On the evening I got to speak with him, Ed Boon was a man in demand. Mortal Kombat is a game series that’s managed to punch through to mainstream public consciousness. Its beloved Fatality! moves are quite possibly one of the reasons your mum thinks video games are all horribly violent, and, as one of the original creators of MK, when he’s in a room full of game fans a few heads will turn. ‘Over there, oh my god don’t just look around like that!’
The London launch of Injustice 2, Boon’s latest game at NetherRealm, was celebrated with a mini eSports tournament. The twin brothers and professional eSports casters Ketchup and Mustard were providing commentary; every third person was streaming to Twitch; ice statues of Batman and Superman melted, ever so gently, as time wore on. It was all quite dramatically staged, but then so is Injustice 2, which has the most ambitiously movie-like single player campaign of any fighting game yet. This is not, of course, an accident.
‘Every time,’ said Boon. ‘Every game we do we want to make it more of a cinematic, movie-feeling type of thing. And we also want to make the transition in and out of the fight as smooth as possible, to make it feel like it’s part of the story. That’s something that we’ve been always trying to perfect with every game.’
If perfection in that regard is being sought, Injustice 2 brushes pretty close. You can see other fighting games working on it as well. Every trailer that comes out for comparable titles seems to have ‘cinematic’ in the name somewhere. So does Boon think we’re at a point where fighting games have to have that kind of single player?
‘I do. And it’s something that — we’ve been fortunate enough — has separated us from other fighting games, our deep story mode and our really rich single player content, because as much fun as it is…’ and here he breaks into a very genuine smile, ‘There’s nothing like sitting next to your friend and playing again and again, and trying new characters and all that stuff, and even online is a lot of fun. But the reality is a lot of people play fighting games by themselves. We always try to give them content to play as a single player. And our story is kind of like our signature.’
Playing the story is where you really see what’s been achieved in how the game looks. The motion capture and facial animation on each of the characters is terrifyingly lifelike, and each character is well realised and distinct. When I began to ask Boon about that, he became very animated, moving his hands, leaning forwards, and doing that thing we all do where we shake our head but it means ‘Ah! Amazing!’ instead of ‘No’. You’d almost forget he’s the voice of Scorpion yelling ‘GET OVER HERE!’ in Mortal Kombat.
‘We love these characters! Anybody who plays the game for any extended period of time — just the dialogue between the characters, our transitions, our supermoves, there’s so much,’ Boon, doubtless extremely experienced with interviews, almost began babbling in his enthusiasm for DC heroes. ‘We just love these characters and we’ve seen them represented in comics and tv shows and movies, and this is just our accumulating all the knowledge and cool stuff that we’ve seen with these characters, and putting it in the game.’
His own favourite character, without even a nanosecond of hesitation, is The Flash. ‘He’s just been my favourite character since I was six years old.’ So realising him in games must be great? ‘Oh yeah. I’ve been reading comic books [since] I was a kid, and just seeing that old Flash tv show and the new Flash tv show and stuff… It’s just a really cool thing.’
I put it to Boon that the true-to-DC design could be an entry point to get DC fans in and turn them into fighting game fans. ‘I’d like to think so,’ he said. ‘But there’s so much in this game, I almost don’t even really consider it a fighting game.’ He began listing the features of the game: the cinematic story, the Multiverse that keeps refreshing with new challenges, the customisation and creative element with the gear system. This seems to be one of his favourite parts. If you check his Twitter feed a lot of it right now is sharing the custom builds players are making for characters and describing them as ‘Legit’ or ‘[adjective] AF’. He uses the AF abbreviation a lot.
At the same time as being accessible to new players, fighting games must always provide enough technical depth for old hands of the genre. Boon nodded, less the six-year-old Flash fan and more the grown up game designer.
‘It’s the source of a number of conversations and debates in our studio. How technical do we want to get and how casual do we want to get? We want anybody to be able to do a super move. Anybody can pull these two triggers and make The Flash run through time, anybody can make Supergirl fly to the sun…’ he said, still a bit the six-year-old Flash fan. ‘But we also want to have things for people that actually get good at a character. So if somebody wants to study how Batman fights, how wonder woman fights, they can get into it and take it apart and become an expert at it, and compete.’
The landscape of fighting games has changed over the years, and Boon says they now make games with eSports in mind. ‘We certainly have modes in the game tailored for eSports.’ It’s a challenge to not try to be all things to all men, and end up nothing to nobody. ‘There’s this constant balancing, that we’re balancing with keeping it accessible and keeping it deep.’
But even when I spoke to him, Boone must have been fairly secure in knowing he had at least a critical hit on his hands. Reviews had started coming out, with a couple of high profile 9/10s already. So I asked, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer but chancing my arm over the glass of wine I’d seen him holding earlier, if they were thinking about Injustice 3 yet. He smiled, and I laughed because I already knew my unlikely gambit hadn’t worked.
‘Certainly DLC. We haven’t had any conversations about Injustice 3. We’re still giving birth to this one. Certainly there’s a ton of opportunity with DLC. We’re going to do at least nine characters more for DLC.’
Despite the ‘at least’ thrown in there, Boon is still thinking about keeping that balance. ‘We’ve been pushing the line with this game. We’re releasing this game with 29 characters [which] is a lot. I don’t think I’d want to release another game that had more,’ he said, carefully. ‘I think we’re probably at the high end and when we add the DLC it’ll be 38 characters, so I think that’s really kind of pushing it. I don’t think there’s going to be a goal to reach 50 characters or anything like that.’
Yesterday, Boon Tweeted: 3?
It’s probably nothing to do with Injustice 3. He’s pinned it to his profile. Troll AF.