Last week, we got to go to LA and go hands-on with Mortal Kombat 11. In addition to getting on the sticks ourselves, we also got to sit down with art director Steve Beran. Beran walked us through the idea of playing with time in the story of Mortal Kombat 11, new features such as in-depth character customization, the process behind crafting the fatalities, listening to fan feedback, and much more.
You can read our full interview down below.
So, the first thing I saw during the stream is that there’s customizing of the look, aesthetics of the characters, what brought about that decision and how did you go about figuring out how to do it?
Back in Mortal Kombat X, Ed [Boon] introduced this idea of variations where there [were] only three variations back then. A lot of it was just an accessory, something like Scorpion would have a skull on his belt or a fiery skull or a glowing skull and each of those variations would give him different abilities, but those abilities were attached to that piece of gear. Then, we also did gear in Injustice 2 which kind of took it to the next level and there’s more gear but it wasn’t necessarily a variation, it was kinda just pieces you could put on yourself and those moves were attached to those variations or to those pieces of gear.
With Mortal Kombat 11, you earn gear and the ability to change those pieces of gear within variations, it sounds kind of complicated but the difference is that the abilities aren’t attached to the pieces of gear, you can assign. If I like this Scorpion mask, I’m gonna give him these attributes so whenever I’m wearing this scorpion mask I have these abilities.
So you can put abilities and looks in any combination you want?
And is that tied to any sort of microtransaction or is it all unlockable from the get-go?
It’s all unlockable, and there’s so much content in this game it’s ridiculous. There are different skins as well so you can choose the skin you want and the gear that goes along with it. In addition to that you can pick your own victory, your own taunts, fatalities, everything’s customizable so you can make whoever you want to make basically.
There used to be a create a character in one of the previous games right?
A: Yeah Armageddon, there was a uh… we dabbled in it. It wasn’t attached to like attributes or moves at all. Yeah, there was a character creator.
It’s not returning, is this just sort of the way to do that this time around?
It’s a way to do that I think it’s uh…we got a little silly back then I think now is like, we just got more sophisticated with design I think every piece of gear and how like skins look like they belong and you know Sonya’s closet, nothing’s too weird if that makes sense.
Yeah, there was some off the wall stuff, so no Motor Kombat then?
Can’t say, but probably not. I love Motor Kombat.
I’m more of a newcomer into the series, I mean I’m familiar with it. Obviously, it’s a big pop culture and it’s a staple in video game history but how would you say you plan on welcoming newcomers into this entry while still keeping a good balance in both terms of gameplay and story for the returning vets?
I think the variations are going to draw a lot of people in, I think being able to make your own character and like, you’re constantly being awarded new things as you play so I think new players will play like that.
It’s not like you have to play head to head, you can play the story and earn these new things and then once you feel confident, you can go online or invite some friends over and show off and you know, kinda learn new moves. I think probably story is the best way to introduce new players.
NetherRealm has become notorious for really good story and our writers are just amazing and I think that pulls people in, cause it’s kind of almost like a tutorial in a way, so it kind of holds your hand a little bit and then it pulls you into the universe and I think that’s a good way to get any new player in, or even experienced players, you know, people who are experienced love the saga that is Mortal Kombat.
Yeah, like I said I’m more of a newcomer but I tried to do some research before coming in here and I’ll admit I got into all these twists and turns over more than 25 years.
Absolutely, I’ve been involved in Mortal Kombat since Mortal Kombat 2, so back in 94? I forget I was around for Mortal Kombat 1 as well and even back then you know John Tobias and Ed [Boon] um, we couldn’t really tell much of a story but we did have a track mode screens that would say ‘Hey, Sonya Blade does this and she hates Kano’ and it kinda planted the soap opera, if you will, that’s still around today.
It’s just these little seeds of information and a lot of this, like people just fill in the gaps so as you’re playing you kind of build up your own story, but you know luckily throughout the last, you know the recent games, we can make a two and a half hour story, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a great way to show off the universe and pull in new players, for sure.
So you touched on NetherRealm’s ability to do story so that leads to this other question, where would you rank yourself when it comes to the fighting game storytelling and do you have something other studios are missing or are there other studios that you admire in terms of storytelling?
Sure. At the risk of sounding cocky, I don’t think anybody does fighting game story better than us. I think we set the bar for it, other games have tried, they’ve been good. But I think we just put so much effort into it where it’s literally like a motion picture in a game, and again it is that, a two and a half hour movie, but it’s an eight hour plus add on to the game. Other games have touched on it, I think, I’m hoping that other games explore as much as we do, cause I think our fans truly appreciate it. I’m not going to go into this too much but other games have popular characters too so they could explore it.
What was the biggest piece of feedback from Mortal Kombat X that had the most impact on 11?
A: I think artistically we got some flack for our players’ faces not looking realistic enough. So we definitely took that to heart and we brought in a new character lead Brendan George who introduced facial scanning to our studio. So that definitely [helped us] realize that that was a problem and we were reading online and you know, kind of got sick of people critiquing us for that, so we definitely addressed it and now I think we have arguably some of the best-looking faces in the industry, not in just fighting games.
I think we’ve gotten better and better with it. We first started exploring it in Injustice 2 and now I think Brendan and his team have just nailed it to where it gets to be a little creepy at times, like oh my god, they’re complete and realistic.
In addition to that, we spend a lot of times with eyes, they’re the window to the soul and it’s like people, even though they can’t explain it they look at something CGI they know something’s wrong, they can’t place it. More often then not it’s in the eyes. So we spent a lot of time, a lot of time, perfecting eyes, how they react, how they animate, how they dilate, and how skin around the eyes, you know the fatty part of your eye reacts and I could go into uber detail about it but it all kinda stems to getting bad reaction from Mortal Kombat X. MKX was completely successful, it did really well, but uh, we listened to fans, we have to listen to fans, we want to, that’s how we grow.
Like I said I brushed up on a lot of the franchise and that was something that they specifically pointed out about the last one, about how it was great but that was a little bit of a reminder that you’re playing a game, was the face. So that’s really good to hear that you guys have addressed that, and it shows.
Good, I’m glad to hear it, we’re also focusing on the animation in this game too. This one’s more realistic animation and sometimes we have had comments of being cartoony at times with animation, so we’re actually really focusing on realistic animations. There’s weight behind moves and really making punches feel explosive, that’s definitely a benchmark for this game.
I’m glad that, as the art director, I get to ask you this question. What is the creative process like in designing fatalities?
That’s a great question. It’s actually one of the most fun jobs we have. It’s basically a group, and anybody can really participate in the studio, if they want to. But generally a group of about eight guys, I’m in and out once in a while but it’s sit down in a room, we have these characters to talk about and a lot of it is just pure brainstorming. I compare it to music. It’s an art form in itself but it’s very much like being in a band or something, where somebody has like this little seed of an idea.
Sort of a fatality jam?
Yeah, and it probably sounds cheesy but it is very much like that where somebody says ‘Ok, it’d be cool if this happened’ or ‘Oh. I got something’ and it’s kinda like this mishmash of ideas. Then within, you know, an hour we kind of weave it all together and it’s like ‘Wow, that’s freakin’ awesome’.
And then we literally just storyboard it real quick with Tony Goskie, who’s been with us for twenty-seven years, still does our storyboards and we pitch it to Ed. It’s almost like an advertising campaign like ‘We think this is cool’ and then Ed will add on to it and again, I don’t mean this intentionally but it is very much like music again where, Ed’s very like focused on beats so it’s like ‘Then you do this, then you do this,’ and then there’s a rhythm that our fatalities have.
If there’s too much time in between beats, people know it’s long. It kind of throws this -again very much like music – if you hear a beat ‘Oh ga, ga, ga’ and you kind of expect that, and that beat’s not right, subconsciously it’s like ‘What?’ Now even if it’s graphically cool, if the timing’s not there, it feels wrong.
Are there any ideas that get tossed out that you’re just like ‘Whoa, no absolutely not’?
Um, overly silly ideas get cut more than anything.
Nothing too extreme? There is no extreme?
A: Sometimes, but it’s more of… there’s always has been a humor to Mortal Kombat and that’s why I love Mortal Kombat. Whether we intended it or not, there’s just kind of this, like people roll their eyes funny but, I don’t think we’ve been doing it intentionally, sometimes when it becomes too laughable it’s like, we’re getting silly.
So maybe you’d know, maybe you wouldn’t, but Ronda Rousey’s involvement coming into the game, was that something that you guys knew she was a fan and reached out or maybe she showed interest in wanting to do this? I know she’s done that with some other roles.
We knew she was a big Mortal Kombat fan, um, so we reached out to her for sure.
There was something about her that you thought she’d be perfect for Sonya?
Yeah, besides looking like Sonya, she just like has this energy and you know attitude that I think it’d be a perfect fit for her.
Would you happen to know or maybe it’s too soon to say if there’s, and we’ll keep it as vague as possible, plans for guest characters from outside the franchise, how they were from other pop culture references last time?
Can’t talk about that right now.
Not even just a general…?
I’m sorry, wish I could, no we’re just focused on the main seven characters today.
I’ll throw it out there, I think Pennywise would be a good fit on the cast.
Yeah, he’s been, uh, very requested…
What made the decision to focus on time as part of the story this time around?
It was a good fit, kind of a good continuation of how we left off in Mortal Kombat X. Raiden was kind of fed up with being a good guy and…kinda repeating the same mistakes and kinda this realization of like ‘Fuck this, I’m doing something wrong and I’m gonna change’.
If you’re familiar with the end of Mortal Kombat X, but you get a taste of that, where he just decapitates Shinnok. With this game, we thought it’d be cool to see if with this new character, Kronica, who sees this blip in the radar, an unusual performance from Raiden, he’s not supposed to be doing this. So she kind of wants to get involved and correct, get the balance of good and evil back on track instead of ultimate good guys turning into the ultimate bad guys.
So that was kind of the seed of it and our story writers, Dominic and Shaun just started bringing up the idea and Ed and I and our team got excited about it like ‘Hey, what if past Scorpion met up current Scorpion?’ You know in Mortal Kombat X, Scorpion became more mature and he realized that he was deceived in the past so you have the idea of a more laid back Scorpion meeting up with crazy specter Scorpion. And that goes along for other characters, not just Scorpion.
Like Johnny Cage, that’d be a great one to see.
You get the idea, Johnny Cage is a great example of that where yeah he’s fifty-something now, and you know, matching him up with twenty-year-old douchebag Johnny is gonna be interesting.