Well, everyone, we only have four days left before Mortal Kombat 9, the grand revival of the Mortal Kombat series, hits store shelves. Although lots of information is known to us, such as the final roster, control scheme, and first round of DLC characters, there's still plenty about the game we don't know, even this close to its release date. Luckily, Netherealm Studios was nice enough to invite us to a round table discussion about the game a few days ago. Everyone in attendance was allowed to ask any three questions to a panel of developers including lead designer John Edwards, lead designer Paulo Garcia, designer Brian Le Baron, lead graphics engineer Jon Greenberg, senior producer Hans Low, senior producer Adam Urbano, producer Hector Sanchez, and user interface art lead Karen Silverstein. It was like getting three wishes from a very bloody genie, except there were NDAs and embargo dates involved. This is what we talked about.
The first question of the night dove straight into the issue of game balance. The panel was asked what systems were implemented to avoid exploits such as infinite combos and loops. While the game employs several classic fighting game infinite prevention systems such as increased gravity per hit, repeated move use limitations, and damage scaling, the major tool that will allow the Mortal Kombat team to prevent game breaking strategies like this is the new "tweaked variable" system.
Every move in the game has its own set of variables that determine how it operates. Each move's hit box size, speed, damage, active frames, and much more are all stored in a gigantic online database and every time you boot up the game, it looks for changes in this database. If changes are found, the game applies them to all modes, effectively altering the properties of characters' moves without the need to create a patch.
A good deal of post-launch support will be focused on this tweaked variable system. If a certain move or strategy becomes problematic or game breaking, the team will find the best way to tweak it while allowing the game to remain fair. The team also said that they will make game changes available in "patch note" style documents, so the community knows what is changed and when. Balance changes will be provided "as needed" as doing so is apparently rather easy, and can be done far quicker than it would be if the game needed a full patch.
The development team also discussed just who the game would be balanced for as well. First and foremost they said that they are looking to make a "fair" gameplay experience. This means that much of their balancing will be geared toward the professional level, making sure that every character is balanced and no one strategy dominates the game. Though this may leave some more casual players behind, they stressed that fairness was their first priority.
The team stressed that they tried to make a game that was both accessible for new gamers and deep for hardcore gamers, but while the tweaked variable system will keep the game balanced for the hardcore audience, a number of systems were also implemented to make the game easy to get into as well.
First of all, the team put real thought into the advantage that owning an arcade stick gives you. Since button inputs are naturally faster on a stick, the team decided to make each input sequence simple and easy to pull off on a d-pad as well. In addition, they made important maneuvers such as the powerful x-ray attack a simple combination of buttons that can easily be accessed via a button macro on a pad. The team did their best to give equal advantage to both stick and pad players.
The game will also feature an in-depth tutorial mode that will not only go over the basic controls of the game, but will also present you with combo trails and advanced fighting theory. Hector Sanchez said the tutorial will start players off by teaching them how to move, attack, block, and so forth, move on to intermediate topics such as the difference between high and low blocks, and finish off with advanced topics such as special juggle combos, the combo breaker system, and meter management. The tutorial will have achievements and trophies attached to it to that they hope will give players the incentive to play through it.
Not only that, but if a change to the game via the tweaked variable system ends up altering the way a character plays, the tutorial and trials for that character will be updated as well to reflect the change. This way, the tutorial remains relevant no matter how many changes are made to the game.
Many of the people participating in the round table discussion had questions pertaining to how the game was actually played, and the MK team was glad to clarify some of our misconceptions.
Meter mechanics were a hot topic, as attacking a blocked opponent gains you meter, but attacking a non-blocking opponent does not. Rather, it gives them meter instead. The team said this design decision was made to encourage aggressive play. If blocking gave you meter, players could simply turtle out a match and then overpower their opponent. Similarly, if successfully blocking an opponent gave you meter, you would receive a double advantage in both reducing their health and increasing your power.
The quickest way to build meter in the game is to hit a blocking opponent, so being unaggressive actually gives the aggressive player the advantage. Getting hit builds meter more slowly, and you have to take somewhere around 75% of your health bar in damage to build enough meter for an x-ray attack. So, the meter in this game is much less a comeback mechanic and more a tool that rewards players who play the game well.
The playability of bosses was also a topic, considering that we didn't see the bosses on the character select screen. While there will be certain modes in the game that will allow you to play as the powerful boss characters, they will not be balanced for competitive play. They are purposefully designed to be difficult and unfair, and more importantly unique as they all have their own move set. So, unfortunately, they won't be selectable for competitive play in any capacity.
The team was finally asked what the "change stance" button does. Their answer? Absolutely nothing! Yes, as many of us theorized, the change stance button is literally nothing but a cosmetic change to your character. It has no gameplay effect whatsoever.
Believe it or not, the MK team said that the game was not built with offline play as the priority. Instead online play was built into the game from day one, and from pre-production the game was built around its online system. Online play was by far the team's biggest focus, and lag free online play was their biggest goal.
According to the team, they have reached that goal as netplay is "really really really lag free." The net code itself was a two year project that aimed to severely reduce online lag. The team "pulled every single bit out of the code that doesn't cross the wires" making the code as efficient as possible. The game will also include several algorithms to make sure that only players with connections that allow for a good gameplay experience will be matched together. Supposedly the engine has been "optimized as much as an engine can be optimized" for online play.
The team was also very cognizant of how fighting games need a community to survive, and they firmly believe that online is where the new fighting game community makes its home. As a result, they have programmed in a variety of modes that simulate the old arcade experience in an online setting.
The recently revealed King of the Hill online mode is a new take on the winner-stays formula. As always a queue fills up behind the winner, and losers go to the back of the queue. However, waiting in the queue is now an experience in itself. Players will be able to control custom avatars who will wait in the queue as the match plays on a theater screen behind them. The avatars can smack talk each other, interact with other avatars, and do things like throw tomatoes at the screen. Believe it or not, there are even special secret avatar moves you can figure out by trying different button combinations in the queue.