The year may only be half way done but already there’s a clear contender for fighting game of the year in the form of Injustice: Gods Among Us. Utilizing their almost twenty-five year knowledge making fighting games, the team at NetherRealm Studios has delivered a superhero based brawler that was not only fun to play, but also had a story that was downright compelling and surprisingly shocking at times.
Injustice may have been in our hands for quite some time already, but at the C2E2 media event in Chicago I had the great pleasure and honor of chatting with NetherRealm Studios Creative Director Ed Boon, NetherRealm Studios Art Director Steve Beran, and DC Comics Story Consultant Jimmy Palmiotti.
A bit brief compared to some of my more in-depth interviews, I was nonetheless able to gain some nice insight from these terrific creative figures about what it was like developing and building Injustice: Gods Among Us into the superb brawler and superhero epic that it is.
Ian Fisher: What has the journey been like from going from the initial concept of Injustice, showing that off at E3 2012, and then releasing the game and having it be in the hands of gamers?
Steve Beran: It’s been a huge journey. That sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. With MK vs. DCU we kind of got mixed reviews and I got to admit that we were a little gun shy, or at least I was, about trying things again with Injustice. But it was a little more incentive to really, really nail it and originally I think we started out as being more of a low-key game since we were just coming off the success of MK9. It’s not that we were going to water it down by any means, but it was just that once E3  struck and we saw the momentum behind it we went full-force on it. Seeing people’s reactions to the transitions and just us acknowledging fan favorite characters was amazing.
Obviously there hasn’t been a successful history with superhero games with the exception of the Arkham series, but I think we wanted to prove that we could make a good game and that it just wasn’t a reskin of Mortal Kombat. We took what we learned from Mortal Kombat and introduced so many more things. I don’t mind being compared to Mortal Kombat, but it is a different experience.
Ian Fisher: Jimmy you’ve already dabbled with writing a DC based video game in the past with MK vs. DCU, but what was it like to go into Injustice and write a full-on DC universe narrative set within the confines of a game?
Jimmy Palmiotti: The fun with the first one was to take the DCU characters and the Mortal Kombat characters that we’ve been fans of for so long, and see if we could collide these two worlds. Because of that it made for an interesting game and we were a lot more involved with the first one. We were brought in to represent DC at one point and then all of a sudden we got heavily involved with the story.
Now for Injustice the guys at NetherRealm, Ed Boon and his crew, had a story in place and we were hired to consult. So we looked at their story and we said what works and doesn’t work, and they came up with a great story involving the parallel worlds and everything. Of course how are you going to get two Batman’s to fight? It’s obvious and that was a good way to figure it out.
So we went in there and we loved what they did and made some suggestions about tone stuff because again we’re so familiar with the comic book side of it. We all worked together to get the game to the point where everyone felt that it was perfect. People have been loving it and there’s a reason since the whole writing crew at NetherRealm are such big fans of DC Comics so it was like a no-brainer for them.
So with this one [Injustice] we were involved with a little less, but our imprint is there but it’s not really out imprint – it’s a lot of guys. But this is one of those games where everyone working on it was in love with the concept so it was a real pleasure to do it. We have a great relationship with NetherRealm so we were really happy to be a part of this second game.
A cutscene from Injustice: Gods Among Us
Ian: Ed, since Jimmy was brought in to consult and your team did the majority of the writing on the game, what was it like to make sure each character had their moment to shine within the game? More importantly, was it hard to make sure the personality of a character was conveyed enough for the players not familiar with certain characters or only know certain interpretations such as the CW version of the Arrow/Oliver Queen could get the basic jest of what their personality is like?
Ed Boon: It was tough, it was exactly like you said. If you have a game like Arkham City its Batman, Joker, The Riddler, and all these characters that you know but suddenly you go to twenty-five characters it’s very tough to flesh all of them out. Thankfully, the format of our story mode is that a number of characters have their own chapter and that’s where we really let their personalities come out. So to your exact point it was very difficult and it was spinning plates, juggling, and all that kind of stuff. That’s why I’m so excited that the story mode turned out the way that it did considering all the restrictions that were in place.
Ian: Steve, for you as an artist what was it like to tackle the legendary world of DC in Injustice? Obviously you and the team were already familiar with it thanks to MK vs. DCU, but did you feel beholden to uphold certain stylistic elements since people are either used to the comics or even the cartoons when it comes to the depiction of certain characters?
Steve Beran: There’s so many things to be influenced by. You have the animated series, the movies, and the comic books. Luckily everyone at work is really familiar with all of them so it’s like, “I saw this and then we can do this.” So a lot of it was inspired by the animated series and one of the most fun things was to design the super moves since that was almost like a mini Fatality scene that we could get more personality into it and make it more custom.
Ian: Even though you were brought onto the project as a consultant to look over what NetherRealm had thought of, was there ever any thought about perhaps incorporating the Injustice Society into the game since that would’ve been fitting given the title of the game?
Jimmy Palmiotti: When we walked in they [NetherRealm] had the cast for each side already picked out and then there was the dream list so they had it all figured out. We really didn’t have any input on that and we thought they picked the right characters. Of course we like to see different ones and I’m sure they have something up their sleeves for later on when they add characters, but they pretty much had it worked out with what they thought were the iconic characters that people would know. Unlike comics, with the video game we have to sell it to a huge audience and not everybody knows who everyone is. So you have to grab the icons and maybe slip in Deathstroke or somebody else and eventually it becomes another icon character.
So I think given the choice they would’ve went and put eight-hundred characters in there, but maybe that’s what Injustice Part 2 may be [laughs]. I think the game is hitting the mark that we kind of expected on some level, but its been insane so I hope sequels, prequels, and all that kind of stuff is in the cards so then we can break out and really put every character in there I’ve ever worked on.
Ian: One of the things that stuck out the most for me about Injustice was the character specific HUD and UI for the characters. Things like the different designs of the meter bars and the inclusion of the special QTE events like Arrow battling Grundy were really fun and showed an attention to detail. So what was it like adding elements such as those in the game and can we expect to see them down the road in other games created by NetherRealm?
Ed Boon: Well I think that’s one of those things that worked out really well for Injustice was the unique button that functioned completely different for every single character and the unique super meters. I would almost describe them that it looks like a bunch of characters from completely different games all together because every single one works so different. That I think is part of this games signature, every character has this unique function that is unlike anything else. So that was one of our goals to do. I would tend to think that if we were to make a different game we would not do that [Injustice Super Meter mechanic] because that is part of this games identity and kind of like how Fatalities and X-Rays are part of Mortal Kombat.
A gameplay montage of Injustice: Gods Among Us
Ian: Jimmy, given how you’ve worked on both comic books and video games, how do you think we’ll see both of those industry merge in the coming years? Will we see more comic publishers take note of their properties to expand them in the video game space or could we see video games perhaps take a note from comic by doing grander stories told in an episodic form?
Jimmy Palmiotti: It’s always been that comics have a certain audience and that’s a small slice of pie and then video games have a giant audience. But then you start to realize the video game people are comic book fans and that’s where games like this actually go crazy. When there’s success like with what we had with MK vs. DCU and now with Injustice and of course the Batman stuff that’s coming out, when you have that amount of success the instinct right away is to think what else can we do?
For me when Red Dead Redemption came out I wrote right away, “Can we do a Jonah Hex one?” and then we’ll do this and that. There was a point right away where the gut reaction would be no because it’s too expensive and nobody would buy it. But now I think it becomes the, “Hmmm, maybe we can work that character in” sort of thing. So I think there’s a lot of that going on with Warner Bros. where we look at the stuff and say, “How can we make this work and hit a mass audience?” and what worked in the comics will a lot of the time work in the games, especially for Injustice since it’s a fighting game. So at the core there’s a story that sets up the fights, but you know as well I as I do that there are many different types of games.
I think that’s where the crew right now is at, “What else can we do with these characters?” I think it’s a great time for that because games have mostly been relying on things like how we’re going to see Halo 9 – it’s just like movies right now in how there’s a part 7, part 8, and part 9. But we have a chance with these characters that have worlds created already, these intellectual properties that have existing worlds that can actually be processed to games. I think it’s a great time because I would love to see a Wonder Woman game, for me I would love to see a crazy Power Girl game, and a Jonah Hex game.
There’s so many things that we can do and DC has so many interesting characters that I think it just comes down to the creative people looking at it and saying, “Alright, how can we world build around this?”, but I think it’s going to happen and things like Injustice are opening the door for that.
Ian: Ed, obviously NetherRealm will always be known for the Mortal Kombat series since it’s a classic in the games industry. But moving forward, whenever we do see a new MK game will it have any ties to things like Mortal Kombat: Legacy or the new MK movie in regards to the visual style or plot? Or will the MK games always be separate from that of any live-action projects that are running?
Ed Boon: As far as another Mortal Kombat game we obviously don’t have anything to announce, but I would be surprised if we didn’t do another one again. If we did one I suspect it would be our own thing because it’s always tough to stay in-line with the movie because everyone has different schedules and milestones that they have to do. Inevitably there’s always going to be something conflicting with it when you attempt to do something like that. So it would be great if we had some kind of cross-promotion with them, but it’ll probably be its own universe.
It's rare to see a developer break out and actually do something new after being with a particular franchise for so long, but the team at NetherRealm was able to wow us once again by delivering the epic journey that is Injutice: Gods Among Us.
Combining elements fans of MK may be familiar with and injecting those with a whole new host of mechanics and features, Injustice showed that not only is there a lot of room left to expand the fighting genre, but superhero games as well.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Ed, Steve, and Jimmy for chatting with me and shedding some light on Injustice and their experiences on the project.