Book Breakdown: Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1Image Not Found.
Welcome to another book breakdown, a postmortem blog in which I discuss the process of writing one of my books and give an overview of its content. This book breakdown focuses on Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1, the first installment in a trilogy that explores the making of the Mortal Kombat franchise and its influence on pop culture and fans.
Where to Find Long Live MK: Round 1
First things first. Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 (sometimes abbreviated LLMK1) was released on October 8, 2022, in paperback, hardcover, and digital formats, with an audiobook set to release in December. You can buy it on Amazon or buy signed copies directly from the publisher, Digital Monument Press, LLC; and it’s making its way into stores even as we speak. Ultimate Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 will be released in 2023.
I’ve loved Mortal Kombat since I was 10. Over almost 19 years I’ve been writing articles and books about how video games are made and the people who make them, I’ve been asked repeatedly—by fans, by peers, by friends, and by family members—when I would write a book about Mortal Kombat. As if it was a given! Which, in fairness, it was.
I can’t speak for other writers, but part of my process is listening to internal timers. I genuinely hear timers ticking away, like egg timers you keep in your kitchen. The ticking gets louder as the time to write a project draws nearer. Those timers are my mind’s way of telling me, “It’s time. You’re ready.”
Believe it or not, my internal timer to write a book on MK didn’t start ticking until somewhat recently in my career. My first book about video games was 2013’s Stay Awhile and Listen: Book I – How Two Blizzards Unleashed Diablo and Forged a Video-Game Empire. (I could write a book breakdown about that subtitle. What a mouthful!) I wrote “SAAL 1” because I was a diehard Diablo fan (and a fan of Blizzard games in general, though to a slightly lesser extent) and I couldn’t believe no one had written a book about Blizzard North’s opuses, Diablo 1 and 2. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Books about the making of video games were relatively scarce in the early 2010s. There were a handful, but most, such as Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games and Tristan Donovan’s Replay: The History of Video Games, focused on the industry as a whole. David Kushner’s Masters of Doom and David Sheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (it occurs to me that I’m in a good company of Davids!) were exceptions; they explored particular companies, their games, and their influence.
I wrote SAAL 1 because no one else had written a book about Blizzard and/or Diablo. That tends to be how I approach writing: I don’t look for opportunities, I make them. Many other creators can say the same.
Fast forward to early 2019. Retro games and retro-style games were in full swing. If you grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was no shortage of nostalgia-driven media about the books, games, movies, TV shows, and music you grew up consuming. However, there was no authoritative book on Mortal Kombat—no Masters of Doom or Stay Awhile and Listen.
My MK timer was ticking, but it was a different sort of timer. I wanted to write about MK, but not the franchise itself. I wanted to write about the home versions. That led to Arcade Perfect, my book about how coin-op games such as MK1 and MK2, Pong, Ms. Pac-Man, and other classics made the jump from coin-op to living rooms. As a kid, I loved poring over magazines like Nintendo Power, GamePro, and Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) and wondering over the differences between ports and their arcade source material. Why, for instance, were the character sprites in MK games smaller than in the arcade versions? Why did the Genesis version of MK1 have a grainier, grittier look than the SNES version? I understood intuitively that most differences in ports boiled down to, “the hardware in home consoles was less powerful than in arcade cabinets,” but I wanted a deeper understanding.
It bears repeating that a desire to explore how MK1 and MK2, specifically, were ported to home systems was the impetus for Arcade Perfect. Like most kids, I didn’t have more than one current gaming system at a time, so I was desperate to feel confident that my version of MK1 and MK2 (SNES) was the “best” version. But I was still curious in a general way about the differences and why they existed. I searched out MK co-creator John Tobias and contacted him to explain that I was writing a book about home conversions. He was generous with his time and answered my questions about how MK1 was made and what he and fellow creator Ed Boon thought of Acclaim’s home versions. From there, I tracked down Paul Carruthers, the sole programmer responsible for bringing MK1 to Sega Genesis/Mega Drive; programmers and project managers from Sculptured Software who delivered MK1 and MK2 to SNES; and others involved in those projects.
Before long, I had the kernel of Arcade Perfect. I broadened my search and talked to other programmers, artists, and producers of home versions of games. To my delight, John Tobias even wrote an endorsement for Arcade Perfect: “A crucial yet overlooked part of our industry's past is the art of the arcade port to console. David's book sheds light on the stories of some of the biggest games that made that transition and is a must-read for anyone looking to understand the process.”
After Arcade Perfect’s release, the timer for a full-fledged MK book kept ticking. I worked on other projects first, but learning about MK’s home ports hadn’t scratched my itch. Quite the opposite, the itch grew stronger.
In early 2021, I reached out to an editor at CRC Press, one of the imprints of academic publisher Taylor & Francis. We’d been involved in bundles of books I’d curated for StoryBundle.com, and I asked him if he’d consider a book proposal from me. He responded almost instantly and with great enthusiasm. Flattered, I put together three proposals. Two were decoys. I put thought into them, but I invested extra time and energy into one, hoping it would stand out from the other two so the editor would be more likely to choose it. The working title of that book was Flawless Victory: The Bloody Story of Mortal Kombat.
The tricky thing about writing book proposals for nonfiction books is publishers usually want a full table of contents and/or sample chapters. This gives them an idea of the author’s writing style, whether the subject matter has the potential to sell, and an overview of the book’s content. You may infer from Flawless Victory’s subtitle that I intended to write a single book on MK’s history, and you’d be right. I didn’t have any sample chapters, so I had to put together a table of contents that accounted for the major entries, trends, and movements throughout MK’s history. Here's the table of contents I presented in that proposal:
The Table of Contents
This material should be taken as a rough estimate of how Flawless Victory's TOC will take shape. All chapter names, contents, and order are subject to change. Parenthetical text describes a chapter's content. Unless noted otherwise, all chapters will balance game creation, impact on pop culture, and behind-the-scenes stories of the team's dynamic.
- Noob and Saibot (how MK co-creators Ed Boon and John Tobias met)
- Kompetition (Midway challenges Boon, Tobias, and a small team to come up with a challenger to Street Fighter II)
- Dizzy (development of Mortal Kombat, with an emphasis on the creation of the franchise's notorious Fatality finishing moves)
- Lights, Camera… (filming and converting the motion capture of martial artists into in-game characters)
- Finish Him (MK hits arcades and becomes an overnight success, and attracts the ire of politicians and parents, leading to the creation of the ESRB ratings system)
- A Galaxy Far, Far Away (Boon and Tobias want to make a Star Wars game, but Midway wants a sequel to MK)
- Friendships (the development of MK2 with a focus on its Friendship and Babality finishers designed to appease politicians and parents)
- Box Office (MK becomes a cultural phenomenon, leading to the development of a feature film, comic books, cartoons, toys, and more)
- Dial-Up (development of MK3, highlighting new features such as the "dial-a-combo" system, animalities, and the series' shift away from dark, realistic fatalities to more cartoonish deaths)
- Trilogy (development of the MK3 miniseries, from the release of MK3 to Ultimate MK3 in arcades and Mortal Kombat Trilogy on Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation)
- Choose Your Destiny (Co-creators Boon and Tobias split up to focus on more MK projects, leaving Boon to direct MK4 and Tobias to try his hand at telling side stories such as Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat Special Forces)
- Growing Pains (Midway's arcade division closes and Mortal Kombat moves to home consoles; John Tobias leaves Midway)
- Deadly Alliance (MK5 brings major changes to MK's lore; the development, release of, and reception to MK5)
- Playing Games (MK6 and 7 introduce deeper story modes and mini games such as kart racers)
- Capes and Spandex (Midway's partnership with DC leads to a Mortal Kombat crossover with Superman, Batman, and other DC characters, which waters down the game's trademark gore and Easter eggs)
- Fatality (Midway goes bankrupt)
- Mercy (Warner Bros. purchases the rights to Mortal Kombat; the Midway Chicago team becomes NetherRealm Studios and begins work on a new MK)
- Déjà vu (development of MK9, a retelling of MK1, 2, and 3)
- X Factors (MKX, MK10, caters to the fighting game community)
- Ultimate (development of MK11)
- Finish Him? (Speculation on the future of MK)
There are a few takeaways from this table of contents. The first is that I tried to be straightforward in admitting that it was fluid. I wasn’t sure of things like chapter titles and exact contents; it was meant to be taken as an estimation of what the book would cover. Another takeaway is that I didn’t know MK’s history as well as I do now. Consider the “Kompetition” chapter near the top: Ed Boon and John Tobias never made Mortal Kombat specifically to challenge Street Fighter II. But that was the information I was working with at the time, so I based a chapter on that premise. The publisher and I both expected things to change based on what I learned in my research.
The final takeaway is that Flawless Victory was ambitious. I don’t recall whether I believed I could confine nearly 30 years of history into a single book. It hadn’t worked in Stay Awhile and Listen. If memory serves, I probably believed the publisher would be leery of signing an author to a series. A one-book contract was more palatable, so I shaped the proposal under the belief, however foolish, that I could definitely, absolutely cover so much ground in a single volume. It’d end up being a big volume, but I could do it! Yes!
Writing Process: First Draft (October 2021)
CRC green-lit the proposal in January of February of 2021. I was ecstatic and kicked off my research: reading up on the games to supplement or supplant what I knew going into the book; making a list of people to interview; and conducting interviews. Transcribing interviews quickly became one of the most difficult parts of the process. Every nonfiction book I write is based on a combination of primary sources (original artwork, photos, interviews) and secondary sources (books, articles, and interviews published elsewhere such as YouTube, podcasts, magazines, and online) and dozens of interviews of the type mentioned under “primary sources.” My final interview roster grew to around 60. To help me keep up with transcribing, I hired transcriptionists through Fiverr, a freelancing service where I’d met Adrian Doan Kim Carames, a fantastic artist who’s painted my cover artwork since 2020.
As expected, I realized rather quickly that Flawless Victory would need more than one book to do justice to MK’s history. I arranged a meeting with my editor and explained that I wanted to write a three-book series. I also wanted to change the title of the series. Each book would be called Long Live Mortal Kombat, a title that emerged from my interview with “Kano Kriminal,” an international MK fan and competitive player; and would have a subtitle that alluded to each book’s coverage. Rather than use Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3, I would use Round 1, Round 2, and Final Round—fighting game vernacular, with “Final Round” being appropriate because most fighting games are best-of-three contests, and it sounded more dramatic than “Round 3.”
I revised my proposal, expanding it into three proposals for each of the three books. Here’s the revised table of contents for Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1: The Fatalities and Fandom of the Arcade Era.
This material should be taken as a rough estimate of how Long Live Mortal Kombat's TOC [author’s note: table of contents] will take shape. All chapter names, contents, and order are subject to change. Parenthetical text describes a chapter's content. Unless noted otherwise, all chapters will balance game creation, impact on pop culture, and behind-the-scenes stories of the team's dynamic.
- The early history of developer Midway and how it paved the way for Mortal Kombat
- How the original MK's four-man development team met
- The making of MK1
- The creation of the franchise's notorious Fatality finishing moves)
- Filming and converting the motion capture of martial artists into in-game characters
- How MK's violence spurred senate hearings around violent video games and established the gaming industry's rating system
- Canceled projects such as MK co-creator Boon and Tobias's Star Wars game
- The development of MK2 with a focus on its Friendship and Babality finishers designed to appease politicians and parents)
- How licensing transformed MK from a video game into a pop culture touchstone
- New systems, mechanics, and characters introduced in MK1 through MK4
- Fan accounts of what it was like to spend literally thousands of dollars in arcades
- How fan-favorite Ultimate MK3 came back from the dead and ushered in a new wave of popularity on Xbox Live
Some notes about this TOC. First, you’ll notice the subtitle roots this book in the arcade era of MK. That means MK1 (1991), MK2 (’93), MK3 (’95), Ultimate MK3 (’95), and MK4 (’97). However, the table of contents ends at UMK3. I had so much material for Round 1 that I wrestled with the idea of moving MK4 to the beginning of Round 2. It would have worked. MK4 is an arcade game, but it’s also the first 3D installment in the series, and Round 2’s purview is the 3D era. I decided to keep MK4 in Round 1 since it was an arcade game first.
Second, my intention with LLMK as a whole was to do what I usually do with these sorts of books and concentrate on behind-the-scenes stories of each game’s development and how the culture of its team influenced, or didn’t influence, its creation. I intended to do that, but I wanted to—in video game terms—take the story to the next level by including personal stories from fans. I’d already interviewed knowledgeable MK pro players and lore scholars such as “Ketchup,” “Mustard,” and “tabmok99,” but in the context of what they thought of each game, how each game expanded on MK’s ongoing story, how pro players approached determining which characters in each game were considered the objective best or worst, and so on. I wanted to go further and ask fans how these games, long condemned by parents and politicians as horrible influences, have shaped their lives. And surprise! Every MK fan I spoke to, and I spoke to dozens, said MK has had a positive influence on their lives.
From February through June of 2021, I was researching, interviewing, transcribing (with great help from transcribers I paid through Fiver), and outlining chapters. My approach to writing nonfiction has changed over the years. I outline a chapter once I’ve decided I have enough information to put together a rough overview. If chapter 42 seems far enough along for an outline, I outline it.
I write nonfiction nonlinearly as well. I wrote the first draft of LLMK: Round 1 from July 1 through October 31. The first chapter I wrote was shorter, and that was intentional. I wanted to find my way into the book—what would my voice be? did I want to use past or present tense for quotes said to me versus quotes cited from secondary sources?—by starting with a shorter chapter. Starting with a shorter chapter was a confidence booster: My goal was one chapter each weekday (I use weekends to recharge), and I chose a chapter that I knew I could bang out in a couple of hours and bask in the gratification of a strong start.
Before we dig into the stats for this draft, I want to share a note about CRC. In January of 2022, I made the choice to self-publish the book. This was not due to any fault of CRC, or any disagreements with my editor. He and CRC were fantastic. My decision to self-publish was based on a few factors. First, I had the contacts to run a successful marketing campaign on my own. Second, I needed more control over deadlines and the book’s contents. CRC was never rigid, but I didn’t want to continue with them only to possibly encounter a situation that would test their willingness to move forward with the book and the series. Third, I had a very specific vision for this book, as I had for Stay Awhile and Listen: Book 1. My wife and I formed Digital Monument Press just over 10 years ago for books we want to work on together. I decided to work on the LLMK series with her.
Fourth, and most crucially, I was concerned about CRC’s pricing. Taylor & Francis is an academic publisher. That means they publish books often found in college and university bookstores, and their books carry prices one would expect books in that environment to cost. I wasn’t comfortable charging $30+ for the digital version of LLMK books, or $100+ for paperback and hardcover editions. LLMK1 was shaping up to be a massive book. My editor was 100% behind my vision for the book, including its size, but I couldn’t get passed the likelihood that a book with a price tag higher than most video games wouldn’t reach its intended audience: MK fans and developers.
I have nothing but good things to say about CRC, Taylor & Francis, and my editor. I licensed four of my books to them, and I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t believe T&F could sell them. But one issue that was out of my editor’s hands was LLMK1’s projected final price. He was disappointed with my decision to part ways, but fully respectful of my goals with the books.
My wife and I talked about publishing two editions of LLMK1. The first, called the standard edition, would be a traditional book: black-and-white pages with no screenshots or photos. The second, Ultimate Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1, would be a special edition: larger size, glossy pages, full-color images, and a stylized layout design by my wife, who’s a graphic designer. ULLMK1 will carry an exorbitant price tab, but we can justify that because it’s a collector’s edition and will cost a lot to print and distribute. The story told in each edition of the book will be the same, but collectors who want something lavish for their shelves will gravitate toward ULLMK.
Here are some stats for the first draft:
- Pages: 598 (double-spaced, MS Word, no front matter such as TOC, copyright page, or forewords)
- Word Count: 183,042
The page and word counts fluctuated as I revised the book over the next eight to nine months, but the structure remained the same. I organized the book’s contents into four parts, one for each MK game released in arcades. Every part contained chapters that covered a similar type of content and in a similar order:
- A behind-the-scenes narrative of how the game was made, including development, recording/filming, and a look into Midway’s culture, arcade culture, and Boon and Tobias’s relationship at the time of release;
- A look at how the game was received in arcades, and how pro players learned its systems and character hierarchies over the years;
- In-depth analysis of how home versions were marketed*
- Extra material such as: stories from fans who share how MK has influenced them; a history of Acclaim and the first-ever in-depth look at Acclaim’s “Mortal Monday” marketing campaign for MK1; how international players responded to MK, a franchise made in America and with American sensibilities (flashy and sensational); interviews with psychologists and other experts on subjects like whether violent video games lead to aggressive/violent behavior; how the resurgence and subsequent fall of arcades in the ‘90s dovetailed with increasingly powerful home consoles.
My goal with each part was to present material relevant to each part’s game: Part 1 = MK1, Part 2 = MK2, and so on. There were materials I knew I wouldn’t have time to include in the book, or that I felt didn’t fit quite right in any part or chapter. I collected those materials and published a serialized, free-to-read companion book called Kool Stuff, named after one of the secret menus in the SNES port of MK3. (You can read Kool Stuff here; it will be released in digital and paperback formats in 2023.)
Writing Process: Final Draft (October 2022)
Let’s start with the stats for the standard edition, released on October 8:
- Pages: 652 (double-spaced, MS Word, no front or back matter such as forewords, TOC, copyright, or citations)
- Word Count: 199,567
Now, ideally, word counts of final drafts should shrink, not grow. LLMK1 was different, because I knew going into revisions that I would be adding chapters I hadn’t finished research and interviews for: one on the backstories of MK2’s performers and the recording process; one on the science behind learning how MK games work; and another on a fan who shared a fantastic story with me about how his fandom for MK and Sonya Blade in particular helped him find himself. I also expanded some chapters, such as the one detailing the rivalry between the world’s best MK2 players.
Some chapters of the book stand out for various reasons.
Acclaim’s history and Mortal Monday
Before LLMK1, no one had written an expansive history of Acclaim, the marketing-oriented company responsible for the home versions of, most notably, MK1 and 2, and NBA Jam. I went out of my way to talk to two of the company’s co-founders and many of the marketers who played pivotal roles in Mortal Monday—the arrival of MK1 on SNES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy, and Game Gear on September 13, 1993. The story of Mortal Monday has always fascinated me. It was the most expensive video game marketing campaign to date, and it changed the way video games were advertised. And yet no one had written the full history! I wasn’t able to talk to everyone involved, but I talked to enough of the major players to deliver what I feel is the most authoritative history of the campaign to date.
Video game violence
Growing up, my generation heard from virtually all adults that playing violent video games, especially MK, would corrupt our minds and turn us into savages. Or serial killers. Or something bad. Research in that field has advanced significantly since the furor around Mortal Monday, so I tracked down psychologists and did extensive research to determine whether the belief that violent games beget violent behavior. I suggest you read the chapter, but the TLDR version is: Nope.
Those two words have caused me no small amount of distress since uncovering the extent of one MK performer’s deceptions in the last 30+ years. You can read chapter 30 in its entirety on Ars Technica. It was by far the most difficult part of the book to write. I stand by it, and I shared it with an outlet because I believed fans deserved, and still deserve, the truth.
Forewords: James Rolfe and John Tobias
Receiving two forewords by two men I respect means the world to me. I met James, better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd to his fans, when I interviewed him for FPS: First Person Shooter earlier this year. We had a great time, and I asked him if he’d be willing to read an advance copy of LLMK1 and, if he liked it, write a foreword. He read it, he liked it, and he wrote an awesome foreword for my readers.
I interviewed John Tobias among many other individuals, and when the book was finished, I asked if he would consider writing a foreword. He felt my book was the most accurate account of MK history yet, and consented to give his stamp of approval. As someone who grew up admiring John Tobias and Ed Boon, that meant the world to me.
This might be the longest book breakdown yet! I write these as much for the chance to reflect on a book after it’s been written, and before I forget details of writing it, as for anyone interested in learning about its creation. I agonize over every book I write, but the agony of creation fades quickly as I move on to the next project. It’s important to look back on our creations to learn what we did right and what we could do better.
If you have any questions or comments, leave a comment or reach out to me @davidlcraddock on Twitter and I’ll be happy to answer.