definitely consumes the majority of my time and effort, but I see certainly myself as mainly working for Midway. There are usually at least two or three different Mortal Kombat projects at some stage of development and part of my job is to try to maintain a certain overall level of quality to the games. I've been with Midway for over 20 years now and they realize how much energy I need to put into my job and give me a lot of creative freedom with the games. I suppose if the games were no longer successful then they might pull in the reins on us a bit more but so far things are working out pretty good for over 15 years of MK.

ONM: How much has the team working on the Mortal Kombat games changed over the years? Are there many people from the original MK team, like Carlos Pesina and Dan Forden, left working with you now? And what does it take to make it onto Team MK anyway?

EB: Mortal Kombat started out with four people in 1991; I was the only programmer, John Tobias and John Vogel were the only two artists, and Dan Forden was the only sound designer. That was it. We developed the first Mortal Kombat in ten months from beginning to end and the home versions went on to sell more than six million copies. You can imagine what that was like for just four guys to experience. After that, we started a roller-coaster ride that we're still riding. The only guy from the original team who is no longer working on Mortal Kombat is John Tobias. It's scary to think this has been going on for over 15 years.

When we started working on Mortal Kombat II, Tony Goskie joined the MK team and created some of the most memorable, imaginative, scary and downright sick backgrounds, and he really raised the graphics bar for arcade games. Two more artists joined the MK team for Mortal Kombat 3, including Steve Beran who is now one of the art directors on our team. I was still the only programmer for MKII and 3 but by MK4, the team was too big for me to lead and also be the only programmer. Todd Allen and Mike Boon joined on as programmers for MK4 and by then our team was more than twice its original size. After that we made The Grid, and then we regrouped to begin working on a reinvention (or reboot, as I like to think) of Mortal Kombat that was going to debut on the newest generation of hardware that was out at the time, the PlayStation2, Xbox and the GameCube. That game was Deadly Alliance. This required an enormous amount of work and our team quickly grew to over 25 people.

By this time there were so many people that we added a producer to the team, John Podlasek. Luis Mangubat was one of the key artists who helped define the look of another big Midway title called NFL BLITZ and he joined our team to work on Deadly Alliance. In addition, Carlos Pesina, who played Raiden in all of the 2D MK games, joined the development team as an animator and as our martial arts expert in MKDA. Each of the following games was bigger than the last and we started adding some rather big mini-games like Puzzle Kombat, Chess Kombat, Konquest mode and Motor Kombat. By the time we began working on Armageddon, we had more than 30 people on the core team and over 50 people working on the game at any given time. Shaun Himmerick joined the MK team also as a producer for Shaolin Monks, MK Unchained and now for the Wii version of Armageddon. Even with all those people, each project takes about two years to complete which is a long way to go from just four guys working for ten months…

ONM: When it comes to starting work on a MK game, how do you go about approaching things? Do you start off looking back at the last game and working out how to improve it, or is each game taken as its own entity?

EB: There are quite a number of things taken into consideration when starting a new MK game. The amount of time we have, the hardware the game will run on, the feature set we feel will be the selling point and what we feel worked (and didn't work) with the previous game. Usually, by the time we start a new game we have an idea of the basic features we would like to add and we try experimenting with those ideas to see if they are solid or not. If the game is on the same hardware as the previous version we usually don't try a reboot where everything is reinvented. Instead, we try thinking of a new feature that can be added that will change the fighting mechanic enough to keep things interesting. With Deadly Alliance we added the multiple fighting styles. With Deception we added the Breaker move and with Armageddon we added the Parry move and Air Kombat.

ONM: Has having your own internal motion-capture department made things easier when working on each game? Were you a little sad when the game moved from digitised versions of real people into computer rendered characters, seeing as that was a big part of what set the game apart from its rivals?

EB: Having our own internal motion-capture studio was instrumental in us making this game - I can't imagine what things would have been like if we could not motion capture at a moment's notice. The reason it was set up was because Midway had a number of titles (MK included) that needed to use motion captured animations. Using another company's motion studio just didn't make sense on a number of levels so (out of necessity) we decided to have one built in our studio.

We weren't sad when MK moved away from the digitized images and went into 3D. When the first three games came out, digitised graphics were state of the art; nobody had seen anything like it and it helped us stand out from the crowd. After a few years, 3D hardware systems were emerging like the PlayStation and Sega Saturn and state of the art had a new definition. This allowed us to present our characters in 3D and the digitized look actually was considered 'retro', which was hard to believe. So, us leaving digitised images was really an easy decision to make.

ONM: ONM: Has fan feedback played much of a part in how you've evolved the series over the years? rivals?

EB: Most of the ideas come from the team. For example, not many people know that Dan Forden (MK Sound designer, composer and the 'Toasty!' Man) invented the Babality move. In addition, over the years we have always listened to the players to see what they like and don't like in our games.

Fans have had a dramatic impact on the design of the MK games but haven't had a direct impact on a particular feature's implementation. For example, for years there was a rumor that Mortal Kombat had a feature called an Animality where you could turn your character into an animal and kill your opponent. Of course it didn't really exist but we thought it would be fun to actually do since there were so many people who insisted that they saw it in the older games. So for MK3 we added the Animality feature. Unfortunately, there were a number of obstacles that greatly hindered our implementation of that feature, the first one being memory limitations. MK3 had even more characters than MKII and we were running very low on memory. Since we had so little memory remaining for the "animal images & animations" we had to reduce those images to four-colour graphics which were much cruder than the 256 colour images of the characters. We also had very few frames we could put in the Animalities, which also hurt the overall experience of performing an Animality. Finally there was time which we didn't have much of, so we couldn't spend the amount of hours we wanted to make the Animality sequence as cool as it should have been.

ONM: How big a step was it taking the MK series from 2D into 3D and how did it alter your approach to making it? Considering that MK's main competition, Street Fighter, tried and failed to move into 3D, are you happy with how things turned out with the series (particularly the games from Deadly Alliance onwards)?

EB: Taking the step to 3D was sort of a gradual process for MK. Mortal Kombat 4 was the first of the MK games that had 3D aspects to it but it was pretty subtle. The game play was still very similar to the original 2D games. It wasn't until Deadly Alliance that MK really took the plunge into 3D. Looking back now, I think we made certain decisions about the 3D gameplay in Deadly Alliance just because the other games did. Jumping, for instance was something we reduced but then re-instated in MK Armageddon. While I personally am never fully happy with the games, considering that to date we've sold over 4 million copies of Deadly Alliance, I'm happy with that. I'm very proud of the fact that MK is still going strong long after many of our competitors have faded away.

ONM: Was it a hard decision moving away from the arcade roots of Mortal Kombat and focusing purely on console development and, more importantly, was it your decision or that of Midway? Are you sad we won't see Mortal Kombat in the arcades any more?

EB: The decision to leave arcades was kind of made for us; the arcade market was drying up and it didn't make much business sense to release the game in a format that didn't have an audience. So we kind of saw the writing on the wall and knew there were new consoles coming out in the home. Introducing Mortal Kombat 5 on the home consoles made a lot more sense than in the coin-op market. I do miss the arcades with the spectacle and all the social interaction though. Online is filling that gap, but I think it can do so much better which is what we'd like to explore in future games.

ONM: Has you been surprised by the change in attitudes to games like Mortal Kombat where, back in the day, it was heralded as being the root of all evil and was censored on some home consoles and yet now, it's accepted without much argument and appears uncut on almost every format known to man? Would you put that down to the game's success, or more how society has evolved over the years? Sorry if that sounds a bit deep…

EB: I'm not surprised in the change - it's really just a sign of the times. Plus I've always felt that the uproar was much more of a reaction to the lack of a ratings system, which is a legitimate concern. Once a ratings system was in place the big objections stopped. Mortal Kombat II was rated M (for Mature) and didn't receive nearly the amount of backlash than the first game did. I don't think the game's success makes it more acceptable… quite the opposite. I think the game's early success made it more of a target for the people who objected because the game was getting so much exposure. If the game wasn't as big or had failed it wouldn't have gotten on the news…

ONM: ONM: What was the thinking behind the new Kreate-A-Fatality options within MK: Armageddon?

EB: We changed the fatality system for a number of reasons. First, we wanted to try something different as we were doing fatalities the same for so many years and it was getting repetitive. We also wanted fatalities to be more interactive where the player participated more instead of just triggering the beginning and then just watching the show. Whenever we make a drastic change like that we are concerned about the reaction of players. In retrospect, I wish we had more time to have done character specific fatalities but with 65 characters, it's a massive job to create a good variety of animations for each character.

ONM: Did you enjoy working on MK: Armageddon for the Wii, given that you had to try and incorporate a completely new control system? Why didn't you consider just sticking to the GameCube controller, seeing as it works with the console?

EB: The Wii's controls are what many people are talking about when it comes to innovation and a potential new experience that the other game systems can't offer. That potential was made available to us and it was definitely a breath of fresh air.

Some people wanted us to make players punch and kick with motions but that would have gotten very tiring very fast, especially if you wanted to player more than just a few matches; plus, you wouldn't have the kind of precise control you need for combos and juggling. Special moves and fatalities seemed like the best actions to tie to Wii motions as those were big events. I don't think any of us ever considered simply porting Armageddon to the Wii and NOT using the motion controls. That would be a sin, right?

ONM: Were you disappointed that you weren't able to incorporate online play into the Wii version of Armageddon, even though it was in the other versions? What was the reason for dropping it?

EB: Yes, we were disappointed. Deception and Armageddon's online fighting is the best in the business. Like you said, online was in the other versions and we tried to explore every possible avenue to make it happen but could not. Unfortunately, there simply wasn't an online infrastructure for us to hook into to let people link up and fight. If there was, we would have been all over it.

Some people wanted us to make players punch and kick with motions but that would have gotten very tiring very fast, especially if you wanted to player more than just a few matches; plus, you wouldn't have the kind of precise control you need for combos and juggling. Special moves and fatalities seemed like the best actions to tie to Wii motions as those were big events. I don't think any of us ever considered simply porting Armageddon to the Wii and NOT using the motion controls. That would be a sin, right?

ONM: Have you been at all surprised at how well the Wii has managed to do around the world?

EB: To be honest, yes I am surprised at the level of just how well the Wii has caught on. I thought it would be big, but I didn't know it would be THAT big. I would almost guess that even Nintendo didn't expect this kind of global success for their system. You have to give them credit though, when everyone else was touting power, polygons, pushing pixels and pretty pictures (that's about all the P-words I can fit into a sentence), Nintendo was presenting their system for people who DON'T play a lot of video games and probably don't understand all of the technical statistics. The people who just want a fun experience. I think us bringing a fighting game to the Wii came from identifying that the system didn't have much choice with the genre and also the opportunity to do something cool with the Wii controls. I would be surprised if we didn't see another fighting game appear on the Wii… maybe not something super-technical like Virtua Fighter, but something should come out.

ONM: You've been quoted as saying that Mortal Kombat as we know it is now over and you're planning to totally reinvent the series for next-gen… what kind of 'changes' do you have in mind? Is it a case of starting over from scratch? We've heard rumblings of a darker, more serious tone, although you can't get much more serious than ripping people to pieces with your bare hands…

EB: I feel it's time for a Mortal Kombat reboot. I'm a huge fan of some of our fighting-game competition but it's getting to the point where the novelty of the new entries wears off faster with each version, even though there are improvements over the previous versions. The reason is that they basically feel like the same game they were five years ago. Our team recognizes this and reboots the series every few years. Deadly Alliance was a reboot and this next MK game will also be. Theoretically, I'd like to change everything - the fighting system, the graphics, the presentation, the sounds, the animations… everything. Yes, we will probably make the game more serious as well.

ONM: What are the reasons behind wanting to reinvent the series? Is it because you feel the universe has become too big and unmanageable, or are there other motives behind it?

EB: Some of the reasons are precisely the ones you mentioned. While I don't think the universe has become unmanageable, it's becoming harder to concentrate hard on each individual character when there are so many in the line up. The reboot theory I mentioned before is also another reason we want to reinvent the series.

ONM: With the Wii focusing very much on classic games and MKII and UMK3 already being 're-released' on other formats, are there any plans to bring MK to the Virtual Console? If we're honest, much of our youth was spent playing MKII in the arcade and on the SNES…

EB: I certainly can't speak officially for Midway, but I would be surprised if we didn't release one of the classic MK games for the Virtual Console. I definitely would like to see those games available for the Virtual Console, as those were the games that laid the foundation for what MK is today.

ONM: There's a rumour going around that there are plans to revive Mortal Kombat as a movie franchise… is this true? And if so, what kind of input are you having on it and are you going to 'be' the voice of Scorpion again?

EB: Yes, it's true. I have read a couple of versions of the script for the third movie, but don't know where they are with regards to actual production. We've had a couple of conversations about the story and characters as well. It would be great if we could do a reboot to the MK movies as well, as it's been a long time since the last one. I hope I can be the voice of Scorpion again as I was for the first two movies…

ONM: Finally, and it's probably a question you've been asked a million times but… well, why spell everything with a K? Has it become something of a joke around the office?

EB: The reason we spelled Kombat with a K was simply to be different than what people were expecting. I know that sounds like a pretty boring answer to your question, but that's the truth. I suppose it might be more interesting to think the K stands for KILL or something but that wasn't the intention. Although… okay, the reason we spelled Kombat with a K was because K stands for 'kill'. Kill is a reference to the whole 'FINISH HIM!' sequence where you are supposed to perform a Fatality on your opponent. See? This was all part of our master plan when we started making the game… are you buying any of this?

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