How Mortal Kombat Became an Immortal Franchise

Ahead of 'MK11,' game creator Ed Boon talks fatalities, his legacy and scaling back on sexy costumes

Back in 1992, gamers around the world were treated to a whole new breed of fighting game that appeared in arcades and shook things up with its sheer violence and blood-gushing, finishing moves known as "Fatalities." Arcade-goers from that time period likely have fond, etched-in-brain memories of hearing “Finish him!” for the very first time as they witnessed a blue ninja named Sub-Zero rip the head off of his opponent, spine and all. That game was Mortal Kombat, and unlike its cartoonish, anime-style competitors at the time, such as Capcom's Street Fighter II, it had realistic, digitized characters played by real actors, which made it all seem more hyper-violent and real. Too real for some—most notably, parents.

The game’s blood-splattering imagery sparked such a controversy that it was the sole reason behind the eventual video game rating system we have in place today. Home versions, such as Super Nintendo’s port, infamously removed all of the blood, replacing it with sweat. But all controversy aside, the game was a massive success and immediately sparked a sequel, and so much more. It wasn’t long before the inevitable movie adaptation came, followed by comics, action figures and even a hit, platinum-selling album featuring the now-famous dance anthem “Techno Syndrome,” a.k.a. “The Mortal Kombat Theme Song.” There have even been spinoffs and crossovers, such as Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which pitted Mortal Kombat characters against legendary DC Comics superheroes such as Batman and Wonder Woman.

Now, 27 years later, the franchise is still alive and well, perhaps even immortal. It’s one of the most successful fighting-game franchises of all time and surely engraved into pop culture at this point. Sound bites and catchphrases such as “Finish him!," "Get over here!" and “Fatality!” are instantly recognizable and synonymous with the brand, as are its ever-growing roster of beloved characters, including thunder god Raiden, Shaolin monk Liu Kang and U.S. Special Forces Officer Sonya Blade (who is now voiced by UFC fighter Ronda Rousey). Take a stroll through any comic book convention, and you're guaranteed to see plenty of Mortal Kombat cosplay. Each sequel has always been bigger and badder than its predecessor, and the newest game in the franchise is no exception. Mortal Kombat 11 is out now, and it’s quite a beast to behold.

It features an ambitious and epic story mode where players basically get to watch a high-quality, cinematic CGI movie with occasional fight scenes that you control. The graphics, fluid animation and imagery are quite simply breathtaking, and by the time the story mode is over, you’re still thirsty for more. Thankfully, there’s plenty to do, such as the classic tournament modes or throwing down with your online buddies in player-vs.-player mode. The iconic, bone-crushing fatalities are more outlandish and over-the-top than ever, and they are as brutal as they are mesmerizing. Simply put, this is one of the best sequels in the entire franchise.

The man who has been steering the ship since the beginning, co-creator and NetherRealm Studios founder Ed Boon, once again serves as the game’s creative director. While out promoting the new game, Boon took a moment to talk to Playboy about the latest entry in the Mortal Kombat saga. We discuss various topics, including the hilarious fan petition to get Shaggy from Scooby-Doo in as a secret downloadable-content (DLC) character, how his team brainstorms and experiments with their wacky ideas in “The Science of Mortal Kombat,” his thoughts on being creatively involved in the next movie, and the passionate and opinionated Mortal Kombat fan base, who got very vocal about recent design changes, such as Boon’s decision to scale back on over-sexualized female costumes.

This October, the Mortal Kombat franchise will turn 27 years old, and that big 30th anniversary is lurking just around the corner. Are you mind-blown about how far this franchise has come? Back in 1992, you probably never imagined you would be still be making these games, 30 years later.
No, I never would have guessed. And as a matter of fact, for the first several years when it was really taking off—TV shows, merchandising, two movies, and all that stuff—during that whole period of time, we were with our heads down, feverishly working on Mortal Kombat 2, Mortal Kombat 3, Mortal Kombat 4, you know? And just putting all of our energies and effort into that, while the rest of it was spreading into other forms of entertainment. Even the soundtrack was a platinum-selling CD, which is crazy.

You guys had this very aggressive marketing campaign for MK11; you slowly revealed the characters, built up the hype, kept the fan base salivating, but not everyone was happy with each reveal. You're at this point where Mortal Kombat has such a huge roster of characters that not all of them will fit into one game. How do you pick which characters make it in, and how do you handle the backlash from fans who get upset about their favorite character being overlooked?
There's several factors that kind of come into play. The story that we write, obviously, has influence on it because we need protagonists and antagonists, and we need heroes and villains and characters who have a history of conflict so we can set up reasons for them to fight, basically. And then our very loyal fan base, who are very vocal on social media, we listen to them, obviously. They don't dictate it, but they certainly have a vote. And then, what we want to see. If there's a character that we haven't done in a while, we feel like it'd be a cool thing to bring them back, refresh them and maybe give them a new look and stuff like that. So a combination of all those things really just kind of dictates who is going to return.

You mentioned social media, and I kind of want to get into that next because we live in an age where everyone has a opinion, and you have this roster of beloved characters, and you have fans who expect them to look a certain way. If you do side-by-side comparisons between female characters in Mortal Kombat 9 to their counterparts in Mortal Kombat 11, there's less visible skin now. There are some fans who are cool with that, yet there's other fans who want that Heavy Metal magazine approach. Is there a reason for scaling back on the more revealing costumes?
Well, it made a little more sense to have them dressed, especially if they're going to be in combat. I don't know how many people wear a bikini to a fight. And also with technology, especially with Mortal Kombat 11, we're able to display our characters with more fidelity, detail and realism than we ever have, and that includes materials, like we can suddenly do something that really looks like leather, like steel, like cloth, like suede, like velvet, you know? All of those things we didn't have the ability to do before, and so that lets us make much more interesting, realistic costumes, and so we really just kind of gravitated in that direction.

I had a similar conversation with Cory Barlog, creative director of the latest God of War. The earlier games in that series had those infamous sex scenes. They’re not part of the new reboot, and some of his team still wanted to include them. He pretty much told me, "The early games were from our college years. We were kind of doing things because we could. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re all older now. Let’s look at things differently." Would you say there's some personal growth, similar to what Cory was saying, that led to the mature look of some of these characters?
Yeah, I'm sure that that was also a factor. To be honest, I thought we probably went a bit too far with Mortal Kombat 9, and as the team lead—there were certainly members of the team who wanted to go in that direction, and to be honest, I had influence in dialing it back to where it is now compared to where it ended up being with Mortal Kombat 9. And as I look back, I kind of wish that I had had pulled it even further back. Now, granted, we are all clearly happy with how that game turned out, and it's our second-highest-selling one, which is great, but in retrospect, I would have done it differently had we done it today.

You guys added a feature in MK11 where there's going to be alternate skins and customization with the costumes. To help appease some of those fans who maybe kind of want to create a look that’s more in the vein of Mortal Kombat 9, is there an option for them to go with something a little more revealing, or is it still going to be under control?
It's pretty much under control. I mean, at the end of the day, they're going be selecting costumes that we designed. I'm sure some of them are more revealing than others, just because of the nature of different costume designs, but we did not go as far as we did with Mortal Kombat 9. And it's interesting, too, because any time there is change with a game that has a really strong following, the initial human knee jerk reaction is—change is bad. This isn't what I remembered, you know? So there's a nostalgia thing that players are looking for, but at the same time, those are the same players who will say, "Oh, this is just more of the same. I'm bored,” if you don't change anything, and so I'm personally a firm believer than when you make multiple sequels of a game, or probably any kind of format of entertainment, you need to offer something new, something different. [That] just makes it more interesting because when presented with something new, it's always a better experience than just repeating the known.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall for some of your creative meetings where you guys come up with these spectacular ways for fighters to eviscerate each other. You've been doing these fatalities for 27 years, and once it seems like you’ve done everything, you put out these new ones that are even more outrageous than ever.
Yeah, and it is like you said. It is a meeting with a whole bunch of people—basically anybody in the studio who has an idea they want to pitch is encouraged to—so you're going to get a lot of really cool ideas. For every idea that is completed, there are multiple ones that are rejected for whatever reason, so it's a very iterative process.

Your team put out a series of “The Science of Mortal Kombat” videos that take a look into the making of the game. In one video, your team was making realistic, prosthetic heads, freezing them and punching them so your designers get an idea of what it might really look like if Sub-Zero was smashing a frozen head in real life. Do you encourage your team to do all these crazy research experiments?
Well, we don't do any real-world physics research. It's basically just, if we can think of something cool, we don't rule it out because it's not physically possible. Our fatalities are just so ridiculous because they're so obviously impossible, it just strikes a really interesting conversation. Like, somebody would say, "Is that even possible? Can you pull somebody's head out, and their spine comes out with it?" Like, it's so ridiculous that those fun conversations kind of emerge from it.

You guys have had a lot of guest DLC characters throughout the years. You've had Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Predator, to name a few. I'm amused by the fan movement to get Shaggy from Scooby-Doo in as a DLC character. There was even a fan petition to get him into the game. What was your reaction to that?
Yeah, by the time I realized it was a thing, there was already like thousands of signatures, and I have no idea where it came from. It's so random and out of the blue. You might as well say Barney Rubble. You might as well say George Jetson or something like that. I think I might have seen some videos on YouTube of Shaggy kicking everybody's ass in a bar room or something like that, and maybe that was the inspiration for it, but I literally have no knowledge of what the actual origin of that effort was.

Are there any characters that you’ve tried to get as a DLC character, but it just didn’t work out?
Yes, for different reasons, though. We don't go to somebody who has a G-rated character or PG-character. We're never going to go to SpongeBob and say, "Can we put him in Mortal Kombat?" or something like that. That's why we've been doing the horror characters—Freddy Krueger, Jason and stuff like that. But even with those, there have been plenty that didn’t work out—for business or financial reasons, or the license is already being used by somebody else for a different product. There's a whole bunch of hoops that have to be jumped through before it can be even considered. So our team always comes up with a whole bunch of wish-list ideas, knowing that probably at least half of them will be thrown out before it even reaches somebody's desk.

Comic books and recent comic book movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel get a lot of praise for their representation of strong, female lead characters. You guys have been creating these strong female characters forever, and I don't really think video games always get the credit that they deserve. Do you think you guys deserve more recognition for coming up with these badass, female characters?

Probably to some extent. You know, we've had Kitana, Mileena, Sonya—plenty of strong female characters in the Mortal Kombat games since the very beginning, and as a matter of fact, we even extend that into much more diversity in our cast. It just makes for a more interesting roster of characters for players to relate to, attach to and stuff like that. So absolutely.

Ronda Rousey is playing Sonya Blade in MK11. Are there any other celebrities you guys would like to approach or get involved in a future game? She was a very fitting addition to the cast.

She was great, and as we've gotten more and more realistic with our presentation, that's kind of lent itself to that opportunity. There's nothing immediately announced or planned for the future. That does seem like a cool thing to kind of mix movies with video games, with celebrities and well-known people. Like, movies do that all the time. They'll have a movie star play a video game character. Like Jake Gyllenhaal played the guy from Prince of Persia, and Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft and all that, so there's all that overlap. I really don't see why video games couldn't kind of dive into that same recognizability type of thing.

Speaking of movies, would you like to be more involved if another adaptation of Mortal Kombat comes out? Maybe do some concept art or lend some story ideas?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, obviously, that's not my main field of expertise, but I've certainly had many years of history with this kind of franchise, and would want to have some kind of a voice in the production of a movie, so for sure.

Have you heard any updates on the movie that's in the works?

There's definitely interest and talk and stuff like that, but as far as I know, it's not like they're shooting right now or anything, or in any kind of actual production that I know of.

Back in the early 1990s, Mortal Kombat was a prime enemy for parents who claimed the games were too violent and that they desensitized kids. With all of the violent content available now, from movies to Netflix to other video games, has that died down a bit, or do you still get the occasional angry letter?
Well, it's died down significantly, not just because there's so much violent content out there, but because there's a rating system, and that was the main objection in the early 1990s. There was no such thing as a video game rating system, so understandably some people were upset that somebody underage could go into a store and just buy it, but they wouldn't let them go into an R-rated movie. They wouldn't let them buy an album with explicit lyrics. So as our industry just kind of matured, players grew older, the technology was rapidly progressing to the point where you could show things with much more fidelity and everything, that it just became clear that that rating system was needed.

You're the mastermind of all these characters and the storyline of this universe. How far in advance do you write? Do you already have early story ideas mapped out for the next few sequels?
I usually start the process with a very, very high-level direction that I'd like us to go. And like with Mortal Kombat 11, I really loved the idea of having our characters meet their former selves. We did a game before that called Injustice and Injustice II—in those games, we were playing with the DC idea of a multiverse where there's infinite versions of Superman and Batman, and how cool would it be if they met each other? So we were kind of playing with that idea, and so that was kind of the starting directive that I would set, and then our story writers would write up a draft of an overall idea, and then we would kind of iterate back and forth with the story and setting up reasons for the characters to fight. And then I would really push for, you know, "We've gotta have Johnny Cage meet his younger self." And what the dynamic of that would be, and how cool would it be to see them fight against each other?

So there are all these really cool match-ups, whether it's old vs. young or parent vs. child, and all these kind of crazy scenarios. The premise of all those setups, it's just a really cool thing, especially if you're a Mortal Kombat fan, and you've known these characters for 20-something years. It's just cool to see, "Oh, there's the classic MK1 Scorpion, and he's fighting the newest Scorpion. How cool is that?" I used to really get into that when I was a kid watching superhero cartoons or reading comics. You know, the novelty of seeing Superman and Spider-Man in a comic book, to this day, has influenced me, and so those match-ups are always just such a cool thing for me, at least.

Speaking of comic books, you created this huge world with a rich mythology and a vast roster of characters, and you've been doing this for nearly 30 years now. What's another 30 years? You're kind of like the Stan Lee of the video-game world, so do you see yourself in your 80s, still making these games and still appearing at conventions and all of that?
Yeah, it's kind of weird. Most game series, their first couple of iterations are like their biggest ones, and then just over time because people have seen it before and players get older, they'll grow out of something, or they'll move on to something else, you know? The audience kind of dictates how long something can last, but Mortal Kombat has somehow managed to, like you said, kind of carve itself into this thing that is staying around.

It's definitely engraved in pop culture at this point.
Yeah, exactly. In today's day and age, you're not gonna go, "I wonder when this whole Spider-Man thing's gonna die down,” you know? Never. The answer is never—and "I wonder when Batman is going to finally not be popular anymore." And I think Mortal Kombat has kind of found its way into that thing, so even if I'm not doing it, even if I'm not involved. You know, if I die, or I decide to retire or something like that, I'm sure it will continue, just like the Marvel stuff has outlived Stan Lee, and it's just gonna keep going.

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