Ed Boon on 'Injustice 2' and the Secret to Making a Great Superhero Fighting Game

Ed Boon on 'Injustice 2' and the Secret to Making a Great Superhero Fighting Game

Ed Boon at the NetherRealm studio in Chicago NetherRealm

The 'Mortal Kombat' creator talks esports, the fighting game scene and how an April Fool's joke could have seen the Wonder Twins joining 'Injustice 2'

The 'Mortal Kombat' creator talks esports, the fighting game scene and how an April Fool's joke could have seen the Wonder Twins joining 'Injustice 2'

Ed Boon has most famously spent the better part of the last 25 years working on the Mortal Kombat series. He was the original lead programmer on the game back in 1992 and, as part of a tiny four-person team at Midway Games (alongside series co-creator John Tobias), shaped the first Western fighting game series to give dominant Japanese fighters like Street Fighter and King of Fighters a run for their money.

Now, as creative director of Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios which was formed in 2010, Boon has successfully steered the MK franchise through the difficult transitional period that saw most fighting games fade in relevance in the early to mid-2000s. Not only is Mortal Kombat enjoying its greatest period of commercial success – 2015's Mortal Kombat X was the fastest selling game in the series, and has since gone on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide – but NetherRealm has applied its expertise to the DC comics universe, resulting in the popular Injustice fighting game and comic books. 2013's Injustice: Gods Among Us was incredibly well-received both critically and commercially, matching the performance of Boon's most recent Mortal Kombat.

As the bigger, bolder and more ambitious Injustice 2 launches on May 16 for PS4 and Xbox One, we spoke with Boon to look back on his early days making the first Mortal Kombat and what it was like reinventing his iconic game as a superhero brawler. He also shares his views on esports and the resurgence of fighting games, the expansion of games into comic books, whether he's played the latest Zelda, and why the concept of the Wonder Twins in Injustice 2 would be (in theory) the greatest idea ever.

The fighting game scene went through a serious lull in the late 1990s to early 2000s, but now it's bigger than ever, especially when you look at the size of the audience watching the EVO annual fighting game tournament. Injustice 2 is an official competition title at this year's EVO in July. How do you feel about where the fighting game scene is at right now?
I agree that things took a dip down. My personal feeling was that it was a combination of the arcade scene going away and people shifting more to the home. The whole fighting games tradition is really a social thing, a sport, where everybody gathered to play in arcades. It got so big to where people started organizing tournaments, and things like EVO. As things progressed they got bigger and bigger. With arcades going down, there was less opportunity for that to happen. I personally feel that the games also got too difficult, too complicated, and while they were still a lot of fun, they took a lot of practice and time to get into them to become competent. Some of the inputs that they required you to do, as far as complexity and timing, became more and more difficult, so fewer and fewer people could enjoy some of the coolest aspects of them.

And then, when they switched back to being a 2D thing – at least most of them did, Tekken is still 3D – they became a lot more accessible, and this was something we consciously did with Mortal Kombat 9 back in 2011. We consciously made the requirements at the point of entry not as high as it traditionally was. And obviously, the graphics continued to evolve, and it was a game that looked cooler and was more accessible. Online was also a big contributor – suddenly being able to have a decent online game against people across the country introduced online tournaments and all that stuff. So all these things culminating together is really contributing to this resurgence.

It's your 25th year making fighting games, starting with the original Mortal Kombat. Looking back at this huge body of work, how has your approach to development changed?
It's a night and day difference from the first game until now. The first game had four people on the team, and now we have about 200. We were making that game for arcades, it was completely different hardware. The games were designed to take a quarter every X-minutes or something, so you made gameplay and design decisions to accommodate that. You just had an entirely different set of requirements, parameters and limitations. And then, it's not like it switched overnight to the games we make today, but as time went along the games got bigger and bigger. They were still coin-operated games but they were bigger, and then around Mortal Kombat 5 we stopped making the coin-op version and went directly to home.

On the first game, I was the only programmer on the team, and I was coming up with the moves. And over the years, I just did less and less programming and more of the big-picture stuff and influencing the various aspects of the game. My position really became more of...it's like you're steering the Titanic rather than writing individual lines of code.

I personally believe it's diminishing returns when you're talking about the size of the roster. Like, if we came up with an Injustice 3 and we had a hundred characters, the win wouldn't justify the doubling or tripling of the roster.

So then, as we went into the 360 and PlayStation 3 and all that, it became more of a production like a movie. All of a sudden, we have actors, and we have cinematics. That's around around the time we started doing our big, elaborate story modes which, from a production standpoint, is like a movie. We have sets, camera men, animators, special effects, audio, musical scores, it's literally like making a 2-hour movie, except we're splicing in these interactive moments, the fighting parts. That, in itself, is like a two year project.

But then, on top of that, we're doing all of the things that are signature to Mortal Kombat. The more and more elaborate Fatalities, the Krypt, the secrets, all that stuff. Over the years, it became so much more of a production, kinda keeping up with where video games have gone from 25 years ago.

Did you ever imagine the production would become such a big process?
No, not at all, certainly not 25 years ago. We knew it was getting bigger and bigger, and when you have more space, you have more things that you gotta fill it with. And when you have more sophistication in terms of presentation of your game and all that, it takes that much more work to create. Creating a kick move today involves way more people than it did in 1992, so it's a whole different science. It's not like three guys can do that by themselves.

Since we're on the topic of presentation, let's talk about scale. When a fighting game would come out back in the day, especially a new fighting game, they would typically start off with eight characters, plus a boss. A sequel would usually add a couple of characters. Injustice 2, last time I checked, has 38 character slots. How do you arrive at this number?
With Injustice 1, I think we were just going on the ballpark number of characters that we had in our previous games, MK9 we had 25 or so characters, so we started with around 25 or 24. Injustice 1, we knew we were gonna do DLC characters, and originally we planned on doing four additional ones like Mortal Kombat. But then they resonated with players a lot more than we anticipated, so we decided to do two more after that. So some of that is a response to player demand.

For Injustice 2, we had a number of factors that were affecting it. One was bringing back the most recognizable – you can't do an Injustice game without Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, the most recognizable characters. But then we absolutely wanted to go down the roster of the ones that we didn't get in Injustice 1 and people were clamoring for – the lesser-known but just as interesting characters – like Doctor Fate, Atrocitus. On that list, Swamp Thing was huge.

Actually, Swamp Thing was probably one of the characters that, as far as the team was concerned, was a must have for Injustice 2. So it was a lot of conversations. Conversations with DC, and then considering the character's abilities and participation in the story and relationship with the existing characters. All of these factors come in.

At some point though, I personally believe it's diminishing returns when you're talking about the size of the roster. Like, if we came up with an Injustice 3 and we had a hundred characters, the win wouldn't justify the doubling or tripling of the roster. At some point it's like "OK, that's enough, let's save it for the next one."

I have to say, Swamp Thing is one of my personal favorite additions, because I grew up with the Bernie Wrightson Swamp Thing comics. I love that he gets as much loot as anyone else in the game. It's interesting to see Doctor Fate and Blue Beetle in there too. It's good to see old Steve Ditko and Charlton Comics characters represented.
Towards the end of Injustice 1, when we were doing DLC characters and releasing them one at a time, those were the characters that we kept seeing coming up, like "Come on Blue Beetle, come on Swamp Thing! Scarecrow, Poison Ivy!" And, we listened, you know. We listen to that. Some of that stuff, unfortunately, we gotta plan way ahead. It's not like we created the character the day before we announced it.

But Swamp Thing, the fact that he has so much gear, that's not by accident. A lot of the guys on our team, this became like a passion project for them. "Oh, this guy's gotta have this, he's gotta have that," how much we love these characters is really evident when you see it, all the little nuances and the references to the comics and the references to the animated series; that's not by accident. That's people really getting into it.

In the Injustice comic books, there are characters that haven't been announced for the game, like Deadman or Mr. Mxyzptlk. Are they planted in the books with a chance of working their way into the game, or are there lots of characters that you put into the comic books that are just sort-of there to enhance the storyline? The reason I bring up Deadman is, well, he's dead. How do you beat a dead guy in a fighting game?
Well, with NetherRealm games, somebody being dead doesn't really mean that much, so there's that. That would not be an obstacle to getting a character like that in. The thing about telling a story through a comic book is that in order to make a cameo appearance or even a significant appearance – well, it's a different process than doing it in the games. When we make a character appear in the game, we have to create a 3D model, if they're playable there's just the longest list of things that you have to include, so the comics have a little bit more elbow room in terms of having a really cool cameo or appearance.

That's what's really so cool about this comic series, it really goes off on its own. The comic has been such a great side-effect of all of this, it's becoming such a powerful entity, so far beyond just a complement to the game. It's its own entity. I always describe the comic book and the mobile game as like when you have two kids and they grow up, and they go to college and they both their own identities and how proud you are of it. I think Tom Taylor did such an amazing job with the comic book.

That mobile game has been a monster, too. It took us all by surprise and the second one has its own mobile game too. Those two things are such great, unexpected, fantastic things spawned from the original game.

Now that we're talking about characters, I have to ask about two things: You tweeted out the Wonder Twins fist-bump from the classic animated Super Friends TV series, and then you ran a poll gauging people's interest in Watchmen. Was Wonder Twins truly just an April Fool's joke, or is there more to that?
Well, yeah. I tweeted the Wonder Twins one almost at midnight on March 31st, just ahead of April 1st. I was hoping that its proximity to April 1st would be understood and appreciated, and I always do crap like that.

Watchmen, we oftentimes in the studio have discussions about way more characters than we end up doing. I love to just get a general pulse or temperature from players about their enthusiasm for certain characters. Sometimes it's thinking about the game that we're working on, and sometimes it's for a future game, and sometimes it's genuinely just me asking people, "What would you rather see?" It's hard to distinguish between "What you say right now is gonna get in the game," versus me saying, "Hey what do you guys think of, uh, this?" like it's almost a conversation, you know. "What would you think about having Red Hood in the game," some random thing, and that's what that Watchmen thing was.

It's not as if we can take any character that we pick off the top of our heads and say, "We want to put that character in the game," and BOOM it's done. There's a lot more involved with getting it OK'd than just whether we want to do it or not.

It'd be pretty interesting to see how Rorschach would hold up against, well anyone really, but it's good to get clarification that you were just taking people's temperature. Just as it's equally tragic to know that the Wonder Twins were an April Fools joke, because I want to form an Ice ladder/bucket/helicopter right now and see how it plays out.
You know, it's funny. When we put the image out it was like, "I hope people are gonna laugh at this." And then, unfortunately, people in our studio started saying "You know, we actually could do something cool with that, if we did this-this-this-that." And all of a sudden it became this conversation, and I was like "This was an April Fool's joke, you guys. Let's hold back."

But there was something magical, the images of the two fists with the more realistic look as opposed to when you're seeing it on the Super Friends cartoon. All of a sudden I think that just sparked a nerve in some people's head like "Oh my God, this could be actually cool if it was done right."

Although you've said that the Watchmen thing was just taking the community's temperature, I can only imagine what Alan Moore would think about that. You know how he is about his stories being converted to other things like movies and whatnot.
That's another variable that always comes into play. It's not as if we can take any character that we pick off the top of our heads and say, "We want to put that character in the game," and BOOM it's done. There's a lot more involved with getting it OK'd than just whether we want to do it or not.

What was one of the more challenging characters to get clearance on?
Well, we've had guest characters in Mortal Kombat. We've had Predator, the xenomorph from Alien, and Freddy Krueger from Nightmare On Elm Street. We have to make sure that the people who created it or own that thing are in on the loop and are okay with what we want to do with the character, are OK with the look, OK with the idea. You know with Mortal Kombat, if you have a character in it, we have to say, "You realize this character is gonna have their head cut off, split in two, etc." They have to be OK with that.

I'm sure you have stats now that everything's online and connected. When you're balancing the characters or the roster, are there any characters that aren't used nearly as much as you thought they would be, and does that affect who you choose for the sequel?
It probably has a factor. If a character wasn't chosen because it wasn't considered as strong or as good as other characters, that's always something that we have control over. We always have control over how much damage they do or how fast they move, the reach that they have, and all the variables involved with what's considered a good character. But I think as far as when we decide if a character is coming back, it's that and whether the character resonated with players as far as personality, the voice, its role in the story; there's a whole bunch of stuff that comes into play that we factor in with it. Not just how many times was it chosen by players.

With the first Injustice, we obviously had to ask the question, 'Well, why wouldn't everybody just pick Superman and when they say 'FIGHT' he would travel at lightspeed and punch the other person in the face and the round's over?'

The style of Injustice 2 has everybody looking cooler, less spandex-y, and more armored-up like Batman in the DC universe films. You look at Blue Beetle and he looks cool and in tune with the Injustice 2 setting, while in the original comic he was definitely from the spandex era of super heroes. I mean, it would be cool if there was an "Adam West Batman" option to contrast with the nipple-armor Batman. Has there been consideration for alternate costumes?
Absolutely, on more than one level. For instance, we purposefully created shaders for characters, and have gear that you could put together for looks that are much, much closer to the old-school spandex outfits. We absolutely knew that some people would want to do that. You can make a very "Adam West-type" style of Batman, same with a number of the other characters, and we also have some unannounced premium skins that are super-retro as well. People are gonna love those.

And it's funny, because they stand out in such a way that you go, "Oh wow, that's right! Superhero costumes used to be this way," and we actually did that with Mortal Kombat. In Mortal Kombat X we had these versions of the ninjas that were based on the first game before we started getting into buckles, flaps, pockets, and all that stuff. It was just the V and a tight black bodysuit with a hood. So we are absolutely aware of that itch that some people wanna have scratched and have put in gear that lets you do that.

With older fighting games, it seems like it was probably easier to design around the rock-paper-scissors balance because you didn't have as many factors to take into consideration. You had slow-and-strong versus fast-and-weak, but now with Injustice, it feels like there's so much more going on, especially with the loot. You can play a big-strong-heavy character, but you can get him gear that makes him faster and a bit more nimble. How do you balance those things and make sense of them?
There are two or three levels of that. With the first Injustice, we obviously had to ask the question, "Well, why wouldn't everybody just pick Superman and when they say 'FIGHT' he would travel at lightspeed and punch the other person in the face and the round's over?" So there's a certain amount of suspending disbelief, because if you want to see a game with Superman and Batman in it – and this applies to the movies and TV shows and animated stuff too – you just have to. So we had things in our story, these pills that let normal heroes sustain a lot more damage, kind of raise them up so it's somewhat plausible that Catwoman would even stand a chance against The Flash or Superman.

But then from a fighting game standpoint, that's always a challenge. Every single fighting game has to do that, and the more characters you have, the more the challenges, and when you add gear, that's something that has to be taken into consideration in terms of balancing the game. We are constantly watching the game and monitoring it so that there's nothing inherently broken about it. We have systems in our software that let us tweak numbers and turn knobs and everything to keep things as balanced as reasonably possible.

But at the end of the day, every single fighting game, when you combine the different characters and the different players that play those characters, there's gonna be some stuff that the developers could not have predicted. You're talking about millions and millions of people getting their hands on 35-40 characters in a game. What they come up with, what they think of, is unpredictable.

It's kind of like when somebody made up soccer or baseball or something, who knew how good a player was gonna come up and completely dominate? You always have these dominant players. Who knew Michael Jordan was gonna show up and just completely dominate the sport of basketball? So there's a certain amount of that, but that's also part of the fun of it. It's come to the point where it's a sport, and people are getting good at it, and they're broadcasting it. That's part of the magic – this constant evolution of people getting better and discovering new things. That's what makes it so interesting to watch.

So EVO 2017 is two months after Injustice 2's launch. I'm guessing a lot of people are gonna carry over their skills from Injustice 1 to 2, but even if they play extensively from launch, there's so much ground to cover with the expansive story modes and the MMO-style loot system, what do you realistically expect to see at EVO?
I think by the time EVO comes along, because we have so many characters, I don't think that people would have figured out all of the strengths that especially the new characters have yet. It's funny, when you watch the life of a fighting game over the course of the years it's featured at like an EVO or a CEO or a Combobreaker, all these big events, you see certain characters falling in and out of favor. It's really fascinating, you see the discussions about it.

You see somebody wins with a certain character, and all of a sudden "Oh, this character's too powerful, it's too this, it's too that." And then somebody wins with another character, and then that same first character "Oh, It's too weak." It's just an amazing phenomenon to watch, the crowd sentiment and discussion on players. I think in this early period, you're gonna see a lot of theories of "Oh no, Atrocitus is the best character, no...Swamp Thing is the best character, no...it's Captain Cold." And that's a ride, because you see such a wide range.

Our games have a really high number of different characters that are chosen. If you look at our finals, there've been a lot where eight players are in the finals and they're all using eight different characters. That to me is so cool to see, because it's not just everybody choosing Superman. It's cool to see how players' fight styles are attached to certain fighters: keep-away fighters, zoning fighters, quick fighters and everything like that.

With the loot system, is there an optimum build that players could eventually achieve, or will the randomized stats on different loot mean that there's always going to be some different way to continually upgrade your character?
The goal is that there's always a way to continually upgrade your character. I'm not sure if you were talking about how this might be applied to a tournament like an EVO. The tournaments, I suspect, are going to disable the gear's implements, and we have a system in there that lets you kinda level things out like "This is Regulation Play." So we've defined the Regulation versions of all the characters.

While it would still be fun to see the different costumes and the looks, just for the visual fun and the variety, there will be a "Regulation Soccer Field" that people can use.

That's good to know, for the sake of fair play, but I was wondering if there was actually an optimal build like in an MMO with end-game, god-tier armor sets that max your stats out as much as possible. But it seems like from the way Injustice 2's system is designed, you'll constantly be able to tweak a percentage here or there from a random drop.
Yeah, and the nature of those games, they're designed to make it a constant search for something new. Generally, the consensus amongst players comes after really studying the game and all the costume pieces. I'm sure there's going to be FAQs and stuff. There will be a consensus at least, but in theory, I think the idea is to constantly be on the search for that next, better piece of gear.

Back in the old-school fighting game days there was a big adjustment period because these games that were designed for arcades just didn't last that long at home. Japanese fighting games in particular were mostly terrible at adding value to home console ports, whereas Western games offered better replay value. But now, especially with Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat XL, is there ever a concern that you're giving the player too much?
I guess there's ways that I could think of that would be perceived as too much, like a little while back when I said I don't think we're ever going to make a game with a hundred characters. At some point, there's so much that it's overwhelming and it starts becoming a negative. So yes, there's probably some point where it's diminishing returns as far as how much time and energy it takes to create the content and then what you have there is already enough. If you would have asked us while we were making the first Mortal Kombat game, when we had seven characters, would we ever need 30, I would probably go, "30? That's ridiculous," but that was a completely different time. That was 25 years ago.

At the same time now, if you were to ask me, "Do you think you'll ever be making something with a hundred characters," I'd probably right now go, "A hundred characters, that's ridiculous," you know, so who knows?

What have you been playing lately that isn't your own game?
I have purchased a whole bunch of games that I haven't touched. I bought a Switch, I bought Zelda, I have Horizon, I have Ghost Recon, For Honor, all these games in a stack on my desk that are waiting for us to be finished with Injustice. Then, in the Summer, I'm going to really start taking these things apart. It's so weird, because I was in this big rush of "Oh I gotta get one of the first Switches" and jump through all these hoops, and then it's just sitting there unopened. I just haven't had a moment to breathe. These games really consume all of your time, and I have to just kinda catch up to the rest of the world when we're done.

This interview has been edited and condensed.