After more than 15 years of Mortal Kombat, how does the Midway team behind the fighting franchise keep it fresh? For the newest entry in the series, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, it adds superheroes to the mix.
But dealing with licensed characters from outside the series' own stable of stars brings its own challenges along with the crossover allure.
"We're trying to go for a Teen rating," senior designer Paulo Garcia tells Gamasutra, a goal mainly borne out of the demands of working with an all-ages publisher like comics group DC. "It was a marketing decision on top of negotiating with DC. DC really wants it to get a Teen rating, just to get as much of their audience as possible."
It's the first Mortal Kombat game in the history of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (which dates back to 1994 and whose founding was spurred by congressional hearings surrounding games such as the original Mortal Kombat) to receive less than a Mature content rating -- "and the first Teen rated game this team's done," Garcia points out.
Still, the designer thinks the series' ultra-violent reputation may not be as stark as it once was relative to the industry. "I think [with what's] going down nowadays -- besides decapitations and stuff -- Mortal Kombat's sort of tamed down compared to what other games are doing that have M ratings nowadays," he says. "We're still going to have fatalities in there, but they will be toned down fatalities. Scorpion will have his 'toasty' fatality, where he burns the guy, but he won't have, say, 'cut the guy open' fatalities." And while DC Universe villains will have their own fatalities, DC Universe heroes will only be shows brutalizing -- but never killing -- their opponents.
Unusually for video games, the nucleus of the Mortal Kombat has stayed surprisingly constant for much of its decade-and-a-half history -- and co-creator Ed Boon still helms development. That familiarity gives the team some organizational flexibility it might not otherwise have.
"The Mortal Kombat team has always been the small, core team," Garcia explains. "We've had people come on and people leave, but it's been the same eight people who have worked on Mortal Kombat for the last 14 years. I think I've worked in Mortal Kombat for 10 years. ...We have three core designers and another person helping us, and then Ed Boon is our creative lead -- he does all the fighting styles. ...So we get a lot of leeway; we didn't have to do a lot of prototyping. It was more, 'Here's what we're doing. Here's what we need to do it,' and we just threw everything at it to make it work.
Garcia acknowledges that the decline of arcades and the difficulties in delivering lag-free online experiences put fighting games in a bit of a no man's land for a few years, but believes that recent successes in online efforts signal good times for the genre ahead.
"We're hoping to make a new comeback on these next generation systems," he says. "We're hoping the online play will be even better than it's been in the past Because arcades are pretty much gone nowadays, you don't have, really, a way to play against people, but we want that back. We think that the technology is there now, with Xbox  and PlayStation , where people can play against each other and get that same sort of competitive feeling."