We sat down with Mortal Kombat 11 associate producer Jon Anderson to discuss new game modes, Nintendo Switch and … where’s Reptile?
I was recently invited by WB Games Canada to chat with associate producer at NetherRealm Studios, Jon Anderson, about their hot new video game Mortal Kombat 11 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. He detailed how the game honours characters that didn’t make the roster this time around, and even discussed how future Injustice games could follow Mortal Kombat 11 onto the Nintendo Switch. After spending ample hands-on time with Mortal Kombat 11, it’s clear that Warner Bros. and NetherRealm have another killer app on their hands.
Riley Little: Alright, so I always like to start off easy. Could you just state your name and your role?
Jon Anderson: I’m Jon Anderson, associate producer at NetherRealm [Studios].
RL: Awesome. And how’s that going for you?
JA: Oh, it’s a dream come true. It’s a dream come true.
RL: Well, the big MK11 launch is here. How’s it feel to finally have [Mortal Kombat] out there?
JA: It’s weird. It’s very weird. It’s extremely weird that we bypassed E3.
RL: You did.
JA: Right. And we went for our own event in December, and it’s been … four and a half months now. It feels like it’s been forever. It feels so long.
RL: How long has [Mortal Kombat 11] been in development for?
JA: Roughly… Two-ish years. It’s hard to say, though. There’s a lot of overlap. A lot of small bits that get developed and then kind of mature and grow, and those small bits are hard to track down as to when they start.
RL: Did you have any role in Injustice or other previous NetherRealm titles?
JA: Yeah! I’ve been with the company since Mortal Kombat X. I joined in the middle of Mortal Kombat X and I’ve been on several different teams as a producer throughout the last four years that I’ve been there. Currently, I am UI, user experience, business intelligence, gameplay programming and concept… I’m worried I’m forgetting one. *laughs*
RL: You wear many hats, essentially.
JA: Yeah, yeah. But they’re cohesive, you know? That’s my goal, really.
RL: If we’re talking about hats, one of the coolest aspects of Mortal Kombat and Injustice are the customization options. How much thought goes into developing each of those? How do you even begin that process?
JA: It’s hard to quantify. We begin the process in concept and we figure out “what is the character going to look like?” We usually start with one or two looks, we define those looks, and then from that we build out the kit of gear that the user will be able to customize. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, sometimes we have to be creative to make it work.
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RL: So how many references do you try to hide in those outfits?
JA: So, there are characters that have more references than others. Just looking at some names of gear, you’re going to see some names that are referring to pretty deep-seeded MK stuff.
RL: How deep are we talking here?
JA: All over the place! There’s an Erron Black intro that is… we saw it! We talked about it! I’m not going to spoil it, but trust me. This is a Mortal Kombat game which means we’re bringing everything with us. Everything in the back catalogue is open for business.
RL: Jeez… well, that’s kind of cool. And that sort of fan service, I think, is what resonates with gamers in general and what really fuels that [passion] more so. Because [NetherRealm Studios] goes back, and even though you can’t cater to all the fans and get all the characters in there, there are so many references. So, for example, you mentioned that Erron Black has Reptile’s acid and stuff like that … How deep are you guys in that boardroom hammering out like “okay, we can have Erron Black have this move” or “this references that character”?
JA: Things just come naturally most of the time. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say most of the time, but sometimes they come naturally. Sometimes it’s like “Erron Black should have a vile. What should be in it? Oh, Reptile venom! Cool, got it.” Sometimes we have to really work hard to make it all synergistic and work together. I’m trying to think of some good examples or reference, but none that really come to mind…
RL: Ah, okay. Well, fair enough.
JA: Ahhh, how about this?
RL: Yeah, you got one?
JA: Yeah. D’Vorah, she, in an intro, calls out Kitana… err Kitana calls her out and kinda says “You killed King Jerrod?” Her father. D’Vorah happily says “Yes, I’ve killed many.” And it’s just like, that’s the sort of thing that works so well. D’Vorah is, of course, a merciless killer and has killed many in the path of Shao Kahn. Now we can reveal that she was the one that killed King Jerrod.
RL: That’s very cool actually. So, you reveal that through the interactions of the characters.
JA: We have so many opportunities to build lore and we use all of them: intros, victories, special moves. Whatever we can muster.
RL: So, what are some of the biggest upgrades fans can look forward to in the jump from Mortal Kombat X to 11.
JA: The character textures, the facial animations, the lighting, the amount of content in customizing a character, the amount of intros and victories per character, the amount of Brutalities, the amount of Towers that you can play through, the Cryyypt…
RL: *laughs* You’re really emphasizing The Crypt. What is it about The Crypt that’s so special?
JA: You’re just going to have to find out! It’s different from last time. I’m answering your question by saying it’s an improvement from last time…
RL: *puppy dog eyes*
JA: You want me to go into specifics. It’s a whole new experience. You’re gonna love it. It’s its own game in a way. Also, ripe with references.
RL: Ripe with references?
RL: Really? You guys just packed it. But one of the cool things I found about Mortal Kombat 11 is that it’s the first time that the series has been on a Nintendo console in 12 years, I think.
JA: Yep. We were on the Wii last for Armageddon.
RL: Yes, in 2007, I believe it was. But the coolest thing to me is why did you pick MK11 to return to that platform?
JA: It wasn’t really… I don’t think it was a hard decision and there was no like “oh we’re not on Nintendo consoles. Maybe we should be…” It wasn’t something we actively discussed like it was a known entity. The opportunity arose and we took it. That’s really what it boils down to.
RL: Okay, so do you think the same sort of mentality would carry over to Injustice, for example.
JA: Yeah, probably. We as NetherRealm Studios can only do so much and, also, WB can only do so much, and we don’t want to half-ass anything. So, we need to make sure… we developed three different SKUs on Injustice. We developed PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and we have to make sure those are all the same quality. That’s an effort in itself. To be able to take in a new SKU and say “this needs to also make our quality bar.” It’s a certain amount of work that we need to be considerate of and make sure that we can deliver.
RL: Sticking with the Switch version [of Mortal Kombat 11], I know that you guys have got it running at 60 frames per second. That’s like a technical marvel. How did you guys manage to do that?
JA: I can only attribute it to our engine. Our custom-made… sorry, Unreal 3 Engine. 60 frames per second is a holy thing for us. It needs to be running at 60, so there’s no way we were going to the Switch platform without that.
RL: Kudos to you guys. That is absolutely amazing. I’m kind of curious, though. How does [NetherRealm] decide which characters to include on the roster and which characters come out as DLC?
JA: It is not a light task. We have 70+ characters available to us and we make new ones all the time. We can’t do 70. We can’t commit to that with the game we want to make, so we have to make hard choices. And that’s really what it boils down to. There are some things out there that sort of paints NetherRealm as hating on certain characters… We love all of our characters. We would want them all in the game if could. We can’t. We have to make hard choices. That’s really what it boils down to. We look to make a balanced roster; balanced in many different ways. What the character brings to the table, how they fit into the story. New, old. Villain, hero.
RL: One of the coolest aspects that Mortal Kombat has sort of adopted in recent years is the crossover character. I find that amazing.
JA: What do you mean by crossover character? Like a guest character?
RL: What I mean is, like, Freddy Krueger. Yeah, guest character. Sorry. And what I find so fascinating about that is what that process is like and how does that process even come about? How do you determine which characters from a horror film, or a comic book or however it plays out? How do you choose that character?
JA: There are some pretty limiting factors up front. They have to be able to be murdered. So, there are certain characters that just won’t meet that bill ever. So, they’re off the list, right? And then if we can murder them, and they have a means of murdering other people–that’s another caveat–then the ideas start flowing. Then we are able to forge relationships with those intellectual property owners and bring them into our fold.
RL: This edition of Mortal Kombat seems to be the goriest yet, while at the same time there are some comedic elements to it. How do you balance that? I feel like [NetherRealm Studios] is so good at that dark humour aspect that so many games are unable to tap into.
JA: I think going full force into it is the only way to do it. If we were to hold back, maybe it wouldn’t be as funny. Maybe it wouldn’t be as striking. There are some Fatalities that I’m able to feel what’s happening to the victim. But for me, that’s an enjoyable feeling because it doesn’t happen a lot. During development, you get desensitized to it… Sorry, to get back to your question. How do we do it? We explore different avenues of creating a Fatality. A Fatality can be a lot of different things in one. It can be silly, it can be gory, it can be disturbing in a different way. There’s a wide birth of things that can be a Fatality, so we just look for the right flavour–the right thing for that character.
RL: I think Johnny Cage pretty much perfectly encapsulates that. I like the [Fatality] where he does multiple takes. But, we’re talking about Fatalities. How do you gauge the reaction from fans? Do you have a test audience that you screen them for?
JA: We are the test audience. Ideas for Fatalities are pitched and so in that pitch is a vetting, is consideration of “Are we going too far? Is this not far enough? How can we make this better?” And we do that with everything and that’s the vetting process that we use.
RL: Alright, thank you so much for your time.
A special thanks to NetherRealm Studios’ associate producer Jon Anderson and Warner Bros. Interactive Canada for giving us an inside look at Mortal Kombat 11. If you’re wondering when you can get your hands on Mortal Kombat 11, the game is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch platforms.
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