I could tell immediately: Why else would Aquaman be wiping the floor with Batman? Not to mention, I was playing Ed Boon in a video game, a fighting game, that Ed Boon, the king of the fighting-game genre, created. The game was “Injustice,” his new best-seller set inside the DC Comics universe.
I was playing as Aquaman and Boon was playing as Batman. We were in the 14-seat screening room of his NetherRealm Studios in the North Center neighborhood, haymakers and kicks and explosions blasting across a monitor before us. Boon sat up in his chair, his Xbox 360 controller held at chin level, seemingly concentrating, caught up in the fight, but secretly, I suspected, allowing Aquaman to jab, jab, jab Batman with his trident.
“Don't go easy,” I said.
“Oh, OK,” Boon said, then clicked two buttons together and, in one fluid motion, destroyed me: Batman tasered Aquaman in the neck, then, as Aquaman writhed from the electric jolts, Batman leaped backward out of the way, clearing a path for the Batmobile, which plowed into Aquaman and finished the bout.
“Gratuitous,” I said.
“But no blood,” he said.
Very true — Boon is not known for leaving the blood out of a good fight. He made his reputation on brutally over-the-top, unnervingly funny fighting-game moments far nastier than the TKO he'd just delivered.
He created “Mortal Kombat.”
He is known for going too far: If you've ever ripped the spine out of another player's character — torn off his arms, sliced him in half, cut off his head, then, as the head fell, sliced the head in half — you thank Boon. He answered the unasked question: What would it look like if Tom really wanted to murder Jerry?
He had help, of course. Twenty-one years ago, at Chicago-based Midway Games — the once-booming home of “Pac-Man” and “Joust” — Boon and a small team of designers (some of whom still work for him) developed the first “Mortal Kombat,” then spun it into an infamously gory and wildly successful fighting game franchise. But it's Boon who still steers the direction and endless new iterations of the series, who remains the face of “Mortal Kombat,” the guy who pioneered a wincing new vocabulary for video games. It's been his life's work.
Before Boon, a win in a game was a simple victory. After Boon, it was a “kill screen.” Before Boon, the winner of a fighting game knocked out the other player. After Boon, the winner delivered a “fatality,” rubbing it in, piling on. “While we were making the 2011 ‘Mortal Kombat,' Ed asked if we could do an X-ray mode,” said Steve Beran, who worked on the first “Mortal Kombat” (and is art director of NetherRealm), “where, before punches land, you see inside opponents — their cracked ribs, innards rustling around, the whole muscle cut-away of a body. Which we did, but at the time he asked, I was like, ‘You're off your rocker, Ed.'”
Ed Boon, quite literally, is a game-changer.
On the other hand, by pushing the limits of what you could show in a video game — before “Mortal Kombat” debuted in 1992, realistic video-game evisceration was a rarity — you also can thank Boon for helping ignite an argument about video game violence that has never quite cooled: In 1993, partly spurred by the success of “Mortal Kombat,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (then D-Conn., now Independent) and former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) opened congressional hearings on video games that resulted in the current video game rating system. Indeed, as late as 2011, the most recent edition of “Mortal Kombat” was banned in Australia and Germany.
“I can pretty safely say that we believe in the ratings system that was enacted,” Boon said. “And that the content in our games should not breach or get around the appropriate age that any of our games are designed for. I mean, we definitely don't have a goal of reaching a certain level of violence in every subsequent game — we never set a goal to cross some line. And we always ask: ‘Do we want to do this?'”
Indeed, “Injustice” is a different kind of Ed Boon game, conceived and designed for a T-rated audience (suitable for teenagers and older). “So we knew from the start it would always stay underneath a certain (hard) feeling,” Boon said.
“Injustice” is a slight stretch, not smashing taboos so much as walking a fine line, an attempt at translating the punch of “Mortal Kombat” to a broader milieu, expanding NetherRealm's scope without venturing far afield. “Basically, we can't rip Superman's head off then set it on fire,” Boon explained.
No kidding: NetherRealm is owned by Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics — which would never allow Superman's head ripped off. “Still, you have to give Ed leverage in creating those big finishing moves, which are his signature,” said Geoff Johns, DC's Chief Creative Officer. “We would have these long discussions about balance. Like, well, for instance: You can't have Batman grabbing a shotgun and firing on another character. At the same time, depending on a character's personality, you can go pretty far. Remember, I played ‘Mortal Kombat' on my (Super) Nintendo all the time — I don't want to limit Ed's vision either.”
Warners Bros. didn't limit much: The game was released in April with a marketing campaign fit for a movie, complete with toys, tie-in comics, billboards in Times Square and along the Kennedy Expressway. But then, Boon had more to prove this time: He wanted to show diversification, a bit more grit. He didn't want another “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe,” a 2008 game that, though popular, felt soft to fans, he said. There were whispers that the series had grown stagnant — as he said this, he looked as if he had eaten a lemon.
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?”firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @borrelli