'Mortal Kombat' Succeeded Beyond Its Creators' Dreams, Just as They Planned

John Tobias is responsible for imagining characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Back in 1991, Tobias had no idea what the future held.
April 21, 2021, 1:00pm
Artwork from the official Mortal Kombat comic book
Artwork courtesy of Midway Games

I was lucky enough to grow up down the street from an arcade in the Chicago suburbs where they would test new and unreleased arcade machines of new Mortal Kombat games. The line to play an unfinished Mortal Kombat III, I distinctly recall, wrapped well outside the arcade itself. While in line, people would trade observations about what was hidden in the game, and even slap post-it notes on the machine, as people discovered new secrets.

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There is a good chance that, at one point, I was standing near one of the co-designers of Mortal Kombat, John Tobias. When I recently mentioned the arcade I frequented in my youth, Tobias quickly recognized a description of a very specific suburban mall and passed on a long held admiration for the mall's pizza stand, one that I spent a lot of time at in high school.

"We visited arcades all over the city and burbs throughout our testing phase," said Tobias in an email recently. "If we weren’t at our computers or sleeping we were at an arcade."

Tobias no longer works on the franchise, but was a primary creative force through Mortal Kombat 4, around the time the series was getting overexposed.

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The first public test for Mortal Kombat took place at Times Square Arcade on Chicago's North Side, an event Tobias considered "make or break" for the game. Tobias spent the entire weekend watching the machine alongside programmer (and co-designer) Ed Boon.

"We tried to take in as much info from player behavior as possible," said Tobias. "We would crowd in with other players at the machine and watch. We were like undercover agents. I was 21 or 22 at the time and Ed wasn’t that much older so we were able to blend in with the crowd. A couple months later after our first full week’s test, I got trapped at that arcade during a Sunday night riot when the Bulls beat the Trailblazers [in the 1992 NBA Finals]."

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Tobias actually wrote about the Bulls incident on his blog years ago, noting how in-person playtests were the best way to understand what was and wasn't working in the game. This is before the age of high-volume data collection. We now live in an era where game developers track and react to everything players do. Back then, someone like Tobias had to rely on both what his eyes and gut told him, alongside the rudimentary data tracking they were doing.

All arcade games produced by Midway at the time, Tobias noted, had these "audit" systems that tracked certain player data, but typically, you could only access it by opening up the cabinet and flipping a switch. The novelty with Mortal Kombat was that Boon made it accessible via a button sequence, which means the two could sneak up to a machine and figure out what players were doing, such as what characters they were (and weren't) using.

"While the game was on test it gave us a read on whether a character was broken or if a Fatality was too difficult or too easy," he said. "I believe we made functional adjustments to characters to try and improve their popularity in part based on audit data."

These changes helped Mortal Kombat generate a mythology that went beyond what was written into the game itself. Like I said, while in line to play these games, people talked. Sometimes, though, these "secrets" were nothing more than hearsay and rumors. It was impossible to tell, because days later, the arcade machine would disappear. Maybe you'd be lucky enough to be around for the next version to appear, but this isn't 2021—there were no patch notes. To learn what was different, the local community had to start from scratch. 

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"In the early days of MK1’s release, a Fatality was a very rare occurrence," said Tobias. "So, players at one arcade might be exposed to seeing a Fatality and tell a friend about it, but because they were so difficult to replicate there was an aura of disbelief. Then that friend would see a different Fatality at a different arcade and so on. It was like spotting big foot. You can imagine the temptation for players to spread rumor and exaggerate what they’ve seen. I remember being conscious of rumors spreading from one side of the city to another." 

“We knew back then that we were successful with the characters when players would talk about the stories as if they were exposed to deep layers of mythology.”

But it also gave the game's designers a chance to screw with players. Boon, in particular, took joy in this. During the original game's testing phase, Boon snuck in the famous secret fight with Reptile at the bottom of the game's pit. Today, that would be an announcement with a PR campaign. Back then, it was a secret for players to find on their own—or not! 

"There was an organic quality to our process on MK," said Tobias. "It was a reflection of who we were and what resonated with us as players. It was a personal expression of us. I think if we had access to [more] data it would’ve affected our choices. So, given that era of game development I’m glad we didn’t know what we didn’t know."

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Other times, rumors did influence development. Kano, the man with an iron plate around a glowing red eye, was rumored to blast lasers from said eye. He could not, but one time, Tobias was chatting up a friend's younger brother about Mortal Kombat, and that younger brother swore he saw Kano shoot a beam from his eye at a local arcade. When Tobias revealed he'd help make the game, the story stood. That kid had seen Kano shoot a laser. 

And then, in Mortal Kombat III, one of Kano's fatalities became his eye laser. Full circle. (It's also part of the new movie.) The kid was right…eventually.

The reason I reached out to Tobias in the first place was his series of tweets about fans being upset about Sonya and Kano not being playable in Mortal Kombat II. The characters were in the sequel, but only as animated sprites shackled by master villain Shao Kahn. The decision to remove Sonya and Kano was driven by the data they had at the time, because people weren't playing as those characters, and arcade games had strict memory limitations.

When I was younger, employees at the same arcade Tobias used to haunt during playtests would tell people there were secret ways of unlocking Kano and Sonya, but we'd "missed" that version of the game. Because of my arcade's history, that actually sounded legitimate.

As it turned out, people were pissed when they realized Kano and Sonya weren't playable. And the reason bullshit rumors about those characters could persist was due to the power of Mortal Kombat's iconic characters and convoluted by endearingly self-serious mythology.

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"I remember having a sense of frustration with the two games I worked on prior to working with Ed on the first MK," said Tobias. "They were silly and over the top. Smash TV was successful at it but the follow-up Total Carnage was a dud. Lots of reasons for that, but I felt like it was impossible to get anyone on the team to take anything seriously and so I just gave in to the whacked out fiction. MK was the first game where Ed and I were in charge and left to do whatever we wanted. I remember us having a conversation early on where we agreed that we were going to take our game’s fiction very seriously. Or, at the very least as seriously as our themes would allow."

Sonya and Kano are not random—they have a reason to exist. It was intended to be part of a world, even if Tobias and Boon had no idea if Mortal Kombat would ever get a sequel.

"I think because it was a fighting game and because back then we had no way to convey exposition, we were dismissed as fodder," said Tobias. "Even to this day I think there is a general dismissal of the early games because there is a misunderstanding of how we told story and why players were so attached to the characters. But, we knew back then that we were successful with the characters when players would talk about the stories as if they were exposed to deep layers of mythology."

Modern Mortal Kombat games have elaborate cutscenes that weave each fight together in a semi-cohesive manner, but back then, "storytelling" occurred during the fields of text that showed up on the screen when no one was playing and the endings unlocked by anyone with enough talent and luck to beat the game. The players were filling in all those blanks.

Even as more of those blanks have been filled in by the developers themselves over the ensuing decades, the foundational work of those first few games was the original spark. It's why Mortal Kombat has remained relevant even now, fueling new games and a new movie.

"Young John Tobias would’ve been amazed," said Tobias. "As a creative kid I dreamt of doing something that would resonate with an audience so I couldn’t have asked for more than what MK has represented to me."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).