This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games (and hope you will, too!). May is Development Month, where we’ll tell untold stories from behind the scenes of our favorite games.
Story modes in fighting games have always been a tricky puzzle for developers to figure out. The origin of the fighting game genre has its roots in arcades, where the coin-operative design of games like Street Fighter 2, Killer Instinct, and Mortal Kombat prohibited any traditional storytelling. Instead, arcade games delivered their stories in small disjointed chunks via character-specific endings, as a reward for clearing a gauntlet of increasingly difficult battles. Even as fighting games started to move towards home consoles, these “Arcade Modes,” remained the standard for the genre when it came to anything story focused.
But then, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe changed everything.
Released in 2008 by Midway Games, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe was received rather lukewarmly from critics and fans alike for its gameplay prowess. These days it is remembered best as a T-Rated Mortal Kombat with neutered violence. However, it was also one of the first fighting games to introduce a four-hour-long, fully acted and motion captured story mode.
“We were really trying to just break the mold of fighting games with what’s typically expected of them,” said Ed Boon, co-creator of Mortal Kombat and creative director at Netherrealm Studios. “And also just because mixing Mortal Kombat and DC was such a dramatic, unexpected thing. We thought, okay, let’s just really shake things up.”
Ed Boon himself pitched the idea to The Central Groups at Midway Games, a team of talented artists, animators, and producers, but they weren’t quite sold on it.
“It involved a ton of work, a ton of new tech that wasn’t in place yet, in terms of streaming video while loading the next fight in, and a whole memory arrangement that we didn’t have,” said Boon. “And so it met with a decent amount of resistance, and not from the standpoint of, ‘oh, we don’t want to work,’ but it was more like, ‘is this going to be cool? Really? How? This is a single-player game, people are just going to play it once and then be done with it,’
It’s also worth mentioning that during this time, Midway was in the midst of a financial crisis that would eventually lead to its bankruptcy. The team pitched several alternatives to Boon’s ambitious plan,, but he was adamant that it would work. He wanted to make people “feel like they’re watching a movie and participating in it.”
The team showed Boon some motion graphics, “like you’d see in some fancy comic presentations” where music and dialogue played against still images to tell a story. “I remember experiencing some frustration with it because I was like, ‘how are you guys not excited about this?’ And eventually, I just kind of forced it through. So [it was] one of the few times that I feel like, I pitched an idea, people weren’t excited about it, and I was like, no, you guys aren’t going to kill this. This is going through, we’re going to do this, whether you’re on board or not.”
Despite the initial resistance, Boon said that it only took one completed scene of a transition into and out of a fight for it to click in everyone’s heads. It helped too that a number of people on the Midway team had backgrounds in film, animation, and scriptwriting, and got to utilize a skill set that they never thought they’d get to use. Of course, they also had the benefit of working with DC.
“[DC] insisted that we have two writers help us, so we didn’t make their characters diverge from what they would do. So Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray were kind of consultant writers. They would read our drafts and say, no, Superman would say this or Batman would never say it that way. [They] kind of kept us authentic to it,” said Boon.
After Midway went under, the Mortal Kombat team arose from the ashes and formed a new studio: Netherrealm. Taking everything they learned from Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, they would usher Mortal Kombat and its story into a new era with Mortal Kombat 9.
“The dream for us was being able to tell a proper Mortal Kombat story. MK vs. DC was MK meets DC. And so, it was Batman and Superman and Scorpion, and the novelty was the crossover of the two things. When MK9 came out, it was like, ‘oh, we’re going to tell a Mortal Kombat movie, we’re going to come as close as we can to making a Mortal Kombat movie. These stories that we’ve been telling through text, endings in the arcade, and other not as sophisticated forms of media, let’s finally tell it in the cinematic,’” said Boon.
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Obviously, crafting a “Netherrealm quality” story mode isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap either. While Boon wasn’t able to comment on actual numbers, Marty Stoltz, the cinematic director at Netherrealm, was able to provide some insight into the amount of workforce necessary to bring the mode to life.
“It’s a large team for sure. It’s almost like half a studio, I think, [in terms] of everybody that touches something in it,” said Stoltz. “From the beginning, we’re going to work with storyboard artists. We go to the next stage, which will be to board-o-matics. And then I’ll start working with the animation team at some point, right before we’re ready to shoot…and down the line, it’s going to be effects people, audio people, composers are brought in to do the music. And we have a team that goes and shoots just the Vcams itself. So we have handheld modern-looking camera that has to be shot. Pretty much all the cinemas are reshot with a comparable weighted Vcam that gets the style we want. So there’s another crew that comes in. So that’s a pretty massive endeavor.”
The effort seems to be paying off. The Netherrealm era of Mortal Kombat has been the most successful in series history, with Mortal Kombat X and Mortal Kombat 11 cracking the top 10 best selling games of their respective years, not to mention the successful launch of a new fighting game IP with the Injustice series. Of course, there is more that goes into these games than just their story modes, but Boon views story mode as a way to break out of the FGC bubble and reach out to the more casual fan that might not otherwise see much value in a fighting game.
“Fighting games by definition, need a certain amount of precision and practice and stuff that a number of casual players just don’t want to invest the time to learn, and let alone be good enough [at] to play a random person online,” said Boon. “And so, the online experience of just getting your ass kicked repeatedly was a turnoff for some people. So the focus was let’s do a strong single-player experience. And that was, I think it was… it’s at least 50% of the casual player appeal of our game, is this the standalone single-player experience.”
Netherrealm’s influence on the single-player fighting game landscape can be felt far and wide, whether it is through the direct attempts of rival games like Street Fighter 5, Tekken 7, and Marvel vs Capcom Infinite that have tried their own hand at cinematic storytelling, or through the indirect attempts of games attempting to do what Boon did 12 years ago: Break the mold. Not every fighting game developer has the financial backing or the workforce to replicate what Netherrealm has done with their story modes, but the success of games like Mortal Kombat and Injustice has to nonetheless highlight the importance of single-player modes in fighting games.