'Mortal Kombat' creator Ed Boon back with DC superhero game

Playing “Injustice,” he looked at ease.

I was the Joker now, Boon was Superman. In rapid succession I slammed Superman in the face with a pie, clocked him in the head with a metal canister, stabbed him with a knife and blasted him in the face with a bazooka. Boon countered: He punched me through the roof, through the stratosphere and into space. Then Superman flew into space, met me at the top of my trajectory and clobbered me back down to Earth.

“Gratuitous,” I said.

“Bloodless,” he said.

The offices of NetherRealm are across Addison Street from Lane Tech College Prep High School, at the back of a generic office park. It's a concrete building of no distinction, partly a former bank — indeed, NetherRealm's sound studio is installed in the bank's old vault. The only thing that announces it as the home of a sizable video game legacy is the full-size sculpture of a “Mortal Kombat” character in the lobby, crouched alongside a chair that looks as if it were made of bones and human skulls (but is actually quite comfortable). Venture deeper in NetherRealm's sprawl of cubicle farms and a scene starts to repeat: Smells of pizza and stray burps, the soft tap-tap-tap of keyboards, slouching young men in stocking caps and hoodies and headphones staring intently at unfinished game images. There are conference rooms full of designers (playing games on cellphones); a small arcade; and a large garage-like area that's been reconfigured into a motion-capture studio. And because most of the staff is designing, the light is dim and murky throughout.

NetherRealm is most of what remains of Midway, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and sold off its game properties to Warner Bros. During the transition, Boon was able to keep most of the five dozen or so developers who worked with him on “Mortal Kombat”; the staff has since grown to about 180 employees.

Beyond the front office, you find yourself in a long, dramatically lit showcase of “Mortal Kombat” artifacts, figurines, sales plaques and awards. Boon's office, however, is nothing special: no windows, no style, nothing more personal than a bottle of Purell — unless, of course, you count the arcade game marquees and artwork that cover his walls, reminiscent of mounted deer heads: “High Impact Football,” “Super High Impact Football,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Mortal Kombat 2,” “Mortal Kombat 3,” “Mortal Kombat 4,” “Mortal Kombat Deception,” “Mortal Kombat Alliance,” “Mortal Kombat Armageddon,” “Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.”

He made those.

He is polite but not overly friendly, self-possessed but somewhat approachable. He does not like to talk about himself or his personal life. He does not give his age. He does not mention that his younger brother, Mike, NetherRealm's director of engineering, works with him — has worked with him for years. Asked what he does when he isn't making video games, he says he plays golf, basketball, then his voice trails off.

He was born in Rogers Park and moved to Skokie, then attended Loyola Academy in Wilmette. Mike Boon recalled that as kids they would spend a lot of time playing video games and teaching themselves basic programming, “though (in the late '70s-early '80s) ‘game designer' wasn't exactly a job that seemed to exist for anyone.” Ed Boon studied computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, expecting to work in IT at a bank, somewhere institutional. “But at the bottom of my pretty technically minded resume,” Ed Boon said, “there was an asterisk: I was strongly interested in video games. A headhunter from Williams Electronics, which was on California Avenue then, called me. And I knew Williams because they had made ‘Defender' and they had Eugene Jarvis, maybe the only guy in American then who was well-known as a game designer.”

Williams, still primarily a pinball machine manufacturer in the early '80s, eventually bought Midway, and Boon worked his way up the chain, finally asking Jarvis, lead designer, if he could work on a fighting game.

A new kind of fighting game.

Jarvis, who still designs games, works on the North Shore and remains close to Boon, said: “What I remember about Ed then was he would take the smallest detail — an explosion, anything — and obsess, turn it into this huge production. But in a good, ambitious way. He was level-headed, and not violent at all, but I remember thinking (that) back in that head, something was hard for him to get out — he had a dark sense of humor and worked such insane hours. I still don't know if he does anything but design games.”

The first “Mortal Kombat” was made in eight months, conception to completion. Instead of purely digital creations, the fighters were digitized real people, mostly from Chicago, friends of John Tobias, who was Boon's design partner in the early '90s (and has since become a creative director at Zynga, home of Farmville). “It was a very garage-band-like production,” Boon recalled. “We put adults in silly costumes, dressed as ninjas and things, and had them stand in front of a green screen. Still, it was state of the art.”

The only other serious fighting game in the early '90s was “Street Fighter,” said Seth Killian, who grew up in Oak Park and went from being a professional “Street Fighter” player to developing “Street Fighter” for Capcom to becoming a designer at Sony. “Street Fighter” “had this anime, cartoony style. ‘Mortal Kombat' had mystery. People forget, but that game was not huge right away. It seemed more like a rumor at first — you could get good at ‘Galaga' and put your name on a leaderboard, but this thing would take your money, literally tear you apart, then laugh at you. It was the American answer to a more tempered Japanese style.”

“Mortal Kombat” didn't become a phenomenon until it landed on home gaming systems a few years later. Which lead to a pair of B-movies and, eventually, more than 30 million games sold. When I asked Boon if he ever thought the game's success typecast him early on, ensuring that he would rarely design anything but “Mortal Kombat” titles, he said: “Yes.” Midway had arcade hits such as “NBA Jam” and “NFL Blitz,” but as home gaming became the standard and arcades closed, “Mortal Kombat” was one of its few reliable titles.

“There was a point, during the long downslide of Midway when they very much counted on ‘Mortal Kombat,' so the notion of developing anything other than ‘Mortal Kombat' was laughable,” Boon said. “If we didn't do them, someone else would. So, yes, here was huge pressure to perform. People were leaving. It wasn't fun. It became, ‘We literally need the next “Mortal Kombat” delivered and ready for release this year to keep this company operating. To pay salaries.' The notion of saying I wanted to branch out was no longer an option.”

Indeed, at the time that Warner Bros. absorbed his team into WB Interactive — Boon's branch was renamed NetherRealm Studios a year later — a new “Mortal Kombat” was already in development. “We decided to start this relationship with a safe bet,” Boon said, “something to justify our existence at Warner Bros.” Mission accomplished: That 2011 version of “Mortal Kombat,” which has been made partly to prove that the fighting-game series had remained relevant, was a blockbuster, selling more than 3 million copies.

And so, expect more “Mortal Kombat.”

Actually, expect more of everything out of NetherRealm: With an exponentially larger staff, there are teams working on new downloadable games and add-ons to old ones; teams designing games for cellphones and tablets (such as NetherRealm's recent hit “Batman: Arkham City Lockdown”); and even others, though no one would confirm, likely at work on games for the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles.

“We're bursting at the seams,” Boon said with a smile. (In fact, the studio is expanding into adjacent office space this summer.)

As I gathered my stuff to leave, I noticed, hung across from his desk, a plaque commemorating 1 million copies sold of the 2011 edition of “Mortal Kombat.” Boon watched me read it, then, bouncing in his seat, going a bit too far, said: “By the time we received that, we already sold more like 2.6 million copies. But really, who's counting at this point — I mean, am I right?”

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli
CHICAGO
Best songs of 2014 so far

More music

Inside Lil Bibby's world

Inside Lil Bibby's world

More