The Mortal Kombat series has been around since 1992, but it’s a franchise that has aged surprisingly gracefully. In fact, Mortal Kombat is arguably more popular now than at any point in history. The most recent release, 2015’s Mortal Kombat X sold 11 million copies, making it the biggest MK release to date.
Coming off of a hit like that, you might expect developer NetherRealm Studios to offer more of the same, but with Mortal Kombat 11, which launches today, the team decided to change things up. MK11 features a redesigned fighting system aimed at more strategic play, along with a much bigger focus on the story. According to creative director and series creator Ed Boon, this desire to keep changing is one of the key reasons Mortal Kombat has managed to stay relevant for so long.
“It’s scary, but it’s necessary,” he says. “The reason why we’re going stronger than ever is because we’re not afraid; well, actually, we are afraid, but we don’t hesitate to make dramatic changes to the formula of the game. There are some staples we know we don’t want to change up, but we are firm believers that we have to keep changing.”
Boon says that the desire to create something different is the starting point for any new Mortal Kombat. “The first thing we talk about is, ‘What are we going to do new that hasn’t been done in our previous games?’” he explains. For MK11, it began with a story concept. MKX fast-forwarded the series 25 years into the future, giving fans a look at aging versions of classic fighters like Johnny Cage. The new game mixes up these various timelines so that younger and older versions of Mortal Kombat veterans are interacting with each other.
“We really wanted to tap into the nostalgia of the older versions of these characters,” says Boon. “It really plays on people’s memories of Mortal Kombat. So when you see MK2 Scorpion meeting MK11 Scorpion, fighting together or fighting each other, there’s something really cool about that.” (To keep track of the series’s increasingly convoluted storyline, Boon says he relies on MK writers Dominic Cianciolo and Shawn Kittelsen, keepers of the lore. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, no because in Mortal Kombat 4, we established this happened.’”)
In an age when fighting games are steadily moving away from storytelling to focus on the competitive side, MK11’s big-budget single-player campaign stands out. But it’s also something the team has wanted to do since early on in the series’s life. Longtime fans may remember the short-lived attempt to turn Mortal Kombat into a blockbuster action film series, with the 1995 film and its 1997 sequel, Annihilation. Meanwhile, there were various in-game storytelling experiments, including the single-player Konquest mode from the PS2 era.
“From the first Mortal Kombat game, we realized that players were really intrigued by the backstory of these characters,” Boon explains. “They were just short little paragraphs saying ‘Liu Kang was a Shaolin monk who came from the White Lotus society’ and all that, and there was such an attachment. We knew that that aspect of the character — not just what they looked like, not just the moveset — we saw players gravitate towards it.”
Recent games like Mortal Kombat 11 are a long-delayed fulfillment of this goal, interspersing gorgeous cinematic cutscenes with all of the bloody fighting action. It’s sort of like watching a Mortal Kombat CG movie at the theater, but with lots of breaks to play at the arcade outside. Once the technology was in place, particularly with larger storage mediums like Blu-ray discs, they finally made it happen. “That presentation is something that I had wanted to do for a long time before we actually did it,” Boon says.
With this idea of constant change and reinvention for the long-running series, Boon says that there are a few core constants that need to be in place for a game to feel like Mortal Kombat. That includes iconic characters like Sub-Zero and Sonya Blade, combat filled with over-the-top violence, and, of course, fatalities — those finishing moves that often depict disturbingly graphic dismemberments.
These aspects have been in place since Mortal Kombat debuted in 1992, but pretty much everything else has changed. The four-person team that created the original has steadily grown to a studio of more than 200. In addition to Mortal Kombat, NetherRealm also develops the incredibly popular DC Comics fighter Injustice. “That happened over the course of 25 years,” Boon says of his career at the studio. “There wasn’t any one time where I was like, ‘Oh, now we’re big, and we were small yesterday.’ It’s much more of a realization you have long after it’s happened.”
This has had a curious effect. Many members of the current development team actually grew up with the series, which Boon says has helped keep Mortal Kombat reinvigorated over the years with new ideas. “They played it in the arcades, and have their memories of it,” he explains. “They bring an amazing wealth of fresh ideas from that perspective. I’ve been working on the game since the first one, and I have my perspective as a developer, but I was never a player who saw it for the first time. I never participated from the outside. They bring awesome new ideas that are being put into the game.”
With Mortal Kombat approaching its 30th anniversary and Boon having been part of it from the very beginning, he’s part of a very small group of game developers who have stuck with a single franchise for decades. Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii, for instance, has worked on that series since 1986 with no plans to stop anytime soon.
But that kind of singular focus is rare. Boon says that being able to take breaks to work on Injustice has helped creatively, but he’s primarily inspired by the continued popularity of this universe he had a part in creating. “That is very contagious,” he says. That said, Boon won’t predict just how long he might stick around with Mortal Kombat, preferring instead to take it one game at a time.
“If you had asked me, ‘How long are you going to be working on Mortal Kombat?’ when we were 10 years in,” he says, “I don’t think I would’ve guessed 15 more years.”
Mortal Kombat 11 is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.