When I played an early build of Mortal Kombat X last month, I was most intrigued by NetherRealm Studios’ decision to run with a variable character-select system. This enables a player to not only select a character but also choose between one of three “styles” of that character as well. Similar to the “ism” select in Street Fighter Alpha 3 or the “Groove” system in Capcom vs. SNK 2.
I latched onto this element because it not only triples the amount of work it will take to balance the roster but also could considerably tweak each character’s gameplay identity.
Wanting to hear a bit more behind this decision as well as NetherRealm’s philosophy on balancing in Mortal Kombat, I was able to throw a couple of questions at lead designer John Edwards.
GamesBeat: Looking back at Mortal Kombat 2011’s character roster, were there any characters that surprised you by becoming unintentionally top — or low — tier among the competitive community?
John Edwards: The nature of fighting games and creating a cast that all have unique tool sets means that generally every tier list is surprising to some degree. We obviously never set out to create a fighter that is purposefully top tier or bottom tier. We just try to hit a nice balance between fun, accessible, and competitive.
Anyone that follows fighting games to any degree knows that tier lists change constantly as new techniques and strategies are found, and I think that is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the competitive scene. I love when a character that is initially perceived as not useful suddenly becomes a popular pick due to a new strategy being discovered.
GamesBeat: While checking out the latest Mortal Kombat X demo, I was most surprised by the variation character select. What prompted that idea?
Edwards: A couple of key concepts factored into the creation of the Variation System. For a while, we have been interested in finding a way to allow players more freedom in their choice of characters so that they can choose based upon their style, story, or personality instead of just their move set.
In Mortal Kombat X, for example, if you enjoy a particular character’s concept, then you can probably find a variation that fits your preferred play style as well, be it offensive, defensive, grappler, [and so on].
GamesBeat: Do you find designing for a variable character select difficult? From my perspective, you’re multiplying the roster, thus multiplying the design work.
Edwards: Well, it is already difficult to balance a game, so more permeations of matchups definitely add to that. The variety that the system brings to the player is something we feel is worth the added effort as it opens up such an intriguing meta game competitively while adding a ton of variety for the average player.
GamesBeat: From both Mortal Kombat 2011 and Mortal Kombat X, what characters have been the most difficult to balance?
Edwards: Generally, fighters that have completely unique mechanics are tougher to balance as there is no easy reference to draw upon. Characters with stuns usually require a little extra effort as well. Also, characters that have a heal mechanic are generally difficult to find a balance between being not powerful enough or being overpowered.
GamesBeat: NetherRealm Studios’ fighting games are enjoying major support among the competitive scene. As just one example, between Mortal Kombat 2011 and Injustice, Evo [Evolution Championship Series] has officially run one of your games for the last four years straight — not including Mortal Kombat X in 2015 and Mortal Kombat 2011 as a side tournament in 2014.
Is NetherRealm Studios doing anything to help support this growth?
Edwards: As much of the design team is made up of fighting game players and fans, we are always trying to support the competitive scene in any way we can. Most of our focus is in making a game that is competitive while still being fun to play and fun to watch. That in and of itself is the most important aspect of keeping the competitive audience involved and growing.
Recently, we have also started to include systems and quality-of-life features specifically designed to help cater to the tournament scene, and we continue to do so in Mortal Kombat X. We also have some exciting announcements specifically related to Mortal Kombat X and the competitive community coming very soon, so stay tuned.