Mobile games locked in Mortal Kombat

Ed Boon, co-creator of the hugely successful franchise of fighting games, discusses handheld gaming systems
(Warner Bros./AP Photo)

The PlayStation Vita, which launches on Feb. 22, has been getting a lot of press over the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, with gaming hardware continually getting more powerful, manufacturers are slowing down the rate at which they release next-generation machines. Home consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are now into their seventh and sixth years, respectively, which is considerably longer than the previous generation (the original Xbox, for example, had a four-year run before the Xbox 360 arrived).

Sony’s next-generation handheld is also getting a lot of attention because it is being released into a vastly different world than its predecessors. Over the past few years, smartphones and tablets have arisen to become mobile gaming powerhouses, leading observers to speculate on whether the death of portable systems such as the Vita is nigh. I spoke with Jack Tretton, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, on the topic last week and he, of course, doesn’t see it that way.

At the Toronto launch of the Vita last Friday, I also had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Boon, co-creator of the hugely successful Mortal Kombat franchise of fighting games. Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably been exposed to the Mortal Kombat pop culture phenomenon at some point over the years, perhaps with the 1995 movie (starring Christopher Lambert). I actually remember the techno-industrial soundtrack more.

The franchise will be coming to the Vita some time this year, although no release date has been announced yet. Boon and I discussed the game’s legacy, the opportunities and challenges of designing for portable systems and the threat of mobile games.

Q: What makes a good Mortal Kombat game?

A: It needs to be entertaining for and accessible to the player. Some games have really great features but they’re buried so deep where you have to do something so complicated that you can’t access them. Mortal Kombat has always been a game that most people can play and have a good time right off the top.

Q: What kind of elements are required, though? Do you constantly need new characters, for example?

A: Yeah, you have to have a balance between nostalgia and newness. A lot of people who play Mortal Kombat are going to want to see Sub Zero and Scorpion, Sonya and Jax, but at the same time they want to see something new because we’ve done a number of these games. The game we just released (last year for home consoles) is Mortal Kombat 9, so they really need to see something that’s a new experience or they’re going to feel like they’ve already played it.

Q: What sort of challenges have you faced in designing for the Vita?

A: The most unique thing about the Vita are the controls. You have a very powerful graphics system, like a console in your hand, but then you have these very unique controls, like accelerometer tilting, touch screen in the front and in the back. We really wanted to make sure we incorporated features that utilized those. With portable devices, people also tend to play them in shorter bursts so we designed modes that entertain players for five or 10 minutes at a time, which lets them play at a bus stop or coffee shop. At the same time, we also knew that people are fans of the original game so we wanted to give them all the content that we provided in the original console version.

Q: Did you feel like you had to shoehorn in all these controls or did you come up with ways to make them feel like natural parts of the game?

A: We just happened to have a feature called “challenge tower” in the previous Mortal Kombat game. It’s basically 300 short variations on the gameplay–some of them were really funny, some were serious, and with the Vita we found that this was exactly the sort of short gameplay that works so well on a portable unit. For the Vita we created 150 unique new ones. So if you’re playing the game and blood gets all over the screen, you can wipe it away (with your finger) like a windshield wiper or the characters who are fighting in the game, their heads start to inflate–you have to touch the head to deflate it or it’ll explode. All these sort of fun, unique novelties that you can enjoy in small doses, that’s a big part of it. At the same time, we’ve got online play, story mode, the original challenge tower and all of the features that made the original game such a big hit.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about how it’s more profitable for developers to create for tablets and smartphones than for dedicated handheld gaming systems. How do you feel about that?

A: I don’t think we can really ignore the power that some of these phones have but at the same time, there’s something about tactile control  D-pads and analog sticks and the like–you really need those kinds of controls to get any kind of experience like you’re going to have on a console. That’s what lets us do something like Mortal Kombat so accurately on the Vita. It would be much more difficult to do that with only a touch screen because you don’t have the button technology that’s so familiar.

Q: Is it a case of profitability versus artistry then?

A: It all depends on the game. I’ve seen some really brilliant games for the phones that utilize the touch screen and whatnot, but at the same I’ve seen some games for systems like the Vita that really need that kind of feedback, like a physical controller. I do believe that the kind of game you’re making is going to be the determining factor at the end of the day.

Q: When you were making the very first Mortal Kombat game in 1992, what was your thinking behind it? Did you set out to make something vastly different from what was already out there?

A: We definitely didn’t just want to clone Street Fighter. I’m a huge fan of Street Fighter, but it has more of an anime, cartoon presentation. We wanted to do something that utilized digitized technology which, at the time–20 years ago–was state of the art. We just wanted a photo-realistic look so we always called it like the MTV version of Street Fighter. That really let us carve our own niche to the game. We also added a story element, which really helped drive making a movie, animated TV series and all that stuff. That gave us some further separation.