Mortal Kombat is 25 years old today, and the high-points of its legend are well-known by now. It's remembered for spawning a media franchise that made five billion dollars, revitalizing the fighting games genre, and causing one of the earliest major cultural controversies around gaming with its over the top, digitized depictions of violence.
But Mortal Kombat was more than just a catalyst for a heated political debate and early gaming culture war. It also helped lay the foundations for the political battles that the video game industry would fight for the next twenty years, and helped forge the weapons it would use to fight them.
The ESRB ratings‚these little black and white rectangles decorated with letters such as T, M or E, have been part of video games covers in North America for so long our brains learned to ignore them. But when you start paying attention to them, you'll see a clear, efficient and—while by no means perfect—necessary system. Europe has its equivalent of the ESRB with PEGI, Australia has the famously strict ACB, and Japan uses CERO. The whole world uses content ratings now to restrict young players' access to adult material in video games, but it was the ESRB that blazed that particular trail.
It makes sense that Mortal Kombat—a violent, controversial product—would finally stir the industry to introduce content ratings to games. But the motive for establishing the ratings system, however, was less about protecting the youth than providing the industry with the example of voluntary self-regulation that they could deploy against politicians who favored more active forms of content restriction. After all, ESRB ratings weren't introduced in response to the excesses of Mortal Kombat, but as part of a strategy to contain the fallout. In fact, some of the same people who publisehed Mortal Kombat at Acclaim even had a part in their creation.
As the 90s rolled in, Acclaim Entertainment was already an established, profitable business, but was mostly importing and distributing crappy games tied to hot properties like Rambo, with an occasional in-house release thrown into the mix. In these early days, the Acclaim we remember—the publishing powerhouse going down in flames amidst tactless publicity stunts—had not yet found its identity or even a great strategy.
"I had decided that all the successful games at that point in time had come out of the arcades. And we didn't have an arcade group," Gregory Fischbach, Acclaim's founder and CEO until the bitter end, told me earlier this year in the office of his start-up in Silicon Valley. "Guys at Midway didn't have retail distribution, so I called them up and we made a deal. We paid them a lot of money for the rights to the Terminator 2: Judgment Day and a couple of others but nothing that really set the world on fire."
Little did he know that Midway's and Acclaim's big break was just around the corner.
"I came back and I told them we're not making any money," he recalled. "We reduced a royalty rate, we paid a further advance and we got Mortal Kombat."
Just like that, Acclaim had a phenomenon on their hands. Fischbach remembered spending 10 million dollars in marketing and advertising, but no amount of money could buy the kind of exposure Mortal Kombat got. Every news outlet, every child psychologist looking for publicity, and every parent group in the country went after the easy target. Mortal Kombat was, after all, a game about ripping out spines from the bodies of at the time photo-realistic adversaries.
"We didn't want that press or publicity," Fischbach said. While it the outcry was making Mortal Kombat famous, it was also bringing too much public criticism. Acclaim and the industry at large needed to be seen to be "doing something." His big idea for tackling the bad press? The Electronic Software Rating Board.
"You know why we founded that?" As he asked, still conspiratorial even though were were alone in a conference room. "Mortal Kombat!"
He continued, "Howard Lincoln [the chairman of Nintendo of America at the time] said 'I don't want to be in the business of trying to decide which game should come out on the platform and which game shouldn't,'" Fischbach recalled from a meeting between industry's leading publishers, with SEGA and Nintendo. "If we had rating agencies similar to what was going on in the film industry, we could avoid some of the issues."
And thus the ESRB, the self-regulating body that to this very day assigns age and content ratings to video games, was born. To accommodate the ESRB, another organization was established—the Interactive Digital Software Association (in 2003 it was re-branded as the Entertainment Software Association) and Fischbach served as its chairman for the first two years of operations. The IDSA quickly became a powerful lobbying group and started to rethink the industry's old ways.
"We decided we would move away from the CES, which was twice a year and form E3, our own game show. And we thought the industry may as well make money from the show as opposed to paying it to Consumer Electronics Association," Fischbach said about the early days of the industry's biggest event. "It catered to retail. It catered to the press. It catered to developers because you're always looking for more developers. It catered to the people we were looking to hire. We also catered to the banking community. We were a public company, we wanted to make sure that they understood what we were doing as well."
Should he have seen it coming? The company's fortunes were flagging and they were turning out terrible games with terrible marketing by any measure.
Acclaim and Fischbach were crucial for creating the political machinery and industry institutions that would represent and protect publishers'—and ostensibly gaming's—interests to the public, to investors, and to politicians. They saw, early in the 1990s, where the debate around games was headed and took steps to ensure they won it. And yet, in a few years' time Acclaim would have no idea where it was headed itself.
The relationship with Midway wasn't meant to last and after Mortal Kombat II was released, Acclaim went its separate way. Hellbent on repeating the Mortal Kombat's success, the company's top brass reached all the wrong conclusions and misattributed the game's hit status to the controversy, not the quality. It took Acclaim a little over a decade to go from being on top of the world to hitting the rock bottom.
While Fischbach and Acclaim may have been savvy enough to take part in setting up a self-regulation and lobbying framework for the industry at large, the company would eventually come to public ignominy. The same "shock sells" mentality that worked for Mortal Kombat eventually led the company to a series of self-inflicted humiliations.
The mid-90s were all about expansion. Acclaim purchased Valiant Comics, a comic book publisher with its own universe of characters. One of them was called Shadowman, the other was a certain dinosaur hunter called Turok.
"Turok was the one that really worked," Fischbach said.
Indeed, Turok worked until it didn't. As the quality of its releases went down, Acclaim began relying on creative but often tawdry publicity stunts. One of them was an offer to pay a family who'd name their newborn Turok $10,000 in saving bonds (with the implication—maybe well-founded—that someone who took that offer on behalf of their child shouldn't be trusted with straight cash).
Another, on the opposite end of the spectrum of life and death, would help offset the cost of a funeral of a loved one by placing a Shadowman: Second Coming poster by the grave. Perhaps in the interest of ensuring there would be plenty of eligible plot of land for those posters—and to promote Burnout 2—Acclaim offered to pay off their British customers' speeding tickets. The message seemed to be: drive fast, parent questionably, and die tacky.
I asked Fischbach if he had to sign off on any of those ideas.
"No," he burst into laughter. "But it was fun."
While not responsible for every single publicity stunt, Fischbach was still in charge of Acclaim's troublesome direction. And not everyone was happy with the skipper's lead. Especially Jim Scoroposki, the company's co-founder and Fischbach's closest confidante.
"We were coming back from an off-site in the UK and we were on the plane together and he turns to me and says: 'You cause us problems,'" Fischbach rehashed the conversation that would ultimately seal Acclaim's fate.
Fischbach remembered being blind-sided by Scoroposki's disenchantment. Should he have seen it coming? The company's fortunes were flagging and they were turning out terrible games with terrible marketing by any measure. It seems inevitable that things would come to a head, but Fischbach feels that personal falling-out is when the decline became terminal.
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"There were other reasons that people look at in retrospect, but that was the main one," Fischbach said about the falling out with his partner.
These other reasons? Disappointing sales, debts, court filings claiming that Fischbach, Scoroposki and other Acclaim execs "abused their positions of authority and responsibility by operating Acclaim in many instances as if it were a personal piggy bank" and multiple lawsuits from former business partners like the BMX legend Dave Mirra and the Olsen Twins.
Which seems like rather a lot of other reasons that go beyond a personal parting-of-ways between partners, and perhaps paint Acclaim's end in a less tragic light. It might just be fitting a company that perished amidst various combinations of public disgrace and legal action, would also be responsible for both Mortal Kombat and the ESRB.
Having reaped the rewards of controversy, Acclaim helped architect a way to deflect responsibility and criticism for their own practices. In other words, they helped author the moment when the gaming industry started to grow up.