Ed Boon On His AIAS Hall Of Fame Induction And Career In Video Games And Pinball
Ed Boon is best known for his work on the Mortal Kombat series, which he's had a hand in guiding since 1992, first at Midway Games and now with his team at NetherRealm Studios. He's one of the most celebrated creators in gaming, and today he'll be honored with an induction into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' Hall of Fame.
Boon joins the likes of other video game legends like Shigeru Miyamoto, Mark Cerny, Bonnie Ross, Gabe Newell, and last year's recipient, Connie Booth. Fellow Hall of Famer Todd Howard will present the award, which will be a part of this year's D.I.C.E. Awards show, kicking off at 7 p.m. CT on IGN and various streaming networks.
I had the chance to talk to the fighting game legend for an hour a couple of weeks ago, a few days after he first learned he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was still processing his thoughts, taking it all in, and reflecting on his lengthy career.
Walk me through the day you found out about the Hall of Fame induction. I’m guessing that was an unusual moment.
I received an email from Meggan [Scavio] from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. I had to read it, like, three times for it to register. It settled for days. With each day that passes, I’m appreciating it even more than the day before. It’s really a great honor.
You are a sports fan, and you began your video game career by creating High Impact Football. In sports, making the Hall of Fame means your career is over. That isn’t the case with this award, but I’m guessing it’s still a bit of a tough pill to swallow since it represents such a vast amount of time doing the same thing.
I’m glad it wasn’t a lifetime achievement award. [laughs] Still, it’s been 30 years. When I think of that, all these statistics start popping into my head. I was in my 20s when I did the first Mortal Kombat. I have more years in my life with Mortal Kombat than without. In terms of my decades – my 20s, 30s, and 40s – it’s consumed most of them. I’ve been fortunate enough to go through pinball games, arcade games, the home video game business, and now with online, it’s kind of becoming its own genre of games.
I’ve been having a lot of nostalgic and retrospective thoughts about all the groups of people I’ve worked with. I have distinct chapters in my life of the groups of people that I worked with. Obviously, a big one was the Midway days. Things were just exploding back then with Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, NARC, and all these games. I was in the middle of all of those, from arcades to consoles, and saw how big the video game industry has gotten. For me, it’s just been a huge journey down memory lane and a nostalgic trip.
You brought up the Midway days. Is there one moment from those days that always flashes to mind when you explore the past?
I don’t think there is one. There are certainly big chapters. Those few years at Midway where everything was on fire, and the last 12 years with Warner Bros. have been a great high. You don’t know you are in it while you are in it. A few years have to pass and then you can kinda look back and go, “That was really great.” When we released that first Mortal Kombat game in 2011 with Warner Bros., it was a stressful time for me. But looking back, it was a great time, too – especially going into the Injustice games and alternating between those with Mortal Kombat.
There was also a period of time with pinball and the early video games where I was working with Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar. Working with them and looking back now – how they instilled their work ethic and way to approach things – that really stuck with me. Again, I’m further acknowledging these things as I look back.
Take me all the way back to the start, when you decided you were going to work in games. What other options were on the table at the time for careers? Which directions were you leaning in if this Midway job didn’t work?
I never chose the career of video games. I made one resume in my entire life when I was 21 years old. There was a little Asterix at the bottom that said “interest in video games.” It was more of a personal thing. A head hunter saw it and sent it to Williams Electronics. They called me for an interview. I went into it thinking it was for a video game, but it was for pinball. I distinctly remember saying, “People program pinball machines?” I think part of me was still thinking they were those electromechanical things, even though I had seen the more recent games. They said, “Oh, yeah,” and showed me the new games. I got excited about the job. I also knew they were starting the early stages of a new video game system. That was when they started working on games like Narc.
I became friends with the video game people downstairs and I worked three years doing pinball. I loved it and had a great time, but I kept seeing Eugene and the team working on Narc and I gravitated that way over time. I eventually joined that department and started working on High Impact Football.
I heard you lent your voice to a pinball machine.
I’m a voice in about 20 pinball machines [laughs].
Give me the big one that people would recognize.
That was probably FunHouse. It had a talking puppet. There was a movie called Magic that had an evil puppet in it. That puppet made its owner do bad things. FunHouse is kind of loosely based on that. There’s this puppet who is taunting the player. I’m the voice of that puppet.
Talk to me about the transition from pinball to video games.
I guess I cut my teeth on game programming in the pinball days. I think I had a better understanding of it – a prerequisite into the video game department. I loved pinball, but I always knew I eventually wanted to do video games. Like I said, I made friends with Eugene and some of the guys who were making the games downstairs. I was always down there looking to see what they were doing, asking questions, and seeing them videotape real people who were digitized. It was really cool. That whole process was exciting. Naturally, over time, when I was programming my last pinball game, I had a video arcade in my office that I would program on in my off hours because I was that excited to join them.
I remember they gave me this packet of dollar bill images that would drop in Narc and I was making explosions of them on screen. Just making things move on-screen is so addictive. There’s nothing you can think of that you can’t do. It’s like a painter’s canvas. What you can try is unlimited.
You said you are feeling nostalgic. Any thoughts of making a new pinball game?
I have friends who are still programming pinball machines. I stopped programming at least 15 to 20 years ago. There’s no way I would be able to keep up with them. To give you an idea of the timing, I did all my games in Assembly. The one I’m hoping will happen someday – and it’s come close a few times – is a Mortal Kombat pinball machine. I think that would be really cool. I would love to have one of those in my basement.
You know, Ed Fries [former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft] went and made a Halo game on Atari 2600. He did it the old-school way. You could do the same thing for a Mortal Kombat pinball machine! I was talking to Matt Booty [head of Microsoft Studios] the other day and he was telling me about this group that is still making Atari 2600 games. He was telling me all about them and sent me links and everything. As great as it is to make video games now, when it was a two- to three-person team, the turnaround of idea to on-screen could be as short as two hours. Now it’s months. The hands-on experience and working with a close, small team, there was nothing like those really special days.
You’ve talked about the birth of Mortal Kombat ad nauseam. Looking back on it now, does anything different come to you that had been hidden away, or is it still the same story?
My main recollection with a lot of those games is, for some reason, a lot of laughing. You get a tight-knit group of developers and it’s so much more than making a game. You are such good friends and spending so much time together. We worked crazy hours and all of that. I just have positive memories and a lot of laughing.
We recently saw a video of you coming up with Scorpion’s famous “Get over here!” line. That was a suggestion on the spot, and it’s become one of the most iconic things in all of gaming. Walk me through the approach to creating like that with such a small group of developers.
I had a great collaborative relationship with [Mortal Kombat co-creator] John Tobias on the first Mortal Kombat game. That was my first game in a leadership position and the same for John. At the end of the day, it was what we wanted to do. We were able to implement almost every idea between the two of us. He would make the graphics and I would put them in the game and give it the feel. We developed a spontaneous workflow.
Something comes to mind, you say it out loud, walk through it, and put it into the game. In that motion capture shoot, we have our shot list, but it was one of those things where you are waiting around and an idea comes into your head. I just started talking out loud. I was like, “Yeah, we can do this,” and, “Yeah, we can do that,” and it turned into maybe the most iconic move in all of the Mortal Kombat games. It’s that spear and hearing that “Get over here!” And it’s weird hearing my voice say that line. It’s that level of spontaneity and it was a great creative environment.
You were Nolan North before Nolan North was even in games. Your voice was everywhere!
There are some pinball games and other video games like some of Mark Turmell and Tobias’ other games where I did audio work. There was no such thing as hiring a professional voice talent back then. Since I had done it for a few things, some of the pinball teams would say, “Hey, Ed, can you come to the studio real quick to do this announcer or character.” I always said, “Sure, I got a couple of hours to kill.” My voice is in a whole bunch of games. It’s weird.
You like the small team approach, but are now working with hundreds of people. How has the creative medium changed for you?
I’m having conversations with experts in their fields and trying to put together a huge picture. It’s as fun [as the old days] when you are finished with the game. I’ll go into somebody’s office who is working on something really cool and I’ll have that moment where I go, “That’s right, it was really cool when I could spend my whole day making this one move feel perfect.” There’s something fun to that. I get a little nostalgic. When the game is done, and everyone is having a great time with it, that’s when I get a moment to appreciate all the time that we put into it. It’s a moment of satisfaction that you get from it, especially when the game is received well. There are so many fires and spinning plates on these big projects that it’s overwhelming at times, and you need to trust the experts that they are going to do their thing.
What is your typical day now as the head of NeatherRealm? Are you still knee-deep in the creative process?
I’m much more involved in the early part of development, when we are figuring out what we are going to do. For each game, I go into it thinking: “What’s going to be new about it that will get people excited?” Defining it, helping with direction. At some point, we know what the game is. We know it will have 20 environments and 30 characters. All of the big components are known. And then it’s kind of reduction time. At that point, I’m more checking in on the various aspects of the game and making suggestions and stuff. I may also be working on ideas for the next game. I’m trying to stay ahead of it, but the bulk of the work is done by the crazy talented designers, programmers, artists, and the list goes on and on.
Looking back at your career, is there one game that you would say is your favorite that you worked on?
We made an arcade game called The Grid. It was, like, a six-player, six-cabinet game where everyone is competing in an arena, similar to Doom and Quake. In some ways, it was the most fun I’ve had working on a game. After a number of Mortal Kombat games, it was such a dramatic change in terms of the type of the game it is. It allowed me to explore new parts of gaming.
Of the Mortal Kombat games, it was probably Mortal Kombat 2, just because we knew we had something. There was a lot of confidence, like, “Yes, this will be better than the last one.” After that, the movie came out, there were TV shows and all of that, and there was this machine of Mortal Kombat stuff going on. A lot of our effort was on that treadmill getting that next game out.
Injustice was another great one as well. I read DC Comics my entire life, and to carve out our own multiverse slice with a bad Superman and Batman, and then see it become a comic book, mobile game, and animated movie was really cool. That was quite a rush.
How much involvement do you have in the multimedia content like the comic book series?
To varying degrees. That first Mortal Kombat animated series that came out a year or two ago, [the animation studio] was amazing. They sent us the script, they took feedback, and they showed us animations. I had a comment where I thought Goro’s head was too small, and they went back and made it a little bigger. I thought that project turned out fantastic. But there’s a range to our involvement. I certainly can’t have my fingerprints in every single thing that is released with the name "Mortal Kombat" or "Injustice" on it.
Do you have a cameo in the Mortal Kombat movie that just came out?
No, but I hope someone who reads your article will say, “That’s a great idea!”
I’ll tell you this, chief creative officer Donald Mustard over at Epic Games is in a bunch of movies. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but he’s in an Avengers movie, The Matrix Resurrections, and even Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as a stormtrooper. There’s even a scene of Fortnite being played in an Avengers film. You need to talk to him to figure out that path into the films.
Wow! I gotta figure out how to do that!
I want to go back to Mortal Kombat again. You felt bullish coming off Mortal Kombat, and I’d love to hear where you were and what you did when you released Mortal Kombat 2. People must have been going bonkers for it.
I have a funny story about that. We were testing Mortal Kombat 2 at an arcade in Chicago that was about 20 minutes from work. We had the cabinet in there, and it had Mortal Kombat 2 on the marquee, but there was no CPU in it. You could turn it on and the lights would flash on, but nothing else would happen. When we got there to put in the CPU, it was a Friday night and everyone had kind of figured it out. There was instantly a massive crowd around it.
I was watching somebody play the single-player game. Kung Lao has a move where he teleports and comes up on the other side. Every time the CPU did it, the game would crash. Every time. This is Friday night and it’s 7 p.m. Everyone wants to play it. I go, “Oh my god, a person can teleport and it won’t crash, but if the AI does it, it will every time.” I’m sweating bullets and thinking, “I have to go back to work, find the bug, fix it, burn a new set of ROMs, drive back to the arcade, and put it in.” It’ll be midnight by the time I get back. With the huge crowd there I thought I would wait a bit until it settles down since everyone would be playing against each other and the game wouldn’t crash. It was like that until 2 a.m. when they closed the arcade. It didn’t have one game played with one person against the computer. It was always two players. I just kept waiting and waiting, but I didn’t have to fix it. I went back after leaving the arcade and fixed it.
So, it was that big. It was a local arcade in Chicago and there was a pile of people on the machine. We knew the game looked better, played better, and had more characters and way more secrets – it checked off every box. There was an excitement to it, and yet I was just sweating bullets over that bug.
I know you still love making video games and probably will for many years to come. What does your future hold? What do you want to be doing?
[long pause] When you are making something as big as these games, every day has ten challenges. “You can’t do this, the tech team is concerned about this, the designers want to do this, audio is adding this new feature” – it’s this constant cloud of problem-solving that has to be done. When you are in the middle of it, it can be stressful and taxing on you, but when you are done, and the product is received well, you tend to forget those days – the hard stuff. That energizes you for the next game. When you are in the middle of it, it can be pretty tough. On a grand scale, this hall of fame thing has made me look back on things with rose-colored glasses. Through the years, there was a lot of pressure and stress and a lot of energy that was put into these games. Again, receiving an award like this makes it worth it, for sure.
What is next for NetherRealm?
I can say that for 10 years, we were releasing Mortal Kombat and Injustice, Mortal Kombat and Injustice. When we broke that pattern, there was a lot of speculation of what we would be doing next. I can tell you there was a reason for it, and when we announce our next game, it’ll make a lot more sense. At this point, I’ll get in a lot of trouble if I say anything more.