Fighting games grew to prominence in the arcades of the 1990s, but the genre has become increasingly niche -- to some it may represent a bygone era of quarter-pumping mall rats who spent hours perfecting their hadoukens, or in Mortal Kombat's case, game-ending fatalities.
They were games made by developers who wanted to challenge players with complexity -- mastering the mechanics took dedication, and few were bold enough to learn the ins and outs of a system.
"While I certainly think there is an audience for that, there's not a very huge audience for the really complex [fighting] games. Unfortunately, the sales numbers kind of demonstrate that," said Ed Boon, executive producer and co-creator of the Mortal Kombat series at the recently-renamed Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios. He and John Tobias created the franchise and released the original Mortal Kombat to arcades in 1992.
The most recent Mortal Kombat entry was the crossover fighting game Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, a Teen-rated game published by the studio's former parent Midway in 2008, just months before the publisher's 2009 bankruptcy.
That installment shipped around 1.8 million units in its first two-and-a-half months. The next entry in the series returns to its gory Mature-rated roots in 2011 with Mortal Kombat, published by new franchise owners Warner Bros.
"When we make Mortal Kombat games, we've always tried to keep them accessible," said Boon. "We really don't want to put something in the game that 80 percent of the public will never experience or never be able to execute. I think that's a recurring thing that we're really trying to keep in mind, is if the average person will be able to enjoy, experience or execute this move."
And while fighting game developers in general may have put more of a focus on mass market accessibility in recent years, there's still a perception among consumers, Boon speculated, that fighting games are too hardcore for the average player.
"Unfortunately, I think that some people are associating [with the fighting genre] this kind of complexity that they don't want to learn. That makes some developers shy away from [the genre] because it's really such a niche market," he said.
While there was a fighting game boom during the arcade's heyday, there are relatively few major fighting titles, and many of them are niche and hardcore oriented. With the biggest one-on-one fighting games coming out of Japan from companies like Namco Bandai, Capcom, Sega and Yuke's, NetherRealm, based in Chicago, IL, is sort of an anomaly that draws cues from Japanese counterparts.
Staying relevant means following the trends, among other factors. "We pretty actively play all of the fighting games that come out," Boon said. "In terms of what we feel would've done well and what maybe could be done better, we really try to look at them. As far as Street Fighter is concerned, I'm a huge fan of Street Fighter, I have been since it came out. So Street Fighter IV and Super Street Fighter IV, I have a lot of respect and admiration for. But again, they have a different kind of pace and tone from us."
He added that among 3D fighters, he's "always leaned a little towards Tekken" than Virtua Fighter or Dead of Alive, but he said he felt the latter two games also have strong elements. The new Mortal Kombat will have a full 3D graphics engine but will implement 2D gameplay.
Despite Boon's belief that the fighting game genre has been hindered commercially by the perception of inaccessibility, he's aiming the new Mortal Kombat towards the hardcore fighting game player. It's an interesting paradox, but he realizes there's still a thin line to walk between hardcore and casual.
"Oddly enough, this [new Mortal Kombat] is the first one in a while that we've really made a conscious effort that we are going to focus hard on the hardcore player," he said. "At the same time, we want to stay accessible. But the simple numbers of it is that there are just far, far more of the casual player than the hardcore player."
"The hardcore player is the most vocal. If you just went online and just kind of look at forums and all that stuff, you'd think that everyone was a hardcore player," he continued. "But the reality is that those are the ones who care to the point of getting online [to express their opinions], and they're passionate and they're very opinionated. They're very important certainly from the standpoint of they're the ones that communicate the most, but the reality is that there are more casual players out there."
"This game, we are really going after that hardcore player," he added. "We have some features in the game that are really layered into the game. I think the casual people will still have a good time, but they're not going to dig as deep in terms of fighting mechanic, features and strategy."
Gamasutra will have more from Boon in the coming days as part of a full in-depth interview.