Ed Boon on Mortal Kombat 1’s new features and twists

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Mortal Kombat 1 was a standout game during this week’s Summer Game Fest. It was certainly my favorite hands-on demo from the Los Angeles-based Play Days. I’m looking forward to the full release on September 19 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch and PC.

The reboot features familiar Mortal Kombat flash and brutality, but it also has some notable new features. This includes Kameo fighters, a new twist on the assist fighter mechanic that we’ve seen before in the genre.

I had a chance to talk with Mortal Kombat 1 director (and series co-creator) Ed Boon at Summer Game Fest Play Days about Kameo fighters and other new features.

GamesBeat: Mortal Kombat 1 is one of the games that everybody’s talking about at Summer Game Fest. There’s a lot of excitement around the demo.

Ed Boon: It’s the first time that people outside of the company got their hands on it. There’s always a bit of nervousness there. But the response was, I think, exactly what we were hoping for.

GamesBeat: It’s a reboot of sorts. You have an opportunity to work with all these classic characters, but you have these interesting ways of twisting them up. Was it fun to play with this familiar universe in a new way?

Boon: As we were crafting the story and changing the origins and relationships of the characters, the more we did that, the more novel it felt. It felt like Mortal Kombat fans who know these characters will have a good time seeing new origin stories, new relationships and stuff like that. That mixture is a lot of fun.

Kenshi is a fan favorite that did not debut in the original trilogy.
Kenshi is a fan favorite that did not debut in the original trilogy.

GamesBeat: One of my concerns was whether we were just going to see the original Mortal Kombat cast. But seeing someone like Kenshi in there is reassuring. Are we going to see more characters beyond the original trilogy?

Boon: Yes. We have characters who represent the arcade era, and then there’s the Deadly Alliance, Deception, Armageddon era. Then there’s the 9, X, 11 era. There’s definitely some, what you might take in as surprise appearances by some of the characters from the 3D eras.

GamesBeat: The Kameo fighters are interesting. When I first heard about it, I assumed that they were like assist attacks. We’ve seen things like that before. But this is a lot more involved than I was expecting. I’m curious about where the idea came from and how it evolved into this key feature for the new game.

Boon: I definitely wanted to have appearances from some of our other characters who weren’t in the roster. The design team came to me with an idea they had. They wanted to have these almost companions, like a drone accompanying Sonya. It would be flying around and always with her.

We merged those ideas. They wanted Sonya to have a drone, Kung Lao to have a floating hat or something like that. My thing was, if we’re going to do this, they can’t just be tied to one character. They need to work with every character. It didn’t make sense for Liu Kang to have a drone. Why would he have a drone? So we changed those to fit the character idea that I was pushing. We mixed that together. That’s when the whole assist coming out came about.

We didn’t want to have a full tag system. We had that in MK9 and a lot of players loved it, but some players were intimidated by the idea that they had to learn two characters in order to be able to switch between them. That was hard for more casual players. We kept it as simple as possible. It’s just one touch of the shoulder button and the character comes out. Or toward and shoulder button, away and shoulder button. We really feel like anybody can use a Kameo. It’s so simple.

Kaneo is a Kameo fighter.
Kaneo is a Kameo fighter.

GamesBeat: I was surprised by how they’re part of other abilities, like Fatal Blows and even the throws. You can even do a fatality with the Kameo character.

Boon: Yeah, we really integrated them into the fight as much as we could.

GamesBeat: Are you worried that people will become disappointed if a character they want added to the main roster is instead introduced as a Kameo?

Boon: I think a lot of players assume that if you see someone as a Kameo fighter, they’re not in the main roster. That’s not the case. For instance, Scorpion is in both. Sub-Zero is in both. Kung Lao is in both. We do want to have, in general, a separation. We like players to think about–the most iconic characters, a lot of them are in both Kameos and the main roster.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see how some Kameo fighters fit different play styles and strategies. Jax seems like he has a lot of anti-air abilities. Sonya has these combo starters.

Boon: That’s precisely what we’re aiming for. Combining Jax with all that anti-air, how does he work with all the main fighters? What do those pairings turn into in terms of what the player has available to them? That’s going to be a fun thing to see, what players come up with as far as those combinations.

GamesBeat: The stages are beautiful and colorful. The use of warmer colors here is a bit unusual for the series. It gives it a distinct look compared to some of the gloomier, darker games.

Boon: That’s by design. We certainly don’t want any of our games to feel just like the old games. Whether it’s in gameplay or look or presentation. We do want each one to have its own identity. Like some of the things you were talking about, the brighter colors. We have these HDR effects that are just really jumping out at you. That’s a big part of the graphic presentation.

GamesBeat: Another thing that’s impressive is this seamless transition from the character select screen to the actual fight.

Boon: Yeah, it’s the same scene.

GamesBeat: Was that a difficult thing to implement? At first, I thought, oh, it’s because we have SSD now, but this game is even coming out on Switch.

Boon: It’s definitely something that was pitched pretty early in the design of the game. I was even concerned. Is it going to feel smooth? But once it was mocked up, it just kind of keeps you in the scene.

Kitana uses her bladed fans to great effect.
Kitana uses her bladed fans to great effect.

GamesBeat: In some of the past games, characters have had things like different intros. You could pick between these different ones. Will that no longer be the case?

Boon: Everything’s going to kind of fit in this template. We may have something that they do animation-wise. But we’re really happy with this format that we have.

GamesBeat: How far ahead were you planning this reboot? Mortal Kombat 11’s ending builds into this. Was that ending designed because you wanted the next game to act as more of a reset?

Boon: No, it wasn’t. We did have that scene with Liu Kang and the original Kung Lao. We were kind of hinting at some kind of a new start. But the idea to make it that he became the all-being and created a new big bang and restarted it all, that didn’t come until we were pretty much done with Mortal Kombat Aftermath.

GamesBeat: With Mortal Kombat 9, you redefined what a single-player campaign could look like for a fighting game with a story mode. How is that going to evolve in Mortal Kombat 1? Is it going to be something familiar, or will you have some twists there?

Boon: There will definitely be twists. The ending is crazy. The format, we’re going to keep a lot of it. It’s a more sophisticated presentation of that, but we’re certainly going to be telling a cinematic, movie-like presentation. Then we also have other game modes that are coming and that we’ll be announcing later.

We do feel that’s one of the things that separates us from other fighting games, our story mode. The interesting thing is that Mortal Kombat 9 wasn’t the first to do it. Mortal Kombat vs. DC was the first to do it. Then we refined it, even through the Injustice games. We refined it there.

GamesBeat: Mortal Kombat obviously has this big, broad appeal, but there’s also interest from people who take fighting games seriously. Is it difficult for you to balance it between those two different fan bases?

Boon: We certainly want to have different things for players to dissect. They call it “labbing,” where they’re in there trying new combos. But at the same time, we want it to be as accessible as possible. That’s a big reason why the Kameos are so easy to bring out. We don’t want the challenge to be in the execution of button presses. It’s more about coming up with your strategy in the game, and that creativity as well.

GamesBeat: There are some pretty creative Fatalities here. After all this time, is it difficult coming up with new ideas? Obviously, there’s a whole team behind you now. Is that something that people really look forward to, creating new Fatalities? Or is it something some people are squeamish about?

Boon: We have a committee. Anybody in the studio is encouraged to suggest ideas, because there is a ton we have to come up for every game. They usually make storyboards, and then they’ll send them to me. I’ll make adjustments, or I’ll say, no, that’s crossing a line, we can’t do that. There are certainly times that has come up. But it’s a system that we have that’s been working pretty well in terms of this group. It really puts them together at a high level.

GamesBeat: Now I’m curious about what kinds of ideas cross that line.

Boon: I’ve been asked that by a number of people. I don’t want to say, oh, someone came up with this, and that went too far. But there are certainly, from my perspective, 90% of the reactions we get from Fatalities are laughter. Somebody will laugh. That’s so ridiculous! That’s so over the top! If it switches from that to, eeeeugh, things like that, then I think we’re probably getting into a realm that we don’t want to get too close to.

GamesBeat: You’ve been with this franchise for a very, very long time. It’s had its highs and lows, but it’s been riding this current high for a while now. How does it feel to have Mortal Kombat still enjoying this much importance, and seeing people have so much passion and so much excitement when you announce a new game?

Boon: It’s great. It’s a reminder for us that it’s more than just a game. It’s an intellectual property. It’s almost an industry. There are movies that have been made. There’s animated features, lunch boxes, all this crazy stuff. It’s just a reminder for us. Players really do love this thing.

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