David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat, a trilogy delving into the bloody history of the world's most infamous fighting franchise. Follow him on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

GameDev Stories: Volume 6 - How Games Are Made by David L. Craddock

Programmer. Artist. Musician. Designer. Producer. Editor. Collector.

Video games comprise a multibillion-dollar industry thanks to the people who make and play them. From designers and producers to collectors, community managers, editors, and hardware manufacturers, each plays a role in maintaining and advancing the medium of interactive entertainment.

Each has a story to tell.

Collected from the author's archives, GameDev Stories: Volume 6 collects more conversations with game developers to learn more about who they are, how they began making games, and what they've contributed to the world's favorite hobby.

Featuring 12 interviews with developers including:
•John Tobias, "ko-kreator" of Mortal Kombat
•John Broomhall, composer for X-COM: UFO Defense
•Holly Longdale, writer and producer for EverQuest
•And More!


As I've said before and will say many times again, talking with the people who made my favorite games is an honor and a pleasure. The sixth volume in my semiannual GameDev Stories series rounds up a dozen or so of those conversations, including an interview with Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias and id Software co-founder John Romero. – David L. Craddock



  • "By giving bedroom hackers equal billing with company founders, Craddock successfully illustrates the tremendous breadth of voices behind the creation of video games. Taken as a whole, Craddock's interviews masterfully weave together the artistry, business, and humanity of game development into a work that explains what game development is far more successfully than any individual could ever hope to."

    – Frank Cifaldi, game developer and founder of The Video Game History Foundation
  • "In GameDev Stories, Craddock opens closed doors to reveal how games are made in a collection of wide-ranging interviews. You'll hear from programmers and designers, but also from individuals in positions often overlooked such as marketers, user experience researchers, and community managers. A must-read for anyone curious about what goes on behind the scenes of the games industry."

    – John Keefer, former editor, GameSpy, Shacknews, Neowin.net



Mortal Kombat remains one of my favorite franchises, and not only for its hard-hitting combos (er, kombos) and the spectacle of its finishing moves. Even though 11-year-old David thought Street Fighter II the better game, Capcom and its World Warriors had nothing on Midway and MK's mythology.

There's a difference between a game's story and its lore. Naughty Dog tells stories. Dark Souls rides on its lore. So did the early Mortal Kombat titles. In the days before flashy 3D graphics and photorealistic cutscenes, the endings of MK games rewarded players with two or three still images and as many paragraphs of text describing what happened to the player's chosen "kombatant" after he or she won the tournament. But there was a catch: Those endings weren't "kanon." (Okay, enough with substituting Cs for K.) Each ending was a what-if scenario that detailed what might happen if Reptile, or Sub-Zero, or Tanya, or Mileena, or whomever won the tournament. Players had to wait until the next Mortal Kombat to see which of those endings Midway formalized as part of the mythology, if any.

While interviewing MK co-creator John Tobias—also one half of the "Noob Saibot" character that debuted in MKII—for Arcade Perfect, my 2019 book about arcade-to-home-system conversions—we talked about the genesis of MK, concepts for characters, the emphasis on lore over storytelling, and more.

David L. Craddock: I'm interested in the many ways games tell stories: some through traditional narratives, others through game systems. To start at the beginning, how did you get your start in the games industry?

John Tobias: I was hired at 19 right out of art school. I joined Williams Bally/Midway in 1989 and started working on what became SmashTV. I got to work with Mark Turmell (NBA JAM) and Eugene Jarvis (Robotron, Defender, Stargate, etc.).

Craddock: What led to you teaming up with Ed Boon, Dan Forden, and John Vogel to create the inaugural Mortal Kombat title?

Tobias: Ed was already there programming pinball machines and joined the video game department to work on the High Impact football game around the same time. He and I were both working on follow-up games when we had the idea to do a one-on-one fighting game. Dan Forden, who did our audio, worked with Ed on High Impact and joined us on MK shortly after we started as did John Vogel who put together many of our backgrounds.

Craddock: Was the idea of doing a 1-on-1 fighter a direct response within Midway to the success of Street Fighter II?

Tobias: I remember thinking of Karate Champ at the inception of our idea to do a one-on-one fighting game. But, there was a good stretch of time between that idea and when we actually started production on MK because Ed and I had to finish our prior projects. I think it was during that time that I remember Street Fighter II being released and doing well in arcades, which helped us convince our management to let us do MK.

So, while the original concept wasn't a direct response to Street Fighter II, I think the eventual green light for us to move forward was in part based on that game's success in the arcades.

Craddock: What was the driving idea, or motivation behind, MK1's setting? It had a very Chinese/martial arts movie vibe to it.

Tobias: I had been a huge fan of martial arts films since I was a kid and so the opportunity to use those influences was something I couldn't pass up when we started working on MK. I've heard MK described as Enter the Dragon meets Star Wars and I think both of those were also part of our DNA. What made Mortal Kombat unique was that it was really a bundle of never before bundled together concepts.

Craddock: How far along did the concept of a game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme progress before it was reworked into the MK1 we know today?

Tobias: We pivoted away from JCVD pretty early in the process. I believe we had already developed the core of our game's premise while we were in those talks, but the idea was that JCVD would either play as himself or as one of the characters in our story. Johnny Cage being a Hollywood movie star was directly influenced by the possibility of JCVD's involvement.

Craddock: I read that you'd been wanting to do more with story prior to MK. Did you see this game as your opportunity to flex more of your storytelling muscle? Or did that come later?

Tobias: I think I learned on SmashTV how powerful a familiar premise and theme can be in conveying story to the player without much, if any, actual exposition. But, I remember feeling frustrated while working on the sort of sequel to SmashTV called Total Carnage. Because we were working on an arcade product, story was certainly secondary to gameplay and so I felt it wasn't being taken as seriously. Ed and I were given free reign to do what we wanted with MK. I saw that as an opportunity to try some things out with how we presented our story.

Craddock: Do you remember roughly where the ideas for the seven fighters came from?

Tobias: The initial roster evolved from a set of character archetypes. Because there were so few characters at the time, we were able to lean on that concept as a way of informing the player on who the characters were and how they related to each other within the context of the larger setting. Liu Kang was the hero, Johnny Cage was a sidekick, Raiden being a god implied wisdom as a mentor character. Every character fell some place on a basic spectrum of archetypes. In the first two games we were dealing with a relatively small list of characters and so we were able to manage that effectively. That became more difficult to manage as the roster grew in later games.

Another part of character creation was what they looked like, which also played a role in conveying story. Very simple visual choices led to questions by the player that helped layer story. Kano has one eye; how did he lose the other? This guy puts on a pair of sunglasses at the end of a match; why? Liu Kang's intro says he's a Shaolin Monk but he doesn't dress like one; why? Goro is a monster and clearly not like the other characters; where is he from? This woman is in the US military; how does she relate to the mystical nature of some of the other characters?

Also, if there were influences from other media, we typically used it because we felt it would help the player identify with a character. If making a character resemble 'that guy from that movie' helped establish the character in the mind of the player, we saw that as an opportunity. Being an arcade game, we didn't have a place to unfold story exposition so we had to take advantage of telling story any way that we could.

Craddock: As a kid, I was drawn to MK1 in large part because of the mythology. The game intrigued me in a way SF2 didn't. Was the emphasis on characters and setting a conscious response to distinguish MK1 from SF2?

Tobias: We did everything we could to differentiate from SF2, but I don't remember our fiction being in response to anything they did or didn't do. I think MK had its very own vibe. Yes, it was a one-on-one fighting game, but it offered a very different experience than Street Fighter both in mechanics of play and visual space.

Right out of the gate it was a good thing that we had made the choices we made because it offered a somewhat familiar and yet very unique experience. I think that combination of novelty and familiarity is present in almost every successful game even today. I also think that the time we spent developing the characters and story, which was an odd thing to do in an arcade product, helped build a larger world in the minds of our players. That impact lives with MK even in its most recent iterations.

Of course, our brand of violence is in large part what gave us a seat at pop culture's table. But, the attention we gave to developing those early games and the incredible work being done at NetherRealm today is what has assured that MK was no passing fad.

Craddock: How much of MK's mythology did you envision during development of the first game? Or was that first development cycle so tight that you primarily focused on material needed for the game?

Tobias: We had the base of our fiction pretty well thought out in the first game and what didn't actually make it into the game through the methods we had available, I had scribbled in a notebook or sitting in my head. What was important for us was to establish; here is this world where there exists a mystical martial arts tournament and here are these fighters and why they compete.

Basic stuff but the groundwork for everything that would follow in subsequent games. Our development cycle was tight, but not so tight that we would pass on an opportunity to embed story into the game.

Craddock: What influenced the decision to create Shang Tsung as an older character?

Tobias: We wanted to imply that the host of the tournament had a long history. Making Shang Tsung an old sorcerer created instant implications for us in terms of how he fit into the larger fiction and making him a shapeshifter played directly to a villainous character archetype. I also thought about a character from an old Shaw Bros. film called Clan of the White Lotus. He was an aged fighter with flowing white hair and beard who had mastered mystical techniques.

That sorcerer-like character type was prevalent in many of the kung-fu films I had seen as a kid and I think was the basis for Lo-Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, which had a superficial influence on Shang Tsung.

Craddock: MK seemed to explode right away, with comic books and other products available at or near the game's launch. I loved the comics. Did you push for those, or did Midway come to you with the opportunity to write and illustrate them?

Tobias: I wrote and drew the comics that were sold through the first two arcade games. That was entirely our idea and a way for us to get actual story exposition out into the players hands. All of the ancillary stuff came a few years after the first games.

Craddock: How did you want the comics to tie into, and/or expand upon, the mythology detailed in the first game?

Tobias: The comics that we sold through the arcade game were meant to work as setups for the game fiction. They told a story that led up to the game leaving the rest up to the players to sort out in their heads. So much of the fiction in our games was implied and it was amazing how well that worked for the player. They were willing and able to fill in the blanks based on the tidbits we shared.

The Malibu licensed comics came a few years later and were not canon to the actual games.

Craddock: Was Boon interested in contributing to the game's mythology/lore, or did he need to concentrate more on coding?

Tobias: Ed and I had our expertise, but efforts were always very collaborative and so ideas flowed between us and really anyone involved with the game. Although I focused on the actual fiction I would say that MK's reputation for being mysterious with mythology and lore came just as much from Ed's penchant for hiding things in the game itself as it did from anything we did with the story.

Craddock: Liu Kang's Fatality in MK1 stood out from the rest. The screen didn't darken, and it was quite tame—a cartwheel into an uppercut—compared to others. Why was Kang's Fatality designed differently?

Tobias: That was a conscious choice to differentiate him as an enlightened, former Shaolin monk.

Craddock: Meaning no disrespect, but Goro was an even more memorable boss character than Shang Tsung, even though the Goro fight preceded the final battle against Tsung. Not only was Goro's mythology enthralling—a half-human, half-dragon badass—but the audiovisual touches you and the team added to the match before Goro were fantastic, specifically the screen shaking and heavy footsteps. You knew something bad was somewhere above you, and you almost hoped you'd lose so you wouldn't have to find out who or what it was. But even more fascinating, to me, is that Goro was sculpted from clay and animated via stop-motion animation. What was the process of bringing Goro to life?

Tobias: The only experience I had with stop-motion animation prior to Goro was on a film short that I did with my brother as kids using our Star Wars action figures and a super-8. Any difficulties I had with Goro were due to inexperience. The mini-stage setup for Goro was incredibly crude, but I suppose it got the job done. I think the concept of incorporating a stop-motion puppet with digitized actors in a video game was novel enough to give us a pass on quality. No one had done it before as far as I know.

The Goro puppet itself was amazing. The sculptor, Curt Chiarrelli, did a great job of interpreting my drawings. The one thing that made it somewhat difficult to animate was that Goro's armature was built with wires. It worked okay, but would've worked better had we done it with ball and socket joints as I believe Curt had suggested. I think we were looking to save time and money so we cheaped-out. We should've listened to Curt because on our later puppets for MK3, Motaro and Sheeva, we went with full skeletal armatures which made it so much easier to pose the figures.

Craddock: In 1992 and '93, MK was infamous for its gritty atmosphere and violence. How did the team decide to go in that visual direction?

Tobias: I think the gritty came from the digitized technique we used to create the graphics. The violence kind of grew out of the inherent nature of two fighters beating the heck out of each other. MK's fatalities were entirely about getting a positive reaction from the players by creating something that was hidden from the average player and a spectacle when pulled off. We wanted them to be events that put an exclamation point at the end of a match.

Craddock: Did you expect the amount of blowback MK received, going all the way to the government's attempt to censor the game?

Tobias: We didn't expect any of that. We were buried in wanting our players to have a good time.

Craddock: Were you aware the Genesis and Game Gear versions would include a blood code?

Tobias: I only vaguely remember being aware of a blood code and I don't remember whether that was during the course of conversion development or after the release. Ed was much closer to the code side portion of the ports and if I learned of the codes it would've been through him.

Craddock: Mortal Kombat was largely responsible for the creation of the ESRB rating systems for games. I understand the need for that system, but I disagree with any form of censorship. Nintendo effectively censored an artistic creation when they forced Sculptured Software to sanitize their ports of MK1. What were your thoughts on that?

Tobias: I have a mixed reaction to the issue. We developed coin-op games for the arcade crowd, which in our experience skewed older than console players at the time. But, in hindsight the industry itself was maturing and it took a while for us to see that happening. I was 21 when we started development on the first MK and I hadn't stopped playing games. My friends hadn't stopped playing games. Certainly the older players we saw in the arcades hadn't stopped playing games. So this idea that video games were only for kids was a misread by the industry and the public at large.

There was an assumption that people stopped playing video games just like they stopped playing with toys. The reality was that video games had become a form of entertainment that reached beyond our childhoods and so the idea of games themed toward adults was a reality that took some time for people to grasp. Nintendo had a very specific demographic that they thought they were catering to and when MK showed up on their system it acted as a disruptor, so I understand their reaction.

Unfortunately, I think Nintendo tried to take advantage of opportunistic politicians looking for headlines to gain an advantage over their competition with Sega and it backfired. Thankfully, when the dust settled the ESRB was the result and I think that it was a reasonable reaction to the whole dilemma. It was pretty much an acknowledgement of video games as a legitimate form of entertainment that caters to all ages.