With the biggest expansion the series has ever done coming next week, I caught up with series co-creator and Mortal Kombat 11 director Ed Boon to talk about the thinking behind this expansion and what fans can expect in the future from both Mortal Kombat and gaming in general.
Why did you decide that an expansion was the right route for Mortal Kombat 11 instead of waiting to continue the story by way of a sequel like we’ve seen in the past?
Ed Boon: At the end of the day, when we finished Mortal Kombat 11, we kind of left it like a, “Hey, this story’s over,” kind of thing. Our past few games we’ve had, we’ve always released what some people refer to as like a “Game of the Year Edition” that repackaged everything throughout the year in one package. With Mortal Kombat XL, we tried something new where we added four more characters like Alien, Predator, and some MK characters. And that was huge for us! That was an unexpected like, “Oh wow! That was really, really big!” So from that standpoint, our first reaction was, “Oh! Let’s one-up that. Let’s do that, and then some!”
Story was the area that… a lot of our fans love that part of Mortal Kombat: the story mode, the narrative, and all that stuff. So that was kind of like, “Oh, let’s do that! Let’s just hit really hard with a great addition – almost like an epilogue – final conclusion to the story. And so our main thing was we really wanted to drop this crazy bomb of content on the player. As we had that discussion about the story, we saw there’s more that we can tell for this, so we came up with a little bit of a Back to the Future Part II synopsis; you go back in time and you see the events of it, and then you’re changing the course of history. It ended up very cool.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve gone back in time, especially in this current trilogy starting with Mortal Kombat 9. Why make the decision to more or less take things back to square one once again?
Well, when you think about it, we kind of reached the end of time with MK 11. It’s like reaching the virtual end of the universe… which I guess doesn’t exist. But we were feeling like, if you drew a visual timeline, you’d see the dot at the end like, “Okay, I guess we’ve hit that.” Then with the story jumping back to the beginning of time, it kind of made sense to – again, the Back to the Future approach. We wanted to continue with the same story; we didn’t want to tell a new story, because it is still MK 11. It’s kind of like reaching the Pacific Ocean as Forrest Gump and then turning around and then running back, kind of retracing his steps in some respects. Timeline-wise that just seemed like the way to go, and also for the player who’s into MK 11, there’s going to be a lot of cool nostalgia like, “Oh I remember where we are now!”
Will the callbacks be limited to MK 11’s story, or will we see moments from other Mortal Kombat games as well?
It’s mainly the MK 11 stuff. There’s other stuff that has happened that’s referenced and has influence on it, but it’s not like we go back to Deadly Alliance and see that.
Can you give me a sense of the scope of the story? How does it compare to the base MK 11 story?
It’s not as big. It’s five very thick chapters. Traditionally we’ll have four fights in a chapter per character. This one, some have six. They’re much thicker chapters and longer. We’re really trying to focus mainly on these new characters: Fujin and Sheeva. RoboCop is not in the story in case you’re asking! [Laughs] But this kind of reveals their role in MK 11’s overall story.
What about this story is something players should look forward to that maybe we didn’t get with the original MK 11 story?
To me, Shang Tsung, Cary Tagawa coming back voicing him – having him presented in a story mode again – I think a lot of people, they visualize Cary Tagawa as Shang Tsung from the 1995 movie as the Shang Tsung they remember. When you see that visual and you hear his voice and the nuance that he puts into it, there’s something very special about that.
Additionally, Fujin and Sheeva are characters that haven’t really had as much of the spotlight over the years. Fujin in particular, he just showed up in Mortal Kombat 4 and Armageddon, but he never had a big starring role, so we really dig deep into his history and his relationship with his brother Raiden, and all of that stuff, so that’s very cool. And then the added back and forth between Sindel and where eventually is she going to end? Is she good? Is she bad? We’re really trying to tease that a lot as well.
But for me, the Cary Tagawa as Shang Tsung and the constant expectation throughout the whole thing and suspense of “When is he going to turn on these people?” is very fun. [Laughs]
RoboCop & Guest Characters
And obviously having Cary Tagawa back as Shang Tsung is awesome, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Peter Weller reprising his role as RoboCop in that same breath. I know he’s not in the new story mode, but what was it like working with him?
A lot of us grew up watching ’80s action movies, so there’s something so cool about… when he actually came to our studio, I was like, “Oh my God! RoboCop is in our studio! This is the coolest thing ever!” Getting the original actor voice just lends that much more authenticity of it. It’s a subtlety. I always think of RoboCop as the bookend to Terminator. There’s a comic book made of RoboCop versus Terminator. So this is a bucket-list thing. We have these lists of people and we’ve been talking about RoboCop since MK 9. We’ve kept him on the list for the longest time and finally checked it off.
There are definite themes to your DLC guest characters: Mortal Kombat 9 was horror movies, Mortal Kombat X was sci-fi action, and now it seems like the theme with MK 11 is ’80s action. Are there any other guest characters you’d be interested in adding?
Like I said, we literally have a list that we move people up and down on. Obviously, it’s not just a matter of who do we want and then boom we get them. There’s a ton of hoops you’ve got to jump through to make these things happen. But if you saw a really huge ’80s or ’90s movie, it’s probably on our list!
When you’re working with these third-party licensors, how do you make sure you’re not crossing any lines when they get their heads blown off, or you’re collaborating to make sure their movesets are as authentic as possible?
Well, the discussion of, “We don’t want to see their head blown off” never happens. [Laughs] Like, just the prerequisite is, “These are the things we’re going to be doing to your character,” and if they sign up on there, it’s kind of like there’s no limits. As far as what the character does in fighting, we send them concepts all the time. We send them write ups, we send them literally the preliminary animation of what we motion captured and how it’s going to feel and all that stuff. They have feedback they give us and there’s a lot of back and forth, especially with these high-profile… you know, Terminator was a big one. RoboCop is a big one. Spawn was great because Todd McFarlane was just like, “Go crazy!” so there was no, “Oh we’ll back off there.” He was just like, “Just go crazy! I wanted to see this for so long” and he was just in celebration mode.
And I’m sure that some of these people who work for these movie properties in 2020 grew up as fans of Mortal Kombat.
Yeah, and when you think of, let’s say, RoboCop: RoboCop was a long time ago, and so it’s not like we’re talking to the person who created RoboCop; we’re talking to a person who was also a kid, and so they have the same level of, “Oh, this is going to be so cool!” You know, that’s the conversation. It’s not them saying, “Well, you have to make sure RocoCop never does this.” That’s not the theme of the conversation. It’s more like, “Yes! And then we can also do this!” You know? They’ll make suggestions. Nostalgia and childhood memories drive the majority of the conversations, and enthusiasm and excitement. Restrictions are the much more rare topic of discussion that we have.
Outside of RoboCop, Aftermath also adds Fujin and Sheeva. While you rightly point out that they have both been unsung in their roles in the MK stories, I think it’s safe to say Fujin has been far less prominent. I think even in MK 4, it wasn’t actually confirmed that he is Raiden’s brother, only implied. Why was it so important to add him in particular?
I think over the years, we have about 80 Mortal Kombat characters in some capacity. The reason we added Fujin was because he hasn’t been seen in a game in so long. Quite frankly, I think a decent number of players will be like, “Who’s Fujin?” If we just did Mileena, Kitana, Jade, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Rain, you know, all these characters, I think it would get stale after a while. We do need to give characters a rest every once in a while. Then, when they do return, it’s a big deal. It’s a novelty, and so we’re just kind of spreading it. Fujin was one of the things that our designers were like, “Hey, I think we could do something really cool with this character with wind and running on the wind and doing stuff with his sword.” When the designers say they could make something really unique with gameplay, that weighs a lot in terms of a decision of who to bring back.
Let’s get into Friendships. We’ve seen a good chunk of the new Friendship moves being added to the game, but I’m curious what your favorites are.
The Noob Saibot one – it might have been the first one we did – just set the bar with just how stupid we’re going to get with them in a good way. God, there’s so many! Jax playing the saxophone is just genius… the Kung Lao with his toy trains is just so childish. It’s just the opposite of a Fatality, which is so cool. Our Fatalities have gotten so over the top that it’s like, “Let’s go 180 degrees and go as far in that direction with these silly Friendships.”
I’ve spoken with you and members of your team in the past about the process of designing Fatalities, but how does that process differ with Friendships? Is it similar where you draw them out and throw them up on a board to see what sticks? Do you still have the set number of beats you want to hit with each one? Or are the rules completely different?
The rules are very different. They don’t have the same criteria of beats just like you said; we do talk about that with Fatal Blows and Fatalities. We go, “What are the beats? What are the big moments?” But this is just, “How silly can we get?” And they’re usually themed around the character, like Fujin has wind abilities, so you think of a kite and you think of him flying a kite.
Noob Saibot is with friends, so all of a sudden that’s the jump rope. The motion-capture talent that we have adds so much nuance to that. Some of the nuance you see when Noob Saibot was bouncing on his hands and doing stuff, it’s not like we said to do this and then do that; he just went off and it turned out to be just gold.
There’s not as many meetings with Friendships as much as somebody would write up a paragraph, and we’d send it around and then the ones that kind of get us to say, “Oh, we’ve got to do that one!” Like the Kano barbecue and stuff like that, it’s almost a given we would do that.
Were there any that were left on the cutting-room floor?
Yeah, there were a ton of them. Some of them were so big in production that we had to dial them down. And then some of them were not as funny or entertaining or too short or something. The Sub-Zero one went through a couple of iterations. I love where it ended up with the bicycle ice cream truck.
And in addition to the Friendships, which are free for all MK 11 players, everyone gets access to some returning classic stages and Stage Fatalities. How did you modernize these returning stages?
Right. The Stage Fatalities, the Friendships, and the new stages are all just a part of a free update. I remember in MK X, we brought back The Pit and it’s cool to do a more modern representation of these classic environments that we’ve had over the years. It’s always fun to reenvision them, and the environment team, the concept guys, they have field days because they have memories in their heads of what it was like to play, so it’s like, “Let’s add this nuance. Let’s add that.” So it’s fun to see them going crazy with that.
And the Stage Fatalities are also modernized.
Yeah, that was almost like a prerequisite. Of course we’re not going to just duplicate the exact events of the last one. We have to turn the knob up a bit.
It seems like with every Mortal Kombat or Injustice game, your team iterates on the gameplay and feature sets. With MK 11, it felt like you found a sweet spot for gameplay in particular. Do you view this as a perfect opportunity to treat Mortal Kombat 11 as a platform instead of just a game that exists and spawns a sequel? Does that play any role in your thinking of releasing an expansion of this magnitude?
I do think we have something that’s solid. I’ve said this before, though: I do feel like there’s room for further loosening of the reins. Ideally, I still would like to, and we are certainly still exploring, the notion of allowing the custom variations that players make to be used in competitive play. It’s a huge balancing undertaking, but we are absolutely examining it. If I get my way, it’ll be something that we’re going to release in a future patch or something that will just give the player that much more freedom. We really just want to say, “Here’s some more toys to play with. Come up with your favorite one!”
So I can’t help but notice that earlier you mentioned a contentious word within the MK community: Mileena. Is there a Kombat Pack 2 coming after Aftermath?
[Laughs] I can not confirm or deny anything that’s after Aftermath.
On the topic of Mileena: Was that just a total troll job to put her as a guest in a Friendship?
No, the idea was just to be this kind of schoolgirl thing. And who else are we going to do that with Kitana? [Laughs]
Well are there any plans to continue to keep this game alive following Aftermath?
Yeah, at that highest level, obviously we want to support the game for as long as players are with us, so to speak. I certainly would love to continue exploring that. Although, in what capacity is a much bigger conversation, like whether it’s additional characters or new features, new modes, whatever.
A still from last week’s Unreal Engine 5 tech demo from Epic Games
Did you have a chance to watch Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 tech demo last week?
Yes! I was riveted. It’s so, so impressive. You almost question it. You almost go, “No, it can’t be that.” Like, and if that’s the case, then they’ve done a great job, like, it’s raised the bar so high. And you know, the timing of it – Unreal 5, PlayStation 5, this new generation – it’s like the timing has been amazing as far as just from a marketing launch window. So that’s great.
If what we’re seeing and hearing about these capabilities is true, do you have any indication about what it would mean for players going forward?
One of the things I think people are underestimating is the impact that this theoretical no load time will have on games. A lot of games design things that some players might perceive as the boring part of the game, but it serves a function: loading. Now, the load time isn’t zero, but if it goes from 10 seconds to half a second or one second, that’s significant. I think that will allow people to do things that we, as in our understanding of moving data in and out of the game, when we remove that limitation that we’ve been kind of mentally thinking about for 15 or 20 years now, it’s going to open the doors. I don’t think we’ve seen a peek of the potential of what that’s going to be.
UFC’s Fight Island
Official “Fight Island” merchandise currently available on UFCStore.com
Official “Fight Island” merchandise currently available on UFCStore.com
Let’s end on this: I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news surrounding the sports world, but the UFC has this private island they’re planning on using to put on international fights during the pandemic. Obviously, one of the first parallels many people, including myself, drew was to Mortal Kombat. Have you heard of “Fight Island”?
I have, and I see how they came up with that parallel. [Laughs] I’m guessing that the words “Mortal Kombat” were uttered in their discussions about when they created that, as just “just like” or something like that. But it’s exciting to think about it. I think of it as one of those examples of Mortal Kombat being in pop culture and affecting other mediums. So I think of it as a compliment to us.
So one of those situations of life imitating art?
Exactly. Well, and you know, when you think about it, Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport, they had a huge influence on Mortal Kombat, so it’s all part of the ebb and flow of things.
Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath launches on May 26. For more on what exactly the expansion adds, head to our in-depth coverage of the announcement. To see some of the oddball Friendships in action, head to our exclusive look here. For more on the history of the series’ iconic Fatalities, head here.