NetherRealm Studios creative director Ed Boon popped by Sony Canada’s PlayStation Vita launch event in a downtown Toronto last Friday. I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes chatting with him about his new game, a port of last year’s Mortal Kombat for PlayStation 3 coming to PlayStation Vita in April.
The 47-year-old Mr. Boon, a fit-looking fellow with bushy eyebrows and a broad smile, is famous not just for co-creating the legendary fighting series with colleague John Tobias, but also lending his voice to one of Mortal Kombat’s most enduring characters: Scorpion, the yellow-clad, ninja-like baddy who likes to impale his opponents with spiky chains and yell “Get over here!” before reeling them in.
While I'd have liked nothing more than to have heard Mr. Boon put on Scorpion's gravelly voice and threaten to murder and dismember me, there just wasn’t enough time in our brief chat. Instead, we talked about how the latest Mortal Kombat exploits the Vita’s features, how console games translate to Sony’s new handheld, and his team’s express goal of keeping the action accessible to the masses.
What can you tell us about the Vita version of Mortal Kombat? Details and images have been sparse.
We made Mortal Kombat for PlayStation 3 last April, and it was a big hit for us. It sold more than three million copies. During the course of making it we were informed that a new PlayStation portable was coming out. We were told about its features, and we started thinking about what we could do with it. We decided to make it the ultimate version of last year’s game.
We were able to retain and enhance existing content. There’s still the eight-hour story mode, the cinematic presentation, all of that. It has all of the downloadable characters and skins in the original game, including the guest character Kratos from God of War.
There’s additional content, too. One of the big features from last year’s game was called Challenge Tower – a tall tower with 300 challenges for players to complete – and we created a custom version of this tower for the Vita. There are challenges where you use the touch screen, challenges where you use the Vita’s balance features, and even a Fruit Ninja-like challenge where you cut up heads instead of fruit.
So it’s a proven game with tons of new content. It really is the ultimate version of the game.
You mentioned some challenges that involved balance…
Yes. So imagine you’re perched over this big well. You have to keep your balance. And then we start throwing skulls and body parts at you and you have to keep from falling. If you do fall, there are all these different ways to die. You might land in acid, or on this big knife that cuts you in half.
How about the Vita’s rear touch pad? It’s such an unusual interface, but not suited for every game. Did you find a way to make use of it?
No. We messed around with it a little, but we didn’t end up using it. I think it’s a great feature, but it has to with the way people hold the Vita while playing a fighting game. They’d accidentally touch the rear touch pad and perform moves they didn’t intend. They were jumping and throwing fireballs when they didn’t mean to. And fighting game fans can get really emotional about that sort of thing [laughs]
I’m a huge proponent of the Vita’s thumbsticks. How have you made use of them?
We make use of both the d-pad and the analogue thumbstick. The Vita allowed us to offer multiple control styles and let the player choose the style that they prefer.
Some people really like the tactile feedback of the Vita’s d-pad. You can feel a little click when you press left or right using the d-pad. Other people really like the thumbstick for doing circular motions, like when you’re throwing a fireball.
I actually find myself switching back and forth. There are certain modes where one feels better than the other. For the most part, though, I really like the clicking feedback with the Vita’s d-pad. I can control characters better with the Vita than I can with a PlayStation 3 controller or an Xbox 360 controller.
How about online play? I assume it supports Wi-Fi, but will there be 3G play? It’d be great to be able to beat up a friend on the other side of the country during one’s morning bus commute…
It’s just the Wi-Fi. Fighting games are a really twitchy, latency-sensitive experience. We don’t want to expose people to the idiosyncrasies of wireless carriers and lead them to have a bad experience. So you can get on Wi-Fi or you can play against someone locally. It’s great on Wi-Fi.
What’s it like to port a game from a powerful home console like PlayStation 3 to Vita?
Obviously the Vita hardware is a lot different than the PlayStation 3. But I’ve been playing the game a lot on planes during development, and I’ve just never seen a console game translate so well to a portable system.
There are certain things that the Vita does better in terms of interface. We always want Mortal Kombat to be accessible so that as many people as possible can enjoy it. We have these fatality moves, where you have to press a series of buttons, like down, down, away, X. We use the Vita touch controls so that you just have to swipe down, down, right, up. It’s been a surprisingly big hit while testing.
Visuals translated well, too. We had to reduce the polygon count on our Vita characters a little, but when you see them on the Vita’s gigantic screen it absolutely captures the essence and identity of Mortal Kombat. Anybody who has played the PlayStation 3 version is just going to go, “Oh, my god,” because it looks like a portable version of the PlayStation 3 game.
I don’t play a lot of fighters, but I’m always able to slide into each new Mortal Kombat game with ease. There’s something about them that makes them accessible even to folks who may not think of themselves as hardcore fighter fans. I think that might provide Mortal Kombat an advantage as the market of gamers who think of themselves as casual players continues to grow…
Yeah. The accessibility is on purpose, actually. We don’t use really complicated moves. We just do tap, tap X, or something like that. If you have moves that most people can perform, then more people will enjoy the game. If you have moves that only 10 per cent of people can perform, it just doesn’t work.
When we’re working on new moves with our team I like to hand the controller to 10 different people and see how many of them can successfully perform them. If it’s lower than, say, seven, then I tell them we have to make it easier.
Ed Boon, thanks for taking the time. I appreciate it.
The preceding interview was condensed and edited for flow.