Ed Boon is one of the masterminds behind Mortal Kombat, the genre-buster that brought gory gaming to a new level 20 years ago. Alan Bell speaks to Boon about the process of bringing the DC Universe characters into the brawling arena in Injustice: Gods Among Us.
The iconic fighting series Mortal Kombat, which Warner Bros. rebooted late last year, has persisted for good reason: the fans love it.
The latest, the first in some time, was a big success for all involved, performing well both in terms of critical acclaim and at the sales counter - an impressive feat for a fighting game in this day and age. Players heaped praise on the title, lauding it for bringing the franchise up to date without losing its soul in the process.
Keen to continue their success, developers NetherRealm are turning their attention to a brand new fighting game property - this time based not on ripping people's heads off, but on the classic DC comic book characters we all know and love.
Fans familiar with the history of Mortal Kombat might immediately think of 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC, which shares many similarities with Injustice; exactly where it's different and what it's all about is something I set out to find out when I went hands-on with the game and one-on-one with it's creative director, Ed Boon.
You might recognise that name; Ed co-created the original Mortal Kombat and has been working on the franchise ever since. He even lent his name (albeit backward) to Noob Saibot, a character who first appeared in Mortal Kombat II. The man knows his stuff.
So why the change in focus? "We've been doing the Mortal Kombat games for quite a while," Ed pointed out. "We wanted to try to do something that would not only be outside the category of Mortal Kombat but also do something dramatically different within the fighting game genre."
Mechanically, that difference is primarily expressed in the way the various environments directly impact the fight going on in the foreground. Take Batman's Batcave, for example; to one side of it, the Batmobile can be seen parked up in the background. In the foreground, there's a big red button - press it and the Batmobile will fire rockets at a certain part of the playfield. This particular component is designed to prevent players forcing others into the "corner" of the arena, but there are many other aspects of interactivity that players can take advantage of.
"Our goal was to make the arena that you choose as instrumental as the characters you choose," Ed explained. "Using the environment in the fight is the key thing that's different in the game's mechanics; the personality of the game is the over the top events."
Balance of power
When Ed Boon says over the top, he's not mucking around. One of the special moves in Superman's arsenal sees the man of steel punch his opponent into orbit, before slamming him back down to Earth; in another, the Flash races around the world to wind up for a massive punch.
Staying true to the fiction is important to NetherRealm, though, so don't expect orbit-punching from characters that are based around more subtle abilities. "The Superman super-move was one of the first we made; it set the bar so high. Catwoman will never do anything as spectacular as that; it's just not in the nature of her human-type character."
Of course, that doesn't mean we've already seen the best the game has to offer, though; "there's a number of [super moves] that you will be seeing in the future", Ed teased, "that certainly come close to the scope and outrageousness of what can be done with these characters. They're a lot of fun!"
Even the moves that don't involve over the top, comic book abilities still impress; one of the coolest I saw during my hands-on with the game was delivered by the caped crusader. In it, Batman punches some instructions into his wrist computer before laying into his opponent with a flurry of devastating attacks. Then, right at the last minute, he backflips (in slow motion) over the Batmobile which has come speeding onto the level from behind; his car then smashes into the poor schmuck old Bats happens to be fighting with at the time. It might lack the epic nature of punching someone into space, but it's very Batman.
"The ultimate superhero experience"
Mortal Kombat vs DC will still be fresh in many gamer's minds. The mashup received mixed reviews; many loved its cinematic singleplayer experience, while others poured scorn on its attempt to merge two universes that are, to some extent, largely incompatible.
"Mortal Kombat is as bloody and violent and over the top crazy an experience as you can have in a videogame," Ed explained. "God of War, Gears of War - they come in that category too, but it's in the right end of the spectrum. DC characters - Superman in particular - they're probably much closer to the other side of the spectrum: they don't kill, they don't use guns, et cetera."
"Putting those two together, there's a certain amount of expectation that you can't satisfy both; you can't deliver cutting Batman's head off and still please the DC guys. And you can't be the big superhero experience and please the bloodthirsty people who want Mortal Kombat."
No matter how you slice it, however, the game was no failure. "It sold really well," Ed clarified, "but some people who bought 'Mortal Kombat' were expecting this bloody thing and then it was a T-rated game, and I think that just jaded their perspective of it."
"I certainly don't think [Injustice] is going to have the same expectations as Mortal Kombat vs. DC," Ed reassured me. "We're establishing the identity of Injustice. We delivered Mortal Kombat, now we're delivering the other side of it; the ultimate superhero experience."
That experience wouldn't be possible without the support of DC comics. Dealing with license holders can - at best - be a difficult experience; at worst, it can leave a video game feeling hollow and forced, thanks to pressure brought to bear by the people that own the IP. Fortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case with Injustice, as many fans have already picked up from the media released for the game so far.
"There was a surprising amount of freedom," Ed said. "Wih Superman, they said, don't mess with his S. Batman, he can't use a gun. Superman doesn't kill. Outside of that, they were very flexible in letting us do what we want to do."
"We really want to carve out our own niche; if you were to ask me 'what DC universe does this resemble?' I'd probably say the New 52, but we're not trying to model off the New 52. We're trying to do something like Arkham City; another version of these DC characters."
That niche won't be restricted to the game, either; if NetherRealm has their way, this little piece of the DC universe will carve out its own slice of the lucrative trans-media pie. "One of the things we're going to be working on is an Injustice comic book; that's going to be carrying on the story, telling the events of the story before, et cetera."
"With Mortal Kombat, there was other stuff that spawned from there (a movie, a comic book series, animated series, etc); the extreme version [with Injustice] would be that it would spawn other stuff too, but all I know about for now is the comic book."
*Injustice: Gods Among Us is scheduled to arrive on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii U next April.